Classic motorsport moments: Loeb annihilating Pikes Peak | Top Gear
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Classic motorsport moments: Loeb annihilating Pikes Peak

Created on a whim, driven by the rally GOAT, this is the story of the incredible 208 T16

Published: 26 Jan 2021
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The first six months of 2013 were not good for Peugeot. The announcement of the planned closure of its Aulnay factory, the resultant cull of 8,000 jobs, the termination of its prestigious endurance racing programme. In terms of good-news stories for the PR department to share, the cupboard was bare. But, thankfully, off in a small corner of the company, a man called Bruno had a plan.

“We needed a project that was cheap, fast to implement, and would maximise media coverage to show that we were still in motorsport,” explains Peugeot Sport boss Bruno Famin. “Maxime Picat took over as the new MD of the brand in late 2012, and I told him it’d be good to do Pikes Peak.”

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Ah, yes. The Peak. For the uninitiated, Pikes Peak is an annual hill climb up a public road that scales the side of a mountain in Colorado. And Peugeot already had history with the race: Ari Vatanen and Robby Unser won back-to-back titles in 1988 and ‘89 in the bewinged Peugeot 405 T16 GR. The feat documented in the famous film Climb Dance, where Vatanen scythed through hairpins, skimmed sheer cliffs and nonchalantly blocked the sun from his eyes while sideways on dirt.

Eager for a rematch, Famin approached Gilles Vidal, Peugeot’s style director, who got one of his designers to sketch a 208 - the company’s contemporary product - and morph it into a car that could take on such a specific race. He showed Monsieur Picat, who green-lit the operation. There was one slight hitch: they only had a few months to cook up a one-off racer from scratch.

So, in the space of four months, with just 12 people, Bruno’s team designed and built a car specifically for the Pikes Peak Unlimited class, and the 208 T16 was born. An 875bhp, 875kg, super-specialist, hill-climb weapon. A supermini shape fitted with modified versions of the turbocharged 3.2-litre V6, steering components, brakes, suspension and massive two-metre-wide rear wing/diffuser from Peugeot’s 908 Le Mans programme. One of the most inspired examples of inter-brand piracy ever demonstrated. But that wasn’t all. In order to maximise the much-needed publicity, Peugeot struck a deal with Red Bull: the French manufacturer would supply the car, while the energy-drink company would use its PR nous to excite the world. But there was a catch. Red Bull had a designated driver. His name was Sébastien Loeb, nine-time WRC champion. Peugeot, presumably, hesitated for milliseconds.

Off to that big ol’ oxygen-sapping mountain in Colorado they went. Luckily I was there too, so got to witness the incredibly surreal sight of Seb Loeb arriving to and from practice sessions topless on a Harley Davidson; they call it the 'American Dream' for a reason, people. But Pikes Peak is no joke and Peugeot had one road, one driver and one chance for glory. Winning wasn’t enough for the team of 12 based just outside Paris. To them, it was more a 'let’s kick the crap out of our competitors and rip the record books a new one' approach.

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And, thanks to a perfect storm of a no-holds-barred Unlimited class, the road up the rocky mountain being freshly paved and a redundant Le Mans programme’s worth of parts to play with, the French company was able to do exactly that while also creating a car that answered a day dreamer’s “What if?…” What if you fitted the 3.2-litre V6, monster turbocharger, steering components, big brakes, much of the suspension and the massive two-metre-wide rear wing and diffuser know-how from a Le Mans car into a small hatchback? The answer: a ticket straight to the automotive Hall of Fame.

With 875bhp fed to the road through all four wheels, in a car that sucks itself to the floor, devours gears, weighs 875kg and has a 1:1 power-to-weight ratio, the speed the little Pug was capable of up the two-lane, 12.42-mile, 156-turn, 9,383-foot ascent was barely comprehensible. Zero to 62mph in 1.8 seconds, 125mph following just three seconds later and smacking the limiter at 151mph. This, with a soundtrack of a race-spec engine, beastly transmission, whooshing of turbos and the occasional lick of flame, made a car that tingles the nerves of every petrolhead… yet scrambles the brain like Willy Wonka’s wallpaper. The familiarity of the silhouette mixed with the foreignness of the speed creates quite the spectacle.

With no full practice runs allowed at the Peak, it was a one-shot gig. A single slip of a tyre would create a turbocharged ground-to-air missile, so composure was absolutely key. Luckily, they had nine-time WRC champion and multiple-winning TG Man of the Year Sébastien Loeb behind the wheel. Someone who shares several similarities with the car: French, fast and unrivalled.

The result was as expected; the margin of victory, unprecedented. In fact, the little Pug was so fast that Red Bull’s helicopter couldn’t keep up. Loeb didn’t break the Pikes Peak record, he unequivocally obliterated it, turning in a time of 8:13.878, which equated to an average 90.53mph on the 12.42-mile, 156-turn, 4,720-foot ascent to the clouds. He shaved ninety-two seconds off Rhys Millen’s record. A whole 16 per cent faster. It sent the motoring world into a bit of a frenzy. Quite rightly, it was two seconds quicker than PeugeotSport’s computer had thought possible, 48 seconds faster than his nearest rival – who shaved a colossal 44 seconds off his own best time – and hammered a stake deep, deep into the record books. If you thought Climb Dance was popular, wait another 10 years to see how many views the 208 T16 run gets on YouTube – it’ll go down as one of motorsport’s greatest moments.

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But that’s what happens when you bring the holy trinity of the best team, best car and best driver together. You reinvent fast. So raise your glasses to the 208 T18, a car that quite literally didn’t play by the rules. And doff your cap to Seb and that almighty run.

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