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908 - Green Light

Canada Goose, French Toast and Columbian Red

Andrew Cotton jetted over to France last week to be present at the press launch of the Peugeot LMP programme. Here are some of his thoughts..........apologies for the poor quality of the photos but nothing better seemed available on the Peugeot Sport website......let's hope the car is better prepared.

John Brooks, 2007

Budget Box
In typically ill-fitting overalls and in desperate need of some kind of haircut, Jacques Villeneuve was presented to the world’s press as one of Peugeot’s six Le Mans drivers for 2007. The car may be a month late, the budget never set in stone, and Audi has already stolen the march on the Peugeot (which announced first that it was coming to Le Mans with a diesel – six months before Audi did) by winning seven ALMS races, including Sebring and Le Mans during 2006.

That was all the bad news and to be honest, if that is all there is, you are not in bad shape. John Nielsen, an interested observer at the Aston Martin party on Friday night, concluded that the lack of budget constraint is what a manufacturer should be about. It should not be a question of money, but of getting the job done. With between 20,000 and 30,000km of testing planned this season, that should get the job done if not this year, then in 2008.

The car being a month late is not a great problem. There were never any plans to run at Sebring, or in any other ALMS race this year, so the target is March’s tests at Sebring and Paul Ricard, and its first race is in April at Monza. Initial tests have gone well and Peugeot is quite happy to aim for Le Mans glory in 2008 if fate doesn’t hand it to them this year. So the question everyone has asked since is: why Jacques? Having attended the launch, my question is: why not?

We’ll always have Paris…….Britney……….Lindsay………Nic?
Sure, JV was in cruise and collect mode in his latter years of Formula One. Sure, he won Indy and the F1 title in the last century. Sure, he has a reputation for arrogance which carried him through F1 and which is not welcome in sports car circles. He is despised by and at the launch in France he was more concerned with presenting himself as a father than as a full-time racing driver, which probably wasn’t the image Peugeot was looking for.

Yet at the launch he did almost everything right. The overalls and the haircut made him look as though he had been on a wild night with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and he had nicked whatever was to hand in the morning, but that is his style. With Nicolas Minassian, Stephane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy, Sebastian Bourdais and Marc Gene, he drove several laps of the Mortefontaine proving ground in a 407SW before parking up and sitting still while Eric Helary completed a few laps in the new 908 HDI FAP which will run at Le Mans this year.

He was the last to be presented before going through to the press conference where he was largely ignored. The questions were to the Peugeot hierarchy and primarily concerned the issue of cost (yes, the Le Mans programme is cheaper than the WRC, yes, the Le Mans programme meets with the parameters set at the start of the project), and the amount of testing which will go into the car in 2007.

A Question of Sport
The questions did turn to Villeneuve eventually. As Peugeot announced that their star wanted to win at Le Mans, and Peugeot doesn’t think it will be ready to beat Audi this year, is Villeneuve on a two-year contract? Apparently like the others, he is on a one year, with a one-year option for 2008. (Villeneuve is looking at NASCAR for 2008, and probably wouldn’t have time to contest Le Mans anyway, but it was good to know.) Pedro tried very hard not to answer a question as he doesn’t speak French, but the others didn’t let him get away with it and he had to come up with something eventually.

However, as the press conference drew to a close, there was a tidal wave of media heading towards the stage, and straight to the little guy. Unprotected by anyone, if ever Villeneuve’s temper was about to boil over, it would be here. Microphones and tape recorders bashed his face and arms, questions came from all sides and he answered patiently and in French. That was no good to the English speaking fraternity (Gary Watkins, Marco Ragazzoni and myself, anyway) and eventually he was dragged away to the relative safety of a roped off area outside. There he was free, and moved along answering questions in French and eventually, hallelujah, in English.

Should he win at Le Mans, he would be the first since Graham Hill in 1972 to win Indy 500, F1 and Le Mans. However, he was not to be second best in anything, and claimed he was going not for the triple, but uniquely for the quad, including the CART title in 1995. He was asked about the circuit of Le Mans, criticised by Schumacher who has vowed not to return. “I would drive those cars around the old Nurburgring,” said Jacques.

Is this a step back from Formula One asked one hack who had jumped the rope and was in danger of getting castrated by the Peugeot Sport lady. “No. I achieved in F1 what I had to achieve. I won the championship and I raced there for many years. GP2 would be a step back. This is something completely different.”

How will he cope sharing a car with anyone else? “You cannot have the perfect set-up for you. I was used to doing a lot of testing in Formula One, and from what I have seen there are enough miles planned to be ready for Le Mans.” Sounds good. Looks promising. Villeneuve is the star of the show, the Sebastien Loeb of Peugeot’s Le Mans programme, the darling of the French press. Yet behind the wheel, he is the new boy and will no doubt get his doors blown off by Minassian and Sarrazin in the opening stages before he proves himself. How will he fare at 3am, on worn tyres when it has all turned to poo? Team manager Serge Saulnier wouldn’t have accepted a lemon in his car, so I reckon he’ll do OK.

Good Ole Boys…………
I am not so sure about Montoya. Though the Colombian never won the World title in F1, he won the CART title, won the Indy 500, trod his own path through Formula One and is also the object of derision by He, too, will contest a 24- hour race this year with Chip Ganassi Racing at Daytona next weekend (January 27/28). He, too, has his eye on NASCAR, and has signed for the full season this year, becoming the first ex-F1 driver to do a full season of the American touring car series.

While Villeneuve will drive a diesel, Montoya will drive a deliberately low-grade prototype with Scott Pruett and Salvador Duran. The handling characteristics of the car will suit Montoya’s style, and he will be spectacular, but he will have nae grip, nae grunt as coined by Tom Walkinshaw, and that might not make him such a happy bunny.

How will Montoya cope at 3am, on spectacularly crap tyres, when the temperature in Florida dips so low he will think he is back at Snetterton on a really, really bad winter day testing a Formula Three car? The jury is out for two weeks while we find out.

Andrew Cotton
January 2007

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908 - France Expects