The 1988 24 Hrs of LeMans

The year is 1988, and it is the future.  At least that’s what it looked like based on all the Toyota car posters.  While some may be looking back on the laser-obsessed late 80’s with some embarrassment or derision, literally almost everyone looked back fondly on 1988’s greatest creation... The Jaguar XJR-9. 

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TWR had been busy after the 1987 season came to a close preparing the XJR-9 to compete in both IMSA GTP and FIA Group C as up until this point, Jaguar fielded two slightly different chassis between the Championship series.  Tony Southgate was once again brought back to the drawing board to help with design of the car which would undergo several improvements from the XJR-8.  His main focus was on further improving the already outstanding ground effects through the usage of aggressive side skirts and venturi ducting underneath the car.  Southgate moved the water radiator to the nose of the car, with air passing through it from the front center intake to a duct ahead of the windshield which provided smooth, shaped airflow to travel across its roof.  Additional louvres were added to the front wheel arches for more adjustability of downforce.  TWR was also able to squeeze a thunderous 740hp from the hulking V12 whose only real drawback was heft.  Southgate was always struggling to lower the center of gravity of the car with such a large piece of metal sitting tall in the back.  With a completed car, and a new shop opened in Indiana to complete IMSA rulebook modifications for the XJR-9, TWR took the car to the 24 Hours of Daytona for its debut.  A strong win over a field packed with aging Porsche 962s gave Jaguar promise of another great season in the World Sportscar Championship.  However, right out of the gate, it was not Jaguar taking the win at the first race in Jerez, but Team Sauber Mercedes with their C9 beast.  Both cars finished on the lead lap, Jaguar trailing by a mere 24 seconds over a total race time of 5:18 and change.  It was clear from this point that there was another strong contender stepping out of the shadows of quiet seasons passed in the C9.

All roads led to the annual showdown at La Sarthe.  Each team put a little something extra into the car prep getting it ready for the big race.  Driven less by a chase for glory, and more by avoiding humiliation, Jaguars pre-race preparation took on a different complexion entirely.  Consider Jaguar’s history at Le Mans, dating back to 1951 when it finished the race nine laps ahead of the runner up, but back that up with five of 7 Le Mans wins following the first.  It is clear by now (if you’ve been paying attention) that their vaunted return was not reaching the same caliber.  By 1988, things had come to a head for Jaguar who elected to field five XJR-9LM cars, taking a page out of Porsches book that strength in the 24 hour race is found in numbers.  However, their 962 competition was over the hill, and the more imminent threat seemed to come from the Sauber-Mercedes camp.  When they pulled out due to catastrophic tire delamination issues through practice, Jaguars prospects seemed even more promising.  

Prudence dictates partnering optimism with caution.  The 962 may have been aging, but it was heavily modified, including push-to-pass boost buttons controlled by the driver to provide an extra 50hp on demand.  Hans Stuck placed his 962 on pole with a top speed of 391 down Mulsanne while the fastest Jaguar only managed fourth. 

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The start of the race was epic, setting a tone for the rest of the event to come.  Jaguar driver Jan Lammers took off down the pit straight as if the race were a single lap sprint, and held a solid lead by lap 6.  Driving outside his own body, many race engineers on the pit wall suspected Lammers may be the sacrificial car, meant to push Porsches pace higher in keeping up and expose a potential weakness.  One may have been found in Ludwig’s 962 as it limped back to the pits on the starter motor alone, but sheer volume saw another 962 just take its place.  By one sixth race distance, the 962 of Bob Wollek made a tidy braking maneuver into the Dunlop chicane to overtake Jaguar for the lead.  What followed was a battle that did not last a lap, or even an hour.  The 962 and XJR-9LM fought for 9 hours, nearly 2000 kilometers, for every inch on the track.  The lead changed constantly, contrasting fuel burn strategies and pit stops were the only things that separated the cars.  Jaguar drivers Lammers, Johnny Dumfries, and Andy Wallace were unrelenting.

In the middle of the night, around 2:40am, Jaguars unwavering sprint strategy was paying off as Wolleks 962 found itself in the pits, and going nowhere fast with three burnt out exhaust valves.  Jaguar had little chance to catch a breath as Derek Bell’s 962 was being driven at maximum capacity and moved into second place on que.  It was at this point Andy Wallace found himself flying down the Mulsanne straight at 380km/h watching a crack in his windshield spread rapidly like the dangling trailer scene in Jurassic Park 2.  It had to be changed.  Jaguar however was running without the luxury of relying on other vehicles to take its place, with the Watson, Boesel and Pescarolo car out, the two American XJR-9s running well out of lead contention, and the Nielson/Brundle car about to retire on a head gasket failure.  Jaguar could only take comfort in the belief that the Porsche 962 was being driven flat out and in overdraft of its fuel consumption rate.  If the knots in the Jaguar factory team were not tight enough already, 11:00 brought with it rain, and several major implications to the race.  Porsche would claw back into fuel credit with Joachim Stuck behind the wheel, the best wet weather driver in the world.  To compound matters, Lammers left the pit on slicks as the rain came down and had to tip toe the car back in the following lap for appropriate tires. 

Stuck was driving the Porsche with everything he had, sideways through every corner, and closing on the Jaguar at 10 seconds per lap.  In an answer to Jaguars prayers however, the rain ceased and permitted the Jaguar across the line to take the race win.  The chasing Porsche finished on the lead lap after 3313 miles of racing. 

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Jaguar had finally ended its draught at Le Mans with the XJR-9, immortalizing both itself, and the 1988 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as one of greatest of all time.  The rest of the season seemed less significant than in past years for Jaguar, but they had no chance to rest as the Sauber Mercedes C9 was right there to challenge for wins at every race.  The two heavyweights traded victories throughout the season, Jaguar claiming Brands Hatch and Fuji, while the rapidly improving C9 took Brno, Nurburgring, Spa, and Sandown Park.  Silk Cut Jaguar took the teams championship over Sauber Mercedes, who was not far behind after their strong second half of the season.  Martin Brundle claimed the 1988 drivers’ championship driving for Jaguar, with Schlesser behind the wheel of the C9 finishing a close second.