Cutting-edge materials and advanced technology allowed the Peugeot lion to leave its mark on the biggest endurance prize of all – Le Mans
By Christophe Wilmart
In 1988 Jean Todt was a happy man. As head of Peugeot Talbot Sport, he had seen a Peugeot hammer the competition in the Paris-Dakar rally. He dreamed of Formula 1, but knew he had to find an intermediate stage which would be acceptable to Peugeot’s management. That stage was to be endurance racing, with the 905 as the spearhead and the Le Mans 24 Hours as the target.
Announced in a fanfare in November 1988, Peugeot’s entry into the World Sportscar Championship caused a stir in the sport. “We had developed a V10 ready for the Procar silhouette championship that Bernie Ecclestone wanted to launch,” says André de Cortanze, who was technical director of Peugeot Talbot Sport (PTS). “The series never happened, but we had the power unit.”
The 80-degree V10, with four overhead cams and 40 valves, had been produced by engineer Jean-Pierre Boudy, who had also been responsible for Renault’s F1 V6 turbo engine and the Peugeot 205 and 405 T16 units. He worked with chassis engineer Tom Wright under de Cortanze, who was dealing with political currents at the helm of PTS. “We had no experience of Le Mans, but Gérard Welter, Peugeot’s styling director, had been the creator of the WM marque.” That team had entered 14 Le Mans, failing more often than finishing, with a best placing of fourth in 1980 for Guy Fréquelin and Roger Dorchy.
“In view of his experience, they put Welter in charge of the body shape,” says de Cortanze. “The result was an elegant shape which was completely ineffective. We had been working on the chassis while learning to handle this new material carbon fibre. It was at this time that we began working with the aeronautical engineers at Dassault. The team in charge of the Rafale fighter introduced us to designing with computers, and their enthusiasm was infectious.
“With their help we produced the first carbon monocoque, which was very rigid but too heavy – more than 105kg. But the second was almost perfect: it weighed 80kg, just about what I was looking for.”
Of course, it was nothing new to see a spin-off from aeronautical technology to automotive. Matra had demonstrated that with its monocoques and prototypes, but the combination of the carbon fibre technology and computer-aided design was new. The only difficulty de Cortanze faced was that for marketing reasons PTS wanted the front of the car to resemble at least to some degree the Peugeot 405, which would clash with the aerodynamic requirements.
“I quickly realised we weren’t going to get far down that route, and soon we had to rework the 905 to produce an Evolution 1. At the same time Jean-Pierre Jabouille took charge of developing the first version.” The best was yet to come.
“When I joined the 905 project in 1990 the car was already built, and my job as a driver was to develop it ready for competition,” explains Jabouille. “Our principal concern was that Keke Rosberg, who had joined the team at the same time as me, was very hard on the front tyres, as he was in F1. Although that was great for qualifying times, it used up the fronts which meant more pitstops.”
Peugeot’s opposition consisted of Jaguar’s XJR-11 and 12, and by the end of the 1990 season the Mercedes C9. Such was the atmosphere of nervousness about the Peugeot that the English and German teams tested in total secrecy.
“Keke was very quick, but lacked a bit of consistency for endurance racing. A real F1 driver, in fact!” smiles Jabouille. “The 905 had the great fault of being very unbalanced in the first version. When it was right at the front the back went wrong and vice versa. It seriously lacked consistency. Which is to say that the 1991 season was looking tough for us.”
At Montréal in September the car was sidelined by fuel-feed problems, and in Mexico a month later it could only manage 13th place. But for ’91 things were about to change.
The WSC regulations had been altered again, and Todt decided to strengthen the team by entering two cars. FISA had decided that the series would now be open to two types of car: C1 (3.5-litre non-turbos, 759kg minimum weight) and a C2 category which would accept the old Group C cars ballasted and running to a fuel consumption limit. The Jaguar XJR-12 and Mercedes C11 attracted weight penalties which took them past 1000kg, and the same applied to the Porsche 962C in Le Mans spec. Only Mazda’s 787B escaped restriction, continuing to run at 830kg.
While the new regulations favoured C1 cars, including the 905, races were limited to 430km with a maximum of three pitstops. FISA also stretched things by reserving the top 10 grid positions for C1 cars, which also had unrestricted fuel flow during pitstops, unlike in C2. Although the aim was to attract new manufacturers, it backfired when the Americans and Japanese decided they did not like the new playing field. It’s worth adding that FISA imposed a $250,000 fine for every race missed – yet you could not confirm your entry until the end of January. The result was a moribund 1991 championship; the first two races were cancelled, and it was a depleted field which assembled at the first event, in Suzuka. In the absence of Nissan and Toyota a mere 17 cars formed up. Nevertheless Philippe Alliot and Mauro Baldi scored Peugeot’s first win ahead of a Mercedes and a Kremer Porsche CK6.
“We were lucky at Suzuka,” says Jabouille, “but the lack of stability was a worry. And the new Jaguar XJR-14’s top speed was some 20kph faster than us at the Japanese track, so it was no surprise when they won at Monza and Silverstone.” Jaguar scored a one-two finish in Italy and a one-three in England, with Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher slipping their C291 into second. At Le Mans Baldi, Alliot and Jabouille used chassis 1.4 while Rosberg, Yannick Dalmas and Pierre-Henri Raphanel ran new chassis 1.5. Frustratingly, both cars failed to finish, while Mazda achieved the first victory at La Sarthe for a Wankel engine. But the Peugeot lion was sharpening its claws.
Eight weeks after the Le Mans setback, Peugeot brought its Evo1A to the Nürburgring.
“After Suzuka I persuaded Jean Todt to rework the aerodynamics, which Robert Choulet tackled under the eye of de Cortanze,” says Jabouille.
“Evo 1, the first 905, wasn’t so good,” de Cortanze reflects. “The aero concept was developed at La Garenne-Colombes under Gérard Welter. I was never keen on the first car, especially its blunt front, which I thought made it risky to drive as well as penalising the cooling. In fact I was only involved in the structure of the car, the parts that weren’t painted white. The result was that, not carrying as much authority as Welter, I had to accept a car which didn’t satisfy me at all.”
Now he went back to the drawing board with Choulet and produced a better-balanced car. More grip, better cooling, higher top speed. After some tweaking the results began to come.
“The Evo1A was virtually a new car,” says de Cortanze. “New double rear aerofoil, a front aerofoil for sprint races, cooling intakes moved to beside the cockpit, a monocoque which was also the bodywork, cockpit-adjustable suspension…” After this the 905 was unbeatable: apart from the first race of 1992, at Monza (where Derek Warwick and Dalmas were ‘only’ second), Peugeot ruled, including at Le Mans. The Sochaux marque carried off the WSC championship, a title the FIA rushed to bury after the last round, at Magny-Cours, where just eight cars appeared.
The 905s contested only Le Mans in ’93, where Geoff Brabham, Christophe Bouchut and Eric Hélary took a victory to close the chapter on Peugeot’s endurance efforts and on Group C, apart from those recruited to run in IMSA-GT in the USA before that category folded in 1998.
Despite Peugeot’s success in sports cars the marque refused to move into F1 as Todt wanted. Consequently he joined Ferrari and oversaw its rise to great things.
The 905s were retired to Peugeot’s collection, and that page was turned.
As part of its expansion the Peugeot museum has decided to sell one of its 905s, one of the duplicates in its collection, to release funds for other acquisitions. The car pictured here, chassis 1.4, achieved the first victory for the marque. It will be auctioned on June 14 by Artcurial, the day Le Mans finishes, but to ensure that the new owner can run it Peugeot decided to have the car completely restored. This was carried out by FH Electronics, and 905 1.4 is now even smarter than when it left the workshops of Peugeot Sport in 1991, says its former driver Alliot. The reconstruction has been so thorough that it goes to the sale with a new FIA homologation certificate, meaning the new owner can race it the moment the hammer falls.
Before that, test sessions at Paul Ricard and then Mas du Clos revealed its potential in the hands of Hélary, winner of the 1993 Le Mans in a 905. “The car is in exceptional condition,” he told us from Paul Ricard. “I don’t think it looked this good before. It’s still fantastic to drive, flexible and powerful despite its age. I can judge its potential as before leaving Peugeot Sport I was involved in some of the development work on the 908. That obviously has more performance, but the 905 has no need to be ashamed of its performance, especially for a car conceived 20 years ago.”
You can judge for yourself, as there should be a film of 905 chassis 1.4 in action on the Artcurial website by the time you read this.
To view the Peugeot 905 film, log on to www.artcurial.com/en