Peugeot’s new hybrid 908 is destined to make its only journey straight to the company’s museum, a casualty of the recession
A group of Peugeot Sport engineers and mechanics had barely touched down in the United States on Wednesday, on their way to a test session at the Sebring circuit, when they were given the news that the company was pulling out of this year’s Le Mans 24-hour race and of the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship as a whole, with immediate effect. So their new car, a hybrid 908 intended to challenge similar vehicles from Audi and Toyota, is destined to make its only journey straight to the company’s museum.
This is a great shame for the technicians and the drivers who were looking forward to a challenging season and hoping to repeat the team’s Le Mans victories of 1992, 1993 and 2009. A disappointment, too, for the hundreds of thousands who make their way to the historic circuit of the Sarthe each June, many of them wanting to support a home team.
But it was always thus in motor racing, and particularly in endurance racing. Le Mans, an event founded in 1923 as a way of showing potential customers that your headlamps, windscreen wipers and canvas hoods could function at high speed around the clock, remains an effective shop window for major motor manufacturers. But those companies are at the whim of the global economic climate and the wishes of investors who may have no interest in the sport, paying attention only to the bottom line of the annual balance sheet.
After the Bentleys had dominated Le Mans in the 1920s, during the first decade of the race, it must have been a disappointment to their fans to see them depart. Ditto the Alfa Romeos and Bugattis that took over in the 1930s. Jaguar’s four wins in the 1950s were followed by a withdrawal, while Mercedes-Benz and Aston Martin had to be content with a single win apiece before bowing out. Ferrari and Ford divided the spoils in the 1960s and were seen no more; the same with Matra in the early 1970s. Porsche took over for the remainder of the decade, their victories continuing throughout the 1980s and sporadically during the 1990s.
Ten wins for Audi’s R8 and R18 models in the past 12 years, interrupted by single victories for a car in Bentley’s colours (itself based on the Audi) and for Peugeot’s diesel-engined 908, represent the sort of hegemony that can intimidate rivals. There will always be the suspicion that the Peugeot board’s decision might have been different had their team followed up that last success two years ago, but they seem to have folded their tents not through the fear of enduring an invidious comparison between their hybrid technology and that of their German and Japanese rivals but because of a worldwide recession that calls into question the spending of many tens of millions of euros on a nonessential activity.
So the Peugeot 908 has gone the way of the supercharged Bentley, the Alfa 8C, the Bugatti Type 57 “Tank”, the Mercedes 300SLR, the Jaguar D-Type and XJR, the Aston DBR1, the original Ferrari Testa Rossa, the Ford GT40, the Porsche 917 and 956, the Matra MS670, the Sauber C9, the Mazda 787 and the Williams-designed BMW V12 LMR. Not a bad museum to be in. And Le Mans, of course, will carry on as it always has, not just a monument to its own tradition but a proving ground for worthwhile new technologies.