A few weeks after its first official laps, the Peugeot 9X8 began its test program with a view to its participation in the World Endurance Championship. We were there.
First tests on the Castellet circuit
On this morning of Thursday February 10, even if the outside temperature is still a little cool, the sun is already present. The Castellet circuit (83) and its route with colorful surroundings are immersed in calm, in the heart of this pine forest. A tranquility that will soon be disturbed by a mechanical howl, that of the biturbo V6 of the Peugeot 9X8 which has just taken 8,000 rpm while passing in front of the pits. “What do you think of the noise?” says Jean-Marc Finot, director of Stellantis Motorsport. My gaze and the hairs standing on my forearms exempt me from verbalizing an answer. No doubt, at Le Mans, we will recognize it.
But if the 9X8 seems that morning to chain laps without flinching, the two previous days – and even the nights – have not been easy for the mechanics.
One of the drivers got caught in the first corners, which broke a lot of carbon parts but, above all, the car was not spared from technical problems. “We first dealt with all the defects that we had previously identified, explains François Coudrain, Powertrain Director of the WEC program at PEUGEOT Sport. We had eliminated a certain number of them before arriving, thanks to bench tests or during in-depth analyses. But, solving them usually causes other things to appear once on the track, which we’ll deal with one by one here. This is the normal course of tuning a racing car. “And the merits of this kind of session, where the ultimate objective was however to manage to drive 30 hours without stopping.
The faults that appeared on the 9X8 are various, like this exhaust duct which heats the surrounding carbon a little too much (and which will be replaced by aluminum or even titanium), or this oil pump which failed in the evening and which led to an engine change. After more than two days of testing, it was only around three in the morning that Loïc Duval managed to do his first stint without incident. Thirty towers, which will call others, until dawn. Until then, the Peugeot Sport team had chained series of only three or five laps before each time having to check a part, modify the setting, or replace it.
Always a fin
The car that we were able to see on the track was not equipped with a spoiler, in line with the one that was unveiled a few months ago and whose aerodynamic specificity has caused so much ink to flow. We were not authorized to take any photos, given that the car is not yet homologated and that it carried either parts under test (such as two different diffusers) or parts that Peugeot does not does not want to show yet. The development 9X8 present at Le Castellet didn’t have taillights, either. Even for night driving, when you’re alone on the track, there’s no need for it.
According to Linda Jackson, the general manager of Peugeot “the objective is to keep the initial design”. In other words, without a rear wing. “However, we still need to validate this aspect in light of the results of our development tests. For the moment, nothing has made the engineers change their minds. “We are more in the validation phase than the exploration phase., continues François Coudrain. We spent months doing computer simulations, drawing every part of the car to try to put everything together before launching production of the different elements and physically assembling them. Thanks to the work done upstream, we knew the theoretical performance of the 9X8, including in terms of aerodynamics. Here, it is a question of collecting data, and generating what we cannot simulate, such as the effect of vibrations on certain parts, the ease of pilots behind the wheel or even in their new suits, but not to put because of the fundamental choices that were made two years ago. For the moment, we have no reason to launch any evolution. »
The software allows shortcuts
At Peugeot Sport, the development of a racing car is first done on a computer. ” We use the most advanced software in the industry to design and virtual stress each new part, says François Coudrain. The software is present in each phase of development of our prototypes: in the basic design, in the various simulations, in the tests which are carried out on the bench with physical engines, but also in the simulator used by our pilots to train. The latter is not mobile, but all the criteria of the track and those of the car are integrated into the computer program. This is to ensure that the driver has the same behavior, the same reactions and the same performance as once on the circuit. It saves time, performance and money, because at the start of development we can sometimes test 100 solutions on the same part, which would be impossible to do physically. When the car is manufactured and it hits the track, we already know what it is capable of. It’s also a question of trust, because it’s about offering a driver the chance to go 300 km/h aboard a prototype that has only existed digitally until now. »
Ride for reassurance
Before investing the Castellet circuit, the 9X8 had already taken to the track for the first time in December, in order to reassure the teams and offer a souvenir photo to the fans. More recently, it was mainly put to the test for three days on the circuit of Aragon, in Spain. Today, it progresses over the laps, feeds the Peugeot Sport databases. These data will be decision-making aids on technical orientations, or even more profound changes, later. The latest changes to the WEC technical regulations have caused some cold sweats among the engineers in charge of the development of the car.
According to our information, the 9X8 will be the only car in the Hypercar category to run with “squared” tires, in other words with rubbers of the same size at the front and at the rear. It is a choice that is made very early in the development of the car, depending on its aerodynamics, the distribution of its masses and in this case in the operating logic of its hybrid system. As with the absence of a spoiler, Peugeot Sport now wishes to move forward according to the technical choices made at the start of the programme. Now remains an unknown, which is that of the date of the debut in competition of the car. “The 9X8 should be homologated at the beginning of April if we want to participate in the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, continues François Coudrain, and in any case before the end of April to comply with the regulations. This homologation will freeze the physical and technical design of the car until the end of the 2025 season, hence the importance of not making mistakes. We don’t have a particular goal to start in competition. If we can be ready for Spa, a sine qua none condition to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we will. Otherwise, we will not go to Le Mans this year. The primary objective is to make a car that is reliable and satisfactory in terms of performance. We will not return to the championship without having achieved our objectives on these two criteria. »
Peugeot Sport also knows that the sooner it is on the track, the better. Driving in competition will be essential to be ready for the start of the 2023 season, that of the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the one that all the manufacturers involved dream of winning.