Loïc Duval: “Le Mans… a starting grid like never seen before”
Photo: WEC

Loïc Duval: “Le Mans… a starting grid like never seen before”

Loïc Duval will drive the No. 94 Peugeot 9X8 in the Hypercar class for the Centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, round four of the FIA WEC, ten years after his overall win with Audi.

Loïc Duval will turn 41 on 12 June, the day after the Centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the driver of the No. 94 Peugeot 9X8, along Gustavo Menezes and Nico Müller, taking part in endurance racing’s main event represents a nice birthday present. “To have the opportunity to partake at Le Mans, in this amazing era with all those teams and carmakers, it’s great for a driver,” underlines the Frenchman.

With ten entries to his name, Duval is a familiar figure of the Sarthe Circuit. Although he got his very first taste of Le Mans’ magic, during the mid-90s, on a very different kind of track. “I was go-kart testing on the Alain Prost circuit during the race’s pre-tests. I remember seeing these impressive roaring cars go all the way from Karting corner’s exit to the Raccordement chicane. That was awesome to see this while I was go-karting!”

In 2008, the Chartres-born driver traded his go-kart for a seat in the Team Oreca Matmut’s No. 5 Courage-Oreca LC70 for his very first entry at Le Mans.

“I remember fondly my very first run on the Mulsanne Straight. That was even more impressive given I was driving an open prototype. You get a more intense feeling of the speed with the disturbances on your helmet.” Along with Laurent Groppi and Soheil Ayari, Loïc finished a remarkable 8th. He was given the Jean-Rondeau award, rewarding the event’s best-placed rookie. “The team’s goal was to cross the finish line. And for my very first Le Mans, I got to take the checkered flag with the car, those are good memories.”

Five years later, Duval added his name to the overall Le Mans victory list when driving the No. 2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro with Allan McNish and Tom “Monsieur Le Mans” Kristensen. “When you win Le Mans, you enter a very narrow circle. It changes everything for a driver. There is a before and an after a Le Mans win.” The Frenchman went on to be crowned 2013 FIA WEC World Champion.

Since last year, Duval represents another carmaker with a glorious track record at Le Mans: Peugeot. The French manufacturer won the 24 Hours three times (1992, 1993 and 2009). Thirty years ago, the Lion reigned supreme with a legendary 1-2-3. Facing reliability and performance shortcomings in relation to the Hypercar competition, the outstanding wingless 9X8 has not reached yet the level of its famous predecessors, the 905 and 908.

“We’re still in a phase where we need to work on both sides”, Duval says. “We have not known enough clean races to tell ourselves we won’t have reliability issues. But we are bound to work on set-ups to understand the car and find its performance. Because Le Mans is a 24-hour sprint race.”

Nevertheless, the Frenchman guarantees that Peugeot Sport TotalEnergies are moving in the right direction. Will the 9X8 thrive and show its potential on the ultrahigh-speed track that is Le Mans? “In any case, we saw over at Sebring and Portimão that we were in the good group in the straight lines. However, it is not yet clear because Le Mans is not a track where teams have done tests recently. Besides, although we’re part of a world championship, the common priority objective of every carmaker is to win Le Mans. So the cars are designed to perform there as best as possible.”

With Jean-Eric Vergne, at the wheel of the No. 93 9X8 along Mikkel Jensen and Paul Di Resta, Duval is one of the two French drivers of the Peugeot program, the only French carmaker in the premier Hypercar class. Therefore, he is expected to receive the full backing of the faithful Le Mans fans.

“Personally, it’s a source of motivation. As a Frenchman, to have the opportunity to compete with a French carmaker is something magical. It’s always a powerful moment when 300.000 spectators sing La Marseillaise.”

Testament to the passion sparked by FIA WEC, the Centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is sold-out. “One is forced to note that everything that had been implemented by both FIA and ACO to attract new carmakers is working. We will have a starting grid like never seen before!”

The 24 Hours of Le Mans, round four of FIA WEC, will take place in just under three weeks’ time (10-11 June).

Interview by Bastien Cheval.