Just five race outings in the Peugeot 908 were enough for Christian Klien to select the turbodiesel LMP1 machine as his favourite racing car. A solitary win, achieved in the 2009 Spa 1000km when Audi stayed away, was the high point of the Austrian’s involvement with the Peugeot factory squad that came alongside his role as BMW-Sauber’s Formula 1 test and reserve driver, which precluded him from racing the 908 more frequently.
“That was an extremely fast car back then,” says the 41-year-old. “A lot of power, a lot of downforce and driving this car in Le Mans was just awesome. I had to be at all the F1 races so there were quite some clashes, but then there was a lot of testing in between, so I did lots and lots of driving.
“The fact that it had a diesel engine in, it was quite special to drive because you had a lot of torque from the bottom end, a lot of power. The range of RPM was obviously very short, but it was a great engine to race.”
His very first competitive outing with the car came at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2008. Joining Franck Montagny and Ricardo Zonta, their #9 908 finished third after Klien was tipped into the gravel at the Ford Chicane, losing three minutes on top of delays caused by faulty headlights that required replacing and incurred a penalty.
Klien looks on his first podium since a race-winning Formula 3 Euro Series programme in 2003, after 46 starts in F1 had yielded a best result of fifth in the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix for Red Bull, as an immensely gratifying experience. But he also acknowledges it was a double-edged sword.
“If you’re on the podium at your first attempt, it probably feels like it comes a bit too easy let’s say,” says Klien, who remains a regular in GT racing and retains a presence in the F1 paddock as an expert commentator for Austrian TV station Servus. “If you have bad years, you know how difficult it is to first of all finish that race, to be in a competitive car. To make it to the end of the race on the podium is not given.
“I enjoyed that race a lot, because it was the first race outside of F1 for a long time. I did for five years only F1 and there isn’t so much overtaking, and then you come to Le Mans, you have an LMP1 car, obviously the quickest on the circuit, so you do lots of overtaking.
“We even could have done better than third, because I had a spin in the night-time coming together with a backmarker, and we lost quite a bit of time. But standing on that podium at the end of 24 hours was just an incredible feeling, especially when you look down and see all the fans, it’s just crazy.”
Klien was on the receiving end of a sucker punch from Audi on his second outing in a 908 at Petit Le Mans in October. Allan McNish had crashed his R10 on the way to the grid, but the inspired Scot led a comeback from two laps down through myriad caution periods and in the crucial closing stages had fresher rubber than Klien – which allowed McNish to pounce in traffic.
"It was quite silent in the car, so it was not very spectacular let’s say, but you could do all the debrief basically in the car with your race engineer!" Christian Klien
Klien’s attempt at repassing was firmly rebuffed when McNish ushered him to the grass, and he had to settle for second in the #7 car with Stephane Sarrazin and Nicolas Minassian. But the result didn’t detract from his enjoyment of multi-manufacturer racing at a comparable level to what he’d known in F1.
“That was a crazy race,” remembers Klien. “You’re always fighting for the podium of course and in my career in F1, I wasn’t able to fight for podiums, so that was really nice.
“The teams were big, it was very competitive racing back then, open budgets, factory teams. There wasn’t too much difference to F1. I remember we did a test in Barcelona and those cars were only eight seconds slower than F1 but a lot heavier obviously. The testing that went in there, and the tyre testing as well with Michelin, was just same level than F1.
“But, on a race weekend the paddock was open for the public, there was not that much media attention – probably Le Mans yes, but the other races not as much as F1, so you felt more free as a driver, more like back to the roots what you were used to, and that was very enjoyable.”
Klien’s second Stateside race outing in the 908 proved disappointing, as a faulty air conditioning system at the 2009 Sebring 12 Hours cost nine laps and dropped his #7 car out of victory contention. It wasn’t running at the end due to gearbox problems, but he was still classified fifth with Minassian and Pedro Lamy.
Victory in Peugeot’s Le Mans warm-up at Spa with Minassian and Simon Pagenaud, leading every single lap as the sister 908 hit trouble with wishbone damage and a penalty for contact, hinted at a strong return to La Sarthe. But those hopes were dashed within the first hour.
Lamy was released from his pitbox into the path of Jean-Christophe Boullion’s Pescarolo-run 908, with the resulting left-rear puncture necessitating a slow crawl around the full lap that inflicted heavy damage on the bodywork. A 26-minute repair lost them seven laps and meant a final result of sixth – as David Brabham, Alex Wurz and Marc Gene brought home the bacon in the third 908 – was a respectable salvage job.
Klien continued with Peugeot but in a reserve driver capacity during 2010, having held off signing a race deal as he sought opportunities in F1 that ultimately yielded three grand prix outings with the Colin Kolles-run Hispania team. After a fraught 2011 season developing the “very slow and obviously not reliable” Aston Martin AMR One, Klien reckons he was in line for a Peugeot return in 2012 when it pulled the plug on an entry into the World Endurance Championship.
His experience with the AMR One, which managed just four laps at Le Mans before its straight six-cylinder engine that was “just as quick as the GTE cars” on the Mulsanne served as a stark illustration of how advanced the cars that contested LMP1’s ‘diesel wars’ were. Klien acknowledges that, while the noise level the 908 produced wasn’t in the same league as the V10 and V8-powered Jaguar and Red Bull F1 machines he campaigned, it was no less impressive for it.
“At the same time it was quite silent in the car, so it was not very spectacular let’s say, but you could do all the debrief basically in the car with your race engineer!” he chuckles. “The radio communication was just perfect where radios in F1 with the screaming engines, sometimes it was a bit difficult.
“I remember at the tests when the other cars went out to the long back straight in Paul Ricard, you couldn’t hear the engine but you could hear all the wind noise and it almost felt like a spaceship is coming!”