Having won the Dakar Rally 12 times, Stéphane Peterhansel really doesn’t deserve this. No one does. Except, perhaps, the man who designed this ridiculous car in the first place.
How to get in to the Peugeot 2008 DKR? No, no. I know how to open the door. I mean, how to get in?
Embarrassingly, head-first fails. Feet-first is worse. I decide to fold myself in two and slide in backwards.
Mr Dakar’s first sight of me must have been a worry; any hint of sunlight is blocked as I shove myself, arse-first, towards him, tumbling into the seat.
He smiles. I suspect he’s seen this all before. I’m too exhausted to talk. He laughs.
Breath back, I’m ready for the 9.65km (or 5.99 miles) stretching out before us.
This is Le Creusot, just south of Dijon, France. This is where the 2008 DKR was first tested, pounded over these very rocks to see what fell off. In its first incarnation, pretty much everything fell off. The 2015 car was shocking.
Twelve months on, second time around, this Peugeot is perfect and clearly the boss of these bumps.
The Parisians are no strangers to Dakar success, having dominated the African event with the Peugeot 205 and 405 T16 from 1987 to 1990. January matched any one of those four wins; the 2008 wiped the South American floor with its opposition. It’s not hard to see how.
Central France doesn’t exactly show up with Bolivian-spec baking sunshine, but the snow is a fair reflection on the grip levels available from a muddier-than-expected opening week of Dakar.
Off the line, the 2008’s grip is impressive. You’re not pinned to the seat, far from it, but the way Michelin’s 37in rear tyres put 350bhp and 590lb ft of torque down on a snowy-wet, chalky-Teflon surface is incredible.
And once he’s got the power down, Peterhansel is unwilling to give up on momentum, left-foot braking everywhere. The road ahead is twisty and technical – reminiscent of some sections close to Córdoba in Argentina, for Dakar aficionados – but punctuated by a couple of half-decent straights.
Regardless of the severity of corner, the rocks and ruts are universal. Neither Peterhansel nor the Peugeot have noticed.
Ten seconds in and I’m standing on an imaginary brake, wondering if he’s heard me call the dip we’re now upon. Dink-dunk. We’re through. He hasn’t lifted.
As you’d expect on a car with 460mm suspension travel, not much gets in our way.
In all honesty, this horribly confined, slippery stage is far from the DKR’s natural habitat; it’s configured for flat-chat blasts across open desert, which makes its surefooted, direct progress from hairpin to hairpin even more striking. Softly suspended for better traction, it’s evidently more progressive and predictable than it would be on a harder, faster surface.
Once we’re up through the gears, we come across a jump. Downhill, fifth gear, take-off speed around 90mph.
Eyes shut. All quiet. Eyes open, Mother Earth fills the windscreen.
Land. Settle. Gone. Not a hint of rebound or crashing through.
“That wasn’t so bad,” laughs Peterhansel, “maybe 20 degrees. We can do 40 degrees and a lot faster.”
Not today though? “Not today. In the desert.”
Part of me is happy we’re nowhere near the desert, but part of me hankers after a run in Peterhansel’s Peugeot’s natural habitat.
From what I’ve seen in France, my mind would be blown. Now, if somebody would just show me how to get out…
David Evans, rallies editor for Autosport and Motorsport News