1988 Le Mans 24 Hours report: Jaguar's Finest Day

The one nightmare shared by Jaguar’s board members was the possibility of defeat at Le Mans. Last year the three entries were prepared beautifully, but lasted only 16 hours effectively, and even with five improved versions this time no-one could confidently predict success.

If any Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9LM was going to win, it was going to have to beat the Porsche 962C of Derek Bell, Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig, the Stuttgart firm’s standard bearers, and both Stuck and John Watson, Jaguar’s philosopher, predicted a particularly hard contest which would go the whole distance. They were so right!

A superb victory was achieved by Jan Lammers, the Dutchman who took the brunt of duties, by Johnny Dumfries, who easily overcame early-season disappointments, and by Andy Wallace, Tom Walkinshaw’s young protege who had never driven around the circuit until the first qualifying session, and had to screw up the courage to take the infamous Mulsanne kink “flat”.

“They tell me you can overtake slower cars at the kink without lifting, but I’ll practice that when, the track’s clear,” said the likeable Oxford driver, who had been to Le Mans as a spectator some years ago, and most now be the envy of 50,000 or more Britons who made their pilgrimage to the Sarthe.

Wallace had probably never driven a racing car at 200 mph before, certainly not for longer than a few moments, and he was awed to realise that his XJR-9 was covering the Mulsanne straight at a full 240 mph, which was 10 mph faster than his elders had been going twelve months ago. The Jaguars were fearsomely fast, they handled a lot better than last year’s XJR-8LM models, and given the necessary reliability they were bound to equal, or exceed, the performance of the three works Porsches.

The gap between the winning Jaguar and the Bell/Stuck/Ludwig Porsche (those three drivers had accumulated a total of ten Le Mans wins between them, and were quite formidable) was, officially, 2min 36.85sec at the end, or 6.5 seconds for each hour of racing, but even that margin is more than it ought to be, for Lammers crossed the line into the last lap just 100 seconds ahead of Ludwig. Immediately, the jubilant crowd began to spill onto the finish-line, and when Jaguar No 2 reappeared Lammers barely made it to the flag. By the time Ludwig arrived the cheering throng was so dense that the Porsche was flagged into the pit-lane to complete its race there. Although Lammers’ Jaguar led the first three hourly bulletins, and from lam Sunday to the finish, the margin was rarely more than a lap, sometimes a handful of seconds.

It wasn’t all about statistics, of course. The figures can be worked out later, and are interesting, but out there on the track the duel was at times very personal between the Jaguar and Porsche drivers. Both Derek Bell and Martin Brundle recall last year’s battle with relish, and although Brundle and Nielsen went out on Sunday morning with a broken head-gasket, while in third place, they had kept the Porsche nicely sandwiched all night.

In darkness it was difficult to see who was doing what to whom on the Mulsanne, but at times they shook the trees as they roared past side-by-side, or weaving to break the other’s slipstream advantage. Overtaking slower cars was accomplished with merely a jink, seas to give no help to the rival, and if any were concerned about the dangers of the place, they kept their feelings well under control.

In such a contest, the issue is decided almost inevitably by pit-stops, and here the winning Jaguar held a slight advantage. Lammers’ car lost about two minutes having the rear body-panel supports changed after Jesus Pareja ran into the back of him, no time having a nose-panel changed, and two minutes having the windscreen changed, as it became lighter on Sunday morning, so stonechipped had the glass become.

In the Porsche, Ludwig lost five minutes in the fourth hour when the reserve fuel pump failed to work properly — the delay worth about a lap and a half and dropping number seventeen down to seventh place. The German had not tried to eke another lap out of his tank, as some people believed, but the engine spluttered and died at Indianapolis when he switched onto reserve for his last eight litres. Number seventeen was driven slowly and jerkily to the pits, firing on three or four cylinders at best and needing a push from marshals on an uphill stretch towards the Maison Blanche.

It was a nerve-wracking time for those three drivers, but it must have lowered the stress level in the neighbouring Jaguar pit. Tom Walkinshaw knew that Bell’s car was the one to fear, even though at that stage Lammers had Wollek ahead and the Andretti family just behind.

Wollek’s Porsche led throughout Saturday evening and was merely seconds behind until he lost two laps having the water-pump replaced. The Andrettis had lost time around midnight, experiencing the same problem, and both their engines suffered as a result of overheating. The water pump itself was reliable, but the pipe connecting it to the radiator fractured where it went around a corner. Porsche’s technicians were not sure whether to blame this fault for the problems which came later, but minutes before halfway Sarel van der Merwe coasted to the pits with a broken engine.

The water-pump and pipe were replaced on Stuck’s Porsche as a precaution, the four-minute operation being combined with a routine stop, and ensured that he and Bell could enjoy their usual quota of luck and reliability. The Andrettis slowed again at breakfast time, a fuel-rail having punctured, and the result of that was a holed piston. Porsche’s usual remedy worked again, the plug lead being removed, and the Americans ran on five cylinders for seven hours, to sixth place overall.

Not all the Jaguars were perfect, though. John Watson, Raul Boesel and Henri Pescarolo were off-duty by midnight, the gearbox having failed the Frenchman, and the Americans Danny Sullivan, Davy Jones and Price Cobb needed two complete transmission rebuilds during the night, the first failing to cure a worrying vibration. They finished sixteenth, but Brundle and Nielsen were mortified to be put out of the race after 19 hours with a failure that resembled last year’s, only two hours later in the race.

Derek Daly, Kevin Cogan and Larry Perkins had no particular problems, except that their car’s handling was not as good as they would have liked, and they lost their race-long battle with Stanley Dickens, Frank Jelinski and “John Winter”, who steered Reinhold Joest’s Blaupunkt Porsche 962C to a worthy third place overall, nine laps adrift of the leaders.

Fifth were David Hobbs (celebrating his 49th birthday with an excellent drive), Didier Theys and Franz Konrad. Hobbs, incidentally, first competed at Le Mans in 1962, in a Lotus Elite, and a year later he drove Eric Broadley’s Ford V8-powered, mid-engined Lola GT on its Sarthe debut. The Ford GT40 was developed from the Lola, and the 7-litre Mk2s from that, which is significant only because Mario Andretti drove the Ford in 1966 and 1967, though he finished on neither occasion. In 1966 Ford sent seven 7-litre Fords to end Ferrari’s six-year dominance of the race, and the American would have appreciated Jaguar’s effort this year which sent five 7-litre XJRs to sort Porsche out.

The two Sauber-Mercedes entries were sadly pulled out of the contest following an explosive tyre-failure during practice on Wednesday evening, although Klaus Niedzwiedz had been able to bring the C9/88 back to the pits under its own power. The cars were withdrawn for an accumulation of reasons, and if anything Peter Sauber and Mercedes were admired for making a sound, but very difficult decision.

Last year Mike Thackwell retired his Sauber from the race with a blown tyre. Earlier this year Mauro Baldi had the unusual experience of bursting two rear tyres simultaneously while testing at Monza. Then Jean-Louis Schlesser announced that he would not drive at Le Mans because the straight was too dangerous. Baldi needed heavy persuasion to appear in the 24 Hours, and Niedzwiedz’s burst tyres was, if anything, just the last straw, the one occurrence nobody wanted to know about.

The background, inevitably, harks back to the dreadful accident at Le Mans in 1955, a disaster to which Mercedes’ name is blamelessly attached forever. Since the tyre was destroyed on Niedzwiedz’s car and Michelin’s engineers could not provide an explanation for the failure, nor a convincing assurance that it would not happen again, Peter Sauber really had no alternative but to pull out.

In the end there were only two tearns which could contest the lead throughout 24 hours, those of Porsche and Jaguar, and only two cars equipped to go the distance.

Lammers did the lion’s share in the winning car, and was warmly praised by Walkinshavv. It was the Dutchman who started and finished the race, and applied vital pressure on Sunday morning with a lap at 3min 24.13sec, practically as fast as he had qualified on Wednesday. Dumfries was quick and reassuring, and Andy Wallace delighted the team with his maturity and competitive speed.

They covered 40 laps more than last year’s winners (the 1987 event was controlled by pace-cars for three hours, after Win Percy’s accident), and covered 5332.79km. Only once has that distance been exceeded — in 1971, when another Dutchman, Gijs van Lennep, covered 5335.3km in a 5-litre Porsche 917 with Helmuth Marko. Lammers and Co were merely three kilometres short of the absolute record, although today’s track is significantly slower with the Porsche Curves and the disliked Dunlop chicane in place.

Not once during the 1988 World Sports-Prototype Championship has a pace-car been seen, and it was a relief to everyone that the only serious accident, to Ukio Katayama at the Porsche Curves in Yves Courage’s Cougar, did not cause any injury.

The Mulsanne straight has been entirely resurfaced to a high standard, and lined with triple-layer armco, making life considerably easier for the drivers. Roger Dorchy achieved his, and WM-Peugeot’s, ambition in recording the fastest-ever speed along Mulsanne, being timed at 405 kph (251.66 mph) in the twin-turbo V6-powered P87. Most teams go to Le Mans to win, but there are always those with different objectives!

Gordon Spice rarely has reliable competition, to his own regret, and he strode to another C2 class championship in his Spice-Cosworth DFL with Ray Bellm and Pierre de Thoissy as co-drivers. Last year Spice, Fermin Velez and Philippe de Henning covered 320 laps and finished in sixth place overall; this year Spice and friends covered 351 laps and finished thirteenth.

Since 1970 Porsche has won the Le Mans 24-Hours twelve times, and every year since 1981 without a break. The Silk Cut Jaguar team’s victory was badly needed by the sport as a whole, and the emotional scenes on the ACO’s balcony allowed all the tiredness to be forgotten. Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace were happy as never before, Sir John Egan pledged to return in 1989, and Tom Walkinshaw led the singing of the national anthem not just once, but four times altogether.

Stuck and Bell in turn threw their arms round Walkinshaw, spontaneous gestures of congratulation to a superb team-director. One day their luck had to desert them, and it transferred to a team which thoroughly deserved to win. Perhaps now that Porsche’s spell has been broken for the moment, it will be Jaguar’s turn to enjoy a series of successes. MLC

Race Results – 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours