25 years have now passed since Peugeot’s final effort to grasp British Super Touring glory. The best British Touring Car Championship year is considered by most to be the chaotic and action-packed 1998 season. Key attractions included top-tier drivers – including former grand prix stars, big manufacturers, and racing so close that it would leave you breathless.
Of course, the middle of the pack was where the most strenuous moments took place and the underachieving Peugeot team was stuck in this minefield. Many thought that Peugeot should have had its best year to date, but instead it turned out to be a season where the team was struggling to beat the privateer runners. This was a stark contrast to the Peugeot team in Germany, which was still battling for the drivers’ title at the last race of the season.
In the winter months following the 1997 season, the works Peugeot team had cause for optimism. With Motor Sport Developments running the cars for the first time that year, the team scored two podiums and generally lifted the 406s into the midfield. This was cause for much optimisim after the struggles of 1996 , which resulted in Peugeot finishing last in the manufacturers’ championship. With the cars being finished late in 1997, the feeling was that Peugeot would only go better in ’98.
Patrick Watts would be one man who wouldn’t be continuing with the campaign who had been outscored by teammate Tim Harvey comprehensibly in 1997. Admittedly Watts did suffer the bulk of the team’s unreliability, however that cut him no slack with team management who drafted two-time World Champion, Paul Radisich into the team. Peugeot Motorsport manager Mick Linford looks back with fondness regarding his drivers for 1998. “They [Harvey and Radisich] were both valued team members and I was more than happy to have those two driving our cars,” reflects Linford, “Paul had a great reputation and race history, including being Touring Car World Champion when it was a single race, at Monza from memory [Radisich would go on to secure a second world cup title at Donington in 1994]. Tim was sort of ‘one of the boys’. Paul tended to keep himself to himself a little more in comparison. They were two different characters but both extremely determined on the race track.”
During the winter months preceding the 1998 season, Peugeot was in full attack mode. The car had an entire raft of changes introduced to it, including a new roll cage design, new Dynamics shock absorbers in place of the old Öhlins components, and the Xtrac gearbox being replaced by a new Hewland unit, which offered an improved driveshaft angle. Participating in winter testing with an upgraded ’97 spec car, the 406 was tested a total of three times overseas, often against the dominant team from 1997, Williams Renault.
With the 1997 champions providing the ultimate benchmark, Peugeot was in a confident frame of mind heading into the season. Speaking ahead of the season, MSD team manager Paul Risbridger summed up the team’s high expectations: “We want top six qualifying positions from day one, which puts us in the challenge for podium places. We will be starting the season the way we mean to carry on.”. This prophecy would be discredited moments into the start of the season as Radisich was the only Peugeot driver to scrape into the top 10 during qualifying for the first round at Thruxton. From then on, the Peugeot drivers couldn’t even manage that…
Following the disappointments of Thruxton, where only Radisich finished in the points with an eighth place in the feature race, Silverstone looked to be even more disastrous. With major handling problems, the situation looked rather hopeless, as shown by the finishing positions in the sprint race. The two 406s finished 11th and 12th after battling with the privateers. The feature race, however, would prove to be magical, as after only a handful of laps it started to rain. The MSD team were incredibly quick to react, first bringing in Harvey for a set of wet tyres and then a few laps later, Radisich for a set of intermediate tyres. It was this latter call that turned out to be inspired, as Radisich managed to cross the line in a remarkable fourth place. The fact that this turned out to be Peugeot’s best result of the season, highlighted the trouble the team faced.
From Donington Park onwards, engine problems became the norm as the season turned into a struggle to beat the privateers in most races. This was even if the 406s were still running at all, as the engines developed an unsettling habit of self-detonating. However, horsepower wasn’t a strong point either, as Linford recalls. “I managed to get France to allow us to put one of our engines on their dyn0 to do a back-to-back comparison to try and see where we were losing out [compared to the engines used by the Peugeot team in Germany]. Our in-house engine guy Richard Jones took one over. He oversaw the running of their engine before being left to set our engine up on the dyno. The difference in horsepower was shown, but Richard also spotted that when they ran their engine, it was drawing in clean air ducted in from outside the dyno cell. When we ran ours, the vents or ducting fans for drawing in outside air unfortunately were not working… I wonder why! No direct comparison was able to be made, though it did show that the power band on the French engines was noticeably higher than on the UK spec engines. The feeling was that the higher power band did actually suit the German championship circuits and would have been unlikely to give us as big an advantage that we would have hoped for.”
Power aside, the reliability got so catastrophic that MSD was eventually forced to carry out multiple engine changes across the course of a race weekend. The record would be five engine swaps during a BTCC round. With this restricting the sorely needed setup work, it should be no surprise that by round seven at Croft, the Peugeots were now running engines built by Mountune. However, this did not cause the car to surge to the front, but merely allowed it to finish more races – or at least it should have. Unfortunately, Harvey and Radisich were becoming more and more desperate to move up the field. This eventually amalgamated into a clumsy inter-team collision at Thruxton in August. While stress levels raised considerably during moments like this, Linford sympathises with the situation faced by the drivers. “Without doubt there was major driver frustration that our cars could not quite mix it consistently with the main front runners. The frustration also came due to the French team having continued success,” explains Linford. “But, they had no choice but to accept the limited funds situation that we were in. And to be fair, they did accept it and just tried that much harder to get to the front with the equipment that they had.”
Later in the year, aside from two fine sixth places at Knockhill and Silverstone for Radisich, the team failed to finish higher than eighth for the rest of the season. This was reflected in the drivers’ standing as Radisich finished 14th in the drivers’ championship and behind privateer driver Matt Neal while Harvey finished even lower in 17th. Unsurprisingly, this left Peugeot in last place in the manufacturers’ championship.
Looking back 25 years on, it’s understandably difficult to pinpoint what exactly went wrong for Peugeot in 1998. One clear culprit were the engines, which were unreliable and were considered by some team members, including Risbridger, to be some 30 horsepower down to the four-cylinders used by the likes of Honda, which was considered to have the most powerful engine at the time. There were also suggestions that the rear suspension was inherently flawed, something that Radisich mentions in his biography, “There were engineering issues with the back of the car – design faults – which were causing some worry.”
Radisich’s race engineer Dominic Harlow admits he can’t remember any problems with the rear suspension, but the engine installation and the unwilling approach of Peugeot France did the team no favours. “Our engine installation was different from the cars being run by the French team. We were forced to have the same front splitter as them, but they would not share their engine installation. The fact we got no support from Peugeot France badly affect our programme.” remembers Harlow.
“We had some problems with the front uprights or front wishbones too if I remember correctly but if we had resources such as Prodrive or Williams we could have sorted it. They could just do that bit more testing than us which benefited them.” Due to Peugeot France prioritising their programme in the German Super Touring Championship, the aero kit that was forced upon MSD was not optimised to the tighter, twister British racetracks. It should also be remembered that the budget used by Peugeot UK for their Super Touring adventures was considerably less than that of the Peugeot team in Germany, something that Linford remembers all too well. “There is no doubt that we had the smallest budget out of all the UK manufacturer teams,” Linford recalls. “I used to have regular trips for global meetings in Paris to discuss our programmes, but irrelevant of what we were doing or what our results were, we didn’t ever get any financial support from Peugeot France. We had zero information regarding set-up, suspension, etc. They simply had no interest or intention of assisting us. I tried to get their engines and although they agreed to sell us engines, they were only prepared to sell us ‘customer spec’ engines! They wouldn’t entertain the idea of them allowing us to have their works spec engines.”
Even though the 406 didn’t shine in the UK, Watts raced the 1998 car in the Australian Super Touring Championship against the factory Volvo and Audi teams in 1999. He took a win and two second places from the two rounds he competed in which, according to Watts, showed that the car was “potentially great” in the right hands. After leaving at the end of 1998, Peugeot would return to the BTCC in 2001 when the new BTC-T regulations replaced the spending fever that was Super Touring. Running a coupe model of the 406, the manufacturer was powerless to stop the all-conquering Vauxhall Astras that year. Full-time drivers Steve Soper and Dan Eaves scored no wins, so Peugeot UK decided to withdraw after just one season. The French lion hasn’t been back since.
By Maciej Hamera