It was December 1997, just eleven years after the last rally win in the World Championship by Peugeot with the magnificent 205 Turbo 16 Evo II, when the French manufacturer took the wise decision of returning to the World Championship with his new creature, the brand new Peugeot 206 WRC. The plan was to develop the car during 1998, to test it during the first half of 1999 and to start competing in the WRC from mid-1999, with the goal, for the first year, of winning stages and reaching a podium position. Wins and the world title were the objectives for the year 2000. And the Velizy-based team accomplished all these objectives with the precision of a metronome, as we will see in the next lines.
But none of this would have been possible without the aid of the FIA when they allowed Peugeot to artificially enlarge the car bumpers to reach the minimal 4m length required for any WRC. An advantage other manufacturers, like Seat or Skoda, could not benefit from.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Acropolis 2002, 2nd
First was to set -up the most appropriate team: Michael Nandan was recruited from Toyota as Technical Manager, with Julien Loisy as Development engineer and Jean Pierre Nicolas as Rally Department Manager. Design work started in January 1998, leading to the construction of the first chassis by the end of October in the PSA Technical Center at Vélizy.
The aerodynamic design was led by Robert Choulet, with Christian Stadler acting as a liaison between the Design Group and the wind tunnels. Two main facilities were used: the Max Sardou wind tunnel, located northeast of Paris, for small-scale models (10%), and the historic Laboratoire Aerodynamique Eiffel, located at rue Boileau in Paris and created in 1912 by Gustave Eiffel, where 33% scale models were evaluated. Main efforts were concentrated on internal cooling, drag reduction and downforce generation, with the rear wing as the most critical element. Different designs were considered, but the main characteristics were already included in the concept car presented in June 1998 to the press.
Peugeot 206 WRC, Concept car press presentation, June 1998
The first real car was finished in October and it was the object of an internal presentation in Villacoublay, in November 1998. A few days later tests started on asphalt (Pau Arnos in November’98 and Col du Vignon in February’99) and gravel (Château-Lastours) surfaces. The trio of drivers recruited for the new team, François Delecour, Gilles Panizzi and Marcus Gronholm shared the car since the very beginning. The first model included a very similar aero configuration to that of the concept car, that is, a rear wing with endplates and two wings, side skirts and a compact front bumper, with two front air inlets (a long thin one on top and a bigger, semispherical below) and a front splitter. A central air exit was located in the center of the bonnet, while the two parallel inlets on the left side were maintained.
Peugeot 206 WRC, tests in France, February 1999
A second, more developed unit was used in the tests carried out in April, one month before the car debut in the Tour de Corse.
Peugeot 206 WRC, tests in Corsica, April 1999
Significant modifications were introduced into this new car, in terms of cooling and downforce generation. The front bumper upper, long air inlet was removed (replaced now by the Eurodatacar sticker), while an additional air inlet, a NACA duct, was installed on the right side of the bonnet, to feed air to the engine (airbox) at a minimal drag cost. Also, a roof scoop was included to cool down drivers when needed.
The original model had problems to remove all the hot air from the engine bay. Due to the extra length of the front bumper (to reach the minimal length of the car required by regulations), two big outlets could be incorporated on both sides of the bumper.
Peugeot 206 WRC rear wing – picture from eWRC.cz
A new rear wing was also introduced. Located in a more backward position, the new wing replaced the end plates by a prolongation of the top wing, with Gurney flaps added to the upper wing. It improved the car balance, especially at speeds above 100 km/h.
F.Delecour/D.Grataloup, Peugeot 206 WRC, Tour de Corse 1999, ret.
On April 16th, 1999, the car was homologated by FIA, and the team was ready to launch the car into the Tour de Corse roads. The initial goal was satisfied in the first race, when François Delecour was fastest on SS7 (Gare de Carbuccia – Gare Ucciani), an 11 km stage, proving the excellent base of the car. However, Delecour and Panizzi were forced into retirement due to mechanical and electrical issues.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Acropolis 1999, ret.
In the second rally of the 206 WRC, the Acropolis’99, Marcus Grönholm and Delecour set one scratch each, the firsts on gravel, proving that the 206 WRC it was not only a car conceived for tarmac.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Mäntta Rally 1999, 1st
As part of the preparation of the Rally of Finland, Marcus Grönholm was enrolled in Finnish Mäntta Rally, where he was able to obtain the first victory of the 206 WRC, ahead of a strong competence, integrated by different WRC cars.
G.Panizzi/H.Panizzi, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Sanremo 1999, 2nd – picture from eWRC.cz
The second goal of the team was reached in its only second asphalt outing, in Sanremo, when Gilles Panizzi reached the first podium by finishing second, only 18 seconds behind the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI of Tommi Makinen.
For the season 2000, the team goals were to win rallies and the title, but the start of the season was very disappointing: all three cars were forced into retirement in the Rally of Montecarlo, due to…the low temperatures at the first night causing electrical problems that prevented the cars from starting the second leg. It was a shock, for the French team, to suffer such problems in France….but they were able to reverse the situation and the rest of the season became as successful for Peugeot as it had been the 1985 season.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of Sweden 2000, 1st
The first win came very soon when Marcus Gronhölm obtained his first victory ever in the 2000 Rally of Sweden. Then, he was second in Portugal. The team introduced a new version of the car in Rally Catalunya 2000. Modifications involved engine and transmission, while aero configuration remained unchanged.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Catalunya 2000, 5th
The car performance and reliability significantly improved with the new modifications, allowing the French team to complete an excellent second part of the season.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of New Zealand 2000, 1st – picture from motorsport.com
The Finnish driver obtained the first wins on gravel for the 206 WRC in New Zealand and Finland, while Gilles Panizzi gave the car the first victories on tarmac in Corsica and Sanremo.
G.Panizzi/H.Panizzi, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Sanremo 2000, 1st – picture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz
Gronhölm’s win in Australia ensured the manufacturer’s title for Peugeot, which was the first title for a non-Japanese manufacturer since Lancia’s 1992 title. Fourteen years after their last title, Peugeot started another series of successful seasons with Marcus Grönholm leading the team. His second position in RAC Rally allowed the Finnish driver to reach his first world driver’s title, completing a top successful year for the French team, in only their first complete season after their comeback.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, RAC Rally 2000, 2nd – picture by DPPI for www.rally-live.com
For 2001, the incorporation of Didier Auriol and Harri Rovanpera increased the possibilities of renewing the Manufacturer’s title, in spite of Delecour leaving to Ford.
H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Peugeot 206 WRC; Rally of Sweden 2001, 1st – picture from OZRacing.com
The season started again with a poor performance in Montecarlo, only compensated by the victory of Harri Rovanperä in Sweden in his very first rally with the car.
D.Auriol/D.Giraudet, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Catalunya 2001, 1st – picture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz
Multiple reliability issues prevented the team from fighting for the leading positions, although the other newcomer, Didier Auriol, succeeded in winning in Rally Catalunya, while Grönholm had finished just one rally after five outings, at being third in Portugal.
H.Rovanperä/R.Pietiläinen, Peugeot 206 WRC; Rally of Cyprus 2001, ret.
A new car was homologated in May and started to participate in the Championship since the next rally, in Cyprus. Most of the modifications were internal, with a new gearbox, a new radiator and modifications in the air cooling flow inside the engine bay. The only externally visible modifications were the redesign of the bonnet, where three air outlets were installed in the center, replacing the old exits and the NACA duct, as well as an enlarged roof scoop for better drivers’ cooling.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of Finland 2001, 1st – picture by LAT – Autosport
After a couple of though rallies in Cyprus and Greece, the modifications showed their value and the team performance consistently increased. Marcus Grönholm repeated the win in Finland, as well as Panizzi did in Sanremo.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of Great Britain 2001, 1st – picture by Petr Fitz – eWRC.cz
An impressive final rush of the season, with Grönholm winning in Australia and Great Britain, allowed the team to recover their disadvantage and winning their second Manufacturer’s title in a row, ahead of Ford and Mitsubishi. For Grönholm, too many zero point finishings supposed a problem against the regularity shown by Richard Burns, who finally got the driver’s title driving a Subaru Impreza.
Mario Fornaris gradually had been assuming the role of Chief Development engineer, initially played by Julien Loisy, and in 2002 he had already assumed full responsibility for the development of the car. On the driver’s side, the arrival of 2001 World Champion Richard Burns, after some legal issues with Subaru, contributed to give Peugeot a dream team, together with Grönholm, Panizzi and Rovanperä.
R.Burns/R.Reid, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Montecarlo 2002, 8th
And results arrived: after a, once again, disappointing Rally of Montecarlo, the red cars started an impressive series of eight podium positions in the next four rallies, with Grönholm winning in Sweden and Cyprus, Panizzi first in the tarmac roads of Corsica and Catalunya and Burns being second in three consecutive races.
The victory in Cyprus was the first and only 206 WRC win on one of the toughest rallies. Results in Argentina, Greece and Kenya proved that the car still had reliability issues on rough terrains.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Safari 2002, ret. – picture by supercars.net
A new car homologation was obtained in June 2002, and modifications could be already seen in Rally Acropolis. The central air exit disappeared from the bonnet, and instead, two small, auxiliary outlets were added closer to the windscreen. The wheel arch space increased, due to an increase in suspension travel. And a major modification was introduced in the rear wing, by the addition of five vertical fins on top of the upper wing. The addition of fins contributed to increasing the downforce at the rear of the car when it was sideways, that is, in the corners, resulting in better turning ability.
Fins on the rear wing of the June 2002 new homologation Peugeot 206 WRC – picture from juwra.com
The Rally of Finland saw a new victory of Marcus Grönholm in his home event, and the start of a new series of wins, that continued in New Zealand and Australia (by the same Grönholm) and Sanremo, with the third win in a row of Gilles Panizzi in Italy.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of New Zealand 2002, 1st – picture from supercars.net
Domination on the Championships was absolute: Grönholm obtained his second crown with twice the points of the second (Petter Solberg), and the eight victories (out of 14 rallies) surely contributed to the team third consecutive Manufacturer’s title.
Season 2003 started with the same driver’s line-up as in 2002, with Bertrand Vallat replacing Mario Fornaris as Chief Development Engineer, and with the sponsorship of Marlboro, which supposed a new, red image for the cars, and a significative increase of financial resources for a team already above average in that field. However, team resources and efforts were gradually devoted to the development of the new car, based on the Peugeot 307 cc, and the development of the 206 WRC ceased by mid-2003.
R.Burns/R.Reid, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Montecarlo 2003, 3rd
For the fourth year in a row, Rally of Montecarlo became a nightmare for the French team, and only Burns saved the points of a third position.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of Sweden 2002, 1st
Then Grönholm came back to the top of the podium in Sweden, New Zealand and Argentina, and things seemed to come back to normality.
R.Burns, R.Reid, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally Catalunya 2003, ret. – picture from eWRC.cz
But a series of retirements in the next rallies (one of the most unexpected in Rally Finland after an epic battle with Markko Märtin) prevented him from fighting again for the title. And, worst of all, very bad news arrived before Wales Rally when Richard Burns fainted while driving to the base of the rally, caused by a brain tumor that would have fatal consequences later in 2005.
M.Grönholm/T.Rautiainen, Peugeot 206 WRC, Rally of Germany 2003, 2nd
The manufacturer’s championship, after a close fight between Citroën and Peugeot all over the year, finally escaped to Citroën, thanks to the regularity of new star Sebastien Loeb and old fighters Carlos Sainz and Colin Mcrae, while Petter Solberg obtained his first and only Driver’s title. But Peugeot was already working on the new car for the new season.