WRC champion Loeb takes on Pikes Peak

Return to the US could be a route to spreading Peugeot's sales further afield

Thu, Apr 18, 2013, 13:44

Pikes Peak (no that's not a misprint, it was originally Pike's Peak but was amended to the punctuation-phobic modern version more recently) reaches 4,302-metres into the Colorado sky, about 16km west of the bustling city of Colorado Springs.

Even in a state renowned for its loftiness (Denver is known as the Mile High City) Pikes is a pretty imposing lump of rock. It is also one of the longest-serving motorsport venues in the world.

The first hillclimb event took place up the Pike in 1916 in an event designed to encourage visitors to the area and to publicise the newly created highway that wound its way up the mountain.

Other than a smattering of tarmac, little has changed since then, and the 'Race To The Sky' continues to attract entrants ranging from local heroes to have-a-go lunatics to genuine motorsport legends.

At one time the event was so significant that it was part of the USAC national championship that included the Indianapolis 500 and in 1969 was actually won by the great Mario Andretti, driving a thinly modified version of the rear-engined racing car that carried him to that year's title.

Since then the Pike has been assaulted and occasionally tamed by European car makers and racers. Audi has been there and back a few times, originally sending Michelle Mouton in a rally-spec Quattro and more recently setting a record for autonomous cars when a driverless TT, controlled entirely by computers, tackled the daunting 12.4-mile course in 27 minutes. A lot slower than the 10 minutes taken by the fastest human competitors, but still not bad for microchips on wheels.

Now, Peugeot is the latest European to attempt an American invasion at 14,000-feet. The lion has history here in the shape of the great rally driver Ari Vatanen and the amazing 600bhp Peugeot 405 T16.

A one-off, built especially for the climb, the 405 and its Finnish driver became the stars of a film called Climb Dance , which followed the pair up the hill across every rut, rock and stone as Ari recorded his 10min 14sec ascent.

It's exciting enough to watch (YouTube it when you get a chance) but becomes even more so when you remember there is no barrier separating car and driver from a long plummet to the base of the Pike.

This time, Peugeot is turning to home-grown talent behind the wheel and multiple World Rally Champion Sebastian Loeb will make the run behind the wheel of a specially made Peugeot 208 T16.

Peugeot isn't saying yet how much power Loeb's car will deploy on the now entirely paved course when he sets off on June 30th, but the company is making the most of its currently constricted resources, such as re-using parts from its now defunct Le Mans challenger for the newest car to wear the legendary T16 badge.

"The 208 T16 Pikes Peak proportions are very different to those of the production 208. Peugeot Sport provided us with a number of technical constraints, such as the width, body height, location of the wheels and engine, and we worked to this brief to produce an extreme take on the 208. The rear wing, which is that of the Le Mans 24 Hours-winning 908, and the splitter are two features of the car which give it a beast-like attitude" said Michael Trouvé from the Peugeot Style Centre who helped design the car.

Why, you might well ask, is a car maker so embroiled in financial difficulties having a crack at setting a record on a distant Coloradan hill that few on this side of the Atlantic have ever heard of? Mostly because right now, Peugeot needs an injection of excitement and sex appeal and this is probably the most cost-effective way of doing it.

With the talented Loeb behind the wheel, the current record of 9min 46secs set by Rhys Millen in a much-modified Hyundai Genesis Coupe must surely be within reach, and breaking that time would at least give some much-needed motorsport cred to the 208 as Peugeot launches the much-anticipated GTI model to the world. Running a one-off car for a few days in June is certainly a lot cheaper than a World Rally or Le Mans programme.

It could be dismissed as a bit of pointless 1980s nostalgia by Peugeot, but there may be a deeper reason at hand. Part of the reason Peugeot has slumped into financial difficulties is that it relied almost totally on the European car market, which has of course pretty much died a death in recent years.

Peugeot ceased sales in North America of the back of some dismal results there in 1991, ending 33 years of US and Canadian sales. A return to the US could be a route to spreading Peugeot's sales further afield, something that it cannot do without, and a result at Pikes Peak would be a useful addition to any marketing campaign.

In the meantime, there is the mountain, there is the wonderfully aggressive 208 T16 and there is the nine-time World Rally champion, itching to stamp his brilliance on a new challenge. This is going to be high altitude entertainment