The beastlike 208 T16 Pikes Peak got a chance at last to stretch its legs for the first time outside the confines of Peugeot Sport’s factory or a closely guarded circuit thanks to a recent test in the south of France. For Sébastien Loeb and the team alike, the run provided an opportunity to perform a dress rehearsal before June’s trip to the USA for the 2013 Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado.
The Mont Ventoux in the south of France is famous as a stage of the Tour de France cycle race. It has long been one of the event’s truly classic climbs; one which sorts out the men from the boys. “You’ve got a much bigger chance of seeing me drive to the top in a car than on a bike,” quipped the reigning world rally champion Sébastien Loeb before the test, however.
You only need to drive a couple of kilometres up the road which leads from the test team’s basecamp to the summit to understand why this barren mountain has become such a huge legend among cycle racing fans. The steep slope and numerous turns do not permit the slightest respite as it strikes out towards the summit. The reward is a stunning panoramic view of France’s Provence region, while the vegetation becomes much sparser and the landscape more lunar as you approach the barren peak at an altitude of 1,909 metres.
The last six kilometres – which Peugeot Sport used for the test – are simply breath-taking! It’s little wonder that ‘Le Ventoux’ is seen as one of the Tour de France’s most prestigious stages, and it comes as no surprise, either, to learn that it provided the backdrop to one of the most famous hill climb events in the pioneering days of the automobile industry. In 1902, even before the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was organised for the first time, the most advanced mechanicals of the day would compete here, and the venue is perfectly suited as the location for Peugeot Sport’s last run ahead of next month’s showdown in North America.
After the team’s previous test work in the more secure context of several circuits, it was time at last to unleash the beast in its natural environment. “This is an important run because Pikes Peak is very different from a nice, smooth race track,” noted Sébastien Loeb. “It is vital for us to evaluate the car on a terrain that is more like what we will find in the States. This road will give us a reasonably accurate idea...”
The world champion was visibly pleased to be back in the 208 T16 Pikes Peak, now sporting its aggressive livery: “It’s not the power that impresses me anymore; I’ve got used to it,” he reported. “It’s the speed at which the corners leap out at you which is more striking than round a circuit where there’s always a ‘100-metre’ board to show you where to brake. Here, you can be in fifth or sixth gear and you suddenly see mountainside ahead of you; you have to work out for yourself where you need to brake…”
With a power output of 875 horsepower, this car is no ordinary beast. “The steering is still very, very responsive, so it can be a little hairy keeping your foot to the floor though the fast portions,” observed the French driver. “On wide slicks like this and at the sort of speeds I am getting up to, the slightest imperfection in the road surface really unsettles the car.” A switch to softer Michelin tyres and revised calibration for the steering helped to improve the situation.
Peugeot Sport’s Jean-Christophe Pailler, who is in charge of the project’s technical aspects, saw the open-air session as a dress rehearsal both for the team and the 208 T16 Pikes Peak: “The mechanics and engineers need to familiarise themselves with working on the car in real-life conditions. They are getting an increasingly better grasp of how it responds to set-up changes and are analysing the tiniest detail or piece of feedback from Seb to refine its settings. It’s a learning process for everyone…”
The visit to Mont Ventoux also provided the team with the possibility of running at altitude. “Okay, the altitude isn’t as extreme here as it is at Pikes Peak which reaches 4,301 metres, but it’s a valuable intermediate step,” added Jean-Christophe. “It allows us to see the differences in the way the engine functions, although we hope to suffer less from altitude-induced power-loss than our rivals because of the turbochargers we have chosen.”
The next step is the journey to Colorado for more testing on the course which will only be available on a section-by-section basis on June 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16. After this final preparatory phase, the event will run in earnest from June 24 until June 30, which is when Sébastien Loeb and the 208 T16 Pikes Peak will at last get their chance to reach for the clouds for real!