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 Non, Je ne regrette rien………well maybe

Given the amount of web space dedicated to Audi’s victory, I reckoned it was only fair to spare a thought for the Peugeot team. They had not expected to win at Le Mans last year, yet landed themselves on the podium. They had not expected to win at Sebring in March either, instead pushing Audi’s buttons to see what would happen, and the lessons learned were valuable.

They are still undefeated in the Le Mans Series, so this year’s Le Mans 24 hours was the first race they truly lost. After all the hype, the expectation, the downplaying of their chances prior to the race, they expected nothing less than victory. Having attracted such attention with its driving line up, its national press advertisements trumpeting their defeat of Audi in the LMS and racing clearly a faster car on home turf, it was a slap in the face that Audi snuck in and nicked it.

Afterwards the team was devastated. The press representative struggled to muster a smile despite two cars having finished on the podium following a great race, and technical director Bruno Famin looked as though he had spent 24 hours in a hot bath – red faced, red eyed, and ready for bed. “We had a perfect car,” said Nicolas Minassian, who with Marc Gene and Jacques Villeneuve finished second. Two weeks after the race and with time to reflect, Nic was still emotional.

Theirs was the most reliable car, having spent 42 minutes in the pits compared with the number 2 Audi’s 31m55s. Their only delays were needing the radiator to be cleared, costing 2m27s, and several long-ish stops to change bodywork, one stop was 1m44s on Sunday morning. Their loss in the pits compared to the number 2 Audi was equivalent to three laps, giving them a total of 383 laps, compared to Audi’s 381 with a perfect race.

Yet from the outside, the car simply did not look or sound particularly good. On Wednesday night, the understeer was audible through the Dunlop Esses and was not much better during the race. The car was set up as a compromise, to understeer. That was very safe for Villeneuve and Gene, who was still recovering from a back injury following his accident at the test day, but not particularly quick. Minassian prefers a neutral handling car, but that did not matter given the pace of Villeneuve in particular.

 “That is not a subject I want to comment on,” said Minassian, but on Saturday night it was clear that, while Montagny was posting 3m20s laps, Villeneuve was regularly between five and ten seconds slower. “We had a little overheating in the engine so we stopped to clean the radiators, but it started to overheat again at the end of the race,” said Minassian.

“Mechanically the car was OK, but in the pits we were very slow. On the track, when it was wet we were not very good, but we hadn’t scrubbed wet tyres and it was very difficult to drive the first one or two laps each set, losing six to seven seconds per lap in the first two laps. The car wasn’t good in the wet and we couldn’t cope with it, there was no grip. We pushed a bit but if we pushed any more, we were in danger of falling off the track.

“There was a lot of understeer in the car and I don’t like understeer. We had to find the best compromise between the three drivers and it became difficult to find those last few tenths of a second.” I pointed out that the last few tenths of a second were futile when your co-driver is so far off the pace, leading to another “this is not a subject I want to get into” scenario.

The crew of the number 7 car had decided not to go for pole position after the Peugeot Sport team had worked so hard to prepare a car following Gene’s accident little more than a week before the car was due to be scrutineered. After hitting the wall roof first, the Spaniard was not comfortable physically having had massive compression on impact, and clearly looked out of sorts climbing into and out of the closed prototype.

While Sarrazin and Montagny got into the 3m18s on soft race rubber in qualifying (they didn’t bother with qualifying tyres which would have made a 3m15s lap within reach), Minassian set a 3m20.451s. “If we had a bad qualifying, we would have been P3, so there was not much point going for pole,” he says. The team did not quadruple stint its drivers until Gene got into the car on Saturday evening, but that fact alone did not affect the race pace. “Capello did a great job, and so did McNish and Kristensen – their average lap times were around a second apart. All the time we quadruple stinted, the tyres only did a double, so it was no big deal that we changed drivers then too. At the start, everyone got a bit of a run and the only difference was that I might have been a little bit more on the pace, and built up more of a gap.”

The tyre choices ultimately did it for the Peugeot team. “I didn’t make a wrong choice of tyres when the team asked me, even staying on slicks when it was a bit wet,” says Minassian. “The mistake was listening to the guy from the weather report [on Sunday morning – the team was told it was going to rain hard, and it didn’t]. It was a bit wet on the straight, but the tyre was delaminating. I did one lap, stayed out for another lap and the car was undriveable. We were on the softest compound you can get. It could have worked, but it didn’t. From the beginning we lost it in the pits on strategy and on the choices that we made on the set up. The experience of Audi was bigger. They did not have the best car, but they optimised everything else.”

For Minassian, that was his best chance to date of winning the race. Next year, the ACO will consider cutting the lap times by up to 15s for the diesels, opening the door for manufacturers to look seriously at the gasoline option. Audi has yet to announce its new car, Honda and General Motors are waiting in the wings, so was this Peugeot’s only chance with the diesel 908?

“We just want to win the next two races,” says Minassian looking ahead to the LMS races at the Nurburgring on August 17 and Silverstone on September 14. “It is so rare to be in that position and it is never easy to get there. We were in a position to win, and we didn’t.

“I don’t see Peugeot stopping now, I have no doubt in my mind. With what they have spent now, everything is in place. I think the changes to diesel will be quite drastic and petrol is going to be closer. This was only our second year at Le Mans, we blew everyone away in qualifying, and in the race there was not much wrong with the car. To do that against opposition like Audi is an achievement. Peugeot has been very clever and has produced the best sports car in the world, the fastest sportscar in the world. We didn’t win at Le Mans, but we were one of the favourites. We had the best of nearly everything with the car, and next year it will all be sorted.”

Andrew Cotton, June 2008