NATURAL BORN WINNER
To understand just how good a car the 908 was, one must first understand the enormity of the challenge it faced. Audi first contested Le Mans in 1999, its open-cockpit R8Rs coming home third and fourth. The R8 arrived in 2000, and so began an era of startling dominance: four wins from five races 2000-2005 and, with the turbodiesel R10, further glory in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In this period Audi owned Le Mans; it was Le Mans.
Enter the disrupter.
Peugeot unveiled the 908 in 2005. Race engineer Christian Deltombe joined the team in late 2006, just as the 908 programme was shifting from the design and engineering phase to the grubbier, more visceral business of readying a competitive race car.
‘There were some people with knowledge from the 905 still in the team but not many, so in 2006 and 2007 we were building the team at the same time as we were building the car,’ explains Deltombe, who’s back with Peugeot now on the 9X8 programme. ‘I was really happy in terms of the people we had and the philosophy. There was a feeling in the first couple of years of the team slowly gathering its strength, step by step. But after Monza we really started to believe we could win Le Mans again.’ The 908 debuted in the 2007 1000km of Monza, setting a searing pace in qualifying and winning the race. A stream of victories followed through 2007 and 2008, the Peugeot time and again demonstrating its inherent speed, eciency and (mostly) strong reliability.
Like the R10 Audi, its main rival initially, the 908 used a 5.5-litre twin-turbo diesel V12 (its cylinder banks splayed at 100° to lower the engine’s centre of gravity) good for more than 700bhp and 900lb ft of torque. But unlike the R10 the 908 ushered in a new era of closed-cockpit sports prototypes (bar the Bentley, open-cockpit cars had reigned since the late ’90s), Peugeot rightly figuring that the operational hassle of doors would be more than offset by increased chassis rigidity and superior aero.
‘The closed-cockpit decision was born of two targets: safety for the drivers and aerodynamic eciency,’ explains engineer François Coudrain, who worked on the 908. ‘It was a Peugeot decision, as was the turbodiesel engine. The diesel engine was not dictated by Audi. Peugeot had a major diesel strategy [in the wider business] at the time with the particulate filter [the FAP in the car’s full name]. For Peugeot the stars aligned with the 908; the decision to go into competition, the diesel strategy of Peugeot and the regulations, which were open to diesels.
‘The diesel engine was incredible in terms of torque – for the drivers, it hit them when they left the pits and deactivated the pitlane speed limiter,’ continues Coudrain. ‘Also, the aero regulations were very open, so we were able to create a very ecient car into which the diesel powertrain was integrated completely. The main challenge was maximising performance while optimising the weight and the centre of gravity. This was not easy – to have power without making the engine too heavy.’
The V12’s titanic torque made the 908 a fearsome challenge for its race engineers and drivers. ‘For the technical department it was a challenge for sure, and for
the gearbox also, because the torque was very high,’ explains race engineer Deltombe. ‘For us the torque complicated the traction control and tyre management. The diesel engine was also not light, and it shifted the weight distribution [rearward], which again did not help the rear tyres. But the 908 was a nice package; responsive to set-up, ecient and fast.’
Le Mans glory eluded the 908 for two years. But in 2009 Peugeot was again victorious in the world’s greatest race, 16 years after the 905’s swansong. Former F1 pilot and active Mercedes-AMG simulator driver Anthony Davidson tested the 2009 908. He was blown away by just how good a car the turbodiesel Peugeot was.
‘Of all the cars I’ve raced the 908 suited my driving style the most,’ says Davidson. ‘I could dominate it, feel brilliant in it and do great lap times every time I drove it. F1 spoils you, and the touring cars and GT cars I’d driven just didn’t come close. But the 908 was different. Yes, it was heavier than an F1 car but it didn’t require a completely different skill set. I could drive it like an F1 car full of fuel plus a bit more.’
Not only did the 908 feel like an F1 car, it shrunk racetracks with a comparable combination of low weight, huge downforce and monstrous speed. ‘It had slightly less power but the diesel V12 was silky smooth and it had loads of torque; way more than an F1 car,’ remembers Davidson. ‘Back then an F1 car made peak torque at 17,000rpm. The 908 was delivering something like 920lb ft at 3500rpm! Unbelievable. [Ferrari’s ferocious SF90 hybrid develops a combined 590lb ft of torque…] You could be in any gear and it’d just pull. The 908 was just an absolute joy to drive. I loved it.’
Davidson joined Peugeot for 2010, driving a lightly revised V12 908. It was an opportunity he relished. The car might have been designed for him, so sweetly did it dovetail with his F1-derived driving style, and the team was fired with a passion the likes of which he hadn’t seen before.
‘You’re used to the standards at which F1 operates,’ says Davidson. ‘You question whether any other category will come close. But Peugeot Sport was an incredibly professional outfit and I loved their emotion. It was very raw; very French. For a stiff-upper-lip Brit it was a joy to be a part of. They were just so dedicated to the spirit of endurance racing.’
‘THE DIESEL V12 WAS SILKY SMOOTH AND IT HAD LOADS OF TORQUE; WAY MORE THAN AN F1 CAR’