Jaguar XJR-9 LM & Porsche 962

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Circuit: Silverstone Date: 21.11.06

Andrew Frankel reunites – and drives – the Jaguar and Porsche that battled for honours at Le Mans in ’88

What was the greatest moment in sports car racing? Some might well say Pedro Rodríguez’s win in the ’71 Österreichring 1000Km was unassailable for its sheer spectacle, other’s that the Hermann-Ickx battle for victory at Le Mans in 1969 is where the clock stopped. Maybe you’d go for Pierre Levegh driving 22 hours solo at Le Mans in ’52. But for me it was always Le Mans 1988, the event history will come to recall as the very pinnacle of the ultimate sports car era – that described by one little word and one little letter: Group C.

To the protagonists, this race meant everything. In one corner sat Jaguar, still smarting from disaster the year before. In 1987, its XJR-8 had been the class of the world sports car field, and runaway favourite for Le Mans, but come Sunday afternoon it was Porsche standing on the top of the podium, with Jaguar nowhere to be seen. So in 1988 Jaguar came back with five visually similar, but more powerful, aerodynamically efficient and better handling XJR-9 LMs. 

They faced 11 Porsche 962Cs, three of them works cars, two rebuilt from the previous year and one very special one created specifically for this race. Porsche had not even bothered with the World Sports Car Championship, preferring to funnel its efforts into one last hurrah at Le Mans for its ageing warrior. This was the last time the Porsche factory would enter a Group C race and its last entry at Le Mans for who knew how long. It would be the showdown to end them all.

“People always ask me about this or that Le Mans and I’m afraid I can never remember one race from the next. Of all the times I raced there for Porsche only ’83 and ’88 really stand out and I didn’t win either. But in coming from behind, driving flat out for so long and coming so close made them two of the most memorable races of my life.” The words belong to Derek Bell, who lined up with Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig to drive the brand new 962C – otherwise known as 962/010 – the very car you see here. Between them they had raced at Le Mans 32 times and shared 10 wins.

The contrast to the other camp could scarcely be more stark. In XJR-9 LM – chassis number 488 – sat a former Formula 3 star called Andy Wallace, 20 years younger than Bell, about to take part in his first around-the-clock marathon. “After F3, I couldn’t believe the Jaguar,” he remembers today. “I’d never driven anywhere near 200mph before and this thing was doing 248mph down the straight.” He shared with Jan Lammers and Johnny Dumfries. In stark contrast to their experienced opponents, they had just four starts, two finishes and not even a podium between them.

But they did have youth on their side, both in the drivers and in the cars. The XJR-9 traced its origins only back as far as the XJR-6 of 1986 and, crucially, arrived after the carbon-fibre revolution. The 962, with its roots in the early ’80s, still used a folded aluminium monocoque. “The difference was dramatic,” says John Watson; he and Price Cobb were the only men to race both the XJR-9 LM and the factory 962C. “Those cars had serious ground effect, and with the level of downforce we were getting by the late ’80s you needed the most rigid construction there was, which meant the Jaguar was always going to have an advantage over the Porsche, particularly in high-downforce sprint configuration.”

But the quick way around the pre-chicane Le Mans was to sacrifice downforce for pure speed, so Porsche knew it would not be at such a disadvantage at La Sarthe. It also had the latest Bosch Motronic 1.7 engine management for its twin-turbo flat-six 3-litre motor which meant more power, better response and, crucially, in an era governed by fuel consumption regulations, more laps per tank. Henry Pearman, the car’s current owner, says the engine output was 746bhp in race trim. However fuel consumption doesn’t matter in qualifying, so the boost could be wound up to over 800bhp – one reason why the Bell, Stuck, Ludwig car took pole position, over six seconds quicker than the fastest Jaguar. Another was typical Porsche attention to detail – so keen was it to bring the fight to Jaguar, it pared the 962’s weight further still with ultra-light body panels. It even had an ally chassis plate, while other 962s made do with brass.

In Jaguar’s favour lay the fuel efficiency of its naturally aspirated 7-litre V12, the inherently better ground-effect achieved with a vee rather than a flat-formation engine, its carbon tub and more modern design. Stacked against it was the fact that, for all its 750bhp, the V12 was derived from a road car engine, and in length, height and weight far from ideal for Group C racing. Watson describes it as “a land anchor in the back of the car”.

What it boiled down to were two cars that, lap for lap, hour after hour, were incredibly closely matched. “It was fascinating to watch their relative performance,” remembers Wallace. “The Porsche had more power; we had less drag. You’d come out of Tertre Rouge with a 962 on your tail, hammer down the straight and it would pull out and come past. We’d wave and I’d tuck into the slipstream. And near the end of the straight I’d pop out and repass the Porsche. That happened lap after lap.”

The event that decided the race came after only four hours. I was in the crowd above the old pits. I remember well the cheer as the 962 came chugging into the pit-lane, Ludwig at the wheel, drive delivered by nothing more powerful than its starter motor. Stories conflict as to why the car ran out of fuel. In its original race report, this magazine stated that ‘the reserve fuel pump failed to work properly’ but team boss Norbert Singer blamed the error on “Ludwig’s mistake of running out of fuel.” Derek Bell is equally clear on the subject: “The reserve? Well, it worked perfectly well for the rest of the race…”

Whatever the truth, the 962 lost nearly two laps. Watching it claw them back was agonising. None of the Brits in the crowd wanted a Porsche to win at Jaguar’s expense. On the other we’d have loved to have seen Derek equal Jacky Ickx’s then record six wins. Watching the effort was spellbinding.

And, for a while, it looked as if it might do it. The Wallace/Lammers/Dumfries Jaguar had led from shortly after midnight, but as morning turned to afternoon, so sunshine turned to rain. Suddenly the Porsche, hitherto hobbled by its need to watch its fuel consumption, was released. Watching Stuck in the wet, Stuck on the grass, Stuck carving huge chunks out of the lead, will live forever in the hearts of all who saw it. Had it stayed wet, he might even have done it.

But it didn’t and with half an hour to go, the next chapter in the history of Jaguar winning Le Mans, 31 years in the creation, seemed all but written. And then its gearbox mainshaft broke. “Jan was driving at the time,” Wallace recalls. “He was the best team-mate you could have. Before the race he’d told Johnny and me to stay a gear up through the Esses and Porsche Curves as it would save us something like 1500 gearchanges through the race. There was no telemetry in those days so he could easily have said it to make himself look quicker than us, but not Jan. We trusted him, did as he suggested, and had we not I have no doubt Jaguar would not have won Le Mans.’

Over in the Porsche pit, it looked simply like Jaguar slowed to save the car. “In fact Jan had fourth and fifth gears, and it was only third gear that was holding the shaft together,” says Wallace. “We weren’t going to tell them that.” As they started the 394th and last lap just 100sec separated the red and yellow Porsche from the white and purple Jaguar; or, put another way, an advantage in Jaguar’s favour of just 0.25sec per lap over the course of the race. 

The record books show that the Porsche lost nearly a minute in that last lap, finishing 2min 37sec behind the Jaguar. What the record books don’t show is that by the time the Porsche reached the home straight, the track was so swamped with Jag fans it actually finished in the pit-lane.

If Bell was cheesed off, he fails to display it today: “It was one of the great races. However much you curse your luck, another part of you relishes the challenge. We gave it everything for 20 hours and got damn close. And there was the consolation of seeing Jaguar win Le Mans.”

To Wallace it was something else again. “I was stunned by the whole occasion. The race, the car and the fans in particular made it an astonishing event. I will never forget being up there on the podium – the old podium – looking down at the sea of faces and flags.”

And then they went their separate ways. The Jaguar ended up in the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust collection. The Porsche did one Supercup race before being sold to an American collector. It stayed in the US until last year when Henry Pearman brought it back to Europe.

Which is how it came to be that, for the first time in more than 18 years, Porsche 962C (chassis 010) and Jaguar XJR-9 LM (chassis 488) are back on the track together. Both are utterly original. Parked next to each other in the pit-lane, you almost expect arms to extend from their sidepods as two old foes, reunited in peacetime after many years apart, embrace with the respect of those who understood what went on that weekend. Yes, it’s Silverstone and of course the speeds will be reined in to reflect and respect their hideous values and irreplaceable histories, but we’re still going to give them, shall we say, a useful amount of exercise.

Watson says the approaches that created each car were distinctly different: “When you race for Porsche, you’re not just driving a car, you’re buying into the whole Porsche package – the history, the attention to detail, the Porsche way of doing things. The Jaguar was completely different – it was basically a car created by an F1 [style] team given an inappropriate engine to work with.” The team, of course, was TWR and while the engine was not ideal for Le Mans, it was at least directly related to the V12 in Jaguar’s road cars.

Sit in the Jaguar and beyond and around the myriad dials and switches, what catches your eye most is woven carbon-fibre. It’s a slightly more difficult car to enter if you’re tall like me, but I could at least drive it with a helmet on. Before I could do the same in the 962, the chaps from RH Motorsport who look after it had to remove the seat. I sat on the aluminium floor, grasped the same wheel as had Stuck, Bell and Ludwig and wondered what would happen next.

Porsche always understood the importance of keeping things simple for the least reliable single component of any long-distance racer – its driver. That’s why the boost and throttle map controls are on rotary dials, why there’s syncromesh on all gears and why you start it with a key.

Group C Porsches never did make the prettiest of noises, and this one is no different. It grumbles and burbles at idle as you lift the quite sharp clutch and roll forward. But who cares? In race conditions they’d rev to 7500rpm or even 8000rpm if it was needed, but today we’re going to leave the last 1000rpm to the imagination.

Nothing is going on at 2000rpm, very little at 3000rpm. Then it comes in so hard I lacked the courage on this cold day to bury the throttle in second gear. But I could spend the rest of this article describing what happens in third, a gear that makes straights disappear as quickly as it forms expletives in your head. It’s quick enough to make you very, very focused on not missing your braking point – the one second you allow yourself to get carried away in the sheer awesome majesty of its thrust is the one second you destroy a piece of history than no amount of money will ever put back together.

Around Silverstone’s National circuit it feels out of its natural environment. Ultra-stiff springs designed to maintain ride height at maximum downforce mean grip levels are unexceptional in slower corners, while a predictably tight diff makes the nose push wide of the apex. But through the Porsche curves I imagine it would have been magnificent. “They were so bloody good through there relative to the Jaguar that I honestly thought that’s how the corners got their name,” says a rueful Wallace. And certainly as you turn into Copse, free from the negative influence of the diff and with the airflow working for you, you feel there is an infinite amount of grip to bathe in.

Only the gearbox disappoints slightly. Watson calls it “ponderous” and he’s right. Porsche would counter that a ponderous ’box that’s as good in the 24th hour as it was in the first is rather better than a rifle-bolt that falls to bits.

Five laps into this tour, I see something Messrs Bell and Co would have been very used to back at Le Mans – a Silk Cut Jaguar exiting the pitlane in front of me: historics ace Gary Pearson is driving. Last time these cars met, it was a fight to the finish. Today playtime is over all too soon.

When I finally climb out of the Porsche, it seems ridiculous that the other legend of Group C should be waiting for me. But it is and, thanks to Gary, it’s warm. 

The Jag is so different to the Porsche. There’s a bank of switches that need to be flicked before it’ll start, but when it does it rewards you ten-fold. I always maintained that the V12 XJRs made the best sound in Group C and this holy racket confirms it. There’s not a syncro ring in sight within the ’box, just a March casing with Hewland internals, but it clonks easily enough into first as it ambles back into action. 

Gary had warned that it too would understeer heavily in tight corners but it felt not only as precise as the Porsche through Copse, but it also spoke to you more through its gorgeous steering. As in the Porsche I kept well clear of maximum revs, which was even less of a hardship thanks to a solid wall of torque from not much more than 2000rpm. This car still has its Le Mans ratios, but so thick is the torque band it’s nothing like as limiting a factor as you’d expect.

Ultimately it bears out both Derek and Andy’s contention that it was not quite so quick out of the blocks as the Porsche. The 962’s feels explosively fast while the XJR’s acceleration merely blows your mind.

And then it’s over. The cars are being packed away and I’m wondering already if it really all happened. Did I really drive that works Porsche 962C at three-figure speeds while looking at the unique purple paintwork of the XJR-9 LM just inches off my starboard bow? It would appear I did.

But the thrill of driving these two was at least matched by the sheer sense of occasion brought by their reunion. There should be more of them: not just Porsches and Jags but all the magnificent machinery that made Group C what it was. Remember too that Group C is 25 years old this year and celebrations are planned. If you want to get involved at any level at all, go to www.groupc-gtpracing.com, a site set up by Pearman and his Group C-loving colleagues to get as many of them as possible back where they belong – on the track. 

Le Mans 1988 will never happen again, but that does not mean its memory cannot live forever.