The hero's return

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This is the actual Jaguar XJR-9 that won Le Mans in 1988, the greatest sports car victory of the modern era. Andrew Frankel takes it back for one final fling.

This, it should be said, was one of the bigger gambles. When this Jaguar XJR-9LM, chassis number 488, won Le Mans in 1988, it was the greatest triumph in sportscar racing enjoyed by a British car since Jaguar first won this race back in 1951. To date, only McLaren’s win in 1995 with the F1 stands comparison.

Problem was, not only had the XJR-9 not raced since 1988, it had scarcely moved. In 11 years, a few tentative runs up Lord March’s front drive and a handful of installation laps of Mallory Park does not amount to much of a career. It is, right down to the scrutineering stickers showing it competed at Le Mans in Group C1, as it was the day it crossed the line. Today it is the star exhibit of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust and is, as such, no more or less than a museum piece.

You can imagine, therefore, that the plan to take it back to Le Mans, not for a quick visit; but with a view to driving it all day as fast as it felt safe to go, was not without its drawbacks. Would the car run at all and, if so, for how long? What if it rained? The tyres are Dunlop Denloc run-flat slicks and are not made any more. Rather more worryingly, the Dymag wheels arc also unique to that tyre, so you can’t just bolt on a fresh set of covers; which meant no intermediates or wets. If it rained even a little, the Jaguar would be effectively undriveable. The staff at Le Mans were fantastically supportive before and during the test but could not help the fact that, before the actual race this year, they had but one free day where we could have the track to ourselves. So it was not as if we could come back if it all went wrong.

Long faces were the predominant feature around the supper table the night before. Win Percy, a man who knows such cars better than most having travelled along the Mulsanne straight at 240mph on the roof of one and survived without a scratch, announced he had scarcely ever seen a weather forecast like it; rain, lightning and, just to really rub it in, snow was heading our way.

But the following morning appeared with a dry dawn and, as we assembled in the paddock there was not a cloud to be seen. Someone plugged a battery into the XJR-9 and hit the starter. A cough, a bang and silence. Try again. A bang, a blaring blat of noise as the 7-litre V12 motor momentarily woke, then silence. Percy was looking worried. He knew that such treatment, while unavoidable, is absolutely the worst thing to do to one of these engines. Last chance, and the mighty V12 finally caught and held a deafening 2500rpm idle. Percy jumped in with not much less alacrity than if there was a works Porsche 962 ten seconds up the road. “I’m just going to see if it’s safe, warm it up and make sure everything’s working then you get in and go.”

Seeing that car crawl up the pit lane and out once more to the Dunlop Bridge was as poignant a sight as I’ve seen on a track test and the dozens assembled for this event, people from the staff of the Trust, Jaguar, Le Mans and this magazine, all knew it.

It took an age for Win to appear again and when he did the Jaguar was travelling painfully slowly. But he didn’t come in so there was still hope. Next time around the XJR-9LM was being worked rather harder, and third time around Win was flying, charging through the gears, belting through the curve at the end of the pit straight in fourth gear as if he’d never been away, never had his life saved here by this car’s immediately predecessor, the XJR-8, back in 1987. On the fourth lap he brought the car in. The door opened to reveal Win grinning as if he’d just won the race. “Mate, it’s perfect, just bloody perfect… Go see for yourself.”

The Jaguar XJR-9 was the third in the line of Tony Southgate-designed, TWR-built Group C racing cars. It is the most famous of the breed (thanks to that Le Mans win) but not the most successful, the XJR-8 winning nine championship rounds in ’87, compared to just six in ’88 for this type. The car is built around a carbon-fibre and Kevlar tub with carbon, Kevlar and glass-fibre bodywork. The aluminium V12 engine is based on that found in Jaguar road cars of the day but modified out of all recognition save the retention of just a single camshaft per bank and two valves per cylinder. Allan Scott developed the engine from part-machined blocks supplied by Jaguar using Cosworth pistons, Zytec management, Bosch fuel injection and a 12.0:1 compression ratio to produce 745bhp at 7200rpm. The entire weight of the 6995cc unit, including its AP Racing triple-plate clutch, was just 240kg.

It was fitted to the car as a fully stressed chassis member and had attached to it a March/TWR five-speed gearbox. Suspension arrived courtesy of double wishbones, with pull-rod actuated horizontal Koni dampers at the front and Bilsteins at the rear mounted inside the wheel hubs at the rear to allow maximum space for the undercar venturi. The car weighed 900kgs in Group C trim, providing a power to weight of 827bhp per tonne. In Le Mans trim, this XJR-9LM was timed at 236mph along the Mulsanne straight.

Climbing aboard takes care thanks to the impossibly wide sill between you and the seat. Even so, it’s a pleasant change not to have to watch precisely where you put your feet and hands lest you damage something. As Howard Davis, the manager of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust and the real reason we are here at all, points out, “Stand where you like, it’s all carbon-fibre.” This is, indeed, a strong old car.

Left foot on the seat, right hand on the sill, lift body, thread legs around large Momo wheel, shovel backside into seat designed for the rather more compact frames of original drivers, Messrs Lammers, Wallace and Dumfries, and wriggle into place. It looks old in here. No LCD dials, no sequential shift, just an off the shelf Stack tachometer flanked by small water and oil temperature gauges. On the left, out of immediate sight, there’s oil and fuel pressure, volts too. On the right, four switches marked Ignition, Injection, Pumps, Start. Take them in order and wait for the engine to fire. Now wide awake, it catches on twelve. Immediately.

Oddly, it’s not that noisy inside. Outside, its deafening, loud enough to make an unsuspecting pit-lane peruser cling to the pitwall to maintain balance when it fired up behind him. In the cockpit, the sound is gentler, more mellow, yet still unmistakeably that of a racing V12. Clank into first, lift the sharp clutch (“don’t slip it,” Win had said, “Tom used to give us an absolute bollocking if we did that”) and trundle out onto the track.

Ah, the joy of torque. I do not kid you, this engine pulls flexibly and without fuss from below idling speed. Visibility behind is better than you could hope thanks to thoughtfully positioned and electrically adjustable wing mirrors, and the gearbox reacts with good grace to a firm hand. This is easy.

Too easy as it turns out. Second lap out, still on stone-cold slicks, I attempted to put some power down a fraction too early coming out of the Ford chicane. It was a tiny sin but I knew I’d spun it long before I ran out of opposite lock. This was the first and, to date, only time I’d lost control of a car during a track test; sod’s law said it had to be here, in this car, in front of that crowd. To be fair, it didn’t even make it through 90 degrees and as I crept, chastened, back up to the Dunlop Bridge, Win and Howard were kind enough to lay on a laughing ovation as I went past. But I felt humbled and more than a bit stupid. It wasn’t the cost of the repairs had I damaged something that worried me; the car was insured. What caused the cold sweat was the knowledge that this car is original from nose-cone to rear wing and is as proud a slice of Britain’s motoring racing heritage as we have. Take some of that away and no amount of money will put it back.

A more considered approach pays dividends. I took another three or four laps gently building speed before finally gaining the confidence and tyre temperature to really start driving. You can put all the power down in second gear now at the start of the straight The engine will pull from 2000rpm, is strong from 3500rpm but only reveals its true nature between 4500rpm and the 6500rpm rev-limit I’ve imposed on myself, 700rpm short of peak power. On paper, the acceleration is similar to that of a late-70s Formula One car. In reality, it is entirely different. In the Jaguar you change up at the same revs a stock Cosworth DFV is just starting to sit up and take notice at, and while an F1 car requires almost constant gearchanging to retain its interest, the XJR-9’s gear ratios are, by comparison, long and lazy. With 615lb ft of torque on tap, changing gear is simply less important.

That much I could have guessed before climbing aboard. What I was not expecting was for this huge Group C leviathan to handle for all the world like a 745bhp kart. Its steering is as light as any car I have driven and turns the nose into the apex with electrifying alacrity. Gradually feed in the power before the apex and it’s not difficult to make the nose push away again; boot the throttle and the back will slide quickly and viciously enough to remind you this is a car mortals should drive to the limit and no further.

With such knowledge safely logged, the real nature of this heroic car started to unravel. I marvelled at the manner in which it would accelerate so hard up the pit-straight you had to brace yourself in the cockpit against the force until you grabbed fourth and waited for the whole crazy show to start again. And I marvelled more at the way it tackled the arcing curve at the end of the pit straight on a balanced throttle in fourth gear, with that unerring and sublime accuracy provided only by cars with serious quantities of downforce. On new tyres and in race conditions, a proper driver would not even lift.

Swerving left and right before the Dunlop Bridge in second, grabbing third under the bridge, feeling the rear tyres spin and grip again as it crests the rise and starts the descent to the Esses, hearing the V12 scream up to 6500rpm once more… these are the sights, senses and sounds I’d dared not dream of until this moment. Grab fourth down the hill then hard on the brakes, down two gears, belts biting through my overalls, off the original circuit and onto the somewhat less challenging Bugatti section. Hard right, engine suddenly quiet and docile; more power, more understeer, more power, a split second’s neutrality then thrust, music and mayhem to flick you to the end of the short straight beyond.

This is wild for sure, yet it is not mad. There’s no fear here, no challenge laid down to your ability to handle the power. It is not like an F1 car, happy only when driven flat out; it is much easier to drive as it had to be, to cope with drivers exhausted by a dozen or more hours at the wheel. It is comfortable, even for me, tolerant to play my game rather than lay down its own rules. And after five or six laps, it is also utterly, irredeemably addictive. Faces flashing past on the pit wall appear ever more surreal as in here becomes ever more natural and out there seems ever more alien.

So you drive it faster and faster right up to that point you realise, with crystal clarity that any greater effort will do nothing more than expose the machine to unnecessary risk. This is the moment you realise you have learned as much as you can from the car and, from that moment, you are starting to learn things only about yourself; this, emphatically, is not what we’re here for. I’ve been to this point a few times before and the only option is to park the car and walk away for ever. It is not possible to justify exposing any car, let alone one such as this, for the sake of an ego-trip, to a short and potentially explosively damaging voyage of self-discovery.

I knew enough, I’d done more than scratch the surface of this car, found out more than I’d ever imagined and now all that mattered was that I returned the XJR-9 in the right number of pieces. One last lap, one last blast, one final moment to savour such outlandish power, vivid braking, astonishing handling…

And then it’s all over. The XJR-9 falls silent again. It has proved its point, as if it were ever doubted. Eleven years ago, it covered 3313 miles at an all-inclusive average of over 137mph, one scant mile off the record distance set when there were no Porsche curves and no second gear chicane under the Dunlop Bridge. I was there, watching my first Le Mans, bellowing it on to victory alongside 100,000 other Britons. I, like every one of them, wondered what it might be like to drive. And now I know. How lucky can one man be?

Our sincere thanks to dozens of people who made this feature possible. In particular, Howard Davis, the Trustees of the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust (01203 2033 22), Martin Broomer and Cecile Simon of Jaguar CMS, Win Percy, and Herve Guyomard the Automobile Club de L’Ouest.

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