Stephane Peter­hansel is the cross-coun­try king, but he could have been a WRC driver. By David Evans

Motor Sport News - - Rally News -

Stephane Peter­hansel was in trou­ble. Yes, he’d won Dakar, but for the sec­ond time he’d run out of fin­gers. His Peu­geot team-mate Cyril De­spres was on hand to help. He of­fered Peter­hansel two of his own.

Be­ing a 12-time Dakar win­ner’s not as sim­ple as some might think.

A cou­ple of months down the line, Peter­hansel slides back in his seat and smiles at the mem­ory of the mo­ment. Then, Mr Dakar leans in. He has news: he won’t be need­ing Cyril or his fin­gers again. He will be back in South Amer­ica in Jan­uary, but win­ning’s not ev­ery­thing any more. This year was ev­ery­thing.

“I was re­ally mo­ti­vated to win this one,” he says, “but now, it’s not so much. Now, I have the bal­ance.” The bal­ance? “Oui, oui,” he says, “the bal­ance: six and six!”

Six and six. Of course. Six Dakar wins on a mo­tor­bike, six in a car.

Mo­men­tar­ily, I’d for­got­ten I was sit­ting in the com­pany of a gen­uine mo­tor­sport ge­nius. A proper one. It’s eas­ily done, Stephane’s the most down-to-earth of heroes.

“I was re­ally happy to win this year,” he says. “Get­ting 12 was im­por­tant for me. And, of course, it was Peu­geot. And Peu­geot is im­por­tant for me.”

Grow­ing up in the east­ern French re­gion of Haute-saone, a Peu­geot fac­tory next door was a con­stant re­minder of the French car­maker’s im­por­tance in the na­tional iden­tity.

The point was ham­mered home when, in 1988, he con­tested his first Paris-dakar.

“I was strug­gling like hell on the bike,” he says, “when [Ari] Vata­nen came past me in the Peu­geot. I thought then: ‘I have to drive for Peu­geot.’ It was my dream.”

Peter­hansel al­ways in­tended to make the move back to four wheels, hav­ing come to bikes as a French skate­board­ing cham­pion. Bikes were a buzz, but also a real worry for him.

Hav­ing started rid­ing for the Yamaha fac­tory team aged 18, he did his first Dakar five years later. Not far af­ter the start, the re­al­ity of the then African marathon hit him, and hit him hard.

He says: “One of my team-mates in the of­fi­cial team was a world cham­pion of mo­tocross and a real big hero. Af­ter three days, this guy crashed and he was com­pletely paral­ysed. I was a fan of this rider. At my first Dakar, I took the re­al­ity of this race in the face. I wanted to do this race, but al­ways a few min­utes be­fore the start of ev­ery sec­tion I was re­ally scared. Once I started the stage, I was re­ally fo­cused and con­cen­trat­ing on my bike – I forgot the fear then. But be­fore, I re­ally had the prob­lem and the fear in my stom­ach. I was com­pletely afraid to crash on the bike.

“When you are on the bike and you crash, you pay cash. I learned this and that taught me a lot for when I came to drive cars – that’s why I never crash the car. I keep al­ways the big gap for the safety.”

He learned the les­son well and be­tween 1991 and 1998, when he fin­ished a Dakar on a bike, he won. Six times. The time had come to get in out of the dust.

It was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous that Peter­hansel’s speed trans­ferred from bikes to cars, but it was only when he signed for Mit­subishi in late 2002 that he was able to win. Around this time, he was look­ing less at en­durance and more at the World Rally Cham­pi­onship.

“I al­ways loved ral­ly­ing,” he says. “Ari Vata­nen was world cham­pion just be­fore I got the driv­ing li­cence. When I got my car, all the time I was ask­ing: ‘When can we go to do like Vata­nen?’ I was do­ing big slides all of the time, he was the big hero for me.

“I did some ral­lies, three, in the French Cham­pi­onship and I won them all. I was 36 or 37 and this was just at the be­gin­ning of Citroen’s pro­gramme in the world cham­pi­onship. I called [Citroen team prin­ci­pal] Mr Guy Fre­quelin and I told to him: ‘I want to start to do some ral­ly­ing and I know you start in the WRC. If you need a driver, I am here’.

“Guy said: ‘Ah, yes, I saw you in the French Cham­pi­onship. You are good, you are fast. Can you give me your age?’ “OK, I’m 37…” The line to Ver­sailles went quiet. “You need two years to learn all of the ral­lies on the calendar,” Fre­quelin told him. “By then you will be al­ready around 40 years old. We have a younger driver. His name is Se­bastien Loeb, I think we’ll try him…” Turned out quite well with Loeb. And stick­ing with cross-coun­try worked well for the one they now call Mr Dakar. Es­pe­cially when his dream came true.

“When Peu­geot came back, I was so happy,” he says. “I was driv­ing for Mini at the time, but when Peu­geot called I said: ‘OK the con­tract is s**t – I want to leave now!’ It was a real plea­sure to go to Peu­geot Sport, to see what they have; it’s the best race depart­ment I ever saw in my life. It’s not brand new, but ev­ery depart­ment is per­fect and or­gan­ised so well.

“Look at Volk­swa­gen, it takes them seven years to win Dakar. For Mini or BMW, it’s eight or 10. Peu­geot comes back… and win in two years.”

And, most im­por­tantly, win with the Peter­hansel name on the back. This is the sec­ond rea­son why this year was so im­por­tant for him.

“I wanted to write the his­tory with Peu­geot,” he says. “When they came back, I wanted to be the one who won with them for the first time. Now, I am so proud for this. For the fu­ture, I stay for next sea­son, that’s sure. But then, I don’t know. It’s not easy to stop when you take plea­sure from the race.”

Which is why he’s un­likely to stop soon. And most likely to re­turn to bikes. This time with his wife, a 10-time Dakar com­peti­tor her­self: Andrea Mayer.

“My big pas­sion is still mo­tor­cy­cles,” he says. “The wish is to go back and do the same track, do Dakar, but slowly. Prob­a­bly my wife and I will do Dakar to­gether on bikes. But re­laxed, never rac­ing again on the bike.”

Talk­ing of his wife, the phone rings. It’s snow­ing again at home. Win­ter’s fi­nally ar­rived across the Alps and there’s some deep pow­der with his name on it.

We’re done. But he’s not. Not quite. ■

Peter­hansel took sixth car win at Dakar, match­ing his six on bikes Dreams of WRC went un­ful­filled

Photos: Red Bull Con­tent Pool

Peu­geot win means a lot to him

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