Shortly after the fourth and final practice day of the 91st race to the clouds, Sebastien Loeb set another unprecedented time on the top section of the hill. Starting at 12,780ft and finishing at 14,110ft, this final section is a crucial one. It’s the fastest but also the most restricting for cars, as the air is so thin it throttles up to 200bhp on some cars. But not Seb’s. Thanks to Peugeot Sports motorsport knowhow, they’ve applied a mapping system that adjusts to the altitude so that power is consistent throughout the mountain.
This showed with Seb 16 seconds quicker than his nearest rival, Rhys Millen in the Hyundai Genesis RMR PM580-T. With this in mind, and Seb riding on a high, we thought it’d be a good time to sit with the man himself and get his thoughts on this amazing mountain and a project that’s set to go down in history.
TG: How did you get involved with the project?
“I thought maybe one day I could do this race. Other rally drivers like Grönholm and Solberg had done it, so I had it in mind. Red Bull called me and gave me the opportunity to do it with Peugeot, and I thought that now was the right time. With Peugeot it’s a nice story with their history and I know the team, and they’re doing things correctly – which is important.”
TG: What do you think of the 208 T16? Has it met your expectations?
“The difference with the car compared to others is that this is complete. Some cars here are 2WD with lots of horsepower, some have a good chassis but no power. We have four-wheel-drive, good brakes and downforce so every detail is here. I have everything I need to go fast.”
TG: With a one-to-one power ratio, were you intimidated by the car at first?
“Since I’ve arrived I’ve discovered sensations in this car that I’ve never had before. I’ve done a lot of things but nothing like this. First impressions were impressive: the horsepower, the downforce, the grip are things that are very different to what I’m used to. The biggest question was ‘how can I drive this car, on this road not a track?’ Finally with some adaptations and setup changes, the feeling with the car is really good. I was amazed with the acceleration. No other car can accelerate like this (0-60mph in 1.8 seconds). With four wheel drive you can beat an F1 car and the first time it accelerated I thought I was going to be knocked out every time I changed gear.”
TG: But how did you learn the route?
“It wasn’t that bad as I’m used to memorizing rally stages. I don’t know them exactly by heart like here, but I started by looking at onboard videos from last year’s race. Then I came here with my co-driver and took pace notes like I do in a rally. We took a standard road car and followed the route slowly for two passes like in the WRC. By the third pass I tried to give him the notes off by heart and he’d correct me if I made a mistake. After six attempts I could give him every corner from start to finish off by heart. Now, in practice, I’ve done 9 passes, so more than I’d ever do in a rally.”
TG: So what’s the biggest difference between this and a tarmac rally?
“The car. The first part of the road looks like Rally Cataluña, but the second part is a different atmosphere because you’re only looking at the sky and the massive drops to the side of you… which could end you. That’s a strange feeling. But it’s the car that makes the difference because in the WRC we have really strict regulations where it’s around 350hp and the weight is 1200kg. Where as here we have 875kg and 875hp – so it’s completely different.”
TG: You’ve done both circuit racing and rallying, which one is Pikes Peak closer to?
“It’s really a bit of both. You’re driving a car that has the performance of the biggest racing car you can find, but you have to drive it on a rally road. OK, it’s still adapted, but I feel it’s more like a rally as I have the notes in my mind. A track is normally 5km, this is 20km with every corner being different and you’re driving between the trees and rocks and drops on the side, so it’s closer to a rally.”
TG: Do you have a favourite section of the mountain?
“I like all three parts. The bottom of the mountain is the most technical as it’s fast and you have to brake precisely and flow the car through fast, blind corners. It’s the most interesting on the driving side. The second part is the most beautiful. The landscape is incredible with nice hairpins but you’re always looking up at the sky. The sun shines into the car in the morning so you can’t see anything in places. And the top is the fastest section with really fast blind corners that are difficult.”
TG: Is this easy for you? Does it test your ability?
“To drive this car on this road is a massive test as you can’t make a single mistake. You have a lot of speed and a lot of downforce and you can’t be sharp with the steering otherwise you’ll pay. You need to be smooth and precise unlike rally. For sure I have the best car, so the challenge to beat the other drivers isn’t that high as in a rally we have all the same cars.”
TG: Is it scary?
“No because I know what I’m doing and I have a good feeling with the car. You know you can’t make a mistake on the road, but it’s not scary.”
TG: So on Sunday are you going to drive flat out, or have some safety margin?
“It depends on how I feel. In testing I was feeling good with the car so was pushing hard like I do in a rally. If I have a good feeling with the car, I can push to the limit without taking big risks. If you can’t get a good feeling of where the car is and how it’s moving around then you can’t find the limit. Sure, the goal is to not go off the road, but also to have a good pace. But it depends on the weather. If it’s raining, which it could look like, with 900hp maybe you can take the car up the hill for me.”
TG: Umm, we’re alright thanks. But seriously, do you think you can go under nine minutes?
“I hope so. I hope I can take more than 45 seconds off the record time.”
Interview and picture: Rowan Horncastle