As Group C climaxed with its 3.5-litre regulations in the early Nineties, Peugeot developed a prototype so extreme, yet so reliable, that it could race for 24 hours at Formula One speeds. Gary Watkins tells the story of the fastest-ever sportscar
Take out of the equation those pedal-to-metal laps around the old eight-mile Spa-Francorchamps or the pre-Hella Licht-S Osterreichring, and a Porsche 917 couldn’t live with a Formula One car in 1970 or 71. At Brands Hatch, Monza or just about anywhere else, the machine often regarded as the ultimate sportscar and its great rival, Ferrari’s 512, were barely fast enough to have scraped onto a grand prix grid of their time.
Vic Elford’s pole in his 917K at the Monza 1000Km in April 1970 would not even have got him onto the grid for that year’s Italian Grand Prix. But fast forward 20 years, and there is an oft-overlooked sports-prototype that would have had no problem qualifying in the middle of the Formula One pack week in, week out. Step forward the Peugeot 905 Evo 1 bis, the fastest sportscar of all time.
The statistics prove the point. In 1992, the season in which Peugeot claimed the final Sportscar World Championship crown with its lightweight 3.5-litre Group C machine, Philippe Alliot and Yannick Dalmas routinely pulled out qualifying times that were on a par with those set by the Lotuses and Benettons of the day. Yet that’s only part of the reason why the V10-engined 905 can lay claim to such a grandiose title.
It also has to do with the phenomenal pace of the Peugeot around Le Mans. Since the addition of the Mulsanne chicanes no-one has lapped faster that Alliot’s 3min 21.209sec pole of 1992. Yet even that doesn’t fully explain why Peugeot’s take on the final version of the Group C rule book can claim to be the ‘fastest ever’.
One does not have to be overly cynical to suggest that a formula sharing its engine rules with F1 was introduced by the sport’s governing body, then still known as FISA, to snare manufacturers into stepping up to the pinnacle of the sport. These 3.5-litre cars were in many ways grand prix cars with all-enveloping bodywork, but the 905, distinct from cars such as Jaguar’s XJR-14 and the Toyota TS010, was like a grand prix machine in another way. It demanded to be driven like one — flat out every inch of the way. Even at Le Mans.
The Peugeot’s tally of back-to-back Le Mans wins in 1992 and ’93, world championships for both drivers and manufacturers, along with eight SWC victories from 16 starts makes for impressive reading. Especially when one considers that the Peugeot was a triumph of development over design. The 905 was a dog when it appeared at the end of 1990. A major rehash during the ’91 season transformed the André de Cortanze design into a real racing car capable of winning on the SWC trail, and then endless testing turned it into a phenomenal Le Mans machine. Even so, many involved in the Peugeot project concede that the Toyota was the better chassis.
The French manufacturer’s initial stab at Group C was a disaster. The problem, as Alliot has it, was that the car was “styled rather than designed”. He’s exaggerating, of course, but the racer clearly took its inspiration from the 1989 Oxia supercar concept. “It appeared to me that the stylists had been given a free hand,” says British engineer Tim Wright, who joined Peugeot Sport at the end of 1990 to help sort out the car. “I was amazed that this thing that looked so good could be so hopeless.”
Just how hopeless wasn’t apparent until the start of the 1991 season. The 905 was the first true 3.5-litre car to hit the racetrack, which meant that Peugeot’s only yardstick when it turned out for the end-of-season Montreal and Mexico City races in 1990 was the venerable Spice design. But when the TWR-Jaguar squad turned up the following year with its XJR-14, powered by Ford’s new HB F1 engine, Peugeot got a wake-up call. The 905 scored a maiden win at the 1991 SWC-opener at Suzuka, but the victory for Alliot and Mauro Baldi was a fortuitous one. Derek Warwick’s pole mark in the Jaguar was 2.5sec faster than the best Peugeot time, but trifling problems accounted for the two British cars in the race. On the team’s return to Peugeot Sport’s base in Vélizy near Paris, the leading players in the Jean Todt-managed squad gathered to figure out their next move. “We sat there and asked, ‘What can we do?’,” remembers Alliot “We may have won the race, but we had seen how uncompetitive the car was.”
The meeting set in motion a development programme that would turn the 905 from an also-ran into the class act of the SWC in the space of a few months. The redesign was almost entirely focused on its aerodynamics, although Peugeot also took the opportunity to switch from a heavy and unreliable self-built transmission to an Xtrac sequential ‘box. The target was to get the `Evo’ ready in time for the first SWC round after Le Mans, at the Nürburgring.
“We kept the same monocoque, engine and suspension, and changed the bodywork,” says Alliot. “When we came back and got the car totally sorted, we were 1.5sec quicker than the Jaguars.”
Alliot led at the ‘Ring until his engine failed, before the Evo 1 bis notched up its first win in dominant style at Magny-Cours the following month. Dalmas and Keke Rosberg claimed the victory from Alliot and Baldi on a day when the Peugeot was in a class of its own.
Next time out, at Mexico City, Peugeot claimed another 1-2; and Alliot’s pole would have been good enough for 16th on the grid at the previous June’s F1 grand prix at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. It was a pointer to the kind of performance that would become de rigueur the following year.
Jaguar may have disappeared in 1992 – although the XJR-14 design became a Judd-engined Mazda but there was no let-off in Peugeot’s development programme. Firstly, Le Mans was still to be won after a somewhat shambolic debut in 1991. Secondly, there was a new rival in the form of Toyota and its TS010, designed by Tony Southgate.
At the season-opener at Suzuka, Alliot’s pole time would have lined him up 22nd on the 1992 Japanese GP grid. Next time out, at Silverstone, Dalmas produced a lap bettered by only 12 F1 cars the following July. And then, at Magny-Cours, Alliot came up with a time good enough for a spot on the fourth row for the French GP. What’s more, the fastest of Peugeot’s drivers over one lap reckons that he did a time in testing at the Nevers circuit that was only eclipsed by Williams drivers Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese in F1 qualifying.
“That car was amazing to drive,” remembers Alliot “Through the quick corners it was unbelievable. Sure, we had Michelin qualifying tyres, when everyone in F1 was on Goodyears, but we had so much downforce.”
Wright estimates that the 905 had as much as two and a half times the download of an F1 car at the time. “We had so much that we had to run the front end very stiff. We went for stiffer and stiffer springs and anti-roll bars, so that by the end we virtually had a solid front axle.” Even so, the French car retained a dramatic aerodynamic ‘porpoise’ throughout its life.
“You would hear these big bangs as the car was sucked violently down onto the track and bounced back up,” explains Alliot, describing the effect “It sounded frightening, but it wasn’t dangerous.”
Geoff Brabham could not quite believe the downforce levels on his one-off, victorious outing in the Group C car at Le Mans in 1993 – and he was driving the 905 in its low-drag configuration. For the ultra-fast French track, the twin-plane rear wing was backed right down, and the front spoiler, that elsewhere helped nail the front end to the deck, was removed.
“When I went to Le Mans they told me that they were running lowdownforce,” says the four-time IMSA GTP champion. “Yet, in the fast corners, it had far more downforce than I had in my Nissan in the US. I remember thinking that if they had put on all the downforce it would have ripped your head clean off your shoulders. It was a very physical car to drive.”
Brabham’s other overriding memory of the Peugeot, one shared by most former 905 pilotes, was its fantastic ability to be driven flat-out over long distances. “We were told to go as hard as we could,” remembers the Australian, who would beat the established Peugeot drivers with youngsters Christophe Bouchut and Eric Hélary that year. “Every time I got in the car it was like a new sprint race. Because of the forces involved, we could only run one stint at a time during the day and two at night.”
Warwick, who had switched to Peugeot when Jaguar axed the XJR14 programme after one season, has similar memories of his success at La Sarthe alongside Dalmas and Mark Blundell the previous year: “The thing I remember most is that we drove flat out until an hour and a half before the end of the race. We knew we could do it because we had done so much testing. I arrived from Jaguar in the winter and was launched straight into a big test programme aimed at Le Mans. Sure, we wanted to win the world championship, but the 24 Hours was the real target”
Toyota provided the only real opposition to Peugeot at La Sarthe in those years. The Peugeot may have trounced the TOM’S-run TS010s on the SWC trail in 1992, but Toyota was a much more credible opponent at Le Mans. The 905 remained a high-drag racing car in comparison to its much more slippery Japanese rival, and that told around the 8.5-mile Le Mans lap.
The Toyota’s designer suspected that he had come up with the better chassis, and this was confirmed when he joined the Ferrari 333SP project at the end of 1993. “Baldi was the Ferrari test driver at the time, and he told me that the Peugeot couldn’t live with our car in the fast corners,” says Southgate. “In the twiddly bits we had ’em, but they had a clear edge on horsepower.”
Wright agrees with Southgate. “The Toyota was the better chassis and they were definitely quicker than us in the race in 1993,” he says. “I thought they were going to wipe the floor with us, but they had problems during the race and didn’t react well to them.”
Todt’s Peugeot Sport equipe, on the other hand, was a well-oiled team that had turned the 905 into an ultra-reliable racing machine. Peugeot did have its problems at Le Mans in both 1992 and ’93, but each time one of the three cars entered ran through the race without significant delay. Warwick’s car needed attention to the electrical system in 1992, and the following year the winning car would have completed the 24 hours needing nothing more than a new bolt in the rear wing had not the team decided to change the exhaust system as a precaution.
That reliability was a testament to the rigorous testing routine masterminded by Todt, using the same attention to detail that turned Ferrari’s F1 fortunes around in the mid-1990s. “The difference between us and Toyota wasn’t in the car, but in the organisation,” reckons Alliot “With Jean everything was optimised 100 per cent for winning.
“One year we did nine simulations at Paul Ricard, and we weren’t just running for 24 hours. By the end of the programme we would do 34,35 or more hours. That’s why we could drive Le Mans flat out all the way. It was like a 24-hour grand prix.”