From a distance, the 1988 Le Mans was a simple triumph for Jaguar, as the Silk Cut XJR9-LMs vanquished the might of Porsche in a race the Stuttgart marque had latterly made its own.
However, it was not with such a prospect that TWR-Jaguar entered the race. The pre-race agenda had a rather different complexion which, rather than capturing glory, had rather more to do with avoiding humiliation. When Jaguar first sent a works team to Le Mans, back in 1951, it not only came home with nine laps in hand over the next car, but scored the first of five wins in the next seven races.
Jaguar’s much vaunted return to the circuit had been rather different. Three cars were entered in 1986 and three cars failed to mount an effective challenge to the might of Porsche before, one after the other, they all retired. If this was excusable, the 1987 result was not. In the XJR-8, Jaguar had, at last, a car to beat the Porsches, something it had delighted in doing in every race up to Le Mans. Three Jaguars had started the race and watched with glee while Porsche after Porsche retired with engines destroyed by a chip that could not cope with the fuel. Of the front-running Porsches, just the Bell/Stuck 962 survived. One Porsche against three Jaguars It was enough. By the following afternoon, Derek Bell took the flag 20 laps ahead of anyone else and 30 clear of the sole surviving Jaguar.
By 1988, you will appreciate, things had come to a head. Jaguar fielded five cars, and if that sounds excessive, remember it was such strength in numbers which brought Porsche victory in the previous seven events. In 1983, for example, the first eight cars across the line were Porsche 956s… The biggest threat, it seemed at the time, came not from Porsche but Sauber-Mercedes, and when Peter Sauber withdrew the team after a tyre let go in practice for no reason they could fathom, Jaguar’s position started to look altogether more rosy.
Even so, the Porsches were heavily revised, featuring all new engine management and boost-buttons on the steering wheel for an instant extra 50bhp for overtaking. Then Hans Stuck put his 962 on pole at an average of over 155mph, with 243 logged on the straight. Its sister cars then lined up neatly behind it, shunting the quickest Jaguar back to fourth on the grid.
The start was epic and set the tone for the race to come. Undeterred by Porsche’s practice pace, Jan Lammers took off down the pit-straight as if the race was a 10 lap sprint. By lap six his Jaguar was leading, Lammers driving out of his skin and raising suggestions that his was a sacrificial car, designed to force the Porsche’s pace, hunting out its weaknesses. But even when one was found, Klaus Ludwig bringing the 962 he was sharing with Bell and Stuck into the pits on the starter motor, as no fuel could be prised from the reserve tank, another simply took take it place. Before one sixth of the race, the 962 of Bob Wollek neatly outbraked the Jaguar at the Dunlop chicane and slipped into the lead.
The battle that followed didn’t just last a lap, or even an hour. For the next 9 hours, over 1200 miles of racing, they fought for every inch of track. The lead changed constantly, pit stops and different fuelling strategies providing the only difference between them. The Jaguar, driven by Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Le Mans rookie Andy Wallace, never let up.
At 2.40am, the sprint strategy paid off. The Wollek Porsche was in the pits, and this time it was staying there. Three exhaust valves were burned out. Could the jaguar relax? Not for a moment as, on cue, up stepped the delayed Bell 962 having been driven as fast as it would go since a fresh pump cured its fuel supply problems. Then Andy Wallace found himself driving down the straight at 230mph, staring at a crack spreading across the windscreen. It had to be changed. Nor could the lead car count on the other Jaguars. One, driven by Watson, Boesel and Pescarolo, was already out while the two American-crewed cars were running but out of contention, leaving just the NieIsen/Brundle car which, having recovered from an early trip into the sand to take second place, was to retire with head gasket failure.
Jaguar hopes rested not simply on the reliability of its sole front-running car but also on the belief that the Bell Porsche, having been driven flat out, was in overdraft with its fuel allowance.
And then even this small crumb of comfort was removed. At 11.00am, it started to rain, bringing a triple blow to Jaguar. The Porsche would climb back into fuel credit while at its wheel sat Stuck, the best wet weather driver in the world. Then Lammers went out on slicks but had to pit on the next lap for wet tyres. Stuck, meanwhile, was closing the gap at more than 10 sec a lap. On intermediate tyres, the 962 was sideways through every comer; once it flew off the track and onto the grass. Stuck did not even lift.
Had the rain continued, the result might have gone Porsche’s way, but in the end it abated and the Lammers Jaguar was first, still on the same lap as the 962 after 3313 miles of all-out racing. It covered just half a mile less than the record distance covered by the Porsche 917K in 1971, this despite the rain, and the fact that it had to slow to a comparative standstill for the new chicane under the Dunlop bridge.
Porsche, having won ten of the last 12 races, was beaten on terrain on which many believed it invincible. And although privateer Porsche teams have won the race three times in the decade since this race, the once indomitable works team has, to date, not won a Le Mans since.