Jenson Button will this year make his debut at the Le Mans Classic, and his choice of car is particularly significant.
The 2009 Formula One World Champion will be at the wheel of a Jaguar XJR-9, 30 years after Andy Wallace, Jan Lammers and Johnny Dumfries scored a historic victory in the 24 Hours.
Jaguar, of course, had form in the famous race. Its first win came in 1951 courtesy of the Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead C-type, and four more would follow before the decade was out: the works cars of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton in ’53, and Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb in ’55, then the Ecurie Ecosse entries of Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson in ’56, and Flockhart and Bueb in ’57.
Despite Jaguar having officially withdrawn from racing, there was a degree of factory support for the privateer E-types that competed at Le Mans in the early 1960s.
After that, however, it went quiet until Bob Tullius showed up in 1984 with his IMSA-spec XJR-5 – Tullius was a Jaguar stalwart who’d previously enjoyed great success across the Pond with the E-type and XJ-S.
These were increasingly busy years for Jaguar’s motorsport programme. When Sir John Egan had arrived in 1980, the company was pretty much on its knees – he famously said that, “I could be the only chairman of a car company never to make a car”.
As he set about reversing Jaguar’s fortunes, Egan recognised the importance of motor racing in helping to sell cars.
Backing Tullius’ Group 44 outfit in the States was part of that, and in Europe Tom Walkinshaw was busy turning the XJ-S into a winner.
It took just three years for him to deliver the European Touring Car Championship. From there, it was a natural progression to the World Sportscar Championship.
Walkinshaw recognised that adapting Group 44’s IMSA design wasn’t going to work, so he tasked Tony Southgate with creating a pukka Group C car. The result was the XJR-6, which appeared in late 1985.
After a full 1986 campaign during which Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever took victory at Silverstone, Jaguar went on to dominate the 1987 season.
Raul Boesel was crowned drivers’ champion and the XJR-8 won eight of the 10 rounds – but it missed out at Le Mans, which had been Porsche territory since 1981. The 962 of Hans Stuck, Derek Bell and Al Holbert swept to victory by 20 laps; the leading Jaguar was back in fifth.
In 1988, however, change was in the air.
For a start, Le Mans would be the factory Porsche team’s only outing. And Jaguar had thrown its weight solely behind Tom Walkinshaw Racing, which would henceforth be responsible for both its Group C and IMSA programmes with the new XJR-9.
Group 44 was eased aside, but it didn’t take long for Jaguar’s decision to be proved correct. In January, the Castrol-liveried TWR XJR-9 of Boesel, Martin Brundle and John Nielson won the Daytona 24 Hours.
Then there was Mercedes, which had officially returned to sportscar racing with Peter Sauber’s team.
Its C9/88 featured a 5-litre turbocharged V8 against the XJR-9’s 7-litre normally aspirated V12, and there was no doubting the pace of the new Swiss-German challenger.
At the opening round of the World Sportscar Championship at Jerez, Jean-Louis Schlesser took pole position and then victory alongside Jochen Mass and Mauro Baldi.
Jaguar struck back at Jarama courtesy of Cheever and Brundle, the same pair then winning at Monza and Silverstone, too.
Next up was the big one, Le Mans, where no fewer than five Jaguars would face three factory Porsche 962s and two Sauber Mercedes – at least until practice got under way.
On Wednesday evening, Klaus Niedzwiedz was travelling at well over 220mph on the Mulsanne Straight when his left-rear Michelin exploded.
Chris Hodgetts, following in a Tiga, picked his way through the debris and glanced into the trees, thinking that whoever had gone off must have ended up there.
He was amazed to then come across the C9/88 trundling towards the pits, Niedzwiedz having somehow kept it pointing in a straight line.
The following day, Sauber Mercedes issued a press release: ‘Our analysis of yesterday’s high-speed tyre blowout, which was undertaken with our partners, has not led us to any satisfactory conclusions. In the light of the unique character of the Le Mans event, we have decided not to enter this year’s race.’
It’s important to remember that, in 1988, the Mulsanne Straight was yet to be sullied by chicanes, and drivers would spend an entire minute on full throttle.
In 1987, Jaguar’s Win Percy had survived a crash that went on for the best part of a kilometre after a similar blowout.
The straight put a particular strain on cars, and the withdrawal of Sauber Mercedes was entirely understandable.
So, the race boiled down to Jaguar vs Porsche.
In the lead 962 was the dream team of Derek Bell, Klaus Ludwig and Hans Stuck, and it was Stuck who’d claimed a sensational pole position.
His maximum-attack lap was three seconds faster than the sister 962 of Bob Wollek, Vern Schuppan and Sarel van der Merwe, and six seconds clear of the leading Jaguar – that of Brundle and Nielson.
When the field was unleashed, though, it was the Lammers XJR-9 that quickly established itself as the main threat to Stuck’s Porsche.
At the end of the seventh lap, and to the delight of the crowd, the Jaguar took the lead.
Even at this early stage, the race looked as if it was going to boil down to a straight fight between the two – until Ludwig, who’d taken over from Stuck, made a critical error.
For reasons unknown, he stayed out one lap longer than planned, only to run out of fuel at the Porsche Curves. He got the 962 back to the pits on the starter, but two laps had been lost.
All three drivers embarked on a flat-out charge to make it up, and they very nearly did, but even now Bell looks back on this race with frustration – the one that got away.
Up front, Lammers, Wallace and Dumfries continued on their relentless way. The Brundle/Nielson XJR-9 retired early on Sunday; that of Boesel, Henri Pescarolo and John Watson had already done likewise with transmission failure – a problem that, but for Lammers’ quick thinking, could have robbed the leading XJR-9 of victory in the closing stages.
The Dutchman was into the final hour when he felt a vibration immediately before the Jaguar jumped out of gear – exactly the experience that Boesel had, and one that he’d explained to Lammers.
Jan managed to find another gear – fourth – then had the presence of mind and discipline to leave it there.
He also thought not to mention it on the radio, which could have alerted Porsche to the problem and given encouragement to the Bell/Stuck/Ludwig 962, by that point back on the lead lap.
The Jaguar’s mighty torque even enabled Lammers to make a ‘splash and dash’ stop with 25 minutes left, the big V12 dragging the car away in fourth gear, despite that ratio being good for more than 200mph.
During the closing laps, the remaining three Jaguars circulated in formation and were cheered on their way by the enormous crowd.
When Lammers coaxed the car over the line, the spectators swept across the track and he climbed on to the roof of the XJR-9 to salute them.
Incredibly, it was the first time that chassis 488 had completed a race. It had retired at Jerez, Jarama and Monza, and such were its problems at Silverstone that it didn’t even take the start.
When it mattered most, however, it held together and – thanks to Lammers, Wallace and Dumfries – it delivered Jaguar’s first Le Mans victory for 31 years. With its job done, 488 was immediately retired and is now a cornerstone of the company’s Heritage Collection.
When Walkinshaw had first been entrusted with Jaguar’s Group C programme, he’d said that winning Le Mans would be a three-year project. The burly Scot proved to be bang on the money.