Jaguar flags will be flying at Le Mans with good reason this summer, as Paul Gentilozzi takes the marque back to La Sarthe with the XKR GT2 racer
By Gary Watkins
Bentley and MG have come and gone; Aston Martin returned and hung around. They all have their supporters among the 50,000 Brits who make the annual pilgrimage to the Le Mans 24 Hours, yet there’s another historic marque with just as much support. Jaguar banners can still be spotted in the crowd every year. It appears not to matter that these increasingly tatty flags have been waving, metaphorically as well as literally, at thin air since the mid-1990s. All that changes this year.
Jaguar is back where it belongs, racing at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The honour of ending a 15-year absence goes to Paul Gentilozzi’s Michigan-based RSR team, a spin-off of his successful Rocketsports organisation. It has developed the aluminium-chassis XKR to GT2 specification, ostensibly for the American Le Mans Series. But, as Gentilozzi says, “If you are doing sports cars, you have to have the ambition to go to Le Mans. It’s like being a horse trainer and never going to the Kentucky Derby.”
Gentilozzi won the race to persuade Jaguar back to sports car racing, though there were other suitors. His relationship with the marque goes back to the early Noughties. Rocketsports started running a Jaguar bodyshape in the Trans-Am silhouette sports car series in 2000, went on to secure factory backing and then won multiple titles for the marque.
“This has been in my heart for a long time,” says Gentilozzi, who talked about this ambition to this writer as long ago as 2001. “When we heard about the new ownership [Jaguar was purchased from Ford by Tata Motors during 2008], we were immediately on the phone.”
Gentilozzi’s group produced what he calls a “White Paper” about the role motor sport has played in the culture of Jaguar.
“We talked about what Jaguar’s competitors were doing,” says Gentilozzi. “Then we had a page about what Jaguar was doing. It was plain white. I think that really struck home.”
Discussions started in earnest at Le Mans in 2008. The basis of a deal was thrashed out by Gentilozzi, Jaguar boss Mike O’Driscoll and former global marketing boss C?J?O’Donnell. There was at least one bottle of wine involved and the result was a project designed, says Gentilozzi, “to see how both sides worked together”. The plan was to take a near-standard version of the forthcoming XFR saloon and beat the record for the fastest production Jag on the Bonneville salt flats that November.
Gentilozzi hit 225mph and “then drove the car back through town” by way of celebration. “It was truly a production car,” he explains. “We changed the pulley on the supercharger, but there were no mechanical changes inside the engine. We did 225mph [seven miles per hour faster than the XJ220 – featured on page 124], but we could have gone faster.
“What we did at Bonneville turned into a big success at the Detroit Auto Show,” continues Gentilozzi. “The XFR was launched on the back of our success together.”
It also proved that Gentilozzi’s organisation and Jaguar could work together. “We had a very small window to take a car that was engineered to do 180mph and take it up to 220mph-plus,” he says. “We had to interface with several engineering and marketing groups at Jaguar.”
The result was a letter of intent from Jaguar and a start on the XKR GT2 project over the winter, although the final contract wasn’t signed until April. In fact, it wasn’t signed until a couple of days after the official launch of the project at the Long Beach ALMS event that month.
“The first XKR racer was half-built by that point,” says Gentilozzi, who goes on to reveal that this car was subsequently scrapped after a visit from the Le Mans rulemaker, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest.
“We read the rulebook and it didn’t tell us what we couldn’t do,” says Gentilozzi. “In reality, you can only do what the ACO tells you you can do.”
Gentilozzi describes working with the ACO as “a new science to us” and a “lesson in world affairs”. He quickly adds that the organisation has been “very supportive” and is “very much on our side”.
The XKR has been developed in close collaboration with Jaguar. O’Donnell, whose secondment to Jaguar from Ford came to an end in April, describes the relationship as one of “meaningful support”.
“Our engineers in the UK have been very well connected with this programme,” he explains. “For example, all the CFD [computational fluid dynamics] was done by [design director] Ian Callum and his group. They have been responsible for all the external surfaces.”
The result of their efforts was shown to the world at the Petit Le Mans round of the ALMS last autumn, though a plan to race the car in the 10-hour enduro at Road Atlanta had been abandoned in the run-up to the event. The car wasn’t ready, and was even late for the launch, thanks to a puncture on the race truck en route.
That has set the tone for the XKR programme to date. The car made an inauspicious debut two weeks later at Laguna Seca and was far from being competitive. Five months later, after a intense winter development schedule, the Jaguar was still a long way off the pace at the ALMS opener at Sebring and retired early with overheating problems. The car took a step forward at Long Beach and notched up a finish, albeit a distant and troubled one.
Gentilozzi insists that he is not underestimating the task at hand and acknowledges that, in taking on Porsche, Ferrari, Chevrolet and BMW, he has entered arguably the most competitive arena in sports car racing worldwide. Gentilozzi has always billed 2010 as “a development year”, though his initial predictions look likely to be some way off.
“I’ll be pissed if we’re not challenging for victories by the end of the year,” he said on the launch of the car, offering the past successes of Rocketsports by way of evidence. “We’ve won in everything we’ve done, and I don’t see why this programme will be any different.”
RSR does face some significant problems to overcome. This is a factory programme and Jaguar has now revealed that it does contribute financially to the project, a fact it refused to acknowledge last year. It is a partnership, however, and that means responsibility for much of the funding falls to Gentilozzi. That means RSR cannot have the same financial resources as its rivals.
The other problem for RSR is the XKR: it’s a big car that does not provide the same base for a racing machine as, say, the Ferrari 430. As Gentilozzi points out, there’s “a lot of car to push down the straightaways”, a reference to the Jaguar’s large frontal area.
RSR will be looking, eventually, for the same kind of help given to the Aston Martin Vantage GT2, a car not dissimilar to the XKR in size and architect. It gets a 50kg weight break, a larger-diameter air-restrictor and some help on the aero side.
Some have suggested that RSR and its parent organisation do not have the pedigree to develop a winning car at this level. Put that to Gentilozzi and he replies: “Ask that question of Gary Pratt and see what he says.” Pratt & Miller was one of Rocketsports’ major competitors in Trans-Am in the late ’90s. Since then it has masterminded Chevrolet’s successes with the GT1 Corvettes and is now looking to repeat that in GT2.
That said, RSR bolstered its engineering team just days before the Sebring 12 Hours, bringing in Riley Technologies as a consultant. Gentilozzi insists that it doesn’t point to any shortcomings in his own team, just the long-standing links between the two companies. Riley & Scott, as it was then known, built the Oldsmobile Cutlass with which Rocketsports won an IMSA GTS title in 1993.
The solo XKR, which is due to be raced in the 24 Hours by Gentilozzi, Ryan Dalziel and Marc Goossens, will not be competitive this year.
But then the Group 44 Jaguars were not on the pace when they ended a previous hiatus from Le Mans by the Coventry marque in 1984.
The comparisons between Bob Tullius’s Group 44 GTP project and the RSR GT campaign are obvious. Both programmes were conceived to promote Jaguar in the all-important North American market and then grew to include Le Mans.
There’s a salutary lesson for Gentilozzi in the Group 44 tale. Tullius was told at the start of the programme by Jaguar boss John Egan that he would eventually lose his deal. “One day,” he said, “we are going to do this ourselves from the factory.” It didn’t quite work out like that, but a British group, Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR squad, did become Jaguar’s sole factory representative in sports cars on both sides of the Pond.
O’Donnell has insisted that such as scenario is unlikely to be repeated, revealing that Jaguar has a five-year deal with RSR. “We are inextricably linked,” he says. “This is a tight marriage.”
He has given a little pointer to what could be in the pipeline, however: “There could be much bigger things in the future. GT racing is a good start, but we could look at other categories.”
How about a Jaguar attack on outright Le Mans honours? Say in 2015, 60 years after the first D-type victory?