On a Friday in late June, 2014, at the Domaine de Galicet, a test track on the border of Normandy, 70km west of Paris. A Peugeot Sport truck rolls into the car park and the mechanics get ready to busy themselves at the loading dock. They carefully unload their precious freight, a Martian off-road buggy perching high above four huge lugged tyres.
It is all too clear that Philippe Wambergue, the man who owns the track, is moved by what he sees. The 66-year-old was once a racing driver himself and took part in 11 Paris-Dakar Rallies. In 1989 and 1990 he drove a Peugeot 205 T16 Grand Raid factory car through the desert in Africa.
The Domaine de Galicet is one of Peugeot’s favourite testing grounds, so Wambergue is used to being present at the birth of vehicles that go on to become motorsport legends. But today is exceptional, even for him: “It’s reawakened memories of what were very special times.” The Frenchman’s eyes light up as he talks of how Peugeot won the world’s toughest off-road rally four years in a row from 1987 to 1990, before deciding to step back from racing.
Carlos Sainz, the two-time World Rally Champion and winner of the 2010 Dakar, is also excited. “The start of a new adventure is a huge moment,” he says. “Those first metres you drive in a new car. We’re full of hopes and expectations that will either now be fulfilled or dashed.”
Sainz is already in his overalls and empties his pockets before clambering into the car. He gives his mobile phone to one very well-known spectator: Stéphane Peterhansel the most successful Dakar driver of all time, having won it on 11 occasions. He and Sainz will be driving for Peugeot in the Dakar Rally in January along with five-time winner Cyril Despres, who is swapping the handlebars of his Yamaha for a steering wheel.
Does he mind that he wasn’t chosen to be the one to drive those first few metres in the new 2008 DKR? Peterhansel is dismissive. “Not at all. I understand that Carlos should be the one to take the first drive. He’s got more experience with two-wheel drive and he’s raced the last two Dakars in Red Bull buggies, after all. But it’s still important for me to be here. You get a really strong sense of the spirit of the project here. That’s hugely inspiring for everyone present.”
The project’s technical director, Jean-Christophe Pallier, meanwhile, is keeping a low profile. “I’m always excited before a maiden drive,” he admits, “but this time maybe I’m a little bit more excited than I am normally.” The reason is simple. Pallier is responsible for the technical execution of what is an ambitious challenge: to end the supremacy of the 4x4, with two-wheel drive and a diesel engine. No such vehicle has yet won the Dakar, which was first held in 1978. “We ended up prioritising the two-wheel drive’s climbing ability and its good handling on sand,” Pallier explains. “The regulations give us greater freedom when compared to the 4x4s: less weight, bigger wheels, longer suspension travel.”
It is almost a year to the day since the ambitious project was launched, straight after winning at Pikes Peak, the legendary American hillclimb race, where Sébastien Loeb broke the track record he had long had his eye on in a Peugeot prototype.
So how much Pikes Peak is there in the Dakar Peugeot? Almost none, says Bruno Famin, the director of Peugeot Sport, with a shake of the head. “Tarmac and the desert are two completely different things. There’s no overlap. The 2008 DKR is almost the mirror image of the Pikes Peak car.”
The reason that Peugeot was able to make such rapid progress in developing the 2008 DKR after a quarter of a century away from the Dakar is simple: Peugeot Sport never lost its love for the rally.
Carlos Sainz presses the start button and unleashes the 340bhp of the V6 twin-turbo diesel engine for the first time. It doesn’t produce the furious bark of the 208 T16 Pikes Peak. This sound is more reminiscent of the 908 HDi which won the day at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009.
At one point, Sainz stalls the engine while toying with the clutch, but after the second start he can begin to flex his muscles. The car comes rolling out onto the track on its high wheels. For the first few metres, it looks rather hesitant, almost clumsy, even at this low speed. Four minutes later, driver and car are back safe and sound. Sainz appears to be somewhat embarrassed, but Pallier reassures him with a smile. “It’s completely normal that you stalled the car,” he says. “The pedal arrangements are still being tested.”
Sainz adjusts his seat position while the electronics engineers load the data recorded by well over 100 sensors. Once the seat position is right and all the data has been stored, he prepares for his second outing, which will be longer and much quicker. A good sign. Sainz isn’t thoroughly satisfied when he gets back. “No traction,” he says matter-of-factly.
A young engineer standing next to project leader Pallier assiduously notes down every comment on the engine, chassis and gear ratio. Then Sainz sets off again, this time on a longer test track, which has terrain very similar to the Dakar.
This is first real test for the vehicle. Sainz clearly thinks so, too. He goes hard on the car and makes all four wheels leave the ground to sound out the suspension travel when it lands again. Stones, sand and dirt all come flying up on the turns. The more difficult the terrain, the more commanding driver and vehicle appear to be. You can see how the huge 37in wheels and the massive 460mm suspension travel (as opposed to 250mm for traditional 4x4s) affect its handling.Stéphane Peterhansel, who had until that point been a silent and attentive spectator on the sidelines, nods in approval. “The car seems a bit too high, but that’s normal. We haven’t even got started on further development yet, after all. Today’s test was just about making sure that all the features work.”
Once the 2008 DKR is back at base, Peterhansel checks the suspension travel. “Look at this,” he says, beckoning the engineers over to him, and pointing out three screws that have come loose on the gearbox. Sainz had already noticed that there was something wrong with the handling and cut the test drive short so as not to risk any damage. And his prudence pays off. Just a few minutes after the necessary repairs are made, he can get going again and this time he stays out on the track for hours.
It is dark. Night has fallen over Domaine de Galicet by the time Carlos Sainz gives his first summing up. “We didn’t drive that much and plus this was on a track that was more like a WRC course than the Dakar course, so it’s difficult to make comparisons with other cars that I’ve driven in the past.” He looks serious, but then breaks out into a smile. “Of course there’s still a lot to do when it comes to reliability and performance, however the most important thing is that we know that the 2008 DKR has the potential that we’ve been working towards.”