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How a retired WEC great fared in Peugeot's virtual 9X8

Anthony Davidson enjoyed a successful sportscar career capped by winning the 2014 World Endurance Championship before stepping out of the cockpit to become a WEC TV expert. Autosport was on hand to see the former Peugeot LMP1 racer get behind the wheel of one of the new breed of Le Mans Hypercars in the French brand's simulator

Anthony Davidson is back at the wheel of a prototype, just a year and a bit on from his retirement from the cockpit. And he now understands the challenges faced by the drivers out on track in the World Endurance Championship aboard the successors to the LMP1 machinery in which he carved out a stellar sportscar career.

“They’re having to wrestle the steering wheel much more than I ever did,” he reckons. “So they’re definitely earning their money out there.”

The 2014 World Endurance Championship title winner with Toyota comes to that conclusion after a handful of laps around the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe aboard Peugeot’s 9X8. Only he’s a good 100 miles to the north-east of Le Mans, on the outskirts of Paris at Peugeot Sport’s Satory base in fact.

His experience of the French manufacturer’s Le Mans Hypercar is firmly in the virtual realm. He’s just sampled the hybrid machine with which Peugeot is aiming to repeat the successes of its 905 Group C contender and the LMP1s he raced in 2010-11 – two generations of 908 turbodiesel – not on the race track but in a simulator. 

Davidson describes his handful of laps in the Peugeot sim as a “real eye opener”. It gives him a feel for a breed of car designed to look different, lap slower and, crucially, be more cost-effective than the high-tech LMP1 rocketships they replaced.  

“The cars are definitely exciting to look at and the Peugeot has a quirky look because it doesn’t have a rear wing – one of the beauties of the new rules is the freedom it gives the designers,” says Davidson. “It was good to get a chance to drive the 9X8 in the sim to understand a bit more about it and just how different the new cars are to the prototypes I drove during my career.” 

Watkins looks on as Davidson gets acquainted to the latest LMH machinery in Peugeot's simulator

Watkins looks on as Davidson gets acquainted to the latest LMH machinery in Peugeot's simulator

Photo by: Florent Gooden - DPPI

They are cars that, until the trip to Paris, he’d only witnessed at close quarters from the cockpit of the LMP2 ORECA he drove in his final year of racing in the WEC with the Jota team in 2021, and from slightly further away in the commentary box where he has been the expert voice on WEC TV since the start of last season. His try-out in surroundings similar to the ones he experiences every week in his ongoing role as one of the mainstays of the Mercedes Formula 1 team’s simulator programme confirms that things have changed since his days of racing in LMP1 with Aston Martin, Peugeot and Toyota between 2009 and 2017. 

PLUS: Why an F1-snubbed British world champion has no regrets in retirement

An LMH, like the LMDh prototypes from Porsche and Cadillac joining the WEC this year, is heavier, has less downforce and less combined power from the internal combustion and front-axle hybrid element of its powertrain than the previous generation of prototypes. And unlike the last two iterations of the Toyota LMP1 hybrid that Davidson raced, it is not really four-wheel drive at all. The advantages that come with all-wheel traction have been pretty much removed as part of the convergence process designed to align the performance of the LMHs with the rear-hybrid LMDhs. 

PLUS: The long road to convergence for sportscar racing's new golden age

The minimum weight of four-wheel-drive LMH is 1040kg, though both the Peugeot and Toyota raced significantly higher than that under the Balance of Performance last season. The Peugeot topped out at 1079kg, the Toyota at 1071kg. That compares with the 870kg base weight of the LMP1 in the days when Davidson and his team-mates were battling Porsche and Audi for supremacy at the front of a hotly contested WEC. 

"An LMH is definitely not as nimble and agile as the P1s I drove, nor the LMP2 I raced at the end of my career, but with the extra weight that’s to be expected. It’s simple physics" Anthony Davidson

“I did get a sense of the mass of the vehicle and the inertia that comes with it straight away,” says Davidson, who has a quick spin early in his run out of the Ford Chicane. “That was me struggling to slow the car down as I was getting used to it and then hitting the kerb. I’ll allow myself one spin on a sim brand new to me, but the car definitely doesn’t like heavy braking and changing direction at the same time. When you have a moment and slide the car, it slides for longer than you think it should. It doesn’t like being thrown around.

“I could really feel the weight in the Dunlop Curve and the sequence after the chicane leading up to Tertre Rouge. It took me a couple of laps to take the Dunlop Curve flat. I thought, ‘Whoa, this thing wants to understeer when I want to be squaring it up for the left into the chicane’. 

“The right-hander out of the chicane and over the brow of the hill was a really intimidating corner. Then at the bottom of the hill, in the left-right that takes you up towards Tertre Rouge before the Mulsanne Straight, I could really feel the pendulum effect caused by the weight. An LMH is definitely not as nimble and agile as the P1s I drove, nor the LMP2 I raced at the end of my career, but with the extra weight that’s to be expected. It’s simple physics.”

Davidson immediately notices that the LMH car feels heavier to drive than its LMP1 predecessor

Davidson immediately notices that the LMH car feels heavier to drive than its LMP1 predecessor

Photo by: Florent Gooden - DPPI

The weight of the car is only one of the things that come as a culture shock to Davidson, although his driving environment is somehow familiar. The Peugeot sim, a system developed in-house by the Stellantis brand, has been built up around the monocoque from a V8-powered 908. That’s the car sometimes referred to by its internal codename, the 90X, and a machine in which the Briton won three races in the 2011 Intercontinental Le Mans Cup that led into the rebirth of the WEC the following year. The tub was written off in an accident during testing, subsequently built up as a show car and then given another lease of life in the sim.

Davidson gets behind the wheel of the hybrid with certain preconceptions about what the front-only system on the latest Peugeot prototype would give him as a driver.

“There’s something about driving a four-wheel-drive hybrid that must be hardwired into me,” he explains. “My brain was telling me that I’d have traction at the front to give me extra stability on corner exit, but I didn’t feel any four-wheel drive at all.” 

That’s because the speed at which electric power from the front-axle motor generator unit can be deployed is now strictly controlled. The original minimum on the introduction of LMH in 2021 was 120km/h (75mph), but from last year it became part of the system of Balance of Performance central to the new era of sportscar racing that begins with the Sebring 1000 Miles on 17 March.

The Toyota ran to a 190km/h (118mph) minimum in 2022, the Peugeot on its arrival in the series at Monza in July 150km/h (93mph), because it runs wider front wheels and tyres and narrower rears than its Japanese rival. It changes the whole dynamic of driving a prototype of today compared with what came before.

“You haven’t got the front wheels clawing away on the surface of the track, which gave those Toyotas I drove so much stability,” points out Davidson. “There was an understeery feel to the Peugeot in the sim, while you could also feel the rear end squirming away on the power. Having a car that I knew was a hybrid snapping around at the rear was counter-intuitive for me.

“You’ve got corners like Tertre Rouge and exiting the Porsche Curves where you are in the speed range for the four-wheel drive to in theory be kicking in, but you’ve got so much downforce at those speeds that you aren’t traction limited. Four-wheel drive wouldn’t give you much of an advantage at those points on the track.”

Davidson recognises that the impact of four-wheel drive is greatly lessened on the new machines

Davidson recognises that the impact of four-wheel drive is greatly lessened on the new machines

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

In the new era, a clearly defined torque curve is laid down for each car in the BoP ahead of every race. The 200kW (260bhp) maximum power allowed from the MGU doesn’t come in on top of the 500kW (670bhp) allowed from the internal combustion engine. That 500kW figure for Le Mans – and 520 for other WEC races – is also maximum total power allowed, no matter how much the MGU at the front is working.

“Getting on the power was really interesting, and night and day compared with the four-wheel-drive Toyota LMP1 cars I drove,” continues Davidson. “In my day we treated the throttle like a switch – you could just mash the pedal. It had a very small range of travel because it didn’t need it.

“We had a massive amount of torque in the old days, because we had the power from the conventional engine and then the hybrid system on top of that. We had 500bhp from the combustion engine and at one stage another 500bhp from the hybrid when we needed it, which was usually on corner exit.”

The way that the torque comes in from the Peugeot’s 2.6-litre twin-turbo V6 is something that strikes Davidson on his brief acquaintance with the 9X8.

"There’s a big visual impact when you look at a car without a rear wing because we’ve all grown up seeing wings on the back of racing cars, but this car develops its downforce through ground-effects" Anthony Davidson

“Peak torque was at surprisingly high revs,” he explains. “At first I felt I could labour a taller gear for a lot longer and it would still deliver enough torque. I realised after a few laps it was better to rev it, so you end up hovering quite close to the shift point a lot of the time. That makes catching slides and snaps a bit more tricky.” 

There are a couple of final questions that have to be asked of Davidson after his return to the cockpit of a contemporary prototype. One is specific to the 9X8: did he feel the absence of the rear wing when driving the car?

“I didn’t even think about it when I was in the sim,” he responds. “Sure there’s a big visual impact when you look at a car without a rear wing because we’ve all grown up seeing wings on the back of racing cars, but this car develops its downforce through ground-effects. If you can balance the car without a wing on the back, why not?”

And has his brief time in the Peugeot sim whetted his appetite for a comeback in sportscar racing’s new golden age?

“I know the Peugeot has air-conditioning, something the Toyota never had, so it would have a bit of creature comfort for an old man like me,” he says. “But I’ve done my time on the race track: I’ll talk about what I see happening out there on TV instead.” 

Davidson is happy to leave the racing to incumbent di Resta

Davidson is happy to leave the racing to incumbent di Resta

Photo by: Florent Gooden - DPPI

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