Martin Brundle: the worst car I ever drove - A cut below the rest

When his F1 drive fell through, a return to Jaguar seemed a safe bet for Martin Brundle. He tells Adam Cooper how wrong he was.

“I drove some bad Grand Prix cars,” says Martin Brundle, “but I don’t want to waste a whole article talking about the 1987 Zakspeed! Then there was that ’85 Tyrrell-Renault, with a turbo engine strapped onto the back of a normally-aspirated chassis, and the ’91 Brabham-Yamaha wasn’t up to much either…

“But somehow or other I never expected those cars to be any good. The biggest disappointment for me was the Jaguar XJR11 turbo car; the only Jag I drove which I didn’t enjoy. It perhaps wasn’t the very worst car I’ve ever driven, but in the line of Jaguars I’d raced, this one couldn’t live up to either the past glories, or the little cracker that was going to arrive in 1991.”

In 1989 Martin enjoyed a very competitive season with Brabham, and was all set to stay with the team for ’90. But when the future began to look a little dodgy, he had second thoughts. After Eddie Cheever jumped ship from Jaguar to go Indycar racing, it didn’t take long for Tom Walkinshaw to persuade Martin to return to the fold.

“I dived out of F1 for the second time after my boss at Brabham ended up in jail,” Martin recalls. “The whole thing was going down the pan, and I’d met so many people that told me they were the new bosses. The only sensible thing to do was ignore all of them and leave. It was so late in the day that I didn’t have any options in F1. So it was back to Jaguar to win a few races and pump up the old morale a little bit. But by then they’d got this turbo thing…”

Martin drove TWR’s V12 sportscars on and off from 1985-’88, but by ’89, the design was starting to show its age. Sauber-Mercedes was unstoppable in the World Championship, and over in IMSA, the cars were left trailing by Nissan.

“The ’88 sprint Jaguar was one of the best I ever drove, and all the Le Mans V12s were just gorgeous. I’ve got paintings on my wall; I think they were just beautiful cars. But every time you turned into a corner it felt like the engine wanted to come over your shoulder, as it was so tall. It had passed its sell-by date, they had to go turbo the beat Mercedes.”

The response was fast. Tony Southgate came up with a chassis, known first as the XJR10 in IMSA guise, and then as XJR11 when it raced in Europe a few weeks later. Meanwhile in double quick time TWR developed a 3.5-litre twin-turbo engine based on the block from the Metro 6R4 rally car, the rights to which had been acquired by Tom for a ‘future road car project.’ That later turned out to be the XJ220…

It was all done in too much of a hurry. Rushed into action in the middle of ’89, the new car proved to be a big disappointment. It didn’t agree with its tyres, and was both uncompetitive and reliable. For the final WSC race in Mexico City, a track known to favour turbos, TWR admitted defeat by going back to the faithful old V12s.

But Walkinshaw had big plans for the car’s second year, including a switch of both tyre and engine management suppliers. Meanwhile he poached designer Ross Brawn and engine wizard Gerd Schumann from Arrows. Despite their best efforts, the 1990 version was hardly any better – much to the disappointment of the returning star driver.

“I remember testing it for the first time. Halfway round the out lap, you know what a car is like. I had the same feeling with the Jordan 196 unfortunately! It was just horrible. It was just going to fight me from start to finish. It had all the usual problems that go with turbo cars; the heat they generate, the complexity, the poor driveability and lack of throttle response. It was just too thirsty and too unreliable.

“Turbo cars are always off to a bad start when you lift the engine cover, because they are just a mass of tubes, pipes and brackets, and it looks like a Meccano set gone wrong. I remember that Jag having a particularly nasty installation. And we all had to pretend the engine wasn’t based on the Metro…”

The season started at Suzuka as it would go on. The Mercs, with juniors Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger taking turns as the fourth driver at each race, were unbeatable. Brundle and Alain Ferte stopped with an oil pump failure in Japan, and followed the silver cars home in third at Monza. But at Silverstone one Merc was thrown out after an infringement by Schumacher in practice, and the other retired; Brundle and Ferte came home as surprised victors.

“I do have a few good memories of it. Winning just before Le Mans was very good; it was a big pump up, but I think it was a touch lucky. By then we had a new wide track front, and it had to grow these little flared arches, like something on a Ford Escort.”

A few weeks later Martin won the 24 Hours at the wheel of the trusty V12, but in the sprint races, the XJR11 had little hope. Time after time he’d put on a show in the early stages, knowing that he’d have no chance in the long run. “It was always me fighting off an inevitable pass by a Mercedes, while watching the fuel gauge on the wrong side of the plus and minus. I was trying to go uphill into a headwind all year; you were driving it despite the engine, rather than because of it. But at least we didn’t give up.”

In Mexico Martin pulled out all the stops to take pole, and after a heroic fight with the Mercs, he was stopped by alternator failure. Fifth at Dijon and third at the Nurburgring were the best he could manage in the second half of the season, and he finished a frustrated eighth in the points.

At the end of the year Martin had one final fling in the much-loved V12, ferrying passengers around a soaking wet Silverstone. I know he enjoyed it, because I was sitting alongside him for his last ever laps. For 1991 he returned to Brabham, but moonlighted a few times to race the `atmo’ car Brawn had been quietly working way on: “The XJR14 ended up being the best car I’ve ever driven,” he says. “After a delay in the pits at Silverstone I took three laps out of Schumacher in a works Mercedes. That I enjoyed!”

After the turbo disaster, TWR and Jaguar were firmly back on course. But the nightmare wasn’t quite over, for Martin agreed to drive the IMSA version in the ’91 finale at Del Mar in California. “It was every bit as bad. The complete clutch pedal fell off, and that pretty much summed it up…”