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The Rich History of Peugeot and Le Mans

A look back at Peugeot Le Mans racers over the years

three Peugeot Darl'Mat 402 DS during the 24 hours of Le Mans
Drivers and mechanics posing with three Peugeot Darl'Mat 402 DS during the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1938 (Archives Terre Blanche/Photononstop)

Images courtesy of Glen Smale, Peugeot Motorsport, and Archives Terre Blanche/Photononstop

On 26-27 May 1923, the first Le Mans 24 Hours event was held, or the Grand Prix d’Endurance de 24 Heures, as it was called in France. In the early years, it was not a race as such, but an endurance contest to test the durability and reliability of production-based vehicles that could be purchased by the public. 

The emphasis was solidly on the production aspect of the cars competing, and vehicle modifications were not permitted. Also, the ‘winner’ as such was decided over a three-year period during which time the contestants would be measured against a set lap target, and the winner was that car or team that exceeded their target by the highest margin. 

The winner over this three-year average performance target would receive the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup, and so it was intended to become a rolling competition, also encouraging repeated participation. 

Main gate to Le Mans Museum
The Le Mans Museum situated at the main gate to the circuit (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

The problem was that the drivers would change during that three-year period, some drivers swapping teams or even manufacturers, while some cars and teams would not compete year after year. 

This complicated system of calculation became so cumbersome that the Triennial Cup became the Biennial Cup in 1924 in an effort to reduce the complexity of keeping tabs on who had done what in which race, and which drivers were still around. So, in 1924, the second running of the race was the second year of the Triennial Cup, but it was also the first year of the Biennial Cup. 

In keeping with the production theme of the cars, each car had to carry 60 kg of ballast on each of the vacant seats in the car to replicate the weight of a passenger. If the car was a convertible, then the flexible hood had to be carried in the car, and in fact, the driver was required to complete a set number of laps with the hood down, then call into the pits to erect the hood after which he would go out to again to complete a number of laps before coming in again to fold the hood away again. This was to show that the car was indeed a fully functioning road-legal automobile.

Peugeot’s First Le Mans 24 Hours

Peugeot 174 S
Peugeot 174 S currently on display in the Le Mans Museum Peugeot Exhibition (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

Appearing on the entry list for the first time in 1926 was the French car maker, Peugeot. A pair of Type 174 Sport cars were entered powered by a 3.8-litre straight 4-cylinder engine. However, despite being a huge car manufacturing concern, rules are rules, and both cars were unfortunately disqualified for infringements. 

The No. 3 car driven by Louis Wagner/Christian Dauvergne was retired after 76 laps with electrical problems, while the No. 2 car of André Boillot/Louis Rigal was not allowed to continue after 82 laps as it had a broken windscreen, no doubt from a stone kicked up by another competitor. 

Peugeot Darl’mat Special Sport

1937 Peugeot Darl'mat 302
1937 Peugeot Darl’mat 302 DS currently on display in the Le Mans Museum Peugeot Exhibition (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

Although Peugeot did not officially return to Le Mans with a full factory team until 1992, it did compete by supplying engines and also through supporting other teams by providing mechanical and testing expertise. 

A decade later, in 1937, Peugeot supported Émile Darl’mat, a Peugeot dealer, in producing a trio of special bodied cars of the dealer’s own design for the race. Featuring streamlined and extremely attractive roadster bodies and boasting 2-litre straight 4-cylinder engines, the three cars gave an impressive account of themselves finishing seventh, eighth and tenth overall, thanks to their excellent reliability. 

Peugeot 302 Darl'mat
Peugeot 302 Darl’mat of Daniel Porthault and Louis Rigal during the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1937 (Archives Terre Blanche/Photononstop)

The following year, three special bodied Darl’mat Peugeot 402s were entered once again, but this time only one finished, the No. 24 car driven by Peugeot’s own competitions manager, Charles de Cortanze, and Marcel Contet. 

three Peugeot Darl'Mat 402 DS during the 24 hours of Le Mans
Drivers and mechanics posing with three Peugeot Darl’Mat 402 DS during the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1938 (Archives Terre Blanche/Photononstop)

Charles Deutsch

With the dawn of the 1960s came an increasing emphasis on aerodynamics. While engine power was obviously important, lightweight and aerodynamically shaped bodies could produce impressive results too, as Porsche had proven in the 1950s. 

Charles Deutsch, an aerodynamic specialist in Paris, developed very streamlined and lightweight bodies featuring wind-cheating shapes, and was one of the first to use aerodynamic aids to great effect. 

View of the engine of the CD SP66 of Pierre Lelong and Alain Bertaut during the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 (Archives Terre Blanche/Photononstop)

The CD SP66 was fitted with two vertical fins at the rear, which offered increased stability at high speed. In 1966, the longest surviving of the three cars was disappointingly retired after 91 laps. The following year just two cars were entered, with even worse results as the first car retired after 25 laps with overheating problems and the other after 35 laps with a broken conrod.

CD SP66 currently on display in the Le Mans Museum
CD SP66 currently on display in the Le Mans Museum Peugeot Exhibition (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

Peugeot Prototypes

It would be 25 years before Peugeot would enter the Le Mans 24 Hours again, this time with its eye firmly on the top prize. The manufacturer was entering the Group C era towards the end of this great period in sports car racing, when the Porsche 962C was nearing the end of its life. An added complication was that Group C had been thrown a curved ball by the FIA requiring the top teams to limit their engine capacity to 3.5-litres. 

The engine layout of the 905 comprised an 80º V10 DOHC engine with 40-valves, and produced in the order of 670 hp. Peugeot produced its new engine for 1991 to comply with this rule, but it wasn’t sufficiently well tested for the rigours of 24-hours of endurance racing. 

As a result, the two Peugeot 905s were both out of the action early on in the race, the first after just 22 laps and the second after 68 laps. 

Peugeot 905
Peugeot 905 as raced at Le Mans in 1991, currently on display in the Le Mans Museum (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

For 1992, it was a different story, as the 905 Evo was victorious claiming first and third overall positions at Le Mans. The winning car, driven by Britons Derek Warwick and Mark Blundell together with Frenchman Yannick Dalmas, beat the second-placed Toyota by six laps. 

Although the Peugeots were much faster than the Toyotas, and everybody else for that matter, they still had to contend with the difficult weather conditions, and avoid any collisions with other cars for 24 long hours. 

No. 1 Peugeot 905 Evo
Derek Warwick, Yannick Dalmas and Mark Blundell drove the No. 1 Peugeot 905 Evo to overall victory in the 1992 Le Mans 24 Hours (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

The following year in the Le Mans 24 Hours was even more convincing. A squad of three 905 Evos was entered, resulting in a whitewash with Peugeots occupying all three steps of the podium. This time it was Éric Hélary, Christophe Bouchut and Geoff Brabham who climbed to the top step of the podium, beating teammates Thierry Boutsen, Yannick Dalmas and Teo Fabi by just a single lap. In third place it was Philippe Alliot, Mauro Baldi and Jean-Pierre Jabouille, making team boss Jean Todt a very happy man. 

Sadly, the Peugeot company had already made the decision to leave the World Sportscar Championship arena, and it would be a decade and half before they would return.

No. 1 Peugeot 905 Evo
The No. 1 Peugeot 905 Evo was driven by Thierry Boutsen/Yannick Dalmas/Teo Fabi to an overall second place in the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1993 (Archives Terre Blanche/Photononstop)

The Noughties

Peugeot made its comeback to Le Mans in 2007, joining the diesel wars with its 908 HDi FAP 5.5-litre turbocharged V12 car. There was no mistaking it, the French manufacturer matched the speed of the similarly powered Audi R10 TDIs, but this time it was the Audi that was victorious. The No. 8 Peugeot of Stéphane Sarrazin, Pedro Lamy and Sébastien Bourdais finished second, ten laps adrift.

No. 8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
The No. 8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP of Stéphane Sarrazin/Pedro Lamy/Sébastien Bourdais finished second behind the Audi R10 TDI in the 2007 Le Mans 24 Hours (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

But, Peugeot was back in 2008, and in the hands of Nicolas Minassian, Marc Gené and Jacques Villeneuve, the same spec No. 7 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP again finished second to the Audi R10 TDI, but this time the top two cars were on the same lap at the finish. The No. 9 Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Ricardo Zonta and Christian Klien was one place further back, and just two laps behind the top two cars. 

No. 8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
The No. 8 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP was driven by Stéphane Sarrazin/Pedro Lamy/Sébastien Bourdais in the 2007 Le Mans 24 Hours. Here the cars splash through the Esses after the big collision by Mike Rockenfeller’s Audi (note the repair truck in the background on its way to replace the Armco barriers at Tertre Rouge) (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

With two second place finishes behind them, much was expected of the Peugeot in 2009, and much to the delight of the French spectators, they delivered convincingly. Driving the No. 9 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, David Brabham, Marc Gené and Alexander Wurz recorded the French manufacturer’s third victory in a car that was largely unchanged from the previous year. 

To rub salt into Audi’s wound, the No. 8 Peugeot of Franck Montagny, Sébastien Bourdais and Stéphane Sarrazin (pole position) finished in second place just one lap behind the winning sister car, pushing Audi’s new R15 TDI into third. With this victory, Peugeot matched Matra’s tally of three victories, equalling the record for a French manufacturer.

No. 1 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
The No. 1 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP of Alexander Wurz/Marc Gené/Anthony Davidson retired after 360 laps with engine trouble in the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

The 2010 race was probably one that Peugeot would like to forget, as all three Peugeots retired as did the identical, privately entered Matmut Oreca Peugeot. While these four cars had dominated the starting grid by occupying the first four places, it was the reliability of the Audis that were in the perfect place to pick up the victory as the Peugeots fell out one after the other. 

Three of the four Peugeots retired with broken conrods, while the fourth succumbed to suspension failure. The Audi drivers admitted that they just didn’t have the pace of the Peugeots, but in the end it wasn’t speed that won the day, it was reliability. 

No. 1 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Sébastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Pedro Lamy, seen here climbing the Dunlop hill on Saturday afternoon, finished second to Audi in the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

The following year saw new regulation changes take effect. The Peugeot 908 HDi was now powered by a 3.7-litre turbocharged V8 diesel engine, as was the Audi squad as well, although the German cars used a V6 engine. The Peugeots and Audis were well matched during the race, but this was the year of McNish’s big accident when he impacted the tyre wall on the outside of the track just after the Dunlop bridge, eliminating the No. 3 Audi. 

Later that night, the No. 1 Audi driven by Mike Rockenfeller was bumped at high speed by a Ferrari, writing off that Audi too, and leaving just the No. 2 Audi of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer to carry the flag for the German manufacturer. Audi was victorious again, but only by 14 seconds, as the No. 9 Peugeot of Sébastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Pedro Lamy finished close behind on the same lap. 

In fact, Peugeot occupied positions two through four, all three cars being separated by just four laps. 

No. 1 Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Sébastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Pedro Lamy pass under the Dunlop bridge early on Sunday morning on their way to a second place finish in the 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

Peugeot Withdraws in 2012

In late 2011, the ACO announced its list of automatic entries for the 2012 race. Peugeot was listed as having an automatic entry due to it winning the Petit Le Mans race in the US, but the French manufacturer chose not to accept their automatic invitation. 

On 18 January 2012, the ACO revealed that, after five years of exceptional participation at Le Mans, Peugeot had decided to withdraw from sports car racing, citing financial difficulties.

Peugeot’s Exceptional Engines

Through the 1960s, Charles Deutsch used the engine of the Peugeot 204 to power his aerodynamic CD Peugeot SP66. Then, in the mid-1970s, Gérard Welter and Michel Meunier (WM) created their own cars powered by Peugeot engines. From 1976, the WM endurance racers were fitted with the V6 PRV engine which was produced through the triangular consortium consisting of Peugeot, Renault and Volvo, which was eventually fitted to a wide variety of road cars. 

In 1988, this engine entered the history books when it powered the WM P88 of Roger Dorchy at Le Mans, establishing a speed record of 252 mph (405 km/h) down the Mulsanne straight! The car retired shortly after with a blown engine.

The Next Chapter

Peugeot 9X8
Overhead view of the new Peugeot 9X8 (Peugeot Motorsport)

Peugeot announced back in September 2020 that it intended to participate in the new Hypercar class with an innovative hybrid sports racer. Called the Peugeot 9X8, this futuristic looking and aerodynamically bold creation certainly turned some heads. 

The race car is powered by a rear-mounted, 2.6-litre, bi-turbo, 680 hp (500 kW) 90-degree V6 – the internal-combustion engine part of the Peugeot Hybrid4 powertrain. This is supplemented by a front-mounted 200 kW motor-generator unit, the car being driven through a seven-speed sequential gearbox.

Peugeot 9X8
Image credit: Peugeot Motorsport

The absence of a rear wing is one of its most striking features. “The greater flexibility allowed by the sport’s new technical rules regarding aerodynamics permits radical new thinking that favours the emergence of innovative cars, with scope for the design teams to make an even bigger contribution. 

Peugeot’s engineers and designers effectively took advantage of this opportunity to invent new creative processes and break away from established codes to produce a Hypercar of a completely new genre,” this extract taken from the official 9X8 press release. 

interior and cockpit of the new Peugeot 9X8
Showing the interior and cockpit of the new Peugeot 9X8, currently on display in the Le Mans Museum Peugeot Exhibition (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

Peugeot 9X8’s forms and aerodynamic characteristics are revolutionary rather than evolutionary. “…the regulations stipulate that only one adjustable aerodynamic device is permitted, without specifying the rear wing. Our calculation work and simulations revealed that high performance was effectively possible without one,” explained Olivier Jansonnie, Peugeot Sport’s WEC Programme Technical Director. 

The name of Peugeot’s new Hypercar challenger is the Peugeot 9X8. The ‘9’ continues the series employed by the manufacturer for its recent endurance racing cars, namely the Peugeot 905 (which raced from 1990 until 1993) and the 908 (2007 until 2011), both of which won the Le Mans 24 Hours. 

The ‘X’ refers to the Peugeot Hypercar’s all-wheel drive technology and hybrid powertrain which embodies the brand’s electrification strategy in the world of motor racing. And finally, the ‘8’ is the suffix used for all of Peugeot’s current model names, from the 208 and 2008, to the 308, 3008, 5008 and the 508 which very recently passed through the hands of the same engineers and designers who crafted the Hypercar, to become the first car to wear the ‘Peugeot Sport Engineered’ label. 

A close-up of the futuristic rear light cluster of the new Peugeot 9X8
A close-up of the futuristic rear light cluster of the new Peugeot 9X8, currently on display in the Le Mans Museum Peugeot Exhibition (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

The innovative Peugeot 9X8 made its competitive debut in Round 4 of this season’s WEC at Monza in July, where one car finished 33rd (third last) with the other being not classified. The 9X8’s second race was Round 5 of the WEC held in Japan, where the two cars finished fourth and twentieth overall. 

The same engine problem affected both cars in Japan, preventing them from finishing any higher, but the team will go forward to the final round of the 2022 WEC season in Bahrain having learned from these three races this year, and with much valuable data for the future. The 2023 season will see Team Peugeot TotalEnergies contest the full WEC campaign, including the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Display boards showing design inspiration for the new Peugeot 9X8
Display boards showing design inspiration for the new Peugeot 9X8, currently on display in the Le Mans Museum Peugeot Exhibition (Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale)

This transference of technology from the track to its road cars, more than justifies the company’s involvement in motorsport. The future for Peugeot is certainly looking bright!