KILBEY: The news that Hypercar needed

Image by Gibson/LAT

KILBEY: The news that Hypercar needed

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KILBEY: The news that Hypercar needed

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Today’s announcement that Peugeot Sport will be rejoining the highest level of sports car racing in 2022 with a Hybrid Hypercar WEC program is hugely significant, and a welcome surprise.

The French constructor’s return to Le Mans, which is almost certainly going to be in 2023 (at the end of the 2022/23 season), is major news for sports car racing and in particular, the FIA and ACO’s forthcoming Hypercar regulations, and comes after years of evaluation and lobbying.

It adds an all-important third name to the list of committed major OEMs, joining Toyota and Aston Martin. And more importantly, it injects a huge amount of optimism and credibility to a ruleset that has weathered a rocky inception and waves of cynicism from within the industry since it was finalized earlier this year.

If three manufacturers – and entries from smaller teams and makes such as Glickenhaus and ByKolles – are racing against one another in the WEC’s top class from 2022 onwards, then the WEC’s Hypercar move will be seen as a success.

Interestingly, the stated 2022 debut from Peugeot coincides with the introduction of IMSA’s DPi 2.0 rules, which still have potential to form part of a globalized formula that shares the same principles as Hypercar, and allows cars from both championships to race together. Peugeot’s entry at that point could well form part of an injection of multiple manufacturers into the top level of sports car racing, giving the sport new life worldwide.

Peugeot Sport will undoubtedly arrive as a serious, significant player with sky-high aspirations. It is a name with a storied past in endurance racing, dating back to the late ‘80s when, under the Peugeot Talbot Sport name, it launched the 905 program that earned nine wins from 17 appearances (in various iterations) between 1990 and 1993.

Peugeot Sport put itself on the sports car map with the 905 in the early 1990s. Image by LAT

The highlights, unsurprisingly, were the 905’s successes on home soil at Le Mans. The brand took victories in 1992 and 1993 in the 24 Hours, at a time when sports car racing was on a downturn. The collapse of the FIA World Sports Car Championship in 1993, the season after it won the title in 1992, prompted Peugeot to walk away and enter the Formula 1 ranks as an engine supplier until 2000.

Peugeot’s decision to return now reignites the briefest of sports car rivalries from that time period. Back then, the French marque beat Toyota’s TS010 to victory at Le Mans in ‘92 and ‘93. Will it achieve the same feat in 2023, three decades on?

After focusing on a World Rally Championship program and touring car efforts through 2005, Peugeot then returned to racing at La Sarthe in 2007. The 908, which made its debut in 2007 (year two of the diesel LMP1 era), went on to form the basis of Peugeot’s major factory motorsport program for five years.

During its lifespan, the 908 played a huge role in a period that ultimately served as a precursor to the FIA WEC. There were some significant highs and some true lows, but much was achieved by this new-look factory team.

In the years it spent pitted against Audi, Peugeot’s challenger took a single win at Le Mans in 2009, two wins at Sebring (in 2010 as a factory entry, and in 2011 as a privateer effort from ORECA) and three straight wins at Petit Le Mans between 2009 and 2011. The 908 won multiple titles, too – the Le Mans Series in 2007 and 2010 (with ORECA as a privateer entry), and the short-lived Intercontinental Le Mans Cup in 2010 and 2011. What Peugeot missed out on with the 908 was wins and titles in the FIA WEC era.

Peugeot’s last sports car program came to an end ahead of the 2012 season. Image by Gibson/LAT

Infamously, news that it had pulled the plug on its planned hybrid LMP1 program with the 908 broke just weeks before the inaugural FIA WEC race at Sebring in 2012, while its drivers were in the air en route to a pre-season test at the Floridian circuit with the unraced 908 Hybrid4.

That decision sent shockwaves through the sport. It was made for financial reasons; the PSA Group struggling mightily at the time in the wake of the global financial crisis, and it left Audi to race against the Toyota’s hastily-prepared TS030. Toyota’s program, originally slated to debut in 2013, was brought forward a year to keep the world championship afloat, while the organizers, and its supporters, were left wondering what might have been.

Since Peugeot’s ill-timed exit, the WEC has wavered close to collapse but since rebounded significantly. And for a three-year period when Audi, Toyota and Porsche did battle in LMP1 between 2014 and 2016, it produced a golden era for prototype racing that the FIA and ACO have been working overtime to recreate ever since.

Is this a sign that effort put in by the rulemakers has paid off? Will we look back on this day as the day that the WEC began trending upwards once again after years of uncertainty? It’s a little too early to tell. But with Peugeot now on board, Hypercar certainly looks far more viable and sustainable now than it did 24 hours ago.

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