From the August 1991 issue of Road & Track.
LOADS OF POWER, not much grip, equal machinery and top Grand Prix drivers on the entry list: Those were the main attractions of the BMW Procar series. In 1979 I drove the "Young Star" works entry in Silverstone's Grand Prix supporting race. After a rather timid practice—racing a left-hand-drive car for the first time—I qualified well down. But in the race I soon discovered a vital lesson: Smoothness was out; aggression was in.
I battled up to join a fight between Carlos Reutemann and Clay Regazzoni. I passed Carlos and was sizing up scalp number two when, dreaming of all the Grand Prix contracts I'd soon be offered, I dropped the lot in a huge 360-degree spin out of Copse.
Now in 1991, a little older and much wiser, I'll be looking to make amends as one of the 16 JaguarSport XJR-15 drivers on the grid in Monaco on May 11. For months I've been trying to test one of these JaguarSport Intercontinental Challenge machines and, finally, the opportunity arose recently in Silverstone's South Circuit.
It was the day the first six customer cars were being handed over to their new owners. They looked superb: £3 million sitting there like sextuplets all dressed in regulation ICI "XJR Blue," separable only by their old-fashioned numbers—if you can remember, they're the ones you can actually read! Big black numbers in white roundels that were compulsory before the power of sponsorship took over.
It is not correct to say that the cars were being handed over. The right word is "lent" because none of them can be taken away from Tom Walkinshaw Racing's JaguarSport premises until two weeks after the Monaco race. Then they must be returned two weeks before the next race at Silverstone so the team can check that no modifications have been made.
There are only three races—Monaco, Silverstone and Spa—and it is at the final round that the owners have their chance to get their money back with a cool $1 million (U.S.) to the winner. The £500,000 price of each of the 50 XJR-15s to be built—and they are all sold— includes running the car in the three races if you so wish, although all 16 Monaco slots have been reserved.
While the racing itself hearkens back to the Procars, the cars then were basically road vehicles turned into racers, whereas the new XJR-15s are much more like a modern-day Ford GT40—racing cars that could be switched to road use.
The XJR-15 is based on the 1988 Le Mans-winning V12-powered XJR-9 Group C sports car. The driver sits in a beautifully finished composite carbon-fiber and Kevlar monocoque with a 6.0-liter JaguarSport 60-degree V12 bolted to its back, tuned to send 450- bhp to the back wheels via a TWR 6-speed gearbox.
There is a rear wing but it looks more like a spoiler; and there are some ground-effect venturi channels, but the ride height is so high that little effect can be generated. So, apart from the downforce of the car's own 1050 kg (2315 lb.), there is not a lot to help the Bridgestone slicks maintain adhesion. The result is oversteer.
I had thought the days of oversteer were gone; that glorious powerslides were a thing of the past. Across a variety of formats—4-wheel-drive rally cars, front-wheel-drive touring cars, Formula 3, Formula 3000, sports cars or Grand Prix cars—technology has evolved cars and tires that work best when maneuvered into a corner at very high speed and then simply driven out with full power and maximum traction right at the edge of adhesion.
With the XJR-15, high-tech is out. The only things the driver can change are the stiffness of the front anti-roll bar—there isn't a rear one—and brake balance front and rear. That's it. Just get in and drive.
Mind you, getting in is easier said than done. The doors swing out horizontally, as they do in a normal road car, but the opening is fairly small, which means you thread your legs in from a long way back.
My XJR-15 for the day was the team's test car, so the nicely molded carbon-fiber seat lacked the customer's upholstered covering. Nevertheless, it pinned me in a very comfortable driving position spoiled only by the proximity of the steering wheel— flat on the bottom to aid getting in and out. Leg room was excellent but the steering wheel forced an " elbows-out" style.
The V12 burst into life as soon as the starter was engaged. I selected 1st gear and dribbled out onto the circuit; later I discovered it was a 6-speed box and I had set off 2nd. Such is the torque of the engine it will pull from very low revs, and there is little advantage in hanging on right up to the 6200-rpm limit.
It was my first time on Silverstone's South Circuit, so I was faced with the awkward combination of new car and new circuit and only 12 laps to get to know both. The XJR-15 has two characteristics stemming from its lack of aerodynamic downforce. The first is the expected power oversteer and the second is. . . nervous braking.
I remember stories of the XJR-9 sports-car drivers being kept alert by the feeling that the large V12, with its high center of gravity, was going to make the car spin under braking. Ally this to a lack of downforce and softer suspension, allowing more weight transfer to the front under braking, and you can see the problem growing.
In fact, the brakes work very well, but the steering is fairly light and transmits this feeling of nervousness to the driver when, in fact, there's nothing to be alarmed about. Having said that, the new Stowe corner demands that you turn into it while still braking, and I soon discovered that the X JR-15 is not the car for that technique.
After touching 6000 rpm in 5th—the gearing left 6th unused—it was 3rd gear for Stowe, gradually picking up the power as the long apex unwound. I then took 4th early as we left the right-hand apex and headed for the left-handed entry to Vale. I gave it full power into the dip, using all the road and a fair amount of opposite-lock, winding up to 5200 rpm in 4th before cresting the rise and braking hard for the tight left-handed entry to Club.
The enormous torque of the engine allowed 3rd to be used in the left and then an early shift to 4th for the long right-handed acceleration through Club. Kick the back out in the left and it would swing straight out when you turned right. Go steady through the left and even then the sheer power of the engine would turn Club into one long powerslide—wonderful!
All this exuberance was slightly spoiled by the closeness of the steering wheel and also the lightness of the steering that gave little warning of the impending breakaway. Quick applications of opposite-lock were the order of the day.
Up toward the tight right at Abbey, the XJR-15 needed 5th for only 100 meters before I had to brake hard for the 3rd-gear right/left combination, with the car happily taking the left hander at full throttle. It's a shame the South Circuit no longer has any high speed corners because the car felt more at home in medium-speed turns than the slow ones where it was all too easy to break the traction of the rear wheels.
After Abbey it was the hard right leading off the Grand Prix circuit and up to 4th for the straight toward the long right-handed curve in front of the pits. As with Stowe, you really want to be on the brakes through the right hander before dropping down to 3rd for the tight right-left-right chicane that follows. I really didn't want to crash the test car into the middle of the hospitality area, greeting the new owners, so I went back to driving school with a touch of brakes followed by a "balanced throttle" and then back on the brakes again—slower but safer.
Through the very tight chicane the X JR-15 showed excellent change of direction, and I was able to pick up the power early for the long right-handed curve leading up to Becketts and the return to Hangar Straight. This gradually became a long right-handed powerslide as my confidence increased and I was able to admire the black marks 1 had left on the track from the previous lap.
Snatch 4th gear for 100 meters and then it was back to 3rd for the long right-handed Becketts. You run deep into the corner to set up a late apex and then make that increasingly confident solid application of power, with elbows cocked ready to catch any snap to over steer as the grass apex of Chapel Curve steps out to catch you.
In my few laps I got down to 1 minute, 16 seconds, which is similar to a good Group A lap time and well short of the new Group C Jaguar's sub-l-minute lap. Depending on the final construction of the regulation Bridgestone slicks, the driver's main task will be to make the most of the traction without rooting the rubber and getting the most out of the brakes without their fading.
The XJR-15 will doubtless suit the Belgian Spa circuit more than the streets of Monaco, but I'm making space above the fireplace for the "Needell Exiting Cason Square" photo with me in full opposite-lock pose.