For a discipline where the goal is to go as fast as possible, motorsport can sometimes seem like a very slow place. It has been more than three years since Peugeot announced it would compete in the newly created ‘Le Mans Hypercar’ (LMH) class in the World Endurance Championship, culminating in a return to the famous 24-hour race. But the project is only now really getting underway; Peugeot’s 9X8 has completed three rounds of this year’s WEC and posted some impressive results to cement itself as a challenger for the 2023 season.
Motorsport therefore remains both expensive and time-consuming. So why did Peugeot get involved? The company has a history in endurance racing, particularly at Le Mans. Competing as Peugeot Talbot Sport, he won there in 1992 and 1993 driving the 905 and 905B respectively, returning as Peugeot Sport 16 years later to take a one-two finish in 2009.
Although it won the 2011 LMP1 series (the precursor to the WEC), the Peugeot Sport brand pulled out of sports car racing in 2012, with the French manufacturer citing a “slump in Europe’s difficult economic climate”. This is despite the development of a hybridized 3.7L twin-turbo V8 powered car, unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show as the 908 Hybrid4.
The new 9X8 hybrid hypercar is equipped with a 2.6-litre V6 turbo engine in combination with a 200 kW (268 hp) electric motor and can be seen as a kind of retaliation for Peugeot Sport, from a time when it was the world of endurance races dominated. However, developing a new race car and entering Le Mans requires a little more than just unfinished business, and Peugeot knows that.
Jean Marc Finot is the senior vice president of motorsport at Peugeot’s parent company, Stellantis. In an exclusive conversation with Auto Express about the reasoning behind the 9X8 project, he says: “Our way of defining the race program relies on three pillars. It has to be in the DNA of the brand, with a good technology message. We need to be competitive and have a good return on investment.”
The first pillar within the ‘brand DNA’ can be related to Peugeot’s 508 Sport Engineered model, which uses a hybrid powertrain like the 9X8. “This car [508 PSE] has been developed within the Peugeot Sport department,” says Finot. “We have some similar things [between the 9X8 and 508], such as the all-wheel drive hybrid and the same simulation development tools.” The old saying ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ doesn’t really reflect Peugeot Sport’s decision to compete at Le Mans – at least not directly. The 9X8 might share a similar ideology to the 508 PSE in terms of hybridization, but nothing in terms of actual parts. There are many more nuanced reasons at play here.
Still, Finot believes Le Mans can play a vital role in road car development, even with something as advanced as the 9X8. “We have a number of engineers currently working in racing,” he reveals, “who will be back in a few years to work on road-legal cars with the skills and agility of motorsport.”
The highlight of the WEC calendar is undoubtedly Le Mans, and with it comes brand awareness, a key factor in Peugeot Sport’s return. “In terms of marketing, it is a good opportunity to raise awareness of Peugeot’s skills
in hybridization and with it our hybrid road cars,” explains Finot. Brand awareness should be aided by the 9X8s
striking design, without rear spoiler and fitted with Peugeot’s signature ‘tiger claw’ lights. “It was very important to leave a mark on Peugeot Sport design,” Finot admits. “This is another reason
why we chose the less restrictive LMH regulations.”
The second pillar of competitiveness remains to be seen, with the 9X8 finishing fourth on its most recent outing in Bahrain, although one of the 9X8s managed to split the Toyotas in qualifying, suggesting the French car has plenty of speed features.
The last pillar focused on return on investment may not be clear for several years, but Finot is taking a pragmatic approach. “It’s a work in progress,” he says. “The most important characteristic of motorsport is results.”
While the link between the 9X8 program and the company’s road cars is complex and relatively indirect, there remains room for Peugeot Sport’s motorsport side to become more involved. “Le Mans has always been a very good laboratory for new technology,” says Finot. “We are still building the bridge between motorsport and road legal cars. But we’ll keep it a surprise.”
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