ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH
The story of the diesel 908 has a not-all-that-secret Easter egg of a secret ending. Locked in a titanic struggle for supremacy with Audi, Peugeot continued to develop the car at a furious rate. For 2011 a 3.7-litre V8 replaced the big V12, trading perhaps 150bhp for increased agility, eciency and speed over a race distance. Audi claimed the big prize, Le Mans, but Peugeot won five of seven races to secure the LMP1 manufacturers’ cup, the precursor to the World Endurance Championship. And for 2012 Peugeot readied an experimental diesel-electric hybrid 908, the HYbrid4. It was to battle Audi’s upgraded R18 alongside a couple of non-hybrid V8 908s.
‘Development of the hybrid 908 began in 2011, and the plan was to debut the car at Sebring in 2012,’ explains François Coudrain, who worked across the 908’s V12, V8 and hybrid programmes. ‘By 2012 the development work was complete. We’d validated the car in testing. It was ready to race.’
Imagine the shock, then, when Peugeot announced its immediate withdrawal from the sport just weeks ahead of Sebring. ‘This decision has been taken in the context of a dicult economic environment in Europe,’ read a statement issued on 18 January, deadline day for the registration of entries for the 2012 season.
The team was heartbroken, as was driver Anthony Davidson. ‘I felt robbed,’ he says. ‘I felt sad that the programme ended so soon and so abruptly, and it was a real shame we never got to try the hybrid package. It was set to be a pretty phenomenal car, one that would have pushed the boundaries of hybrid technology [LMP1 really embraced hybridisation a few years later, with Toyota, Audi, Porsche and Nissan all developing petrol-electric hybrids]. But this is the double-edged sword of manufacturers in motorsport. You really need them, and their presence always raises the bar. But you always know it’s for a finite amount of time, and that they can pull the plug, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with racing, at any time. Often it’s a decision from the marketing side, or from the board of directors. From a corporate point of view it may make sense to them but as true racers you have to live through it. It’s like Honda in F1. They came, they left, they came back and now they’re leaving again.’
Fortunately, sportscar racing’s cycle of feast and famine is now gearing up for a few years of bacchanalian revelry. The good times – and the
manufacturers – are back, drawn by the glittering prize of immortality [2023 is the big one: the 100th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours] and a set of regulations that both showcase technology relevant to global marketing and, crucially, offer something like a sustainable return on investment.
This, then, is the dawn of Peugeot’s third endurance racing age. The 905 and 908 were winners and heart-on-sleeve proud Peugeots – the jaw-dropping and ferociously sexy 9X8 is their lion-badged legacy.
The new Hypercar rules have hybrid power at their core (key to marketing, and therefore participation) and promise lap times not far off the big-money prototypes. Crucially, though, the freedom to innovate technically – and therefore the cost of entry – is reduced. There are two categories. LMH is the ‘purer’ of the two, and the one Peugeot (and Ferrari and Toyota, among others) have committed to. LMDh is the more affordable option. Audi, BMW and Porsche to name but three have decided this is the one for them. In theory cars from both classes will vie for overall honours.
In line with the regulations, the 9X8 combines a 2.6-litre, twin-turbo 90° V6 driving the rear axle (V10, V12 and V8 turbodiesels, turbo-hybrid V6…
Peugeot’s sportscar powertrain trajectory certainly reflects what Peugeot CEO Linda Jackson describes as the marque’s ‘energy transition’ to electric) with a 900-volt battery and a 268bhp front e-motor. The result is an all-wheel-drive machine with a combined output of some 670bhp.
‘The 9X8’s general powertrain architecture is dictated by the regulations, but within those we made some specific technical choices pertaining to the transmission, the battery and the internal-combustion engine,’ explains powertrain engineer Coudrain. ‘With the petrol engine the priorities were the same as the 908’s turbodiesel V12 – a low centre of gravity and complete reliability. We are happy with the performance in terms of latency [turbo lag], the weight and the power. The output and location of the electric motor/MGU [motor generator unit] is dictated by the regulations but we have a lot of control over the energy and torque management. We’re putting a lot of our focus into this software, working closely with the [DS] Formula E team, particularly on energy regeneration strategies. All the Stellantis motorsport teams are located together, working towards their own targets but sharing experience and expertise.’
THE 905 AND 908 WERE WINNERS AND PROUD PEUGEOTS THE JAW DROPPING 9X8 IS THEIR LION BADGED LEGACY
In a Brutalist and brutally cold Parisian multi-story car park, the 9X8 looks little short of sensational. Comprised of bold, dynamic volumes studded with bold details, it combines much of the 905’s elemental elegance with an aggressive, space-age aesthetic appropriate for sportscar racing’s new and highly competitive hybrid era.
The echoes of 905 are no accident. ‘The 905 is one of the most iconic endurance racing cars ever,’ says design director Matthias Hossan, who joined Peugeot in 2012. ‘I asked the museum to send a 905 to our design workshop. When you see the 905’s silhouette you instantly understand the car and you remember it; it’s super-easy to identify. We tried to achieve this with the 9X8.
‘The balance of performance rules [a performance-tweaking mechanism by which the faster cars will be pegged back and the racing kept close] made it possible to design something really different,’ continues Hossan. ‘And this really was a design job, not a styling job. It was a constant collaboration with Peugeot Sport’s engineers. We’d design a form and immediately send the data over for evaluation by CFD on the computer. The aerodynamics meant it was a real challenge mentally. As designers we’re used to working on surfaces. Here we had to flip that and almost design the negative space – the shapes around the surfaces that you want the airflow to follow.
‘In terms of design the diesel 908 was all about performance – there is very little brand DNA. The 905 was both; performance and, from a design perspective, very much a Peugeot. It has that feline stance. Hopefully the 9X8 too is both. But it is not just a retro 905-inspired design. We wanted to create an optimistic vision of the future.’
There is much to be optimistic about. The team’s Le Mans track record speaks for itself, and the expertise and passion that powered the 905 and 908 to glory are undimmed. Indeed some of those working on the 9X8 now, including Guyot, Deltombe and Coudrain, were there on those triumphant Sunday afternoons years ago. Now the lion will tackle racing’s most daunting challenge once again, and dream of a prize made all the more special by the massed ranks of storied rivals hellbent on victory.
‘These new regulations will write a great new chapter for endurance racing,’ says Laurent Guyot. ‘It is too soon to say which of these Peugeots is the greatest. The 9X8 must write its story before we can judge that.’
THE EXPERTISE AND PASSION THAT POWERED THE 905 AND 908 TO GLORY ARE UNDIMMED