When Jaguar ruled at Le Mans again

The late, great Tom Walkinshaw, head of TWR and mastermind of successful touring car and sportscar efforts in the 1980s – including the works Jaguar effort at Le Mans in 1988 – and then multiple world-championship-winning race programmes throughout the 1990s, always said it took three years to win Le Mans.

After returning to La Sarthe in 2007, it took Peugeot three years to wrestle the famous trophy out of Audi’s hands. Other famous winners of the 24 Hours, such as the Audi R8, the Sauber Mercedes C9 and the Porsche 919 Hybrid, all needed at least two to finish on the top step of the podium.

1988 was the third year of Jaguar’s works Group C programme, and – against formidable competition in the form of the all-conquering factory Porsche 962Cs – the pressure was on.

The return

Legends of Le Mans – #2 TWR Jaguar XJR-9LM of Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries
© www.aysedasi.co.uk

Jaguar’s return to Le Mans had been a slow but steady process. It began with US privateers with Jaguar works backing building the Jaguar XJR-5s to compete in the IMSA GT Championship and, by extension, in the GTP class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The British manufacturer soon saw an opportunity for a full works programme and entered the 1987 World Sportscar Championship with the new XJR-8, which they won handsomely ahead of a swathe of privateer Porsche 962s run by the likes of Brun Motorsport and Joest Racing.

The 1987 24 Hours of Le Mans, however, proved elusive. Porsche had entered a trio of Rothmans-liveried works 962Cs against the three Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-8s. Shunts and mechanical issues plagued both teams, with Porsche losing one of its cars to accident damage in qualifying and Jaguar’s Win Percy crashing heavily in the early hours while leading in the #5 XJR-8. In the end, Porsche recorded its seventh Le Mans victory in a row while Jaguar could only finish fifth.

The addition of the brand-new Sauber Mercedes works team brought added spice to the 1988 season. The Sauber C9s had finished in the top two at the first four races of the 1988 World Sportscar Championship, winning in Jerez and finishing second to a Jaguar at Jarama, Monza and Silverstone. However, on the eve of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Sauber Mercedes team would withdraw over concerns about blowouts on their Michelin tyres.

Jaguar’s works squad was packed full of Formula 1 experience, with future Benneton, Ligier and McLaren driver Martin Brundle anchoring the effort in the #1 XJR-9LM alongside Dane John Nielsen. In the #2 machine, Dutchman Jan Lammers partnered former Lotus F1 driver Johnny Dumfries and Le Mans debutant Andy Wallace. The #3 machine also included a raft of F1 talent, including four-time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo, five-time Grand Prix winner John Watson and Brazilian driver Raul Boesel.

They would face an equally star-studded Porsche works team line-up. It featured Klaus Ludwig, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Derek Bell (with just the 10 Le Mans victories between them) in the #17 962C as well as Bob Wollek, Vern Schuppan and Sarel van der Merwe in the #18 machine. The #19 car was driven by 1978 F1 World Champion Mario Andretti together with his son Michael and nephew John.

So, the scene was set: It would be a straight-up fight between three Shell-sponsored Porsche 962Cs and a trio of factory Jaguar XJR-9s, both featuring some of the fastest drivers in the world and with a supporting cast of privateer entries.

Jaguar leads

These were different times at Le Mans: The Mulsanne Straight was enjoying its penultimate year of chicane-free glory, allowing the seven-litre Jaguars, the three-litre turbocharged Porsches as well as the likes of Mazda, Toyota and Nissan to charge down the 3.6-miles piece of tarmac unabated.

Legends of Le Mans – #18 Porsche 962C of Bob Wollek, Vern Schuppan and Sarel van der Merwe
© www.aysedasi.co.uk

A gantry-mounted camera positioned three-quarters of the way down the fearsome Hunaudières captures the utter splendour of fifty Group C machines thundering along the public road at almost 240 mph. It’s an iconic shot that harks back to a time when motorsport may well have been more exciting, but was certainly more dangerous.

The machines were released for their 24-hour sprint in balmy weather, led away by Porsche’s banner-carrying #17 962C of Hans Stuck. Stuck’s lead didn’t last for long, however, as Jan Lammers in the #2 Jaguar XJR-9LM was soon swarming all over the back of the German’s Porsche. Lammers made the move in front of Stuck on lap two on the run down to Indianapolis, signalling the start of a race-long battle between the two leading XJR-9LMs and 962Cs.

After four hours of the race, Klaus Ludwig in the #17 Porsche slowed to a crawl at Indianapolis after his reserve fuel tank failed, making his way back to the pits on the starter motor. It proved to be a setback for the #17 crew, but the driver talent in the team would ensure that this was by far the end of their challenge at the 1988 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The race continued into the night at a frenetic pace. Shadows became longer, dusk drew in, and the Le Mans atmosphere transformed in that way only Le Mans can.

At the front of the field, the #2 Jaguar XJR-9LM of Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace had established itself as the leading car of the British manufacturer, closely followed by the #18 Porsche 962C of Bob Wollek, Vern Schuppan and Sarel van der Merwe. At midnight, the #18 led the race ahead of the #2 car and a recovering #17.

Tense finish

Legends of Le Mans – #8 Blaupunkt-Joest Racing Porsche 962C of Stanley Dickens, John Winter and Frank Jelinski at the 1988 24 Hours of Le Mans
© www.aysedasi.co.uk

During the night, a problem with the gearbox of the #3 car spread unease among the Jaguar pit. The issue had resulted in the retirement of the third Jaguar, after driver Raul Boesel wasn’t able to engage the transmission properly and lost drive entirely.

Porsche weren’t without their issues either, with both the #18 and #19 cars suffering from engine problems in the early hours of the race. Both spent extended periods of time in the pits for repairs and saw their Le Mans hopes slip away.

Rain arrived in the morning hours, putting another spanner in the works of the Jaguar challenge. As Sunday progressed, the Lammers/Dumfries/Wallace #2 Jaguar held a slim one-lap lead over the hard-charging #17 Porsche of Bell, Stuck and Ludwig. The Le Mans crowd, swollen by some 50,000 Brits, was willing Jaguar to the finish – if anything simply to break Porsche’s seven-year stranglehold on the race.

From a spectator’s perspective, it appeared as if the #2 Jaguar had successfully held the Porsche at bay and cruised to the finish line to record the British marque’s first victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe since 1957. Relief swept the Jaguar pit, faces of anguish on the likes of team manager Tom Walkinshaw and co-drivers Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries turned to joy. However, what really unfolded in that final stint only became clear years later.

The gearbox issues that had put paid to the #3 car’s challenge had indeed spread to the leading #2 machine. Lammers, in the car for the final stint of the race, had sensed that there was a problem with the gearshift after changing into fourth gear. Well aware of the #3 car’s fate, the Dutchman decided to leave the car in gear for the remainder of the race – including during the car’s final pit stop!

It proved to be a wise decision, as the gearbox practically fell apart when it was examined back at the Jaguar factory. Somehow Lammers brought the car made it home to be greeted by swarms of fans invading the track – the #17 Porsche finishing just a minute or two down the road. If it hadn’t had been for the Dutchman’s heroics, the story of the 1988 race could have ended all too differently.

Jaguar won a further two World Sportscar Championships and another 24 Hours of Le Mans title, but would pull out of sportscar racing for good at the end of the 1991 season. An ill-fated four-year stint in Formula 1 between 2000 and 2014 yielded limited results. Now, Jaguar’s sole motorsport commitments are focused on electric vehicles, including a factory Formula E team. It’s a far cry from the days of seven-litre, purpose-built sportscars, but nevertheless all too familiar in the current climate. Still, the memories of the roaring seven-litre XJRs remain.

All images kindly provided by www.aysedasi.co.uk