Very Good Car Alert

The Peugeot 905 took a winning Group B rally team, mixed in F1 design, and built one of Le Mans' greats.

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It does not bother me to say that I am all but legally obligated to post this Very Good Car alert, in this case for a Peugeot 905 Evo 1 Bis, the company’s V10-powered Le Mans legend.

The wonder of the Peugeot 905 is not in its history, though it is a history that’s fun. The wonder of it takes no research. You just need to see the look of the car, a low-wide sports prototype with a rear wing big enough for a biplane, and try to square it with the sound echoing out of it. Behind the driver sits what was not all that different from a contemporary early ‘90s F1 engine. It is a 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated V10 that made about 715 horsepower, per the sports car racing resource Mulsanne’s Corner, and it was pushing a car that only weighed about 1,700 pounds. It was one of the fastest cars on the globe at the time. More enduring than its speed, though, is its sound. The V10 is a hollow wail, less like sound coming out of a car and more like sound collapsing into it. The Peugeot 905 disappears around a corner, and the world crumbles in its wake.

OK, with all that said, I can’t help but indulge in a little bit of 905 history. The car starts with a Group B rally team out of a job and ends with a two-seater Le Mans car built like an F1 car, as UltimateCarPage explains:

When the Group B class was cancelled at the end of the 1986 season, the back-to-back World Championship winning Peugeot 205 was left obsolete. The Jean Todt run Peugeot Sport team was left with several options; they could build a new Group A car to continue in the World Rally Championship, or broaden their perspective and enter a new form of racing. The first option was discarded and the Group B cars were converted to race in events like Paris Dakar and the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. A change in the Group C regulations for Le Mans cars opened new prospects for the French manufacturer. The new ‘3.5 litre’ regulations allowed Peugeot to enter sportscar racing with a clean sheet design without having to face thoroughly developed machines. Following the Formula 1 regulations, Turbo charged engines were banned and a displacement maximum of 3.5 litre was set. The thought behind this was that it could in the long run lure more manufacturers into F1.

Having never won the legendary event, Peugeot decided to use the Group B Championship winning momentum to take a stab at Le Mans and the associated World Sportscar Championship. A completely new engine had to be developed and the Peugeot engineers came up with a V10 engine with a rather unconventional 80 degree V-angle. It was one of the very first ten cylinder engines and helped set a trend in Formula 1. The rest of the ‘SA35-A1' followed a familiar pattern with its light alloy construction and four valves per cylinder, twin cam layout. Mated to a six speed gearbox, the V10 was bolted as a semi-stressed to a Dassault Aerospace engineered carbon-fibre monocoque. If it wasn’t for the two seater layout, the rolling Peugeot 905 LM chassis could easily be mistaken for a contemporary F1 racer. 

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Jean Todt went from the all-conquering Group B Peugeot 205 to the all-conquering Group C Peugeot 905 to the all-conquering Schumacher/Ferrari F1 program. The guy has a resume.

The joy of all of this video of a vintage Group C car track day in southern France’s Paul Ricard circuit, more than any one car in specific, is that you get to revel in what is great about sports car racing as a concept. Compared to formula series, sports car racing puts a lot of different cars on track, built with different philosophies. They are built with different philosophies, different engines. They do not take corners the same way; they do not sound the same. There is a joy in picking a car out of the crowd, so to speak, by its sound alone.

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The other interesting part of the video is that you can get a sense of how Group C was so very doomed. Much as these cars do not sound the same, for the most part they look the same. Even I have a hard time telling various Spice cars from Lolas from Porsches and Jaguars with liveries I’d forgotten about. There was no great way for Jaguar to communicate that its winning cars were Jaguars beyond the stickers on the side. As costs ballooned, it didn’t make much sense for a carmaker like it to stick it out with Le Mans racing versus, say F1. And that’s exactly what Jaguar (and other top factories of the late Group C era) did.