Currently reading: How Peugeot is taking on the Dakar Rally - picture special
Having conquered Pikes Peak in 2013, Peugeot returns to the Dakar Rally with a radical take on its 2008 crossover - and hopes of victory

You know how a cat prepares to jump on to a fence (or unsuspecting rodent): crouched down with its haunches high in the air? Well, that’s what the Peugeot 2008 DKR looks like, even when it’s standing still.

On paper, Peugeot has it all: a revolutionary new car, the most successful Dakar driver line-up ever and a pedigree on the event that is second to none (thanks to iconic Dakar variants of the 205 T16 and 405 T16).

In reality, though, nothing can be taken for granted. The whole programme was conceived and created in less than a year, and although you could say the same of Peugeot’s successful Pikes Peak project in 2013, that car had to perform at its best for only eight minutes. Or 8min 13.878sec – over 12.4 miles – to be precise.

The Peugeot 2008 DKR has to keep going for 13 days (including two rest days) and more than 5500 miles. So Peugeot has gone directly from tackling the shortest motorsport event in its history to the longest. Whereas the Pikes Peak project was run by a team of 12 people, more than 150 are involved in the Dakar one.

Of those, Stéphane Peterhansel, Carlos Sainz and Cyril Despres will be the ones grabbing the limelight. Peugeot’s three Dakar drivers have a wealth of experience behind them (the youngest man is 40 – again, probably a record for a factory team in modern motorsport, where these days drivers are considered for a race seat shortly after teething), but they could not be more different.

Peterhansel, with the weather-beaten face and flecked stubble of an Arctic explorer, is the most successful driver in Dakar history. He has 11 wins behind him – six on bikes and five in cars – yet he says it is the culmination of his “lifelong dream” to come to Peugeot.

Sainz, from Spain and known as the Matador, is the only non-Frenchman in the squad, with two world rally championships and one Dakar victory (in seven participations) behind him.

He knows that getting back into a factory team is the only sure-fire way to add to that tally – but perhaps not immediately. “I used to have a contract with Volkswagen, but that meant it was only possible to drive privateer buggies on the Dakar,” he explains. “So I decided to finish that and go to Peugeot.”

Finally, there is Despres – the rookie (aged 40). He has five motorbike victories behind him, but this will be his first time in cars. He grew up in a modest family on the outskirts of Paris, and when he was a boy he used to watch the Dakar cars – including those iconic Peugeots of the 1980s and 1990s – making their way south from the capital towards Africa. “I never dared to dream that one day I would be part of it,” he reflects now. “It’s just incredible.”

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So all of them, in their diverse ways, have a lot riding on this. But one thing that they have in common is that they are accustomed to success – quickly. And Peugeot team principal Bruno Famin says the uniquely demanding nature of his experienced driver line-up is what helps to drive the team forward so rapidly.

Nonetheless, the technical choice that Peugeot has made is a massive gamble. Rather than go for a conventional four-wheel drive system, Peugeot has instead decided to stick with just rear-wheel drive, powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine (which is actually derived from a production unit). And the last time a two-wheel-drive car won the Dakar was back in 2000. So far, a two-wheel-drive car has never won the Dakar with a diesel engine, either.

Although the statistics suggest otherwise, there’s a lot of logical sense behind the decision. Under the Dakar rules, two-wheel-drive cars can be a lot lighter and use larger wheels than their four-wheel-drive equivalents.

All that means longer suspension travel and shorter overhangs – essential attributes when it comes to the go-anywhere ability needed for Dakar. This also allows the use of an in-car system designed to raise and lower tyre pressures via a control on the dashboard, instantly providing more traction on soft sand.

Finally, there’s a strong marketing message, because the 2008 road car equally relies on two-wheel drive with grip control technology – a system that optimises traction through the selection of different modes that work with the car’s ESP to regulate torque delivery. Sadly for Peugeot, that’s not permitted on the Dakar.

“We know this is a big challenge – one of the biggest challenges we have ever undertaken,” says Famin. “But we’ve never been scared of going down a different path; look at when we came to Le Mans with a closed-cockpit car. With the 2008 DKR, we have a long-term campaign to show our technology and innovation in key markets.”

This is why we’ll see the 2008 DKR competing on events in Russia and China during 2015, although it won’t do the full FIA Cross Country World Cup. “It’s a very strategic approach to motorsport,” says Famin, with China in particular being an area of rapid growth for Peugeot, following the industrial and commercial partnership with Dongfeng.

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Peugeot’s Dakar campaign is about so much more than simply adding another trophy to the cabinet. That’s just one of the aspects – along with the predatory feline look – that makes this latest French lion so compelling.

Anthony Peacock

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