14 days

Hey You!


Scrutineering Bay

Not that it's any of my business

Notes from the Cellar

Across the Border

Focal Point







Mail  to a friend

Penalty Box

Family and friends

Postcards from the edge

sportscarpros CottonBalls

Michael & Andrew Cotton
Index Index


Top of Page

The Jaws of Victory

Regrets? I have had a few, but none so strong as Peugeot must have has when waking up on Monday morning to survey the wreckage of their season. Despite having the fastest car, the fastest drivers and a well prepared team governed by the experienced Serge Saulnier, they finished the season without victory at Le Mans, and without silverware in the Le Mans Series drivers’, teams’ or manufacturers’ titles. How the hell did they manage that?

That will be a question asked by the board of directors, including Jean- Philippe Collin and Christian Peugeot both in attendance at Silverstone to watch their racing programme self destruct. With a two-second advantage in practice and an 0.6s gap to the nearest Audi in qualifying, a two point lead in the drivers’ and teams’ titles and a five point lead in manufacturer standings should have been simple to protect.

The scoring system rewards consistency and, due to the Audi drivers, Rockenfeller and Premat, run of four podium finishes (three second places in the first three races), and a fourth, they took the drivers’ title. They also won the teams’ title for Audi in the same manner. Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gene started with a win, then a fourth (driveshaft failure at Monza), a win, a second place and retirement at Silverstone. Stephane Sarrazin and Pedro Lamy had an eighth (collision at Barcelona), a win, a retirement (accident with Alex Wurz at Spa), and a win at the Nurburgring. For Capello and McNish, an alternator failure at Barcelona was followed by an accident at Monza, another at Spa.  At the Nurburgring fearing a problem with their chassis, scored just five points, letting through their title-leading team-mates in the last ten minutes, and won with a new chassis at Silverstone.

The story of Le Mans has been well covered here, so let’s not go over that ground again. Audi won by team-work, Peugeot have learned some serious lessons which will make it stronger for next year. Yet at Silverstone, those lessons deserted them. The season was a brilliant example of modern endurance racing until the Nurburgring. Gene and Minassian won at Barcelona despite the Spaniard crashing into a Zytek, Pedro Lamy and Stephane Sarrazin won at Monza after a wheel-banging session with Mike Rockenfeller. Audi had slipped up big time – Lamy had to serve a stop and go for overtaking under yellow flags and Rocky had no need to race the Portuguese so hard in the closing stages. One up for Peugeot in Italy and questions were being asked; was Audi rattled?

Nicolas Minassian and Marc Gene had a drive shaft failure in the morning warm up, and had another during the Italian race that meant they scored just four points. Yet with two wins by Spa, they were the lead car. Alex Wurz had slipped up in Belgium, crashing the car he shared with Lamy and Sarrazin into the Spyker of Ralf Kelleners and then careered into the back of Dindo Capello’s Audi. A non-score for the defending champions all but ruled them out of the running. Capello and McNish had an alternator failure in Barcelona, an accident at Monza, and another at Spa clearly put the number two car as the lead machine.

Then came Le Mans, where Peugeot put their entire racing programme in jeopardy. No, not suffering defeat at the hands of Audi – what happened on the track made it one of the best Le Mans in living memory – no, it was the lap times set in qualifying and the race. The ACO had a target time of 3m30s for the LMP1s so that they do not need to change their circuit, and even in race trim the Peugeots were below 3m20s. The ACO would have to drastically cut the performance, to the point where, argue both Audi and Peugeot, they would not be at all competitive against a factory-prepared gasoline car. A 15% cut in air restrictor size would have forced Audi to switch to petrol (perhaps with the ageless 3.6 litre V8 taken from the R8), while Peugeot would have to switch to…oh, no back up plan.

“We knew our weak point against the Audi and our strategy was to be as fast as possible to compensate,” said Peugeot’s technical director Bruno Famin. “It is a question of finance. Is the ACO to finance the improvements to the circuit, or the manufacturers to build a slower car?”

For the Nurburgring race, the Peugeot team made another big mistake. The decision to allow Sarrazin and Lamy to win, followed by Minassian and Gene in second place, put more pressure on the team. They claimed that they were only interested in the manufacturers’ title, which meant it did not matter which way around the two cars finished. A switch would have given Minassian and Gene a four-point lead heading to the final race at Silverstone instead of two.

As it was, they still just needed to stay on the tail of the second Audi to win the trophy, but that wasn’t enough for Peugeot. Lamy led with McNish three seconds behind. Minassian had a 5.5s gap to the Scot, but crucially was ahead of Premat. Then came another of Peugeot’s mistakes. Minassian was given the order to push. Why? My theory is based on McNish reporting oil coming from the rear of the leading Peugeot. The lead car may not have lasted the distance, and Peugeot wanted five victories. Rightly, they trusted Minassian, but it was not necessary and the plan back fired spectacularly.

The Peugeot finished its race after one hour and 13 minutes up against the wall on the Hangar Straight, and Nic was devastated. “In endurance racing, whatever happens, you shouldn’t crash, and I crashed it,” he said. “I can’t tell you what happened. All I can say is that it shouldn’t have happened and I am gutted for the team.” It was a scary accident, with the car flying into the air before crashing down, glancing the barrier rather than ploughing in head first, while Richard Lietz’s Porsche was also dispatched at the scenery and was out. “That is racing, I am alright, I am just not alright for everybody else,” said Minassian. “It is a shame for Peugeot. We put the constructor championship in the bin, driver championship in the bin, another car in the bin, after all the hard work of everybody.”

Peugeot still have to improve their pit stops – Sarrazin came out of the pits under caution behind Capello, and then led to the most controversial moment of the race. Into the first corner for the second time, Capello had gone defensive early, Sarrazin had tried to go around the outside, and both crashed. The Peugeot went into the tyres hardest, breaking the radiator, suspension and power steering. The Audi got stuck in gravel, but had only a puncture and was able to go on and win the race. As usual, the drivers absolved themselves of any blame and it would be wrong to point the finger of blame without more evidence. Certainly, the two should have been able to make the corner side-by-side (McNish clearly thought so as he had tried the move at the start, though he had a similar result), but someone made a mistake.

McNish and Capello made up all the time lost, and more, closing on the leading car of Premat when the Frenchman pitted with a suspension component failure. Premat then also had a caution for overtaking under yellow. He finished fourth, with Rocky won the title by three points, and Audi celebrated on Sunday night while Peugeot went to a debrief. I chased team manager Serge Saulnier to the Peugeot truck but he hopped into the bus before I could talk to him. Nic obliged to help, and opened the door to ask the question, but closed it again quickly. “Now is not a good time,” he said.

Next year, the Peugeot and Audi teams will have to regroup. They will have smaller air restrictors by 10 per cent (just within the limit at which Peugeot would have closed its doors), and reduced boost pressure, curbing performance by an estimated 10.5%. Both manufacturers live in fear of what Honda’s LMP1 will be capable of, or Toyota, which has yet to confirm or announce its programme, though the rumour mill at Silverstone suggested that the hybrid had already tested. Production-based gasoline engines will have 3% smaller air restrictors, LMP2 cars will be cut by 10 per cent, GT1 by 3% and GT2 by 5%. The LMP cars will have smaller rear wings (leading Audi to consider a whole new rear end for the R10 TDI in addition to producing a new car for next year, oh, and winning the DTM title again), and all cars will need to have Gurney flaps.

For 2011, the LMP1 cars will have smaller engines, 3.4 litre V8s or two litre turbocharged engines. LMP2 will have production-derived engines conforming to GT2 regulations which will be confirmed by Stephane Ratel and the FIA in December. In the mean time, the ACO has a task in hand. Writing the rules for hybrid cars. Next year, assuming the Peugeot racing team does not get sent to the Russian Front in shorts and a T-shirt, the Peugeot hybrid will race after Le Mans as the third entry, unable to score points and not classified in the races.

Do the manufacturers like these new rules? In short, yes. They all contributed, they all told the ACO what they wanted, and the ACO, like the FIA with the GT regulations, capitulated. What an interesting scenario, don’t you think? The manufacturers have worked together with the rule makers to create a set of regulations they can all sell to their board of directors. The emphasis on smaller, turbocharged engines is in keeping with production car trends, as is the reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. With the motor industry facing such barriers as the environmentalists and government policy targeting motorists to boost their own ‘green’ credentials, the industry has to react. The ACO’s rules, written with the manufacturers, give them a place to rapidly develop and test new technology. It is not the be-all and end- all, obviously – Audi’s all-aluminium V12 diesel engine was considered an impossibility by the production department when it was first conceived. Now that it works, it is only for high performance and doesn’t need to accommodate Mrs Miggins starting her A3 at 8am on a cold and frosty morning. But it is a good start.

So, if the ACO is so keen on new technology, is it going in the right direction? In short, again, yes, though there is a caveat. “You have to prove that racing is doing something relevant to road cars,” says Porsche’s motorsport strategy and planning chief Jurgen Klauke. “Therefore we are very much in favour of this new thinking. I think that it is important to reduce the amount of energy consumed. The basic idea is really to reduce the amount of energy because we have to convince the public that we are doing something relevant for our road cars. Otherwise we will not survive. Everyone has the same pressure, all the manufacturers have to do something relevant but the advantage in motorsport is that you can do something relevant, quickly. Le Mans is the perfect proving ground for new technologies and if you look at its history, it was always about new technology and proving reliability.

“If somebody knew what the future technology would be to increase efficiency, I think we would jump on it. But there is so much uncertainty whether it is electric, mechanical or hydraulic. Energy recovery is the key word, but no one knows how to do it. There will be solutions perfect for cars in big cities, but if you want to drive on the motorway they are useless. In racing it is even more difficult. In the end you have to have an advantage, and a fair advantage. We give them some bonuses but that is not the real picture anymore. If we gave them less weight, it would not show that this is the future technology. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to limit the energy and leave everything else to the engineers, let them be creative and see what comes out of it? That is what we want to know. Which technology runs fastest and with the least amount of fuel? And no one has the answer yet.”

Andrew Cotton, September 2008