Nine-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb admitted that it was the speed at which corners came at him that was the biggest surprise of his Mont Ventoux test run in Peugeot's 'beastlike' 208 T16 Pikes Peak.

The Frenchman got a first chance between Porsche Supercup appearances to test the car's potential outside the confines of Peugeot Sport's factory or a closely guarded circuit as he completed a dress rehearsal for June's trip to Pikes Peak Hill Climb in Colorado.

Mont Ventoux, in the south of France, has been made famous as a classic stage of the Tour de France cycle race, one of the vertiginous climbs that 'sorts the men from the boys', and it only needs a couple of kilometres from the test team's basecamp to the summit to understand why thee barren mountain has become such a huge legend. The steep slope and numerous turns do not permit the slightest respite, but the reward is a stunning panoramic view of the Provence region from an altitude of 1909 metres.

The last six kilometres, which Peugeot Sport used for the test, once provided the backdrop to one of the most famous hillclimb events in the pioneering days of the automobile industry, before the Pikes Peak event was first organised, and provided Loeb with an ideal preview of what he can expect in the USA.

"This is an important run because Pikes Peak is very different from a nice, smooth race track," he noted, "It is vital for us to evaluate the car on a terrain that is more like what we will find in the States. This road will give us a reasonably accurate idea..."

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The world champion was visibly pleased to be back in the 208 T16 Pikes Peak car, now sporting its aggressive livery mix of Red Bull backing and retro Peugeot stripes.

"It's not the power that impresses me anymore - I've got used to that," he reported, "It's the speed at which the corners leap out at you which is more striking than round a circuit, where there's always a '100-metre' board to show you where to brake. Here, you can be in fifth or sixth gear and you suddenly see mountainside ahead of you; you have to work out for yourself where you need to brake..."

With a power output of 875 horsepower, the car is no ordinary beast - and nothing like anything Loeb has piloted before.

"The steering is still very, very responsive, so it can be a little hairy keeping your foot to the floor though the fast portions," he reported, "On wide slicks, and at the sort of speeds I am getting up to, the slightest imperfection in the road surface really unsettles the car."

A switch to softer Michelin tyres and revised calibration for the steering has helped to improve that situation, and Peugeot Sport's Jean-Christophe Pailler, who is in charge of the project's technical aspects, confirmed that the session was a perfect dress rehearsal both for the team and the car.

"The mechanics and engineers need to familiarise themselves with working on the car in real-life conditions," he explained, "They are getting an increasingly better grasp of how it responds to set-up changes and are analysing the tiniest detail or piece of feedback from Seb to refine its settings. It's a learning process for everyone..."
The visit to Mont Ventoux also provided the team with the possibility of running at altitude which, while not to the scale of what it faces in America, at least provided a glimpse of what to expect.

"Okay, the altitude isn't as extreme here as it is at Pikes Peak, which reaches 4301 metres, but it's a valuable intermediate step," Pailler added, "It allows us to see the differences in the way the engine functions, although we hope to suffer less from altitude-induced power-loss than our rivals because of the turbochargers we have chosen."

The next step in the programme is the journey to Colorado for more testing on the course which will only be available on a section-by-section basis on various June days leading up to the event itself. After this final preparatory phase, the event will run in earnest from 24-30 June, which is when Loeb and the Peugeot will at last get their chance to reach for the clouds.