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Peak Condition: Sebastien Loeb

The Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak Flavien Duhamel/Red Bull Content Pool

 

Far off in the forest somewhere there is a roar, like the guttural cry of some wild beast. At first, the animal sounds like it’s moving around in the distance -- and then suddenly it appears on four wheels. The sleepy village of La Ferté-Vidame and its 14th century castle, about 100 miles from Paris, have barely roused from their slumber this Thursday morning in April. Welcome to the huge, ultra-secretive Peugeot site where all the French brand’s latest models get tested.

The monster is none other than the 875 horsepower 208 T16 Pikes, which has been developed and perfected by Peugeot Sport especially for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the legendary competition where gearheads scale a mountain as fast as they can. This day in France is devoted to the traditional ironing out of any niggles, a serious mechanical going-over. The tension around this Batmobile is palpable.

Peugeot is playing a trump card here. The company and Pikes Peak have a symbiotic relationship based on nail-biting adrenaline. The manufacturer has won both the World Rally Championship drivers’ and constructors’ challenge numerous times, as well as scoring victories in the harrowing Dakar Rally. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Peugeot’s first win at the Indianapolis 500 -- the manufacturer took home the trophy in 1913, 1916, and 1919. “Not a lot of people know that Peugeot have won the Indianapolis 500 three times. Not a lot of people know that we’ve even won it once,” says Bruno Famin, the director of Peugeot Sport.

And at some point the idea of Pikes Peak sounded sweet to the ears of the company’s directors. Peugeot entered a 700 bhp 405 T16 and came away from Colorado with two wins, one at the hands of the relentless Finnish rally driver Ari Vatanen in 1988, the other at the hands of American Robby Unser one year later. The effect was enormous, the subconscious impact unexpected.

After the company’s decision last year to discontinue the 908 endurance line, which competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there was a sense of urgency in remobilizing dispirited troops. Should they stake everything on a one-off gamble, easy to organize but with an international impact? Should they revisit Pikes Peak?

“Pikes Peak is an important part of our past,” says 51-year-old Famin. “In our factories we [displayed] the Pikes Peak 205 T16s 1 and 2 and the 405 T16s. They were what everyone dreamed about for years.”

Famin joined Peugeot in late 1989, a few weeks before their last win at Dakar, and is very much the brains behind this surprise return to the highest hill race on Earth. “Quite a lot of people were left in the lurch when the endurance program ended,” he says. “We said to ourselves, ‘What can we pull off here?’ We had to show that Peugeot was still competitive. There was soon debate as to what form the car should take. I wanted it to look like a standard car. I asked the product and marketing people. Time passed and I didn’t get an answer. So I opted for the 208 T16.”

Last September, Maxime Picat was appointed managing director for the Peugeot brand. Bogged down in an economic and social conflict, the new boss was immediately taken with the idea of giving Peugeot Sport its luster back via Pikes Peak. “It’s a legendary race which would bring together all the teams,” he says. “It’s also the kind of challenge which leaves no room for mistakes -- the type of challenge that Peugeot loves.”

“He was into the idea straight away and gave the go-ahead at the start of November,” Famin says.

The countdown began. It was seven months until Pikes Peak, which will run on June 30, 2013 -- and that is a ludicrously short period of time in motor sports to develop a car from start to finish. They would have to be quick -- very quick -- in getting an engine, a car, and a driver, and remobilizing the troops. In other words, one hell of a ride. “If it hadn’t been for Pikes Peak, some people would have left,” Famin says in a whisper.

The tech specs are impressive: The engine is a 24 Hours of Le Mans V6, the rationale being that if it can last 24 hours, the 10-minute hair-raising ascent shouldn’t be a problem. “We’d thought about the HDi V8, but it would have been complicated to get it into a 208,” says Jean-Christophe Pallier, the 54-year-old project manager and Famin’s right-hand man. “An older engine gave us more legroom when it came to power. And it was more compact.”

There have been changes to the course -- it’s no longer the same kind of dusty Wild West experience. The road to the summit of Pikes Peak has been completely paved since last year -- no more red earth gutting the intake. It is now a location for a real speed race, one with fewer wildcard variables bestowed upon it by nature.

French driver Romain Dumas finished second overall last year at Pikes, in a stylish show of force in a Porsche, which was all the more astounding considering the top stretch took place on compressed dirt. “Romain Dumas was a potential target [to be our driver]. We would have gone for him if Pikes Peak was still run on unpaved roads,” Pallier admits. In the end, the task was given to renowned rally car driver Sébastien Loeb.

From the autumn on, everyone in the Peugeot Sport workshops in Vélizy -- and especially former rally driver Attila Bocsi -- has been focused on the 208. Bocsi is the chief designer of the 208 T16 Pikes Peak, and with Loeb behind the wheel, he aims to smash the Pikes Peak “Unlimited” category record of 9 minutes, 46.164 seconds.

“Everyone knows about my passion for design -- I’ve been at Peugeot since 2001. I’ve designed quite a few models. I was pretty proud that they asked me. I got a little bit stylish with the wings,” he says with a laugh. Weighing in at just under one ton, it generates 875 bhp amid a four-wheel-drive, six-speed manual transmission, and a 3.2-liter engine.

And Famin has thought of everything for Loeb, the best rally driver in history. “We’ll definitely have some oxygen,” he says. “And then he can go berserk for a few minutes. It won’t do him any harm. He’ll just vomit at the finish.”

 

 

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