Jaguar XJR-9

Twenty years ago John Barker watched this very Jaguar XJR-9 win Le Mans. Now he’s going to drive it, in full 720bhp race-spec, in the pouring rain…

What a gorgeous car. As handsome today as the last time I saw it, 20 years ago. Or perhaps not, thinking about it. On that hot afternoon in June ’88, as I stood in the grandstand opposite the pits, it looked abso-bloody-lutely go-on-my-son! gorgeous leading two other XJR-9s across the line for Jaguar’s first Le Mans win since 1957.

What a moment. The crowd, mostly Brits, was thunderously, jubilantly vocal, and quite rightly, because Jaguar had really earned it; from tricolour to chequer the pace had been that of a sprint race, and after 3311 miles XJR-9 number 2 was just 92 seconds ahead of the second-placed Porsche. Before the trio of Jags rounded the final turn, fans were climbing over fences and spilling onto the start straight, but I was rooted to the spot, mugged by an unexpectedly strong wave of emotion that seemed to start in my boots and goose-bump every hair to attention as it headed north.

Like many others, I’d been waiting and hoping for this for years, and previous disappointments made the victory all the sweeter. Along with 50 or so others who were members of the Jaguar Apprentices Motor Club, I’d made my first pilgrimage to Le Mans in ’84 to see ‘our’ long-awaited return. In truth, it wasn’t a very English enterprise, but Bob Tullius had the approval of the factory and his Group 44 IMSA XJR-5s showed well, and oh boy, were they heartily welcomed. Then Tom Walkinshaw Racing began winning with Jaguars in the World Sportscar Championship and our hopes – and spectator numbers – really soared.

It would have been satisfyingly neat if the TWR XJR-8s had won in ’87, thirty years after Jaguar’s last win, and for a while it looked very good, but the strong three-car challenge gradually unravelled. A pattern seemed to be emerging whereby Jaguar’s fortunes took a downturn as soon as I fell asleep. I’d awake to the news that, sadly, the little Jag was just too weak to make it through the night.

Not in ’88. The red and yellow works Porsche 962s had qualified 1-2-3, but after the first lap there was a purple, white and yellow Silk Cut XJR-9 lying second. Dutchman Jan Lammers had come through from fifth, and on lap seven he was in the lead, which sent us all bonkers. I guess I started to think this might just be the year when I woke in the morning to discover Number 2 was still leading. Feeling slightly baked by the sun and slightly the worse for the night’s intake of Kanterbräu, I was choked with pride when it finally took the flag at 3pm.

Even though I’m sheltering beneath a brolly on a wet Wednesday at Silverstone, the car brings those memories bubbling back to the surface. It’s a shame about the weather but, hey, I’m not complaining; this car, designed by Tony Southgate, built by TWR, driven to victory by Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace, is now worth an estimated £5m, and I’m going to drive it. Quite badly. In front of Wallace.

Wallace went to Le Mans as a rookie in ’88 and came back a hero. He remembers the pressure. ‘I was very much the third driver and drove after Jan and Johnny,’ he says, ‘so from the very first time I jumped in the car and left the pits we were leading the race. I just remember thinking, if I do an OK job now, probably no-one will notice, but if I do anything wrong, it’s going to be really, really bad. I even worked out that if I did crash, it would be a lot safer to hop over the barrier and get a taxi back to England.’

Wallace, now 47, shatters the illusion that there was time to relax on the 3.5-mile Mulsanne Straight, which, back then, had no chicanes and was full throttle for 50 seconds. The Jaguars were clocking 240mph, and the Lammers/Dumfries/Wallace car even more. ‘There were two things you had to be careful of with the XJR-9,’ says Wallace. ‘First, on Mulsanne it moved around a lot, like towing a caravan in a crosswind, and the more you tried to fight it, the worse it was, so you just had to let it do it. If you were catching two C2 cars, you couldn’t back off. At that speed you’d lose three or four seconds and Tom would want to know why. Tom – I used to call him Mr Walkinshaw – scared the living daylights out of me every time he spoke to me.’

And the second? ‘The V12 that’s sat behind you is very, very heavy. It’s a 60-degree V12 so it’s quite tall, so if you get the car to there [mimes a half-turn of opposite lock] it’s as good as in the wall.’ That will be more relevant today, on the tiddly, puddled little triangle that is Silverstone’s Stowe Circuit.

The car, owned by the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust, has been fettled for today’s run by XJR specialist Don Law and is, he says, in full Le Mans spec, just as it finished. That means low-drag aero pack (rear-wheel spats, a lower mounting point for the vast rear wing and a simpler, cleaner nose section with twin headlamps), extra-long gearing, a locked diff and what look worryingly like Dunlop slicks.

‘They’re cut slicks, but really what the car needs today is a set of super-sticky wet tyres,’ says Wallace. ‘The diff gives a lot of understeer so it’s best to take first for the tight corners. Oh, and I haven’t had a piss in the seat,’ he adds as I slip down into the snug, reclined and rather wet bucket seat. Water-proofing the cockpit wasn’t a priority with these cars…

The XJR-9 feels even smaller than it looks. At the risk of sounding like a name-dropper, it feels remarkably similar to the cockpit of the Le Mans-winning Bentley I got to drive a few years back – same bubble screen, width-defining front arches in the panorama. I guess it shouldn’t be a great surprise because Southgate designed both. There’s plenty that dates the Jaguar, though – analogue instruments for a start, plus the exposed workings of the manual, five-speed, right-hand gearshift. There’s unassisted steering too, though Wallace says this was only an issue in the high-speed corners.

As I pull the shoulder straps down tighter, the cold water starts to soak through the seat of my overalls. Nice. However, as Wallace had promised, you forget about that as soon as the 7-litre V12 at your back fires up. Flick the first three toggle switches above the gearlever, priming ignition, injection and fuel pumps, then thumb the fourth, which spins the starter, while holding the throttle open a centimetre or so. There’s what sounds like an explosion in slow-motion and then all 12 cylinders are crooning. It’s a tremendous noise, in all senses, a big, open-piped blare, an edgy, resonant jabba-jabba-jabba that cleans up as soon as you brush the throttle. Dip the clutch, nudge the lever into first and the whole car jumps forward as straight-cut gears mesh with a bark and a hefty clonk. Squeeze the revs up a fraction, feel the triple-plate clutch bite lumpily, hear the fire in the V12 go out a bit… and then pick up again as we get rolling. Phew.

Right away there’s a sense that this is an engine with a car hanging off it. Put a little more pressure on the throttle and the note of the engine shifts and takes on the slightly mournful yet musical yowl that gives old-style V12s their unique character. The vibrations ripple through the carbonfibre tub, of which the fixed seat is a part, adding to the impression that the engine is the core of the XJR-9.

Later, when the bodywork is removed for some detail shots, I’m utterly gobsmacked at the size of the engine. I recognise the cam covers of the road-going V12 on which it’s based, but its vastness in this setting shows how compact the XJR-9 is. Southgate crammed it as low and as far forward as he could but it still looks like it’s fallen out of an oil tanker.

Just how little lateral grip there is comes as a shock. I wonder how much less there could be if the Jag were on full slicks, as its nose washes wide with even a very tentative first entry. The downpour that arrived just before I climbed in has left standing water across the track in places but even merely wet asphalt feels like ice.

Amazingly, it’s possible to tap into at least some of the V12’s torque in a straight line, as long as you ease the throttle down rather than jumping on it. Even at half-throttle the push is immense, though the instant the engine sounds like it’s climbing the power curve rather than the torque curve, the rear wheels spin up.

Tip-toeing through the corners is frustrating and I can get only the slightest glimpse of what it must have been like to hustle the old girl along. I reckon first gear has seen more action in half a dozen laps here than it did during the whole 24 hours back in ’88. The ’box is a hefty bit of kit but, I find, slips effortlessly between gears if the revs and timing are just so.

Just as I imagine I’m building some sort of rapport with the car, I find myself with half a turn of opposite lock on in a turn. Hello grassy infield. Compounding the error, I stall and there’s not enough in the battery to restart the engine. A couple of laps later I make a clumsy downshift and lock the rear wheels into another slow spin. Enough.

‘It’s a shame about the track and the conditions,’ says Wallace. ‘If you could just get the throttle down and keep it there for maybe five seconds you’d get a much better impression of the car.’

The experience hasn’t done justice to a 245mph Le Mans winner, but I feel immensely privileged just to have been behind the wheel of such a significant Jaguar. Spinning it wasn’t my proudest moment, but at least I didn’t have to think about hopping over the barriers and finding a taxi.

How Le Mans was won

There were five XJR-9LMs at Le Mans in ’88 and Andy Wallace (above) shook them all down at Silverstone prior to the race and ensured that they were all set up just the same. Come race day, however, one was slightly faster than the rest…

Jan Lammers, lead driver of the number 2 car, had found that fitting softer rear springs gave a slightly nose-up stance on the Mulsanne straight, making it more aerodynamic and thus faster. The other Jaguar runners only found out once the race had started because Lammers had sandbagged in qualifying – something you could get away with twenty years ago because there was no data-logging to compare.

Team boss Roger Silman wasn’t happy. Tom Walkinshaw had promised Jaguar a Le Mans win so there was tremendous pressure to deliver. Withholding set-up information that could have been exploited by the other XJR-9s could have been very costly – had Number 2 broken, Porsche would have won. Again.

Thing was, says Wallace, Number 2 did break. Lammers drove the last stint and was in the pits for his final stop with about half an hour to go. ‘We knew that Porsche were listening in to our radio,’ recalls Wallace, ‘so Jan said, “Right guys, I’ve got a secret to tell you. I’ll tell you after the race.” That secret was that one of the shafts in the gearbox was broken and, it later transpired, only third gear itself was holding it together.

‘Jan had figured that out – there was a massive vibration in third gear – and it being an H-pattern gearbox he drove the final laps missing that one out. One more shift into third and the gearbox would have been destroyed. When someone took the back off the gearbox it all fell in a heap on the floor…’


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