The Legendary WR LMP2008 Zytek

Much more than just another "backyard special" at Le Mans

The ability to build a car in the proverbial backyard and then compete against some of the biggest names was one of the great charms of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. During the 1970s and 1980s, many of these “backyard specials” originated in France. While names like Tecma or Moynet were quickly forgotten, the creations of Le Mans winner Jean Rondeau and top-speed record holder Gérard Welter form far more than a footnote in 24 Hours’ rich history.

The last car produced by Welter to appear at Le Mans was the WR LMP2008 Zytek that competed in 2010. Subsequent rule changes have made it impossible for an independent effort to enter the junior prototype ranks, so the unique machine very much represents the final example of a long tradition.

Welter was just eighteen years old when he joined Peugeot and the hugely talented, mostly self-taught engineers moved up the ranks to become Director of the Peugeot Design Centre between 1998 and 2007. His most famous creation is the 205 and as such he was also responsible for the legendary 205 GTi “hot hatch” and the all-conquering 205 T16 Group B rally car. Despite his busy career at Peugeot, he found time to create WM with his colleague Michel Meunier in the late 1960s. They set about designing a Peugeot-based sports prototype in their spare time and managed to inspire a group of volunteers to help them fulfil their dreams. Not quite built in his backyard but definitely in Welter’s garage, the first WM to race at Le Mans was the Peugeot-engined P76 of 1976.

With the nose off, the push-rod-actuated springs and dampers are exposed.

“It was very old-fashioned,” professional racer Tristan Gommendy recounts. “Gérard could do and make everything. All the parts and the cars were made in his garage. He was a genius with his hands.” Gommendy raced with Welter at Le Mans in 2004 and 2010 and remembers it very fondly: “It was a human adventure. All the people working with him had a huge passion; the guys would work night and day during many weeks and months. With racing having now become so professional, it is something that does not exist anymore.” With all the parts made by hand in the small French town of Thorigny-sur-Marne, developing the cars was not always easy: “Sometimes, when we had technical problems the development process could take very long.”

Officially, there never was any funding from Peugeot for the WM efforts but Welter did have access to the wind tunnel. This helped him in his quest to break the top speed record down the long Hunaudières straight at Le Mans. The small team finally managed to do so in 1988 with the P88, which was powered by a twin-turbocharged version of the venerable PRV V6. With the turbo-boost turned to eleven, Roger Dorchy achieved a top speed of 405 km/h. A few laps later, the engine expired. Chicanes were added to the long straight ahead of the next race, so WM’s record is unlikely to ever be bettered. Meunier left the team shortly after the successful record attempt, but Welter carried on with a new generation of smaller racers. One of these started on pole at Le Mans in 1995.

The WR LMP2008 is seen here at speed during its 2008 Barcelona debut.

During the early 2000s, the WR designs gradually evolved until a rule change rendered the existing LMP2 car obsolete at the end of the 2006 season. Sports car racing was now operating at such a level that the cost of developing a brand-new design was something that Welter no longer could bear on his own. Fortunately, he found two great backers in the form of brothers Stéphane and Philippe Salini. Very successful in business, the two brothers were keen to race at Le Mans and commissioned Welter to build them a new car to race in the ‘junior’ LMP2 category.

By turning to Welter, the Salini brothers certainly made sure that they would not race a run-of-the-mill Le Mans Prototype. Appropriately dubbed the LMP2008, the all-new WR indeed had a particularly distinct shape with a broad ‘platypus’ nose. The main body of the car was narrow, accentuated by its separate fenders. To a certain extent, the front half of the car resembled a single seater. As per the regulations, the front suspension elements were hidden. The single seater theme continued on the flanks where the radiators were mounted inside coke-bottle shaped side-pods. These were hidden from direct view by a panel that connected the front and rear fenders, but the side-pods were clearly visible from a higher vantage point.

From this angle, the platypus nose and shrouded suspension components can be seen clearly.

Underneath the striking bodywork, the LMP2008 was more conventional. The chassis was a carbon-fiber composite monocoque with push-rod actuated springs and dampers on all four corners. At the front, the springs and dampers were mounted horizontally in front of the monocoque. While the rest of the car was made “in-house,” Welter did have to turn to external suppliers for the drivetrain. A diesel engine was considered but ultimately, Welter and the Salini brothers settled on a naturally aspirated Zytek V8. Good for around 540 bhp, it was mated to a Ricardo six-speed, sequential gearbox. The rear springs and dampers were mounted on top of the bellhousing.

There were many years that an entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a given for the Welter Racing team. By the late 2000s, however, the race was oversubscribed and a place on the grid had to be earned. To do so, the WR team entered the Le Mans Series for the first time. This also helped to get the brand-new car and the relatively inexperienced Salini brothers up to speed. The LMP2008’s livery of white with a blue and red stripe was very patriotic. At the Catalunya 1000 km debut, the Salini brothers were joined by fellow gentleman racer and WR regular Patrice Roussel. It was not a particularly convincing debut as the car proved slowest of all prototypes and was eventually classified a delayed fortieth, some sixty-one laps behind the winner.

Racing into the sunset at the 2010 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

During the remainder of the season, the team struggled in what was a very competitive LMP2 class that included prototype racers from the likes of Porsche, Lola, Zytek and Pescarolo, often manned by professional drivers. It came as no surprise that the WR / Salini entry was not accepted by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. For the final race of the season, the ailing team called in the help of Tristan Gommendy to sort out the car. “In the beginning, it was really tough as the suspension geometry was not quite there.” Gommendy recalls. “We had to make a lot of modifications but in the end the car was really nice to drive. It was also easier to drive, which was the target for my team-mates, who were gentleman drivers.”

With Gommendy now in the car the entire season, the LMP2008 was entered in the Le Mans Series for a second year. The championship started in Barcelona again and Gommendy was 19th fastest qualifier, which was in the middle of the LMP2 field. The trio of drivers was classified 30th with issues causing delays. “Welter never raced in championships,” Gommendy explained. “His cars were really designed for Le Mans, so the car struggled at sprint racers.” Sadly, it proved a necessary evil as for the 2009 Le Mans, the WR / Salini entry was on the reserve list only. The team did the work and continued to campaign the car for the remainder of the year. For 2010, the coveted entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans finally came. Starting 15th, the LMP2008 was raced at the Le Castellet 8 Hours only in preparation for the big race.

Arriving at the start/finish straight at Le Mans to start another lap.

“We did a really good job at Le Mans,” Gommendy said. “I remember qualifying, we could fight in the top five or six.” Eventually, the car lined up 29th overall and tenth in class. “It was a real adventure, but we had no problem at all during the race.” After 24 hours of hard racing, the WR crossed the line 23rd overall and seventh in class. Buoyed by the smooth race at Le Mans, the team looked at stepping up to the LMP1 class and even had the chassis crash-tested to higher standards. There also was a plan to fit the existing LMP2 car with a new Nismo V8 to meet the revised LMP2 regulations for 2011. Ultimately, however, the LMP2008 was not raced again.

Having fulfilled their dream of racing at Le Mans, the Salini brothers retired from top level racing. Gérard Welter continued his work and was involved in the original Green GT program that looked to race a hydrogen fueled car at Le Mans. Using a WR chassis, the car was shown on the eve of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012. Along with the car, the intention to campaign the car at Le Mans in 2013 was revealed. In the end the car never raced but the Green GT project is ongoing, and the latest car might make its much belated debut at La Sarthe in 2026. Gérard Welter sadly passed away in January of 2018, making the LMP2008 the very last of his creations to have raced at Le Mans.

Still going strong early on Sunday morning, ready to complete the final laps at Le Mans for Welter Racing

Subsequent regulation changes make privateer efforts in the LMP2 category effectively impossible. To race in the ‘junior’ category today, an entrant has the choice of four prescribed chassis suppliers and a single, spec engine. With development limited by the regulations, competitors in the LMP2 category now almost all use an Oreca chassis. In fact, the entry for the upcoming centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June has an LMP2 class that consists of only Orecas, making it a spec category. This might make for very close racing, but it is not particularly interesting from a technical perspective. As a result, the WR LMP2008 is one of the if not the last true privateer prototype efforts at Le Mans.

Only from this aerial perspective are the distinct scalloped sides of the WR visible.

While the Gérard Welter creations were not always the fastest or most reliable, they were certainly interesting. The LMP2008 is certainly no exception with its distinct aerodynamics solutions. Welter was certainly on to something as the big budget Audi R15 released in 2009 used a very similar philosophy. Not raced after Le Mans in 2010, the LMP2008 has survived in as-raced condition and is today part of the Ascott Collection from Paris. As part of the Le Mans centenary celebrations, it was shown at 2023 Retromobile show on a special display for the French at Le Mans.

“It was a fantastic memory,” Gommendy says of racing with Gérard Welter. “A real privilege.”