Peugeot has pulled the cover of its highly anticipated Le Mans Hypercar, set for debut in the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2022.
It will mark the first time Peugeot has raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in over ten years, following its abrupt departure before the start of the first FIA World Endurance Championship season.
It remains one of the most successful manufacturers in Le Mans history, with three overall victories in 1992, 1993 and 2009. How did Peugeot establish itself as one of Le Mans’ household names before its return in 2022? MotorsportWeek.com takes a closer look.
The Peugeot name first appeared at Le Mans in 1937, when French Peugeot distributor Emile Darl’mat built custom sportscars based on Peugeot’s fleet of production cars. It was through this connection that it first raced at Le Mans when Darl’mat entered several of its DS models in 1937 and 1938, based on a family car and powered by a two-liter engine from Peugeot.
Both years, there were successes. While it had to leave overall victory to other French manufacturers Bugatti and Delahaye and their larger cars, the elegant cars did well in the smaller 2.0 class. in 1937, it finished second and third to German squad Adler before beating the Germans to a class win one year later.
Darl’mat did not return to Le Mans for 1939, with World War II breaking out soon thereafter. As the company faltered after the war, so did Peugeot’s involvement at Le Mans.
It wasn’t until 1952 that it returned when French privateer Alexis Constantin entered a supercharged Peugeot 203C, marking the first time a Peugeot-built car entered the race under its own name. In a race that was notable for French driver Pierre Levegh almost pulled off the astronomical feat for driving the race on his own, Constantin rolled his Peugeot in heavy fog after fifteen hours and retired.
Constantin would keep coming back in the next few years, eventually converting his 203C into an open-topped spyder version for 1954, calling it the Constantin-Peugeot before dropping the French manufacturer’s name completely for 1955, although his Constantin 203C Spyder would remain powered by the same supercharged Peugeot engine. It would not race at Le Mans again after 1956, causing the Peugeot name to again disappear from Le Mans.
It would take a full decade for it to return, once again as an engine supplier. This time, a Peugeot engine powered a fleet of three CD SP66s, a streamlined and curious looking prototype built by Charles Deutsch’s Automobiles CD.
It was the start of two-year effort at Le Mans that was best left forgotten, as none of the cars reached the finish in both in 1966 and 1967. One of the cars is currrently on permanent display at the Musee de 24 Heures.
Into the record books
Again, it took years before the Peugeot name appeared at Le Mans again, but this time, it would be the start of Peugeot’s journey into the Le Mans record books.
French engineers Gerard Welter and Michel Meunier, employed by Peugeot, built racing cars in their spare time under the WM name, first entering Le Mans in 1976 with the Peugeot-powered P76. After a slow start, success would come in 1979 as it took a GTP class win.
As the Group C era ramped up, however, the pluckly outfit began to increasingly struggle against the factory might from the likes of Porsche and Lancia. Instead, it opted to go to Le Mans with a different goal: obliterating the speed record down the long Mulsanne straight.
At a time when the circuit did not feature the chicanes that we know today, cars in the Group C era often reached blinding speeds down the long straight. Even by those standards, WM’s plan bordered on the insane: they intended to reach 400 kilometres per hour (249 mph).
After failing in 1987, and seemingly destined for failure again in 1988, the team achieved its goal. Under the shadow of Jaguar snapping Porsche’s reign of dominance, Frenchman Roger Dorchy was sent out in the WM P88, powered three-liter, twin-turbocharged PRV (Peugeot Renault Volvo) V6.
With the boost pressure turned up to the absolute maximum and with over 900 horsepower at his disposal, Dorchy pushed the already wounded car to a breathtaking 407 kilometers per hour, before the engine promptly decided it had enough and died.
For the next year, chicanes were installed on the Mulsanne Straight, ensuring that the top speed record set by Dorchy and WM will likely never be broken.
WM continued to race at Le Mans for the next few years. But while WM was busy shattering records, a certain Jean Tody was working on something far more serious in a Parisian suburb called Velizy-Villacoublay.
In November of 1988, Peugeot Talbot Sport (Peugeot’s factory-backed motorsport division) announced it would enter the World Sportscar Championship for the 1991 season.
The Peugeot 905, sporting a carbon fiber chassis engineering by aerospace firm Dassault and powered by a V10 engine, made its competitive debut at the end of 1990.
Its first full season proved to be a struggle. The car struggled with reliability and race pace, and although it won the opening round in Suzuka, it lost out in the championship to Jaguar. At Le Mans, neither of the two cars managed to finish as Mazda scored a famous upset win.
Keen to improve, Peugeot overhauled the 905 and introduced the 905B, with a new look and a more powerful changes as one of the many changes.
The improvements paid off: it beat Toyota to the 1992 title, and also won Le Mans overall for the first time as Derek Warwick, Yannick Dalmas and Mark Blundell took victory.
In 1993, it took advantage of Toyota’s mechanical misfortunes and took a dominant win, sweeping the podium. It proved the end for the 905, as the even more radical 905 Evo 2 never saw the light of day.
Instead, Peugeot opted to switch its focus to Formula One, as did Jean Todt, who moved to Ferrari at the end of the year.
The Diesel Wars
Much had changed in endurance racing since Peugeot’s departure after their 1993 Le Mans win. In their absence, Audi had become a dominant force.
In 2007, the German manufacturer was met with their most high-profile challenger yet as Peugeot returned to Le Mans with the 908 HDi FAP.
Unveiled in 2006 before making its race debut the following year, the LMP1 car was powered by a 5.5 liter twin-turbochaged V12 diesel engine. It took pole position at Le Mans that year, but a lack of speed compared to Audi, as well as mechanical woes, caused the Germans to triumph.
Peugeot came back far stronger a year later, but would still lose out to Audi in 2008, still widely considered to be one of the greatest editions of the race of all time as the slower #2 Audi ultimately came out on top, defeating the faster Peugeots with help from the heavy rainfall.
With Peugeot continuing to gain momentum, a third overall Le Mans win only seemed a matter of time. It came in 2009, when it finished one-two. Later that year, it would also win Petit Le Mans as part of the American Le Mans Series.
In 2010, Peugeot’s momentum continued, winning both the Twelve Hours of Sebring and the 1000 Kilometers of Spa before locking out the top four in qualifying for Le Mans.
The race itself, however, would be a deception. None of the cars reached the finish, leaving Audi free to sweep the podium.
Evolution and sudden exit
For 2011, the LMP1 regulations were changed. After having run the 908 HDi FAP since 2007, Peugeot introduced the new car, simply named ‘908’ in 2011.
While visually similar to its previous car, it featured handling upgrades and notably, a new 3.7 liter V8 as opposed to the larger V12 used in the old car.
The car took pole for its race debut at Sebring, but that race was surprisingly won by Oreca Team Matmut, campaigning one of the older V12-powered 908 HDi FAPs.
The 2011 edition of Le Mans was another enormous battle between Peugeot and Audi, racing its new R18 TDI Ultra. In a race notable for enormous crashes from Audi drivers Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller, the final remaining Audi triumphed over Peugeot by just 13 seconds in a nailbiting finish.
It would prove to be the final time the 908 would appear at Le Mans, as Peugeot’s fates took a sharp and unexpected turn in 2012.
Like Audi, Peugeot began to gear up for the introduction of the FIA World Endurance Championship, developing a new, hybrid-powered version of the 908 called the 908 Hybrid4.
That car, however, would never reach the WEC’s grid. In January of 2012, while Peugeot staff was already on the ground at Sebring International Raceway for testing ahead of the season opener, Peugeot suddenly announced that it was terminating its factory LMP1 programme effective immediately.
The reason behind the sudden decision was financial, as Peugeot had started to feel significant effects as a result of the global economic crisis. The PSA Group reported an operation loss of 92 million dollars in 2011, compared to operation income of 621 million dollars the previous year.
Against this backdrop, a very costly LMP1 Hybrid programme was always a likely target for the chopping block. The results were immediate.
The 908 Hybrid4 did one final lap of Peugeot’s test track and was never raced again as the ACO was left scrambling to find a replacement. It ultimately was successful persuading Toyota to increase its commitments to the series, where it has remained to this very day.