For somebody who has written so much enduring history in the World Rally Championship, thanks to 87 wins and nine consecutive world titles, Sebastien Loeb is surprising unsentimental about heritage.
To put those numbers in perspective, the next most successful WRC driver in terms of victories is Marcus Gronholm, with 30 wins, and in terms of championships, Tommi Makinen with four consecutive titles.
But Loeb makes an exception for Pikes Peak – because that's one occasion when he's got carried away by the romance of it all.
“I remember watching the Climbdance film and that's when I first became aware of Pikes Peak,” says Loeb. “Of course it was really impressive: you looked at it and thought, ‘Wow, it would be cool to do that.' But it was a dream. When that film came out I was only young: I loved cars and motorbikes but I never dreamed that I would become a professional driver. It was more likely I would end up as a mechanic: I was always playing with cars.”
In fact, Loeb trained as an electrician. At the same time he started rallying for fun in a junior championship, and everybody knows what happened next. The Frenchman is now synonymous with Citroen; to the point where Citroen's general manager Frederic Banzet once famously said: “Citroen without Loeb is like Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
But Loeb's first rally car was actually a Peugeot 106, which is what makes this latest outing in Pikes Peak a surprising return to his roots.
There was a lot of political maneuvering behind the scenes to get Loeb into the car after the program was first announced. Originally, it was going to be his fellow Frenchman Romain Dumas slated for the Pikes Peak drive, but with Dumas being a Porsche factory driver the situation became complicated.
With Red Bull on board (after the energy drink company's original idea to take a Formula 1 car up the hill was vetoed, due to the requirement for a rollcage) Loeb was approached to drive the 208, thanks to his personal links with Red Bull. And his extraterrestrial talent might have had something to do with it as well…
“I just stayed out of the whole discussion part,” said the 39-year-old. “I said that I wanted to do it and the project sounded really good, but I didn't get involved in any of the contracts or the talks with the bosses.”
Peugeot's people talked to Citroen's people and finally the decision was made: Loeb would drive at Pikes Peak. It was an announcement that would propel the event's global recognition to a whole new level and it couldn't have come at a better time: exactly 25 years after Ari Vatanen's iconic record-breaking conquest, with the equally legendary Peugeot 405 T16 – perhaps the archetypal Pikes Peak car.
In the weeks leading up to the program, the nostalgia dial was set to overdrive, with the 405 T16 dusted down to be photographed alongside the new 208 T16 Pikes Peak during the tests at Mont Ventoux in Provence, southern France.
Not that there was really much time to make too many elaborate plans as the whole project came together in just four months. According to Peugeot's project chief Jean-Christophe Pallier, there were echoes of the late 1980s even in that.
“If you think about it, the circumstances were pretty similar back then and now,” he points out. “One project had just come to an end – in that case, the rally campaign with the Group B car – and the team wanted a one-off event to focus on and use the know-how they had gained.”
This time, it's Peugeot's endurance racing program that was stopped last year, as a result of which the 208 T16 is largely a 908 Le Mans racer under the (all-carbon) skin. With Pikes Peak now being fully asphalted, this was a golden opportunity to make use of the parts and knowledge while recreating a bit of history.
The rear wing, for example, actually competed at Le Mans in 2007, as did the roof-mounted air scoop. The running gear and suspension is all 908, while the engine is a Peugeot 3.2-liter V6 twin turbo developed for the well-known Pescarolo team, which was used at Le Mans up until 2003. Peugeot briefly considered using the diesel V8 fitted to their 908 Le Mans car, but the length, weight and power output of the latest engine (built to strict Le Mans regulations) were ultimately judged not to be suitable.
“The car feels much more like a racing car than a rally car to drive,” adds Loeb, who had the next chapter of his career – Citroen's FIA World Touring Car Championship program – confirmed yesterday while he was practicing at Pikes Peak. “The downforce and of course the power: that's pure racing car. You certainly wouldn't find a power to weight ratio of one horsepower per kilogram in a rally car. Luckily, I think: the Group B cars were impressive to look at but you don't really need all of that power in a modern rally car; they are impressive enough as they are…”