The WM team at Le Mans: Straight Fighters
Jaguar, Ferrari, Porsche:All are multiple Le Mans winners, but the WM team never sought to emulate them. Their raison d'etre was to attain the quickest speed ever recorded at La Sarthe. Gary Watkins writes
The rear wing was wound down and the boost wound up. Duct tape was strapped across almost every bodywork orifice and some brave soul was strapped into the cockpit. The driver would trickle out of the pits and, if he was lucky, limp back 10 minutes later in a pall of oil smoke. In between times, he’d hit an almost obscene terminal velocity on the Mulsanne Straight
Through most of the 1980s, the French WM team turned up for the Le Mans 24 Hours seemingly with only one goal — to top the speed-trap times on the four-mile straight, then uninterrupted by chicanes. A finish or even a decent qualifying time appeared secondary to this annual ritual.
“The car was made for top speed and nothing else,” recalls Thierry Boutsen of his Le Mans debut with WM back in 1981. “It was designed to be quickest down the straight”
Fellow Belgian Didier Theys, who raced for the team in 1982 and ’83, has similar memories: “They would keep trimming the car for straight-line speed, but that left us with no downforce. The car was terrible everywhere else, particularly through the Porsche Curves. Sure, the car was fast on the Mulsanne, but the lap times were terrible.”
Boutsen and Theys don’t have fond memories of their time at the wheel of the quirky Peugeot-engined WM coupes.
“They were scary to drive,” says Theys, “so unstable.”
Boutsen remembers a car that required all his attention just to make it to the end of the Mulsanne unscathed: “The width of the road was just wide enough to keep the thing under control. I used to zigzag all the way down the straight. If I wanted to pass another car I had to anticipate this movement”
Boutsen doesn’t blame this instability for the accident which ended his race and resulted in the death of a marshal. Rear suspension failure is believed to have caused the crash that sent his WM pinballing between the Mulsanne barriers for half a mile.
The accident was a blow to a team that former drivers likened to a big family. WM weren’t a professional operation, rather a group of enthusiastic volunteers working under the direction of two employees on Peugeot’s road-car design staff. Gerard Welter-the ‘W’ – was a top stylist, and together with fellow employee Michel Meunier – the ‘M’ – he had been building racing cars since 1969. They first turned up at Le Mans in ’76 with a car built to the new GTP fuel-formula rules, then switched to the new Group C division in 1982.
Peugeot provided technical assistance, allowing the team to use their wind tunnel and dynos, but the official line is that there was never any funding from the French car maker. It is not coincidence, however, that the team managed to attract sponsorship from companies with Peugeot associations, the likes of petrol giant Esso and the Heuliez styling house.
By the second half of the decade, WM had a new target: to break the 400km/h (250mph) barrier on the Mulsanne, which for all but five days a year is the main road between the cities of Le Mans and Tours. An all-new car was built for 1987 and the long-serving 2.8-litre twin-turbo PRV engine further developed.
The new P87 was completed in the paddock during that year’s pre-race test day on the Circuit de la Sarthe and the car managed just a handful of laps. Further testing was clearly required, so the team tried out its latest creation on a section of unopened autoroute near Reims. Sportscar veteran Francois Migault was chosen to drive and clocked an amazing 258mph (416km/h) over a five-mile course. Back at La Sarthe, though, engine problems restricted WM’s favoured son, Roger Dorchy, who had finished fourth for the team in 1980, to a mere 237mph maximum in qualifying.
Twelve months later, Welter and his crew set to their usual routine in the cool air of Saturday evening. Dorchy was strapped in and the boost wound sky-high. The Frenchman warmed up with one slow lap. Second time through the Mulsanne speed trap, the WM was travelling at 405km/h or 251mph. Shortly afterwards the overheating machine was out of the race.
WM didn’t improve its figures in 1989, though a Sauber-Mercedes nudged 250mph in qualifying. By the following year’s race, politics ensured two chicanes between Tertre Rouge and Mulsanne Corner. Dorchy, Welter and a happy band of amateurs would hold the speed record at Le Mans for the rest of time.