Insight: Audi vs Peugeot: Inside the duel

For five incredible years Nicolas Minassian was privileged to find himself at the heart of the greatest sports car rivalry of modern times. Peugeot versus Audi, between 2007 and 2011, produced some of the tightest battles ever seen at Le Mans. Here, Minassian offers a first-hand account of the titanic duel between two thoroughbred – but very different – factory teams

“Ah, it was fantastic. It was intense and five years flashed by so quickly. It was the hardest I’ve pushed with any team, and for sure, it was impossible for a privateer to follow.

“It’s funny. Peugeot pushed so much on the speed of the car, whereas Audi couldn’t match them, so they pushed in other areas – which is why they beat us, certainly most of the time at Le Mans: in pit stops, in accessibility when repairing the car, in organisation. Meanwhile, Peugeot would go crazy working to lose weight, bringing in new aero kits and engine upgrades. I don’t complain. It was just two different philosophies.

“I got close to winning Le Mans on more than one occasion. But 2010 was the most gutting. Again, it was all about pushing for performance, and they went a step too far. I remember the engine upgrade that was introduced [which used titanium con-rods]. We were doing an endurance test at Paul Ricard, and it gained us 10kph on the straight. A huge amount. At Ricard we did more than 30 hours with the engine – no problem. we thought ‘this is going to be mega at Le Mans’. And then they decided to put this engine in all four cars that were entered [including the Oreca-run 908]. None of them lasted.

“On Sunday morning we had a two-lap lead. Stéphane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and myself, we talked to each other saying we should detune the car – we went about 100bhp less. With such a lead we thought ‘they’ll never catch us’. But it blew up. Three of the four engines blew up. We were so much faster than Audi, but they finished 1-2-3.

“Between the Peugeot drivers it was competitive. Actually, it got a bit out of hand. It was still a good group and everyone got on well, but I never had a two-year contract with Peugeot. It was always for one year, with an option for the following year. So this put the pressure on: ‘If I’m not kicking everyone’s ass, I won’t get a contract. I’m going to push like a maniac, even if they’re telling me be careful’. Everyone else was thinking the same. At Paul Ricard for endurance tests we’d do a triple stint and they’d look at the average lap times of each driver. They were compared, even if track conditions had changed.

“It was a shame how it ended. Last winter, I put out a press release saying I was off, because they couldn’t offer me a contract. They said ‘Ah, don’t worry, Nic. We’re going to give you a car’. But I was fed up waiting, I lost my patience. And between Bruno Famin [former technical director and now boss of Peugeot Sport] and Olivier Quesnel [who ran Peugeot Sport during the 908 era]… Quesnel was never reachable on the phone, and Famin would tell you one thing, then Quesnel would tell you another. Both of them were thinking they were the boss.

“When they pulled out early this year, I was surprised, but it was 50-50 because i saw how hard it was to get a contract. WWhen you see the mess Peugeot is in at the moment I can see why. The way the French are, if you are still racing while people haven’t got their jobs you’d probably get 10,000 demonstrators outside peugeot sport. About 8000 people lost their jobs and it’s just embarrassing if you’re paying millions to go racing.

“I wouldn’t criticise the Peugeot programme. For a driver, it was great. To work with the engineers and the way they pushed for performance, it was like Formula 1. But i would say that for Le mans it wasn’t the right way to do it, because the team won only once in five years [in 2009]. Still, the car was always the fastest…”

Damien Smith