Ingram: Peugeot Will Need To Be More Than Just Fast at Le Mans
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent
A quarter million fans will gather this weekend around the eight-mile circuit in the French countryside to watch the 77th running of the Le Mans 24-hour sports car race. The fans will all have the same question in mind: can Team Peugeot beat Audi Sport?
To turn that question around to perhaps a more accurate perspective: will the French team figure out another way to lose to the squad from Ingolstadt?
So far in major endurance events, Peugeot is losing this battle five to nil, as the Brits like to say. I bring this up not by chance, since it is a British driver, Alan McNish, who has been most responsible for the losing streak of the Peugeot 908 HDi.
By all accounts, including qualifying times, the turbo-diesel Peugeot has been faster than the opposition from Audi in each of these five losses: two at Le Mans, two at the Sebring 12-hour and one at the Petit Le Mans. (For the record, both teams lost to the Porsche Spyder of Penske Racing at Sebring in 2008.)
There’s ample evidence to indicate the French team finds a way to lose. From the start, it’s car design has been a hindrance in terms of both fragility and low downforce that proves disastrous in the rain. Other factors have been a costly slow puncture at Sebring in March for Peugeot, where it led much of a nip-and-tuck race. But in the end, the new Audi R15 in the hands of McNish ran quicker on soft tires in the cool of the evening to take the win.
Before that, in the Petit Le Mans last October Peugeot managed to have its least experienced driver behind the wheel versus the brilliant Scot – McNish – in the closing hour. Christian Klien made a mistake in the dark while attempting to pass an always clever McNish and never recovered.
Going further back, at Le Mans last year McNish’s opening quadruple stint in the R10 TDI set the tone for an Audi victory that resulted from pushing the race pace and a pit strategy that rested on fewer driver changes. In the final hour, Audi got an assist with rainfall.
The two teams’ first meeting at Le Mans in 2007 turned on a better, more consistent race pace by Audi in the debut year of Peugeot’s 908, designed for high speed and low downforce on the Mulsanne Straight.
Say one thing for these two teams. They manage to keep their contests interesting and close despite what appears to be a predictable outcome. What about this year?
It might be putting it less than charitably to point out that the French lost the opening day of the race week by protesting the new Audi R15 TDI turbo-diesel’s nose configuration. The Peugeot protest looked a lot like whining and a prelude to defeat.
For a second time, the rule makers at the Automobile Club de l’Ouest agreed with the German engineers’ interpretation that created a radical new design. In short, the use of computational fluid dynamics in place of a traditional wind tunnel approach has yielded a new Audi turbo-diesel with extraordinary bodywork and airflow at the front.
On the track, rain played a role in the practice times on Wednesday, a six-hour session that started with damp asphalt. The skies opened again after the first 90 minutes. So it was difficult to tell who held what kind of cards.
On Thursday evening, the public roads comprising the circuit were closed once again after the local rush hour, the track opened and that little guy McNish did an encore in the role of spoiler. He vaulted to the top of the time charts in the final minutes of the first two-hour qualifying session after Peugeot had posted the quickest times earlier. Would Peugeot go for the pole on soft tires in the final two-hour session?
Yes. Stephane Sarrazin slipped in a remarkable record lap of 3:22.888, less than a second ahead of McNish’s flyer. “We did not chase the pole,” said Peugeot team manager Serge Saulnier. “We followed our plan to prepare the car for the race and try the soft tires in the night and evidently they work very well.”
If the past is prologue, decisions made by the brain trust in the Peugeot pits do not pan out in the long run. The Peugeot squad may have made its bed by arriving with essentially a three-year-old car versus a brilliant new design from Audi, now fully sorted for the big dance after its winning introduction at Sebring.
The always philosophical French know what they’re up against in this classic battle of beer and bratwurst versus wine and fromage. It’s tough to beat the truth, which this year concerns the fact Audi Sport was not blown away in qualifying and does not have to come from behind to win. On the other hand, Sarrazin grabbed the pole with a record lap in the dark, supposedly running a race pace. And four of the top five positions on the grid are occupied by 908’s.
It’s possible the strategy and execution this year by Peugeot will not look like a shot in the dark. Alas, Sunday’s weather forecast calls for a chance of thundershowers… .
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.