A Deep Dive into the Innovative Le Mans Hypercar Design Without Wings

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with the team responsible for Peugeot’s highly anticipated 9X8, which signals the brand’s comeback to the forefront of endurance racing. Keep reading to hear more about this exciting development in the world of motorsports.

The Peugeot 9X8 recently made its first appearance in the World Endurance Championship, participating in a few rounds as part of its development plan before a full campaign for WEC and Le Mans in the near future. Although the car did not achieve any podium finishes, it stood out with its unique design that garnered more attention than its competitors. This is significant as we approach a potentially new era of endurance racing, particularly as Le Mans celebrates its hundredth year.

The WEC’s Hypercar class will have more than 12 competitors, with Ferrari and Porsche among the five major manufacturers. In the future, BMW, Lamborghini, and even Honda may join in the competition. While there can only be one winner, it’s worth noting that some of the most memorable race cars didn’t come out on top. Competing with such legendary names is already a triumph in itself. Come June 11th, La Sarthe’s pitlane will undoubtedly be filled with bruised egos.

When I asked Olivier Jansonnie, the technical director of Peugeot Sport, about the new wingless appearance of their latest car, he admitted that the amount of interest it generated surprised him and his engineering team. However, he pointed out that there were other innovative features in the car besides the lack of a rear wing. According to Jansonnie, the decision to remove the wing came about when they exceeded their targets in the wind tunnel during early tests. By the end of 2021, the team had developed two prototypes running in parallel, one closer to an LMP1 design and the wingless one.

The new Hypercar rules in endurance racing have brought about numerous benefits in terms of packaging. With weight distribution now almost 50:50, tuning the cars differently has yielded similar performance results. Unlike the previous regulations that limited what could be done with the underbody, the current rules are more flexible, allowing for greater focus on the car’s underside. This newfound flexibility has led to a variety of aero solutions across the grid, all achieving the same results. The Hypercar rules have ushered in a new era of endurance racing, uniting both WEC and IMSA series under one rulebook. This has resulted in the largest, most exciting grid in decades, with the 9X8 being a prime example of the design diversity permitted by the new rules. Additionally, teams building cars to the more restrictive LMDh rules are welcomed to participate in both grids.

Racing regulations have forced teams to follow certain guidelines, such as using stock chassis, hybrid components, and a rear-wheel-drive layout. However, these rules have allowed for cost savings and enabled the same car to compete globally, attracting BMW and Porsche back to racing after a hiatus. On the other hand, LMH rules, which Peugeot, Ferrari, and Toyota prefer, permit in-house design and all-wheel-drive competitors. Peugeot collaborated closely between its road car design department and its motorsport team to create the 9X8, which includes design elements that preview future models and pay homage to the past. Some may even detect a resemblance to the 205 and 309 GTIs in the headlight shape, while the rear fenders are undoubtedly reminiscent of the famed 905.

Race outcomes are not solely determined by appearance, and the Peugeot 9X8 boasts an array of impressive technology under its exterior. This includes components sourced from Peugeot’s recent endurance race car and its rallying exploits alongside newly-developed elements. According to Jansonnie, the initial engine design was a V8, but this was altered due to changes in regulations, resulting in the creation of the V6. The 9X8 features a bespoke 2.6-liter V6 that generates 671bhp and powers the rear wheels, while a 268bhp electric motor propels the front. Though based on existing Peugeot Sport expertise, the engine is a custom design, with a block similar to the V12 found in the 908 HDi and twin-turbocharging influenced by Dakar and World Rally experiences. The 900V battery was created in collaboration with Total Energies, and drivers can shift gears seamlessly using the seven-speed sequential transmission.

Peugeot’s 9X8 race car features a hybrid powertrain that does not have any transferable elements from the company’s road cars. This may make it difficult for consumers to relate to the internal combustion aspect of the car’s engine. Despite this, Peugeot has developed the race car in parallel with their 508 Peugeot Sport Engineered model, and the lessons learned from the WEC will inform future PSE models. However, no new PSE models have been confirmed yet. While Toyota has produced a concept car for a road-legal hypercar, Peugeot has no plans to do the same. Homologating a road car was never a requirement in the rulebook, but there was an opportunity to do so.

The new regulations in racing are subject to the well-known Balance of Performance (BOP), which allows for a diverse range of cars on the grid by encouraging manufacturers to take technical risks without suffering heavily on the track for trying something new. However, it’s possible that some of the more innovative LMH entries may feel frustrated when BOP grants their less diverse, rear-driven LMDh competitors a similar chance of winning. All cars on the grid are limited to a peak output of 671bhp, meaning Peugeot’s combined 939bhp is purely hypothetical. The electric motor provides an advantage in traction, but activating it causes the engine’s output to decrease to keep the vehicle under the threshold. To prevent AWD cars from taking the lead over RWD rivals during wet races and technical turns, there is a minimum activation speed for the e-motor, which is determined by tire size. Peugeot’s activation speed is lower than Toyota’s GR010, the current champion, as it uses more rubber.

According to every driver I’ve had a chat with, the transition from LMP1 to Hypercar is significant. This is mainly because the cost of entry has gone down, similar to how electrification methods used to be simpler, but weight has increased. The WEC’s previous hybrid superstars have seen a near-160kg raise with a minimum of 1030kg. Nick Tandy, who won Le Mans in Porsche 919 Hybrid and now races its successor, the 963, admits that the LMP1 system was a technological wonder, and it is unlikely that it will ever be replicated. Peugeot’s Loïc Duval shares the same sentiment; he won both the Le Mans 24 Hour and World Endurance Championship trophies with Audi in 2013, and although he is delighted to have the opportunity to claim them again, he is honest about the limitations of his new car.

According to the driver, he has noticed a significant difference in the current car’s downforce, power, and weight compared to the vehicles he has driven before, including the DTM and Super GT. He emphasizes that the added weight affects the car’s balance, making it challenging to handle when there’s traffic, and the tires are worn out. However, he acknowledges that this is a common issue because the car’s mass is regulated. Having driven both generations of hybrid Le Mans cars, the driver is an expert in comparing their powertrains. He notes that the current car is less powerful, and it requires a different approach when using both engine and motor, unlike the Audi, which allowed combining the two for over 1000bhp.

The motor activation in the car is not initiated by the drivers, but is rather automated. The timing of the activation is predetermined through circuit maps developed by both engineers and drivers during simulation sessions. According to Duval, when the front axle is activated, you can feel the power of the electric motor, which is quickly delivered and provides a strong boost. This can be felt in the steering as the car pulls you from corners instead of pushing you.

The focus on technology aside, how do drivers feel about the highly competitive and diverse grid? Duval enthusiastically expresses his excitement, saying, “Who wouldn’t be excited about it!” He admits that it was hard for him when Audi decided to stop endurance racing in 2016. However, he is grateful for the opportunity to come back with Peugeot during this era, where the competition between cars and drivers will be intense. As more teams and drivers participate, he expects more fans to join in, resulting in an electric atmosphere. The event is also a chance to reconnect with old friends and rivals, such as André Lotterer at Porsche and Sébastien Buemi at Toyota, whom he has not raced against in some time. Furthermore, he is thrilled to have Nico Müller in his car, someone he knows from his time in DTM. According to Duval, being together to fight during this era is a unique and excellent opportunity for all of them.

Is it necessary for him and Peugeot to lower their expectations given the fierce competition? Despite the breadth of competition, he aims to perform to the best of their ability, with Toyota as their primary target due to their consistent presence in the field. It is uncertain where the other competitors stand, but he believes that a podium finish in both the championship and Le Mans would make for a successful season.

When it comes to prioritization, Le Mans holds a special place in his heart, being an iconic race. While winning the world championship is a significant achievement, he holds Le Mans victory in higher regard. Furthermore, he believes that these cars are built for the track, coming alive like nowhere else. Having driven various vehicles at Le Mans, including 908, Oreca, Audi, and now 9X8, he believes that it is ten times better than any other circuit. Every driver shares a similar sentiment towards the track.

According to Paul di Resta, who drives the second of Peugeot’s 9X8s, the new Hypercar is designed specifically for Le Mans. Despite being heavier and possessing less downforce, the vehicle’s efficiency becomes apparent on tracks like the famous French circuit. Di Resta believes that Le Mans requires a different approach compared to other races, as teams can no longer tailor their cars to specific tracks due to Balance of Performance regulations. Teams must now stick to the same package throughout the year and focus on the most crucial race. The homologation rule means that every team’s car is frozen, forcing them to prioritize the layout at La Sarthe. This regulation has contributed to significant cost savings in the new Hypercar era, with LMH costing less than half as much as LMP1, according to Jean-Marc Finot, head of motorsport at Stellantis, the parent company of Peugeot.

Was it an easy task to convince the board members to come back? Not at all, says the spokesperson. He distinctly recalls November 13, 2019, the day the movie ‘Ford v Ferrari’ was released, although that was merely a coincidence. On this day, he presented his proposal to the board and received the green light to return to racing.
This decision was made because racing is in Peugeot’s DNA, and they were celebrating the 30th anniversary of their win with the 905 and the 100th birthday of Le Mans. Additionally, they wanted to establish a technical laboratory for their new hybrid powertrain to enhance their capabilities in electrified powertrains. The economic advantage of a significant cost reduction also played a crucial role in their decision-making process.
They opted for LMH as it allowed them to fully design Peugeot Sport’s powertrain, which was not feasible in LMDh, where only the internal combustion engine is developed. In Europe, communicating ICE is not considered fashionable, and working with partners and suppliers in this way is more agile and cost-effective. Regardless of the design, the performance will remain the same, adding variety to the races with V6, V8, turbo, and naturally aspirated cars. While Balance of Performance is essential, it may be necessary evil as competitors, but it makes these programs more affordable.

Undoubtedly, Finot and his team are curious about the capabilities of a 9X8 Hypercar without the mandatory power cap imposed by the latest regulations. Combining its engine and motor would result in nearly 1000 horsepower, and there is room for further advancements in the vehicle’s performance. The team may look back at the Porsche 919 Evo, which shattered records, and wonder what an unmodified 9X8 could accomplish. However, Finot states that they are currently focused on complying with the existing rules and regulations, and they might consider exploring the car’s full potential after the program is completed. He acknowledges the temptation to unleash the car’s maximum power but humorously suggests that the lack of a wing could be the only memorable aspect of the 9X8 in the history books.

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