It’s June, and usually at this time of the year our thoughts turn to the small town of Le Mans, in France where, since 1923, a gruelling test of endurance of human and machine, has played out over 24 hours.
The global pandemic has delayed this year’s running of the Le Mans 24 Hour, which will instead be held in August.
But for those, missing their fix of world championship endurance racing, we time travel back to 1988 and the height of the Group C era. That year, Porsche and Jaguar battled for outright honours, the chequered flag eventually falling Jaguar’s way ending Porsche’s seven-year reign of terror on the annual twice-around the clock classic.
But, it’s not the battle for the victory that interests us in this story. Instead, 1988 saw a record broken, one that will never be bettered. And it’s a remarkable story.
Team WM, led and founded by Peugeot engineers Gérard Welter and Michel Meunier, enjoyed dabbling in the annual French classic. A part-time operation, the duo designed, engineered and built cars mainly in Welter’s home garage, with help from part-time mechanics.
The pair dovetailed their annual trek to La Sarthe while also working fulltime for French carmaker Peugeot. And if Welter’s name seems familiar, then that’s because it probably is. A lifelong employee of Peugeot, Welter’s most iconic design was the Peugeot 205, the headline in a portfolio that also include the 304, 604, 305, 405, 406 and his final design, the RCZ.
But, it’s his endeavours as a part-time Group C constructor that piqued our interest in this holiest of holy months for fans of sports car racing.
The Group C era of the world endurance championship remains the high watermark of the category. Active from 1982 until 1993, the era saw manufacturers embracing the category, the engineering freedoms afforded carmakers a drawing card.
Lightweight prototype racers powered by 800 horsepower turbocharged engines was a recipe for success. Yes, Porsche dominated the era, taking six straight wins between 1982-87, but it did so against a host of rivals from Lancia, Ford, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Aston Martin.
But, the series was also democratic and customer teams could – and did – buy race-ready prototypes to contest the World Sportscar Championship and its showcase event, the Le Mans 24 Hour.
That democracy extended to small-time constructors who, as long as they followed the Group C regulations could build their own prototype racers. Realistically, those outfits had little chance of beating the manufacturer led teams and privateers, but for them, the spirit of competition lived large inside them.
And so it did for Welter and Meunier who contested the Le Mans 24 Hours from 1976-1989 in cars they designed and built themselves. As competition between manufacturers intensified, the pair knew they had little chance of ever challenging for victory.
Instead, in 1986, they conceived Project 400 whose sole aim was to break the 400km/h barrier down the long Mulsanne Straight.
With Peugeot supplying the engines, as well as allowing the pair to use the French carmaker’s windtunnel facilities, the pair tried unsuccessfully in 1987 to hit the benchmark in their own garage-built WM P87, with lead driver Roger Dorchy hitting the speed trap at 356km/h before the car expired due to engine management issues.
The squad returned in 1988 with an all-new WM P88, again with the aim of eclipsing the seemingly impossible 400km/h barrier.
The car – with Dorchy as lead driver – qualified a lowly 36th for the race. And it didn’t get any better from there. Another engine management issue conspired to keep the WM P88 out of the race, but Welter’s hard-working team of part-timers busied themselves in the garage, spending three-and-a-half hours resolving the issue.
Finally, with the car once again running, Dorchy got the call to turn up the wick, his team asking he increase turbo boost pressure by 100 millibars and to go for it.
Dorchy reeled off a series of not particularly fast laps (the low downforce required to achieve maximum velocity meant the WM P88 was a pig to drive everywhere else on the 13.535km La Sarthe circuit) but he did 400km/h down the 6km-long uninterrupted Mulsanne Straight.
Not satisfied, Dorchy gripped the wheel, puckered up and on the next lap swept through the speed trap at 407km/h, a new record.
Predictably, the WM P88 expired shortly after with turbo and cooling issues, but the small team which had built the prototype racer in the backyard of Welter’s home didn’t care, their objective achieved.
Peugeot was elated with the result and the fact it was a Peugeot engine powering the WM P88. And in a triumph of marketing over engineering, Peugeot, the WM team and the race’s organisers, the ACO, agreed the record should be amended to 405km/h to coincide with the release of the new Peugeot 405.
The following year, Sauber-Mercedes attempted to eclipse the mark set by Welter’s crew in 1988, but fell short, hitting a top speed of 400km/h.
The introduction of two chicanes on Mulsanne in 1990, neutering what was once one of the most fearsome straights in motorsport, meant no car ever came close again, cementing Welter, Meunier, Dorchy and the WM P88’s place in Le Mans history.