DAKAR LEGEND PETERHANSEL COULD HAVE BEEN WRC DRIVER
Stephane Peterhansel is the cross-country king, but he could have been a WRC driver. By David Evans
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. ■