Grounded Gunship - 1992 Peugeot 905 Evo 2 "Supercopter"
After a series of hectic regulation changes in the 1970’s, the world of sports prototype racing had entered an age of relative stability and calm. Coming from the production derived, often still road legal racing specials of the 1950’s, the prototype rose to prominence in the early 1960’s with cars like the Ferrari 250P and the Lola Mk6 GT.
The 1970’s then, were like puberty for the category. The Ford GT40 Mk IV and the Porsche 917 were banned out of existence for being too darn powerful, turbocharging crept in, and two successive oil crises brought the sport as a whole to its knees. In response to all these developments, the Federation International de l’Automobile initially reacted by going into a panicked state of revisionism. Every two or three years the rulebook was completely changed, and entire groups redefined or simply discarded.
By the late 1970's, FIA Group 5 had already meant four different things.
By 1982 though, the governing body had snapped out of their frantic rule-making frenzy. In one big push, the FIA finally locked in the regulations for touring cars, rally cars, GT-cars and sportscars. Groups 1-7 were no converted to Groups A (touring/rally), B (GT/rally) and C (sportscars).
For prototype racing, the Group C formula was a godsend. The latter part of the 1970’s had started to revolve around the dark art of turbocharging, which enabled the driver to suddenly bump up power for qualifying or overtaking purposes by turning up the boost. In effort to combat this, the FIA placed restrictions on the maximum allowable fuel, stifling the thirsty turbo engines to the point a large naturally aspirated engine could theoretically compete with it.
With very few restrictions other than a minimum weight of 900 kg (1984 lbs), the category had an extraordinary amount of appeal. In an era where Formula One was slowly being taken over by drastically expensive and complicated turbo engines, the fact any sort of motor had a chance of being competitive sucked in a huge amount of both private and corporate entries.
By the end of the decade, Aston Martin, Porsche, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Ford, Mazda, Lancia, and Jaguar had all been involved in the World Sportscar Championship. The large grids, exciting races, big sponsor contracts and recognizable car brands helped the WSC gain momentum, leading to its popularity rivaling Formula One. But as the 90’s dawned, the Group C bubble was soon to be popped with a vengeance.
F1's turbo obsession was facing a total meltdown.
While the WSC had picked up steam, the self-proclaimed pinnacle of motorsport had seen manufacturer interest starting to wane. F1 had become an all-turbo championship with the outright banishment of naturally aspirated engines in 1986, but the sheer complexity and cost of those high-strung engines was starting to backfire.
As teams used several engines over a race weekend, including a banzai-spec 1200-1300 horsepower qualifier, supporting a full season was a hugely daunting task for any manufacturer hoping to break in. The initial failures of highly rated companies like Cosworth and Ferrari to produce a reliable enough turbo engine was an even bigger red flag.
If the biggest names in the business couldn’t pull it off right away, who could? Mounting costs and boring fuel-limited races saw the teams already in the sport starting to complain as well, so a new all naturally-aspirated formula was drawn up to take effect in 1989.
The 3.5L rule gave birth to Peugeot's glorious SA35-A1 V10.
Some time after the new rules had been introduced, the FIA inexplicably moved to tack them on to sportscar racing as well. For 1990, the successful Group C rules would be wiped out, with F1’s naturally aspirated 3.5L recipe taking over, complete with the abandonment of the fuel restrictions. Another distinctive change was the appointment of one Bernard Charles Ecclestone as head promoter of the World Sportscar Championship.
Surprising only the FIA, Ecclestone was operating on a double agenda. Lacking manufacturer support, his naturally aspirated Formula One was floating on the backs of a varied selection of Cosworth and Judd-powered privateers. With only Honda, Renault and Ferrari committed to the sport, and Bernie’s hatred of amateurs reaching its zenith, he had worked behind the scenes with his old brother in arms and high ranking FIA official Max Mosley to turn things around.
The 905 was the first big-budget 3.5L car.
Although protests from the competing manufactures delayed the introduction of the new formula to 1991, Ecclestone was unfazed. That season he eliminated the popular Group C2 for privateers, penalized the remaining older cars with 100 kg (220 lbs) of extra weight, scrambled up the racing calendar and proceeded to fantastically suck at his job as the series promoter.
Spice and Alba were the only C2 teams to stick around for a 3.5L adventure, while Peugeot bit the apple for manufacturers. Their 905 had already contested the last race of 1990, and was joined by the Jaguar XJR-14 and the Mercedes C291.
The first iteration of the car proved to be fast but fragile, and generally failed to keep up with the Jaguar. The exotic SA35-A1 V10 and the Daussault-built carbon fiber chassis had much more in store though, as the heavily revised 905B introduced mid-season would assert.
The 905B took Peugeot to the top.
For 1992, the older cars were now banned entirely. With very few customer cars available as most private 3.5L projects immediately failed, the grids were slashed in half. Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz also left, replaced by new arrival Toyota, and a curious new Mazda.
Peugeot had developed the 905B further into the Evo 1 Bis, but was already looking towards the future. While the Evo 1 was busy successfully fending off the TS010 in both the WSC title hunt and at Le Mans, Peugeot was hard at work to prepare a radical new machine for the 1993 season.
The 905 Evo 1 Bis dominated the 1992 season.
Ever since the introduction of the 3.5L formula, the World Sportscar Championship had started putting more emphasis on speed rather than endurance. Because the F1-style engines were simply not tough enough to last a full race distance, most of the series’ traditional 1000 kilometer events were shortened to half distance.
This new, Grand Prix-like style of racing motivated Peugeot to abandon the traditional design principles of an endurance racer even further. Under the old rules, the cars were built to be much tougher, and prioritized low drag and big power over downforce and handling to excel on the long straights of Le Mans. The times had changed however, and now Peugeot would follow in Jaguar’s footsteps to produce the closest thing to a two-seater Formula One car the rules would allow.
The carbon fiber tub looked eerily like a slightly widened F1 example.
Since the car was already a widened single seater at heart, the main focus of the Evo 2 was aerodynamics. In the past, Peugeot had attached a snow-shovel like front wing to the 905’s shell for sprint events, and ran the car without at Le Mans. For the Evo 2, that idea was thrown to the wind.
The new front end laid bare the 905’s Formula One style nosecone, which before had been hidden under more rounded bodywork. A smooth, rounded nose was great for reducing drag, but the design brief of the Evo 2 called for maximum downforce.
The distinctive wing-like panels helped mask the Evo 2's F1-genes.
The gaping holes in the front end revealed the wheel wells to be largely non existent. Two panels on either side of the nose gave the illusion of a closed cowling, and served to hide the front suspension setup.
The combined shape of these panels in combination with the nosecone and the aerospace-inspired cockpit would later remind French journalists of the hit TV-series Supercopter, the French title for the American show Airwolf, giving the car a great nickname.
The front end of the 905 E2 looked a bit like a certain famous attack helicopter.
Continuing the Formula One theme, a large double front wing was attached to the nose and the front of the wheel fairings, the only parts of the forward bodywork reminiscent of a normal sportscar. Curiously, there were no vents in the side of the car serving to relieve pressure from the wheel wells, with the car instead venting the air along the underbody, over the top and into the radiators.
Along the sides the car was almost completely flat, with large black skirts extending far below the car to contain the low pressure area created by two enormous underbody venturi tunnels. The rear spoiler was similar to the double wing used on the Evo 1, but was bigger, mounted higher up and featured reshaped endplates.
Strangely, rear wheel spats made a return after they had been abandoned on the 905B to ease pitstops and reduce rear brake temperatures. To compensate, the Supercopter sprouted sizable snorkels behind the cockpit. Another new addition were the big grey fins on the rear wheel arches, which increased stability and helped guide the incoming air to the massive rear wing.
Mechanically, the Peugeot remained largely unchanged from the Evo 1 Bis. A 670 horsepower version of the 40-valve SA35-A2 V10 was present, powering the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. As per the regulations, the car weighed in at 750 kg (1654 lbs), the reduced minimum weight in effect since the start of the 3.5L era.
The Supercopter throwing up sparks in testing, Paul Ricard 1992.
After some promising testing at Paul Ricard, the two completed Supercopters were transported to Magny Cours for the sixth and final round of the 1992 World Sportscar Championship. The series was originally slated to be contested over 10 rounds, but the declining state of affairs within the WSC and a global economic recession had seen the schedule cut down to eight rounds, before eventually having to settle on six.
The spare Evo 2 lying dormant, Magny Cours 1992. Note the unusual central headlight.
The bleak circumstances were reflected in the incredibly meager grid. Entered for the race were three Peugeots, three Toyotas, a Mazda MXR-01, two Lola T92/10’s for privateer Euro Racing, a Spice SE89C for British outfit Chamberlain Engineering and an SE90C ran by Italian Team S.C.I.
The Evo 2 on track at Magny Cours.
Additionally, the #1 905 Evo 2 Supercopter was officially entered for former Formula One aces Yannick Dalmas (FRA) and Derek Warwick (GB), and saw some action in practice. However, the session was more of a test than a full entry, as the pair opted to stick with the Evo 1 Bis.
The older car had been marked as 1T, indicating it was meant as a spare should the E2 fail to impress. Meanwhile, the second chassis remained in the paddock as a spare.
Derek Warwick (top) and Yannick Dalmas trying out the Supercopter.
Unfortunately, this brief appearance would be the first and last time the Supercopter would be present for a WSC weekend. Poor spectator attendance, a chronic lack of money and the failed reentry of Nissan had finally rang the death knell for the formerly immensely popular series.
With the World Sportscar Championship cancelled for 1993, Peugeot correspondingly axed the Evo 2 program. Instead the 905 Evo 1 Bis was updated yet again for the 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans, which ran independently under the governance of the Automobile Club de l’Oest. Following the car’s dominant 1-2-3 at that event, Peugeot pulled out of sportscar racing and into Formula One with McLaren. Just as Bernie had planned.
The Evo 2 next to an original 905, an Evo 1 Bis and a Peugeot-powered Jordan 195 Formula One car.
After the horrors of 1992, the Supercopters disappeared into Peugeot’s museum fleet, never turning a wheel in anger again. Footage taken in 2010 shows that at least one of the two chassis is kept in working order, although the run is taken at a disappointingly gingerly pace.
Although it didn’t race, the car’s groundbreaking design was so far ahead of its time it managed to inspire a brand new generation of LMP’s in the early 2000’s. Designer Pete Elleray admitted to being partially inspired by the car while designing the Bentley EXP Speed 8 and its successor which would win the 2003 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In the end then, the mythical Supercopter has left a lasting legacy despite becoming an instant museum piece. We can only hope Peugeot will take it out of the shop a bit more in the future. A car as important as the Evo 2 deserves to be seen in motion.