How many of you are aware that Peugeot has a new diesel-powered sports prototype known as the 908? Raise your hands. Hmmm, one, two, five? Not many.
A better question might be: should you even care? A year ago, we devoted a full feature to Audi's R10 diesel project and expounded on the car's significance. The R10 rewrote the record books in sports car racing, winning Sebring and Le Mans and the top prize in the American Le Mans Series. The R10 also featured in winning a number of fan polls, racecar of the year, the stuff of PR dreams.
From a marketing standpoint, the resources Audi poured into the R10 make sense. Ingolstadt will be forever linked to making the diesel work in true race competition and the technology has laid the groundwork for smooth, fast and eco-friendly Audi diesel product for the American market.
Peugeot, which actually announced its intention to run Le Mans before Audi did, now has to contend with second-tier status regardless of how the company fares at La Sarthe this year. Marketing tends to drive a great deal of these decisions. Pride, ego and vanity tend to run a close second to common sense in the decision making process. How else can you explain all those golf tournaments sponsored by companies with no real product to promote? Simple: the CEOs and board members like to play. A PR flak once told me that I would never achieve anything of major significance because I didn't play golf, and that's where the heavy decisions are made. I told him my game was ice hockey.
Peugeot's new diesel prototype, known as 908 HDi FAP, is an incredible looking car. The eggshell carbon fiber monocoque coupe just looks right. Interestingly, Peugeot claims the coupe design was intended to keep a link to the Le Mans-winning 905 as well as comply with regulations laid down by the ACO, although I think the Ross Brawn Jaguar XJR-14 is closer to fitting that description. Indeed, Peugeot is pushing the new 908's 'feline profile' with artist renderings showing a cat's profile that looks more jaguar than lion. The 908's diesel engine is a 5.5-liter V12 restricted to a power output of 700 bhp. Torque is stated in the 1200 Nm (885 lb-ft) range. A pair of Garrett turbos help push things along. Serious testing is already underway, and while Peugeot management saw no reason to enter the 12 Hours of Sebring, the French firm seems casually optimistic. Crystal ball aside, I wouldn't have much hope for Peugeot beating Audi at Le Mans this year. Or next. Not running Sebring may make sense on the technical side, but it's risky from a PR perspective. This is a case of marketing hunt and peck. Both Audi and Bentley used the former airfield in the middle of Florida to their benefit. Actual racing illuminates issues that don't always appear in testing. Of course, Peugeot could ask why go through the expense and exposure if the company has no presence in the United States? I'd concede this argument because of the crap cars it used to export here. I swear Peugeot had two assembly lines, one for Europe and the rest of the world and another for the States. It was hard to believe just how a car that was so good over there was such a pile on American soil. Peugeot has plenty of cool-looking production cars that could find a market here if they were sold right. The Pininfarina coupes are a nice alternative to the wares of Munich and Stuttgart.
Regarding the 908 and the diesel attempt, I really wonder what will be gained. Would the company have been better served by a normal (gasoline) race engine that could have a wider application?
Whenever I go to Europe, my rentals are frequently diesels. Most noteworthy was the Alfa 147 with the 1.9 JTD engine I picked up in Paris. This is a smooth four-cylinder turbo-diesel with Alfa's common-rail direct injection. I propelled the car down the autoroute at over 100 mph with ease. I found the package impressive, and wished more of these were available to consumers over here.
And therein lies the issue. Alfa, Ford and BMW are building quality new-generation diesels and have platforms that offer the buyer a choice. Does one enter a showroom to consider purchasing a diesel on purely sporting pretensions? No. If Alfa Romeo were to come back to sport racing prototypes would it go gas or diesel? The lesson Peugeot may come to learn is that it won't sell one less diesel 307 based on the 908's performance at Le Mans. Audi has already won the diesel image war; Peugeot simply needs to win, regardless of what type of fuel is used.