One-night stand

When the chance to drive a Jaguar XKR at Silverstone in the Britcar 24 Hours came our way, it wasn’t hard to say yes
By Andrew Frankel

You may be forgiven for not knowing that a Jaguar E-type entered a round of the Sports Car Club of America production car championship at Watkins Glen in August 1974 and failed to win, not least because the gear lever came off in its driver’s hand. This was probably regarded as being less than critically significant at the time and has since faded almost entirely into the mists of time.

But the E-type went on to win the regional championship that year and the national SCCA title the next, beginning a train of events that would eventually lead to official works team TWR winning Le Mans outright in 1988 and again in 1990. From little acorns…

What, then, are we to read into the presence on the grid of the Britcar 24 Hours race of a Jaguar XKR? This is only the third consecutive 24-hour race to be held at Silverstone by the European Endurance Racing Club and, while it is clearly ludicrous to liken the event to Le Mans and even inappropriate to compare its status to the famed 24-hour race on the old Nürburgring, still this event is no trifle, attracting a 60-car entry with, at its sharp end, some of the finest private teams from throughout Europe.

The Jaguar is the brainchild of Richard Lloyd and Harry Handkammer who, under the banner of Apex Motorsport, have prepared the XKR to GT3 regulations. It’s fair to say the car has had a tricky gestation and by the time of the Silverstone race not only had it still to make its competitive debut, it had still not run non-stop for an entire hour. Indeed, the only reason the car was entered was because Lloyd, Handkammer and the car’s owner, Stuart Scott, desperately needed some testing mileage under its wheels and the opportunity for that much track time in one concentrated block seemed too good to miss.

So the car was entered with Scott as its first driver and his usual driving partner, Chris Ryan, as number two. A third, Mike Neuhoff, was brought in for his speed, consistency and mechanical sympathy. There was no perceived need for a fourth hand on the helm because there was no plan to run the car for 24 hours. The team was simply going to see how it went until it got dark, vacate the car, if it was still running alright, then get some more miles under its wheels in the morning.

Under these circumstances, I’m still not sure why Richard asked me to join the line-up the day before first practice – it was certainly not in exchange for the words you see here. “We are going about this in as low-key a way as possible,” he’d said to me. “Just turn up, but you might not even get a drive.”

But when we sat down to plan how to tackle the event, it was clear that the presence of a fourth driver had altered everyone’s perspective. The team now had the manpower to run the car for as long as it would last. And make a proper race of it.

And that, it was soon discovered, is the problem of trying to test during a race. The competitive instinct is always hard to supress, but with the first Jaguar sports car to contest a 24-hour race since the XJR12s bowed out of Le Mans in 1991, it seemed impossible that we should simply park it overnight.

It all came down to Stuart, whose car, lest we forget, it is. I wasn’t there when he agreed to keep it going for as long as it would run, and I only found out when I saw the driver rota extending well into Sunday morning, but the feeling of elation mixed with apprehension and a small dash of fear is one of my strongest memories of the whole weekend.

The car is a work of art. It started life as a standard XKR road car, albeit a pre-production unit, and was modified to GT3 regulations by Apex with considerable backstage assistance from Jaguar. That rear wing, to give one minor example, is the work of Jaguar’s chief designer Ian Callum. The engine is the same 4.2-litre supercharged V8 found in the road car, but extensively modified by Roush to raise its output from a standard 420bhp to something around the 500bhp mark. In addition, there is a solid wall of torque from 2500rpm to the conservative 6500rpm red line.

The gearbox, however, is a complete departure from the road car. Instead of a six-speed automatic ZF unit bolted to the back of the engine, it uses a sequential Hewland race ’box located between the rear wheels to provide optimal weight distribution. Add race brakes and suspension, a full aero-package and a flat floor – plus the removal of the entire interior to be replaced by the environment of a modern race car – and you have the bare bones of the XKR GT3. And the only thing more beautiful than the way it looks is the way it sounds.

The car breezed through practice on Thursday, both day and night, qualifying on Friday and the warm-up on Saturday, all the issues that had sidelined it at various points during the season so far having clearly been resolved. The engine, configured to run on the fuel supplied by the FIA, had clearly not taken to the standard pump fuel all petrol-powered competitors were forced to use, but the loss of a few seconds a lap was not of great concern to us. Our mission was to get miles under its wheels, not tenths off its lap time. We simply had to run the car for as long as it could go, and the thought of becoming the bloke who binned it and lost all those vital miles ran my blood cold. I suspect my team-mates felt little different.

Mike, having qualified the car, earned the right to go first, so Chris, Stuart and I marched down to Copse to see the start. And amid the grumble of the Porsches and the howls of the BMWs came the clear thunder of the Jag’s V8, overlaid by the sharp shriek of its blower. And we watched it as far as we could, through the flat left flick into Maggotts and the kerb-crawl into Becketts. Whatever happened now, a Jaguar was back in a 24-hour race. And it felt good.

In fact, gratifyingly little happened for the next few hours. With a strategy to just keep running, changing gear a long way short of peak revs, keeping off the worst of the kerbing and looking after the sequential Hewland ’box between the rear wheels, the Jag just chuntered around, climbing up the order as others hit trouble. It lost some time when the retaining safety clips on the wheels proved less than willing to relinquish their grip but, as Lloyd pointed out, “this is just the sort of information we’re here to gather”.

Stuart took over from Mike, then Chris drove into the dusk before I was summoned aboard, just as night descended entirely. I was back a lap later having picked up a puncture – mercifully at the pit lane entry – and then back out onto the track and into the unknown.

Apart from its entirely inadequate headlights (because it was never intended to run in the dark), the car provided all the tools needed for night racing. You could drive the engine on its torque alone and be quite relaxed about exactly where you changed gear. When, later in the race, we were hauled up in front of the scrutineers for making too much noise, we just short-shifted at the appropriate junctures with hardly any effect on the lap time.

With that kind of power-to-weight ratio it felt satisfyingly fast in a straight line and must have been pulling something close to 170mph on the approach to Stowe, but it was never a frightening car to drive. In practice it had proved receptive, sensitive indeed, to small set-up changes and the team had been able to dial out some quite severe front-end push with a bit less rear wing, the addition of some front winglets and a softer front roll bar. Now, in the race, its handling was near ideal: a smidge of understeer in the slower corners and almost entirely neutral through the quicker curves. Because of the paucity of light, mistakes were inevitable but, when they came, it forgave every one. Not once in the whole race did it spin through driver error.

As the night wore on and the Jaguar continued to pound around, there was already a sense of achievement in the Apex pit – Richard had not doubted the car’s inherent reliability and it was quietly satisfying to be able to demonstrate as much to its doubters.

But, as if to prove that pride does indeed come before a fall, we hit trouble. Or more precisely, I did. It happened on the graveyard shift from 2.45-4.15am. Fifth gear had been grumbling a little ever since I climbed aboard, but now it got very noisy indeed. The one disadvantage of a sequential shift is that you can’t miss ratios, otherwise we’d have run happily to the finish and, thanks to the torque, been hardly slower as a result. But the team couldn’t risk a total failure out on the track so the only remaining course of action was a precautionary change. Never having been done before, it took three hours.

In racing you cannot exist on ‘might have beens’. Had the gearbox survived, had the scrutineers not subjected us to a midnight noise test, had Stuart not been sent backwards up the track at a three-figure speed by another puncture, necessitating the car’s recovery to the pits by a tow truck, then we would have finished a damn sight higher up the order than we did, certainly in the top 10 and perhaps in the top five. But every competitor will have an ‘if only’ story and the only position that counts is the one you’re in on the final lap.

But what really mattered was that the car finished the race, a perfect response when so many had been so quick to predict our downfall in the opening laps. Moreover, the gearbox issue was the only serious mechanical problem the car suffered all race; the engine, having caused more than its fair share of heartache during the car’s development, missed not one beat. Remember that this was not just a 24-hour race, but the first race the XKR GT3 had ever contested. There can be no more punishing introduction to sports car racing and, against all the odds and predictions, it came through – strongly.

Now the car just needs further development over the winter. It could lose some weight, but the basic package is all there: the car is quick, consistent, strong and reliable. There should be at least four XKR GT3s at the start of next year’s FIA GT championship and, if the widely predicted rule changes happen, they’ll be at Le Mans the year after with the cream of the rest of the current GT3 crop. Who knows where it might lead then – we don’t even know who’ll be in charge of Jaguar. All we do know is that Jaguar is back in sports car racing with a car with the potential to do justice to the marque’s fabled reputation in the discipline. And for that, we should all be truly grateful.

Britcar 24 Hours results

1. Duller Motorsport BMW MZ4 Coupé
2. Rollcentre Racing/Deutsche Bank Mosler GT3 RS
3. Paragon Motorsport Porsche 996 Cup
4. Duller Motorsport BMW M3 E46 GTR
5. Eclipse Motorsport Mosler GT3 RS
6. GTS Motorsport BMW M3 E36

Class: GT3
1. Duller Motorsport BMW MZ4 Coupé
2. Rollcentre Racing/Deutsche Bank Mosler GT3 RS
3. Eclipse Motorsport Mosler GT3 RS

Class: GTC
1. Paragon Motorsport Porsche 996 Cup
2. Duller Motorsport BMW M3 E46 GTR
3. ISL Motorsport Marcos Mantis V8

Class: 1
1. Simply Racing Porsche 964 RS
2. CWS Racing BMW M3 E46
3. RJN Motorsport Nissan 350Z

Class: 2
1. TJH Motorsport Honda Civic Type R
2. ELR Honda Civic Type R
3. County EMC Team Porsche 968

Class: 3
1. Pete Daniels Motorsport Honda Civic Type R
2. Team Thrush Honda Integra Type R
3. Intecnly Honda Integra Type R

Class: 4
1. TH Motorsport VW Golf Diesel
2. Marcos Racing International BMW 120 Diesel
3. Team Top Gear BMW 330 Dti Sport