Tag Archives: Peugeot

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Un Siècle de Génie Automobile Français au Grand Palais

2013 Retromobile

Bonhams recent sale in Paris was also the scene of a tribute to ‘A Century of French Automobile Genius’. Held in the majestic location of the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysees, the auction house, with support from Peugeot and Citroën, assembled a collection of around 30 cars that illustrated the major contribution that the French have made to the development of the automobile.

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The setting of the Grand Palais for such an exhibition is of course extremely apposite, given that this was the site of the Paris Salon which was held there for many years until the show outgrew the hall.

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As with any collection of fine automobiles they are all equal, but inevitably some are more equal than others and while I recognise the quality of the very early cars, some dating back to the 19th Century, my own preferences are more modern. Star of the show as far I could see was the two tone Bugatti Type 57 C Coupé Special dating back to 1938.

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About as original as is possible, right down to the wiring loom and electrical components, the car was used by Ettore Bugatti and Jean-Pierre Wimille prior to World War Two. After the Fall of France, Grand Prix ace and Le Mans winner for Bugatti, Robert Benoist, prudently hid the vehicle to ensure its safety. Benoist, recruited into the SOE to organise and support the Resistance, did not survive himself, being captured twice by the Gestapo, eventually he was murdered at Buchenwald in 1944.

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The Type 57 was returned to Bugatti at the end of hostilities and it was subsequently used as a test bed for new ideas and components which explains the Lockheed Hydraulic brakes. It was, and is, utterly beautiful and desirable, well we can all dream.

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From the lofty expression of automotive art that is the Bugatti, I was drawn to the familiar functional shape of the Peugeot 905, this example being the actual car that Geoff Brabham, Eric Hélary and Christophe Bouchut drove to victory in the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours. The Peugeots swept all before them in that last gasp of the Group C era.

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With power in abundance from a 3.5 litre V10 engine and staggering amounts of downforce these were some of the fastest race cars ever built, at Silverstone in 1992 the Peugeot would have qualified on the second row of the British Grand Prix, and this from a car designed to race for 24 hours.

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It was interesting to compare this thinly disguised Grand Prix car with the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, a diesel powered endurance racer that, in 2009, routed the much vaunted Audi Sport team. This example was the second placed car at Le Mans that year, narrowly beaten by their sister car.

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Much more in touch with the real world was the Citroën 2CV, introduced to an expectant public in 1948 who were clamouring for simple, inexpensive solutions to their motoring needs. With nearly four million examples made in the following decade, this quirky looking car came to symbolise the French automobile industry.

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Another Citroën with a record of success is the World Rally Championship Xsara WRC which racked up win after win in the hands of Sebastian Loeb, cementing the French manufacturer’s domination of top flight rallying in this century.

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Back to the time when the French car industry seemed to be an offshoot of the Louvre, so elegant were the designs, is the Delage D8 Torpédo, built in 1931. The Delage factory at Courbevoie was the most modern of its time and its produce was snapped up by celebrities and Royalty alike, the looks have weathered the test of time.

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From the early days of motoring, the De Dion Tricycle and the Peugeot Type 17 illustrate the birth of the French motor industry. Other absolute classics on hand were a Bugatti Type 54 Grand Prix car, a Talbot Lago T26 Cabriolet and two more icons from Citroën, a 1953 Traction Avant and a DS19 Décapotable. The latter was originally an adaptation by Henri Chapron that the factory eventually adopted for their own.

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Only on for two days during the Bonhams Sale, the exhibition flowered brightly and briefly, certainly worth an hour or two in Paris.

John Brooks, February 2013

 

The Cupboard is Bare

From today’s Daily Telegraph

The challenges facing car makers were also laid bare by Peugeot which has accepted state aid for its lending arm.

Peugeot said it was close to an agreement on €11.5bn (£9.3bn) of refinancing and had secured state guarantees on a further €7bn for Banque PSA Finance,.

In return for the funds the French group said it would suspend dividend payments, scrap stock options for its top executives, and appoint government and union board representatives.

Anyone still think that they may go racing any time soon?

John Brooks, October 2012

Financial Reporting

La Route est Dure

It would appear that Peugeot’s sudden withdrawal from its Le Mans campaign has provoked a state of ire amongst the motorsport mavens of the UK’s journalistic community. As I noted recently, Autosport ran a piece last week purporting to the REAL reasons behind the Lion’s retreat. Of course, it did nothing of the sort and I was surprised at the reaction of those who took the time to peruse and reply to my piece. Some of what was written would not make comfortable reading for the magazine’s leadership, as they appear to have alienated a significant section of what should be their core market. Maybe only the cranks write to me, an unrepresentative selection; it would make perfect sense.

This week Damien Smith, editor of Motor Sport, gets into the act in his monthly editorial “Matters of Moment”. Mr Smith correctly declares that the stuffing has been knocked out of FIA WEC and Le Mans as a result of Peugeot’s withdrawal and Audi having little or no opposition, except a small Japanese company called Toyota. However getting the bit between his teeth he veers away from the rational.

“Peugeot is likely to return one day, if finances allow. But for now the best thing about a company that produces dull road cars is over. What a shortsighted and plain selfish decision, totally in keeping with a corporate bean-counter boardroom mentality.”

What??

What??

Motor Sport has been one of the recent success stories in the motoring print media. Since being sold to an independent publisher by the Haymarket empire, it has put on circulation, bucking the trend in the market and I would guess that advertising revenues are also on an upward course. The secret of this performance is simple really, well written content matched to top level production values; it is a premium product. This is why I take issue with the statement quoted above. It is completely at odds with the customary intelligence displayed throughout the magazine.

PSA Peugeot Citroën is Europe’s second largest car manufacturer, employing around 200,000 directly, though recent events have seen that number cut by over 5,000. So perhaps up to a million or so people are directly affected by the company’s performance, a number that is amplified many times when one considers those employed in the supply chain and other related businesses. Then there is the huge amount of tax that these people pay, directly or indirectly. These are big numbers.

Furthermore, in common with virtually the whole motor industry, PSA has strategic alliances with other giants such BMW, Chang’An, Dongfeng, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Renault and Toyota, either producing models under licence or developing new technologies. So even more people around the world who are directly affected if there are problems at PSA. New legislation is being introduced throughout the world is aimed at reducing emissions from motor vehicles, a costly process with all the expenditure and risk front loaded, a major financial headache for the management of any car manufacturer. Consideration must also be given to the social responsibilities that large corporations are bound by, particularly in Europe. The fortunes of PSA have potentially a major impact on the financial stability of France, Europe and the rest of the world. The Supervisory Board of PSA have on their shoulders a heavy responsibility. Many people depend on them doing the right thing; peoples’ future prosperity is at stake.

I wrote last week of the catastrophic losses in the second half of 2011 suffered by Peugeot.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In last October PSA planned a reduction of annual overheads amounting to €800 million, coming at a cost of 6,000 jobs. Subsequently further cost cutting of around €200 million from annual overheads has been considered necessary. A race programme consuming a rumoured €50-60 million per annum would be an obvious target for both management and unions, given that any easy options had already been exhausted.

The losses will have also drained the cash reserves of PSA, so assets are being disposed of. The company raised €440 million from the sale of car rental company CITER and there is plan to dispose of real estate which is anticipated to raise a further €500 million. Perhaps the most significant sale is that of an undisclosed shareholding in wholly owned transport company GEFCO. Even in the difficult market conditions of 2011 GEFCO accounted for 16% of the PSA Group’s profits. Furthermore, disposing of these assets in the prevailing economic climate and in the circumstances of a fire sale is hardly likely to maximise potential returns. The PSA Group is hoping raise €1.5 billion from these transactions, a tall order.

What I had not looked closely at until now was the cash flow statement. Cash and liquidity are the life blood of any business. You can be profitable but if you run out of cash then you will go out of business. Even I can understand that.

The PSA Group had net cash and cash equivalents at the 2011 year end of €5.7 billion, a drop of €4.7 billion from the end of 2010. This massive decrease can be attributed to several factors, some planned, some not. On the planned side of the ledger the accounts reveal investment in new plants and ventures in India and China, markets that are expanding while Europe contracts. In addition there are the development and launch costs anticipated in 2012  of the Peugeot 208, the Citroën DS5 and the introduction of four other diesel hybrid models. During the first quarter of 2011 PSA also repaid €2 billion to the French State, the balance of a financial assistance package agreed in 2009.

What could not be foreseen at the time of budgeting for 2011 was the calamitous effect that the European Sovereign Debt Crisis would have on trade, particularly in PSA’s major market sectors. There are several problems affecting cash flow that manifest themselves in these circumstances, lack of profitability as margins are eroded, the holding cost of inflated inventory levels and the difficulty of hedging against currency fluctuations. The cost of raw materials was also increased unexpectedly by the instability on the currency exchange market. The ability to raise finance is also under pressure as sovereign nations struggle to meet their own liabilities. Put simply, borrowing and lending are a matter of trust and that is in short supply right now. Another unforeseen event that had an adverse effect was the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, causing a costly interruption of the supply of vital components.

So taking all of these factors into account it is difficult to see how the Supervisory Board of PSA could have done anything but axe the Le Mans project. If they are to continue to raise finance in an adverse market, then they need to demonstrate that they are willing to make difficult decisions and what better way than making a substantial cost saving in a high profile manner? There is also the small matter of the powerful French Trades Unions. There is no way that are they going to allow a non core activity such as racing to continue while their members are faced with possible redundancy. The argument that the new technology necessary to provide personal transport in the future will be developed faster in the heat of competition is a valid one, but all the technological advances in the world are pointless if the business has gone bust. The development will go on, perhaps at a reduced pace, but we live in an imperfect world.

Most people do not have as the centre of their universe a small city 120 miles to the west of Paris. Motorsport will not bring the cure for cancer or save the universe; it is part entertainment, part technological development and to those, like myself who are lucky to being involved in some minor capacity, mostly hugely enjoyable. Like all children I do not want my toys taken away, but just occasionally it has to happen. Who is being selfish now?

Finally calling the members of the PSA Supervisory Board “corporate bean-counters” is not polite nor strictly accurate. The Vice Chairman of the Managing Board is one Jean-Philippe Peugeot. He is definitely a motorsport enthusiast, having raced in 2010 in the Nurburgring 24 Hours in a Peugeot RCZ HDI. He also took part in four rounds of the 2005 Le Mans Endurance Series, driving a Pilbeam MP93 in the LM P2 class with Pierre Bruneau and Marc Rostan; he scored points in two races, including a podium place at Spa. However much Mr Peugeot enjoys motorsport, as senior management at PSA, he has responsibilities that must be discharged. A lot people are depending on him and his colleagues. I suspect that others in high places are “car guys” too.

So Mr Smith, withdraw your remarks. They are not in keeping with the brand values that are proclaimed on Motor Sport’s front covers:

Passion, Independence, Perspective, Opinion, Authority.

John Brooks, February 2012

Hold The Presses

Friday morning’s mail for once includes the latest issue of Autosport, arriving a day earlier than of late. The cover features a snap of the Kimster looking “slightly foxed” as Private Eye would say. The accompanying headline screams “Kimi – I’m not in it for the money. I won’t give up, even if I’m not winning races”. Yeah, whatever.

Further down the page another headline really caught my eye, “Why Peugeot has REALLY quit Le Mans”, a non F1 feature making the cover, now that is special. Then the story of a major manufacturer quitting a new World Championship and the World’s greatest race without notice really is news.

Turning through the acres of pre-season F1 stories I reached page 34 and settled in to read the feature penned by Gary Watkins. As one might expect of such an experienced and skilled journalist, the piece was well written, stacked with quotes and facts that were relevant, a succinct summary of “five years of the 908”. Unfortunately that was not what had been promised.

Nowhere in the article was vulgar subject of money mentioned, no attempt to answer the question as to why the total cancellation of this high profile project without notice was considered necessary by the Supervisory Board of PSA Peugeot Citroën. As one of my highly respected colleagues put it, the piece read like a retrospective that might run in Motor Sport in a few years time. Certainly there was no commentary to support the promise of the headline on the front cover.

So what really happened at Peugeot to force such a draconian measure? About ten minutes on the Internet gives all the answers. Peugeot cars made an operating profit in 2010 of €621 million. In the first six months of 2011 a further profit of €405 million was accrued but when the year end was reached this had fallen to an overall loss of €92 million, a six month loss of €497 million, that is not sustainable for any enterprise in the long run.

It would appear that the company has still been turning out cars as normal but selling them in the tough market conditions at a loss. Chief Financial Officer Jean-Baptiste de Chatillon admitted inventory levels of assembled vehicles at the end of 2011 were “unsatisfactory”. That is a way of saying that potentially, further financial pain is on the way. Back in the last century when I had a real job, the accounting convention was to value Stock and Work in Progress at the lower of cost or net realisable value. It was a fantastic accountants’ equivalent of advertising industry’s weasel word, as an element of subjectivity is introduced under the cover of  objectivity. Valuation of stock has a direct affect on the profitability or not of a company’s accounts. A perfectly reasonable judgement, made with all due diligence, can, with the passage of time, turn out to be erroneous. To be fair predicting the future is an inexact science and you have to do the best you can with the information available.  I am not in a position to judge whether the value of Peugeot inventory held at the year end remains valid today. All that can be said is that car sales throughout Europe have plummeted in January 2012 and the expectations for the next few months are no more optimistic.

Figures from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) show sales of passenger cars fell 7.1% to 968,769 in January compared to the previous year. Sales in Portugal collapsed, falling 47.4%, while France saw sales drop 20.7%, Italy was down by 16.9%. This makes it even more unlikely that Peugeot, already suffering, will be able to trade its way out the hole that it finds itself in. Will the inventory even make the written down position as at the end of December 2011 and what will be the likely effect on margins?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In last October PSA planned a reduction of annual overheads amounting to €800 million, coming at a cost of 6,000 jobs. Subsequently further cost cutting of around €200 million from annual overheads has been considered necessary. A race programme consuming a rumoured €50-60 million per annum would be an obvious target for both management and unions, given that any easy options had already been exhausted.

The losses will have also drained the cash reserves of PSA, so assets are being disposed of. The company raised €440 million from the sale of car rental company CITER and there is plan to dispose of real estate which is anticipated to raise a further €500 million. Perhaps the most significant sale is that of an undisclosed shareholding in wholly owned transport company GEFCO. Even in the difficult market conditions of 2011 GEFCO accounted for 16% of the PSA Group’s profits. Furthermore, disposing of these assets in the prevailing economic climate and in the circumstances of a fire sale is hardly likely to maximise potential returns. The PSA Group is hoping raise €1.5 billion from these transactions, a tall order.

 

As has been proved time after time, manufacturers only go racing when it suits them, it is not part of their core activity and while bragging rights are great for the marketing department, they mean little to the employee on the shop floor whose livelihood is under threat. I have been told, but cannot possibly confirm, that the competitions department was shut as part of the horse trading that went on between the PSA management and the very powerful French trade unions. Suggestions that the programme might reappear in a year or two are wide of the mark. The factory and equipment are being liquidated as part of the asset disposal plan, I know of teams that been given the opportunity to purchase the inventory. The personnel are being redeployed within the PSA group, or so we are told. While the high profile drivers and team bosses scramble to find another role, the real tragedy lies in the fate of the foot soldiers. For over 30 years Peugeot have been a major force in motorsport, successful in pretty much everything they have attempted. The wins have been founded on the efforts of the Jean-Michels and Jean-Philippes of the factory floor, for the most part anonymous but vital to the result. In recent years they have taken on the might of Audi and for the most part beat them comprehensively, two high profile defeats at Le Mans in 2010 and 2011 being the only black marks. Those who toiled at Peugeot Sport can look back on their achievements with pride, it is not their fault that the department has been closed.

Which brings us full circle to the Autosport feature, which has a very good explanation of the recent racing history of Peugeot, without any mention of the financial issues that killed off that activity. I would have expected both inter-related areas to have been covered, especially from the headline on the cover or indeed the banner above the piece. Insight – Peugeot’s Pull-Out. Anyone might surmise that the sub editor writing the headlines had not read the piece.

But what do I know?

John Brooks, February 2011

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

 

La Route est Dure

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

John Brooks, January 2012

Chinese Burn – Part Three

Rock Around The Clock

The ever increasing speeds of the diesel battle meant that the ACO felt forced to bring new rules in for 2011. Smaller engines and other measures in turn meant new cars for Audi and Peugeot. Peugeot had their new weapons ready for the opening ILMC round at Sebring, Audi did not.

At The Setting Of The Sun

The Peugeot 908 is powered by a 3.7 V8 twin turbo diesel engine. The new regulations caused the loss of around 150hp and more importantly torque was massively reduced, so a completely new approach was needed. The Peugeot may have shared its model number and the windscreen wiper with its predecessor but nothing else. The aerodynamics concentrated on maximising the speed at the expense of downforce.

Blue Meanies

This aspect combined with the lack of torque meant a completely new technique to driving the cars flat out was also required. Keeping up the momentum was paramount and this accounts for the extremely aggressive moves that the prototypes have pulled when in slower traffic……..universally this has not been well received, especially by the professionals in the GTE class.

Pit Popsies

Another major change was the mandatory addition of a central fin extending from the cockpit to the rear wing. The aim was to prevent cars getting airborne but that has not been wholly successful. Both Marc Gene and Nic Minassian had dramatic crashes in their new Peugeots during the pre-season test programme. Nic ended up on the runway at Le Castellet airport, having cleared the barriers and fences. These incidents attracted the attentions of the FIA Technical department and further measures are now proposed.

Old School

The new regulation that has been announced by the ACO mandates that there has to be an opening at the top of each wheel arch, replacing the existing louvers at the front. These openings measuring a minimum of 200mm by 250mm, will mean that the top surface of the tyres will be visible through the bodywork. It is intended to reduce lift in the event of a car spinning sideways by equalising the air pressure around the wheels.

Brace of Audis

Audi were a few months behind Peugeot in the development of their own new car, so the R15+ was rolled out again at Sebring. While a team like Audi never gives up, their R15+ grand-fathered to conform with 2011 rules, were likely to struggle to match the outright pace of the French. The best hope lay in exploiting the considerable racecraft and Sebring Savvy that the team and drivers had accumulated over the years.

Very ‘Appy

In the end neither factory team stood on the top step, the 2010-spec Peugeot, run by the mighty ORECA outfit had a relatively trouble-free run and added Sebring to their list of Florida classics, having won the Daytona 24 Hours victory back in 2000.

Audi and Peugeot each lost a car from contention after a collision between Gene and Capello led to extended pit stops to fix the damage. Bodywork problems and a spin by Pedro Lamy dropped the other Peugeot while the second Audi had several punctures that stuffed their race.

Sebring Sunrise

On a positive note the new 908s had run without mechanical problems on what is considered to be the toughest track of them all. Next up would be Spa and the début of the R18. It was going to be even more serious now.

R18

The Audi R18 was certainly dramatic when seen in the flesh at Francorchamps. It was the first coupé from Audi since the distinctly undercooked R8C in 1999. Powered by a V6 3.7 litre diesel running only one turbo in contrast the usual twin arrangement, it bristles with the latest technology, supporting the marketing message “Ultra”. The question was, would it work?

Cover Is Blown

Peugeot hit problems during Friday when Pedro Lamy crashed after contact with another car. Both teams are very secretive about their cars, at least to the media, so the damage to the 908 will have been compounded by the fact that every telephoto lens in a 50 mile radius was focussed on the wreck. It would be a long night for the mechanics.

Fin De Siècle

 

 

 

Qualifying was also a disaster for Peugeot, with the session being red-flagged early on, before the 908s could set representative times. Then the session was cancelled as barriers were damaged beyond swift repair. Audi lined up 1-2-3 whereas their opponents could only muster 13-18-50, Sacre Blue!

Scottish Reel

The race got underway with the trio of Audis streaming up the Kemmel Straight in formation, then the day started to unravel for Ingolstadt. McNish spun into Les Combes, then Bernhard tagged a slower car, damaging the diffuser and Treluyer spun and got beached in the gravel at Fagnes. A long litany of similar minor problems afflicted the three Audis all the way through the race.

Hill Climb

The final result saw a 1-2 to the French with McNish/Kristensen/Capello salvaging a podium and some pride for Audi. The general consensus in that fount of false wisdom, the media centre, was that it was too close to call between the two factories. It was very difficult to draw firm conclusions about the prospects for Le Mans, a few weeks down the line.

It would be close, that much was certain, just how close we could not imagine.

John Brooks, November 2011

 

Chinese Burn – Part Two

Fear and Loathing

The first hour or two of the 2010 edition of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans were a low point in Audi’s ultra successful Le Mans campaign of the past decade. They had largely dominated the period and now were been soundly beaten on sheer pace, by a quartet of Peugeot 908 HDi FAP coupés, the expensively revised R15+ just could not hack it.  It was a general assumption that the factory cars were bullet proof in terms of reliability, so Audi would have to keep plugging away and hope for better days.

Hanging In There

However the pace of the two factory diesel teams was extreme, pushing the cars to the limit………….and beyond. We were into uncharted territory, it was like a motorsport rerun of Ali-Fraser’s “Thrilla in Manila”, something was going to have to give.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Suddenly the screens were full of Pedro Lamy’s Peugeot limping around the track, front wheel askew, Bruno Vandestick, the irrepressible Le Mans commentator, whipping the crowd to attention. In fact the suspension had parted company with the monocoque, possibly this was the price to be paid for pole position, as this often occurs if cars are bouncing off the kerbs, whatever, the car was listed as a retirement. A small sliver of doubt crept into the French operation, a crack in their armour had appeared, what would be next?

Sand In The Machine

In fact it was Audi that was next to flinch. Tom Kristensen in #7 tripped up over Andy Priaulx in the BMW Art Car. The M3 was crawling back to the pits, afflicted with one of the many punctures suffered up and down the field. By the time the Audi had been pulled from the gravel at Porsche Curves and the rear repaired, three laps had been lost and so had any reasonable chance of a win. Priaulx put his hands up, admitting that he had misjudged TK’s speed. He showed considerably more class than Audi boss, Dr Ulrich, who stormed down the pit lane to shout at BMW’s Charly Lamm. I can think of a few team principals down the years who would have not have endured a similar exhibition so calmly, imagine trying that crap with Tom Walkinshaw. It was a confirmation, if any were needed, of the enormous pressure that the Audi head honcho was under.

Fire In The Hole

Darkness came and with it the Peugeot challenge gradually wilted, alternator failure and damage from a collision delaying two cars. Then came dawn and disaster at 7.02am as the engine of the #2 Peugeot exploded in flames, their race run. Audi was in front for the first time. This was amazing, Audi looked as if they just might pull off a major upset. The order came down from on high at Peugeot, go flat out and see if the Audis might be caught or break too.

Maximum Attack

The expression les merdes volent en escadrille best summed up the next few hours for the French as both of their challengers suffered engine failure while chasing the Audis. Olivier Quesnel maintained a terse “No Comment” when questioned about the root of the problem. In the paddock a whisper of piston broke took hold. It could explain as to how the cars were faster despite a 5% reduction in restrictor size over 2009. Whatever, Peugeot’s dream was now a nightmare.

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

In the final analysis Peugeot shot temselves in both feet, failing to take a victory that seemed at one stage to be theirs alone. Credit must be given to Audi for never giving up and building a car that ran without fault, true Le Mans virtues. #9 spent only 36 minutes in the pits during the race. Another goal that it scored and one that may never be surpassed, was the distance record. #9 completed 397 laps or 3,362 miles, an average speed of just over 140 miles per hour. The previous record had stood since 1971…………evidence of just how hard the fight had been.

Copse Corner

How does a team pick themselves from such a public and crushing disappointment? Well it is the mark of true Champions to be able to do so and that is how you would describe Peugeot. At Le Mans there had been an announcement by the powers that be, there would be a new competition, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, catchy name, that would, it was hoped, evolve into a proper World Championship. Silverstone in September would see the inaugural event.

That Long Black Cloud Is Coming Down

Audi fielded two R15+ prototypes against two 908s, one factory and one ORECA run. Pole went to Audi but there was a suspicion around the pressroom that the French still had the better car.

Second Best

So it proved with the 2009 spec ORECA-run 908 backing up the factory entry for a Peugeot 1-2. Audi defeated once again away from La Sarthe and Peugeot back on track.

Georgia On My Mind

A few weeks later and we were across the Atlantic for the Petit Le Mans. The two factories seemed evenly matched around the sinuous Road Atlantic track, the outright speed of the 908 being matched by the commitment the Audi squads in the persistent traffic.

Keep That Train A-Rollin’

As the shadows lengthened there was a three-way fight at the top of the order, it was going to be a scrap all the way to the finish.

Rage Against The Machine

Except it wasn’t. Capello’s Audi slowed and pitted unexpectedly, leaving the 908s to romp away. As the PR Release put it

Dindo Capello, who was leading at that time, had to come in for an unscheduled pit stop because an insert in his helmet prescribed by the regulations had come loose and the fireproof balaclava started to cover his eyes. Without being able to see anything, Capello had to let the Peugeot behind him pass and head for the pits in a blind flight.

In his own words. “But then the nightmare started. At first I didn’t have a clue as to what was happening. I had the feeling that the helmet was suddenly three sizes larger than before. We later found out that the E-Ject insert in the helmet had come loose. I was even lucky not to have had an accident since I was completely blind in one turn because the helmet slipped across my eyes. Even after so many years you can still experience something new.”

Another race to Peugeot, though the sympathy was with Audi.

Red Flagged

The final encounter of the diesels for 2010 was to be in Zhuhai, the ILMC title was at stake as was Audi’s pride.

Double Take

Once again there was little to choose between the factories and in the end it all came down to the last few laps and some questionable driving by a lapped Bourdais who impeded Kristensen’s pursuit of Sarrazin. Predictably there no action from the officials and a bit of light handbagging after the race but another win had slipped away.

Sign Language

For Audi 2010 had been a difficult year to say the least. Victory at Le Mans was the one shining light, they had been hammered in the DTM and the R8 GT3 project had failed to get the desired results. Something must be done.

Peugeot had recovered strongly from the nightmare in June and had serious plans to gain revenge for that humiliation. 2011 was going to another cracker.

John Brooks, November 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Chinese Burn – Part One

 

 

 

 

The final ever round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup will be held in a week or so at Zhuhai, next year the competition will be called the FIA World Endurance Championship. At the sharp end the titles are settled, so one might assume that things should be relaxed between Peugeot, the Champs, and Audi, the Le Mans’ winners. I somehow doubt this, proud teams such as represent the French and German manufacturers hate to lose, it is not in their DNA, as the phrase goes.

Golden Girls?

A question then that the protagonists, if not the average fan, will know the answer to. Leaving aside the 24 Hours of Le Mans for 2010 and 2011, when was the last time that Audi beat Peugeot in a straight fight? Unbelieveably you have to go back to Sebring 2009 when TK, Dindo and Nishy took the R15 to début win. That will be almost three years ago unless Audi takes the top spot next week. If this were a boxing match Audi would have counted out on a TKO.

Three years, 12 races and over 100 hours of competition; standing on the rickety photo stand at Sebring back then grabbing these podium shots, what odds would you have got on that forecast?  How has this dry run happened and how do Audi break this pattern and resume their rightful place on equal terms with their French opponents?

Diesel Drama

After the disappointments and failures of 2007 and 2008 Peugeot decided enough was enough. A new season and a new boss, Olivier Quisnel, sharpened their approach. Marketing distractions, like Jacques Villeneuve were dropped and Peugeot were honest enough to admit that they had to learn from the Top Dogs, Audi.

Candid Camera

I remember Allan McNush telling me that at Sebring, a camera crew from Peugeot had recorded every Audi pit stop, “I always waved at them”.

Carambolage

Whatever Peugeot learned from their home movies seemed to work, excepting this monumental folly. Naturally it was all the fault of the photographers and not the mob standing around oblivious………………

Sunrise

Peugeot were brilliant that weekend in Le Mans and it was Audi who always seemed to be on the backfoot. The R15 was something of a disappointment and the 908 always seemed to have pace to spare. Peugeot resembled their national rugby team when on song, almost unbeatable in that mood.

Scotch Mist

As if to reinforce the point that balance of power had shifted to the West, Peugeot even went after Audi across the Atlantic chasing them to Road Atlanta and Petit Le Mans.

A typically forthright start by McNish, who else, and a storming first stint nearly put the lead Audi a lap up. A safety car period put a stop to that and it was game on once again between the diesel rivals.

Blow, Ye Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks

This time there was a third contestant in the race, the appalling weather. No matter what Audi did it was matched by Peugeot whose confidence was sky high after the victory at La Sarthe.

Slip Sliding Away

It was Audi who cracked, a couple of minor spins as a result of aquaplaning, put the French at the front.

At The Car Wash

Then the race was first stopped, then abandoned. I was happy enough, carrying round a big lens or two supported by a metal pole in the middle of an electrical storm was probably not the cleverest thing to do.

So another win for Peugeot. Audi skipped the next confrontation at Sebring, they needed more time to develop the R15+………most of us were not convinced. There is nothing quite like racing around Sebring for 12 Hours to pinpoint any weaknesses in the team or cars.

Allez Les Blues

The next contest at Spa seemed to confirm the impression that Peugeot would beat Audi at Le Mans. Peugeot won at a canter leaving the Audis struggling. It was a bit of a confused race with the farce of the timing screen failing after a power cut. The race was halted while the problem was sorted…..’tis whispered that someone had forgotten to fill the emergency generators….never in Belgium said I.

View From The Top

The run up to the 24 saw Peugeot grabbing the first two rows on the grid, it looked as if it could be a really long race for Ingolstadt’s finest

Blue Train

The first hour or so of the contest confirmed that Audi had no answer for the French pace.

Part Two Tomorrow

John Brooks, November 2011

 

 

 

 

The Power Game – A New World Order

It has been a generally held assumption in our business that the pinnacle of international motorsport is Formula One. Messrs Ecclestone, Mosley and the FIA have managed to convince most of the major motor manufacturers in the past twenty years that Grand Prix racing is the only game in town worth playing. This fable was held on to tightly by those who were not really seeing any success on the track despite the mountains of cash that they burned in pursuit of victory. The financial crisis of recent past changed the rules, even the largest organisations were forced to examine and genuinely evaluate all of their expenditures. Honda, Toyota, and eventually BMW, all looked at the return that they were getting from their F1 programmes and all reached the same conclusion, quit.

Whatever questionable benefits these brands were getting from the halo effect of being part of the culture of prestige, glamour and excitement that is 21st Century F1, was eradicated by the consistently poor performance of the teams that represented them, anyone could see that the cars were dogs.

Entering into the second decade of this century the priorities of motor manufacturers engaged in competition are changing fast. Power, performance and victory will always be a part of the motorsport mix but now other factors are in play. Sustainability, efficiency and economy are increasingly the primary motivators beyond that basic need for success in the sport. Even in defeat the brands are looking for a return on their investment, the simple formula of Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday does not hack it anymore.

These underlying trends go some way to explaining why Endurance and Sportscar racing should be heading for another golden age. As ever the principle “follow the money” will give a reliable compass point to the direction that we headed.

Modern day Grand Prix racing, with its proposed V6 turbo petrol technology and tightly specified rulebook, cannot provide the platform for manufacturers to achieve their extended objectives. In addition the old arguments of brand values being enhanced by proximity to F1’s prestige, glamour and excitement have been discredited, so where to go?

Perhaps the first question is why competition, why not just pure research? Major players like Volkswagen and Toyota have annual road car development budgets that are measured in the billions, Dollars, Euros, Yen, it matters not. There is enormous global pressure to introduce new technologies to answer the issues of reducing the dependence on fossil fuels and to cut emissions significantly.

At the end of July US President Obama announced an agreement with a broad coalition of motor manufacturers and other interested parties to dramatically increase fuel economy and reduce pollution for all new cars and trucks sold in the United States in the period from 2017 to 2025. The new standards call for incremental improvements each year in fuel efficiency to achieve a 2025 target of 54.5 mpg – almost a 100% increase on the 2011 requirements. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced to 163 grams per mile, approximately 50% of the current position. These are major changes and provide a huge challenge to the car industry. Where America goes, the European Union and the rest of the world will surely follow. It is held that competition is a sure fire way of fast tracking that process, diverting a small proportion of the road car budgets into the competitive arena will bring disproportionate benefits, well that’s the theory.

How all of these strands link into the direction that endurance racing is headed is now beginning to become clear. From 1950 to 1992 there was a FIA sanctioned World Championship for sportscars and long distance racing. Why that stopped is a topic for another day, but since that time the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), custodians of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, have steered their own course, largely pulling the rest of sportscar racing in their wake. Relations between the FIA and the ACO improved after the departure of the choleric FIA President Jean Marie Balestre, who engaged in outright warfare with the ACO during the final years of the World Championship. Max Mosley, who succeeded the Frenchman as head of the FIA was much more concerned with Formula One battles and largely left the ACO to get on with re-building endurance racing.  This restoration was essential as the great race was nearly bankrupt, a direct consequence of the rules introduced by the FIA in the final years of the World Championship. This created the perfect storm of a vastly reduced number of entries together with the substantial costs of building a new pit and paddock complex and making changes to the Mulsanne Straight in the form of chicanes.

Last year a new FIA President, Jean Todt, was elected. Best known for managing multiple F1 Championships at Ferrari, Todt was, before that, head of Peugeot Sport during their years of triumph in the World Rally Championship and also during their two victories at Le Mans. Todt’s style since his elevation has been to eschew the confrontational approach favoured by his predecessors; he has kept a much lower profile too.  He has tried to unify the FIA and the sport in the face of the growing threats to the very existence of such activities. Todt has also built on the worthy initiatives of Max Mosley to expand the remit of the FIA to promote road safety worldwide and to engage with the various government bodies on green issues and sustainability.

Under encouragement from Audi and Peugeot, the ACO created a new competition for 2011, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, which was in reality a new world championship. Of course that designation cannot be used without sanction from the FIA, so it was not hugely surprising to see the presence of Jean Todt at this year’s Le Mans pre-race press conference. Nor was the announcement of the FIA World Endurance Championship for 2012, which will be run by the ACO in a partnership with the FIA. Peace in our time then, let bygones be bygones, honeyed words between the principals with Todt leading the chorus.

“For several years there has been collaboration between the ACO and the FIA, but this needs to be closer. An Endurance Commission will be set up at the FIA, involving manufacturers, privateers and the ACO. A working group will be put in place, their proposals to be approved by the FIA.”

So we have a World Championship for Endurance racing once more, but why now? What has prompted this sudden betrothal? The answer lies somewhere near the Corleone family strategy, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” This is a marriage of convenience; The ACO needs World Championship status to attract manufacturers and it also needs the political influence of the FIA with those making the regulations that the manufacturers will have to comply with in the coming decades. The manufacturers want a platform that offers both technological and marketing benefits. The FIA wants to follow the money and keep some nominal control over what promises to be a very significant part of the motorsport world.
2012 will see the new Championship emerge with races in Europe (Le Mans 24, Spa and Silverstone?), America (Sebring and Brazil? Petit Le Mans?) and Asia (Zhuhai and Japan?). These races will all be of six hours duration (except Le Mans and Sebring) and will feature the usual multiple classes with trophies being awarded for Manufacturers’ Endurance World Champion, Drivers’ Endurance World Champion (both for LM P1) GTE World Cup Pro, FIA GTE AM (both for LM GTE but no drivers’ category), FIA LMP2 and the FIA Trophy for the best private team – open to all categories. So a contest aimed squarely at manufacturer participation but run broadly along the lines of the status quo. To figure out why this should be attractive to other parties not presently involved, the future has to be the answer.
There are a new set of regulations being drawn up at present, scheduled to be introduced for the 2014 that will provide the framework to transform endurance racing into the platform that will encourage technological development. The aim will be to limit the amount of energy available for each car with all starting from an equal point. There will be no restriction on hybrid technology systems that will recycle the energy produced and not utilised by the engine. If one considers that even the most efficient petrol engine used in current road cars is only utilises 20-30% of the petrol’s energy in driving the rear wheels. The rest of the energy is consumed in thermal or frictional losses or when the vehicle is ticking over at rest. Clearly there are big gains to be made if the right technologies can be employed. That is the Holy Grail that the new World Endurance Championship offers.

There are three manufacturers competing in the LMP1 class at present, in reality only Audi and Peugeot are likely to have the resources and financial firepower to go to the brave new world, Aston Martin are not. It has been officially announced that Porsche will return to the top class with a form of petrol hybrid. This has led commentators to assume that Audi will leave the endurance arena, the logic runs that the bean counters will not allow such duplication of effort, and more importantly budget. My sources from Germany disagree with this obvious conclusion, saying that after the victory at Le Mans this year, Audi have been given the green light to compete in the Great Race for the foreseeable future.

Why these conflicting messages? The answer lies in the determination of the Chairman of the VW Board, Ferdinand Piech, to accelerate the pace of development of alternative power technology and other fuel efficiency measures. Ruthless by reputation, this highly talented engineer is arguably the Ultimate Car Guy and sees that for Volkswagen to meet its primary objective of being the world’s leading motor manufacturing group, in the face of the proposed changes to fuel consumption and emissions, radical measures are necessary. The logic runs that two approaches along different lines will fast track the optimal solutions. Few would bet against the mercurial Piech getting his way, as those who have opposed him in the past have found to their cost. As if to support this pan-VW assault on the WEC, comes the news that the new Chairman of Bentley, Wolfgang Dürheimer, wants to take the brand back to the tracks, Bentley Boys anyone?

Which other manufacturers are looking to join this trio of heavyweights? The answer would appear to lie in the East. Toyota have announced a programme for 2012 incorporating hybrid technologies. Certainly there is a sense of unfinished business in respect of the Japanese company and the Le Mans 24 Hours. They could also do with a rebuilding of their reputation, publically battered in the blizzard of US Congressional Hearings in 2010, as a result of road safety issues.

Nissan are also looking seriously at a full blown attempt on the FIA WEC. However the tsunami back in March has derailed these intentions and may end up leading to a delay or postponement of the plans, time will tell. Persistent stories are found in the media of Jaguar, now owned by Indian conglomerate, Tata, commissioning a Le Mans project. Some say with Williams Grand Prix, who took BMW to victory in 1999.

All of which ties explains the unlikely union of the FIA and the ACO at this point in time. Big budget projects with a complicated technological package will result from this initiative and both parties feel the need to involve the other. The face of Endurance racing will be fundamentally changed and hopefully so will the world of road cars and personal transport.

 

John Brooks, October 2011