In 1976, Peugeot employees Gerard Welter and Michel Meunier debuted their first Le Mans racer in the GTP class. Their small operation was principally staffed by volunteers, but did rather well over the years. However, as rules changed and competition from better funded teams got ever heavier, the WM outfit was having a hard time keeping up.
The men realized their tiny underfunded team would never be able to truly run with the big dogs in Group C, so they decided to focus on one thing only for 1987. The new goal was to reach a top speed of 400 kph (249 mph) on the long, still uninterrupted Mulsanne Straight. They realized their P86 model was nowhere near suitable to reach their goal, so work began on a more aerodynamically efficient successor.
Welter and Meunier had been receiving covert support from their employers at Peugeot, who’s management was enthusiastic when hearing about the plan. To help WM along the French manufacturer opened its wind tunnels for them every Sunday for four months. The resulting shape was radically different from its predecessor.
The body of the new car had been made much wider and sleeker than that of the P86. In addition to the enclosed rear wheels, the fronts were now partially covered as well, greatly reducing drag. As Group C regulations still allowed ground-effect aerodynamics, the car was adapted to feature large underbody venturi tunnels. The accelerated air underneath would create a partial vacuum, which pushed the cars wheels down onto the tarmac. The use of an efficient ground effect system meant there was no use for massive drag-inducing wings. This was yet another feature that reliably increased top speed and decreased drag.
The sleek speed machine was powered by a 2.85L PRV (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo) twin turbo V6. The 90 degree unit had been intended as a V8, but was cut down when the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo drove up fuel prices. The engine was used in both naturally aspirated and turbocharged forms in several different road cars from the three brands at the time.
Aside from the three collaborating companies, it was also included in Alpine’s, Lancia’s and the famous Delorean DMC-12. While never a particularly popular road engine in terms of reliability or performance, the development WM had at their disposal was a force to be reckoned with. When the boost was turned up to 11, as much as 850 horsepower was on tap.
With the new P87 now all set, WM took to the Le Mans Test day for their first attempt. There the PRV’s questionable reputation made another appearance with persistent engine management issues. Barely managing to run a lap of the course, the car still set a trap speed of 351 kph (218 mph). In the weeks between the test and the race, the P87 ran a second time on a closed off section of a newly built highway, reaching an amazing 416 kph (258 mph). WM was now confident the car would break the 400 kph barrier at Le Mans.
WM used an all French driver squad, consisting of Philippe Gache, Dominique Delestre and Roger Dorchy for the #52 P87. The older P86 was also run as a more serious race entry. The #51 entry would be piloted by Jean-Daniel Raulet, Pascal Pessiot and François Migault.
The P87 qualified in 21st, behind the older P86 in 18th. During the opening laps of the race it ran well. Roger Dorchy reached a promising 381 kph (236 mph) on the official ACO radar in the first few laps. Disaster struck on lap 13, when the PRV went out with a bang.
The ACO had supplied the teams with horribly low grade fuel, which had lead to an overheating and detonating engine. In response the V6 exploded its entrails all over the track. Unfortunately for WM, the P86 suffered the same fate a lap later with Jean-Daniel Raulet at the helm. Despite missing their mark, the small team had still set a record.
Even though the 1987 effort ended in an exceptionally expensive disaster, WM was spurred on by the impressive speed the P87 had shown. For 1988 the decision was made to further improve on the P87's design principles. The overall shape of the P87 had proven to be effective, so not much was changed on that front. Instead attention was paid to redesigning the rear suspension to allow for even larger venturi tunnels, further increasing downforce and improving high speed stability. The changes would allow WM's drivers to safely push the envelope even further.
A much bigger difference was made in the engine compartment. The PRV now measured 3.0L in displacement and featured dual overhead cam cylinder heads. The extra engine wizardry resulted in a healthy 910 horsepower and a whopping 1020 nm (752 lb ft) of torque. The incredible grunt was dealt with by a strengthened 5-speed manual gearbox. The car weighed just 900 kg (1985 lbs), pushing the power to weight ratio off the charts.
To improve their chances at a record, the older P87 chassis received the same improvements, but remained fitted with the older engine. The older car would serve as back-up to the P88 in case the PRV would hand in the towel prematurely.
The new P88 was set to be driven by an altered driver line up. Claude Haldi of Switzerland now joined Jean-Daniel Raulet and Roger Dorchy for the #51 drive. In the P87 Pascal Pessiot and François Migault were joined by Michel Pignard and Luigi Bello.
The newer car clocked 387 kph (240 mph) in the first practice session, but the measured speed seemed off. The ACO arranged for a new radar system to be fitted to correct the issue. Unfortunately this also meant the session had been a waste as the new system would take some considerable time to install.
With the practice sessions now rendered useless for an attempt, the cars would have to wait until race day. Qualifying was not taken very seriously, as the cars were never intended to actually finish the event. The P88 managed a meager 36th on the grid, way down from its older sister in 22nd.
The race was threatening to be a repeat of 1987. The P87 retired from competition after just 22 laps with transmission failure. Sadly, the P88 was also not without its teething problems, suffering from last year’s engine management issues and loosening bodywork. The car was shoved back into the pits, and after a long 3.5 hour repair it was finally ready for another go.
Roger Dorchy was again behind the wheel, and was told to slowly build up speed to avoid over-stressing the engine. After a few trouble free laps, he got the green light from the team to turn up the boost. After several passes at over 400 kph, Dorchy recorded a highest trap speed of a dizzying 407 kph (252 mph) on the bumpy 6 kilometer (3.7 mile) straight. After a few more laps the engine finally overheated from the extra strain and the car was retired.
In an agreement with Peugeot the amazing number achieved was slightly lowered to 405 kph, to coincide with the release of the company’s new 405 passenger car. Gerard Welter and Michel Meunier could not care less, as they had finally achieved their goal. The P88 was set to make another appearance at Le Mans the following year, but budgetary concerns prevented it from starting.
The WM P88 Peugeot was the ultimate underdog. Faced with much more capable and better funded opposition, the WM outfit decided to pick a fight with the only thing they could beat: the air. In an all or nothing effort they flung their hopelessly unreliable machine across a stretch of French countryside faster than anyone had done before.
The amazing achievement put their name in the record books, which was worth far more than a single victory. With the introduction of two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight in 1990, beating WM's record became virtually impossible. Because of this and many technical restrictions, the fastest car to ever run at Le Mans is still a clunky overheating French thing from the late '80s.