The Peugeot 905 Evolved Into A Two-Time Le Mans Winner Before It Helped Kill Group C Racing
Photography by Will Broadhead
The rise and fall of formulas and the championships they’re tied to is part of the cycle of life in the world of motorsport. Cars come and go, engineering is superseded, and the effects of financial pressures and rule changes can cause the demise of a series in seemingly the blink of an eye. Group C was one such category that’s no longer with us, and seemingly just after its peak popularity, the budgets were strained by a regulation shift that favored cars that were just too expensive for most teams to field, and so they began to disappear in the early ‘90s. But one of the last great success stories in Group C was also the very epitome of what went wrong. That car was the Peugeot 905.
The original 905 project was announced late in 1988, to be headed up by Jean Todt for Peugeot Talbot Sport, with the aim of having a finished car to compete in the 1991 World Sports Car Championship (WSC). After the demise of Group B rallying—which the French team was doing quite well in in the mid-‘80s, Peugeot went in a new direction with its motorsport efforts. The 905 competed in a few races at the end of the 1990 season, but 1991 was a more significant year for the championship, as, at the command of Bernie Ecclestone, new rules were introduced that were designed to encourage the use of Formula 1 engine derivatives in the WSC. The new category would be known as Group C1, but with uptake and development slow from the majority of teams that competed in the previous iterations of Group C—the cost of developing and running F1 engines in endurance trims no doubt a lot to do with it—the old guard of Group C cars like the Porsche 956/962 would still compete under the Group C2 heading.
Back in the suburbs of Paris however, and the 905 was taking shape, with its technologically-advanced carbon fiber tub (that looks remarkably like a widened F1 tub when stripped back), which housed a light 3.5L V10. The motor bore more than a little bit of a resemblance to the F1 engines that had been introduced in 1989 to help reduce costs and boost entries after the F1 turbo era. In fact, minus the bodywork, the 905 was in essence a Grand Prix machine not wholly dissimilar to the Ferrari’s 312PB concept in the 1970s, and in the summer of 1990 the car that Peugeot had designed to win Le Mans was unveiled to world.
It wasn’t quite the full ticket though. Considerably slower than the earlier Group C cars at that stage (although much faster than the privateer teams that had entered cars under the new rules, such as Spice), the 905 was also somewhat lacking in another crucial aspect: reliability. The reliability concern would prove to be the car’s achilles heel as it undertook its first full season of racing in 1991—it was faster now at least, although its pace against the competition had been helped by the penalties put in place against the now re-classified Group C2 cars. Still, it could not match its main rival in the C1 class—the extremely impressive Jaguar XJR-14—in terms of speed or longevity, and the car that was designed to bring the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy back to France didn’t manage much more than an hour in the 1991 edition of the great race.
Revisions were in quick order, and for the second half of the 1991 season the evolved 905B was deployed, with a complete aerodynamic overhaul. Only the cockpit was carried over from the original design, with the addition of a front wing that could be removed depending on the circuit, and a huge rear wing that hung off the rear similar to the unit that sat aft of the Jaguar’s fuselage. The SA35 V10 engine was revised as well, with more ponies extracted from the power plant this time around (it made over 700bhp), and the entire package allowed Peugeot to finish the season strongly, with back to back 1-2 finishes in Magny-Cours and Mexico.
Jaguar withdrew from Group C and the WSC at the end of the 1991 season, citing that they had accomplished all they wanted to, and although the XJR-14 would appear with a Mazda badge replacing the famous big cat, a lack of major development meant the path was cleared for the next evolution of the 905, the 905 Evo 1B, to conquer the championship the following year. This included a win at Le Mans in 1992, in which the original Group C machines were allowed to race after being outlawed from the WSC.
The 905 Evo 1B would win again at Le Mans in 1993, completing a clean sweep of the top three positions, with the trio of Bouchet, Hélary, and Brabham driving the winning car, but the writing was already on the wall. The troubled WSC had already ceased to exist after the 1992 season, with dwindling grid numbers and manufacturers realizing that they essentially had to fund F1 power plant development to stay current. Peugeot itself headed to the bright lights of F1 with the SA35 engine, with relatively minor modifications to make the V10 lump legal for the premier motorsport series. They debuted with McLaren, and after staying in the sport until the new millennium, they left to concentrate once more on rallying after finding little success in Grand Prix racing.
Thus 905 now sits as an interesting paradox in motorsport history, an undoubtedly beautiful and successful car and one of the quickest of its era, a two-time Le Mans winner, and yet at the same time it was part of the beginning of the end of what was one of the most beloved prototype racing series. The conspiracy theories behind the demise of Group C to benefit F1 can stay put for another day, though; for now I’m just happy to admire what is to my eye, a beautiful piece of French engineering.