Another anniversary at Spa

Jaguar XJR-15 in action

20 years ago Schuey arrived as TWR Jag's wild XJR-15 bowed out at Spa (Plbmak)

It is a certain 20 year anniversary this weekend at Spa, have you noticed? Of course you have, but there are more than enough ruminations on his Schumi-ness so instead I’ve been thinking about another race worth celebrating on that same weekend at Spa in August 1991. It featured 16 top drivers in identical Group C-inspired road cars with a prize of a million bucks on offer. The spectacular race was predicted to be such a ding-dong battle that the officials refused to declare how many laps it would be for fear of fisticuffs on the final tour…

The Jaguar Sport Intercontinental Challenge was short-lived but spectacular, briefly indulging the motorsport scene with a dream championship that only the mighty BMW M1 Procars could rival. The brainchild of the maverick mind of Tom Walkinshaw, despite its success the XJR-15 threatened the relationship between his TWR operation and its most famous client.

After Tom Walkinshaw Racing took the quintessentially British Jaguar XJS to considerable touring car success they made the massive step up into Group C sportscars in 1985. Their 1988 steed the XJR-9 famously took the victory at Le Mans and that’s where the XJR-15’s story began. This momentous Le Mans win was TWR’s defining moment and the first for Jaguar since the days of the D-Type.

By 1989 TWR had growing ambitions to manufacture their own road cars. They were already engineering race programmes, badging special edition road cars and were even creating a proper production line that would later be used by the likes of Aston Martin and Volvo. However their first road car was intended to be their very own statement of intent – a carbon fibre supercar that was effectively the Le Mans winning XJR-9 with indicators and a passenger seat.   The engine in the Tony Southgate-penned XJR-9 was very familiar to TWR; it was based on the same V12 that was found in the aging XJS – the engine that powered TWR to its sporting peak. This really was their wild endurance and touring car machines tamed into a domesticated yet fearsome road machine for the uber-rich.

R9R was the original name for TWR’s new creation, although it soon became clear that Jaguar would not let the car they commissioned to win Le Mans beat them at their own game on the road. In 1988 the stunning Jaguar XJ220 was unveiled in concept form. Sporting the now traditional Jaguar V12, scissor doors and a 4WD drivetrain this ultimate big cat was quickly commissioned and deposits of £50,000 were duly collected. Unfortunately the well-heeled buyers were in for a shock by the time the car reached production.

During the XJ220’s development, in which TWR took on a major role, it lost half the cylinders, half the driven-wheels, the doors no longer opened sky-wards and the interior became awash with bits out of the Ford Granada. Cue buyers backing out of their dream purchase as they became aware of the true specification of the Big Cat – what they wanted was a race-derived, ultra-exclusive, V12-powered car as promised. They liked the Jaguar name and the TWR know-how. Up stepped TWR with their fast developing R9R, yours for a cool million pounds – nearly three times more than the XJ220. Knowing how shrewd Tom Walkinshaw was you could be forgiven for thinking that TWR saw the way the XJ220 project was panning out and like a big cat they pounced.

When the R9R project became known to the top brass at Jaguar they weren’t pleased that their XJ220 statement-supercar was about to be upstaged by the people entrusted with engineering it. So the TWR R9R became the Jaguar Sport XJR-15 by the time it was publicly revealed in late 1990. The XJR-15 was heavily based on the 1988 Le Mans winning machine with a svelte Peter Stephenson design sitting atop the race-proven tub.

To further differentiate between the two rival Jags, one of which was clearly a lot racier and edgier than the other, a series for these fabulous cars was quickly organised. During the 1991 Formula One season 16 XJR-15s did battle around Monaco, Silverstone and Spa – three of the blue-riband tracks on the Grand Prix calendar. TWR offered to assist the owners in preparing their cars for racing – which involved little more than attaching a beefier rear wing, adjusting the ride height and slapping some stickers on. The XJR-15 made for an unruly road car and it was only slightly more benign as a track weapon; there may have only been three short races but they packed in as much action as Jag’s Group C racers managed in a whole year of competition.

Derek Warwick won the first round in Monte Carlo by a mere seven tenths of a second from David Brabham after a smashing debut for the XJR-15s – in more ways than one. Despite the ever-present barriers Monaco’s mishaps were mild compared to the thrills that were to follow around the sweeps of Silverstone. Juan Manuel Fangio II took the laurels exactly forty five years after his famous uncle took his last race win around the airfield venue, but the younger Argentine’s win came only after 11 of the 16 cars were damaged in a bruising encounter.

For the third and final round at Spa where the championship’s $1 million prize was to be settled the organisers decided that this already astounding event needed further spice, so they announced that nobody would know when the chequered flag would fall! This was due to dastardly drivers making deals to ensure they could take the prize money together. Eventually it was to end after 11 laps and several crashes with Armin Hahne surviving to take the big prize with his first win of the miniature season. Cor Euser started out on pole, holding the lead until lap eight when he had a wobble through Eau Rouge that allowed Hahne to pounce. Warwick also tried to take Euser as the English Grand Prix veteran was in contention for the big prize, but he was to find himself in the barriers. It was a fate shared by others as John Watson collected Tiff Needell and Thierry Tassin ended up on top of a wall after a brush with TWR regular Win Percy. After two fifth places in the previous encounters Armin Hahne scooped the million with a win at Spa.

50 cars were sold in both race and road trim although the debate between TWR and Jaguar over their love-child continued for years as both companies claimed it was the responsibility of the other to replace parts and honour warranties. Not what you want for your super-expensive, super-rare supercar. The XJR-15 was a highly-strung machine that was not for the faint hearted. In road mode it was renowned for tricky handling and an uncompromising experience, quite the opposite of the XJ220 that the Elton Johns of this world were cruising round in.

The 50 XJR-15s are mostly still going strong, although many owners don’t bother changing them from their original racing set-up, preferring to use them as track and show cars, a few still sporting their racing paint schemes. Some have sold for as ‘little’ as £100,000 and a few have even cropped up highly modified. It is unlikely that we’ll see the likes of the XJR-15 series again. Like the BMW M1 this was a championship that came about almost by accident rather than design. With GT3 racing looking particularly stable at the moment there will always be somewhere for a supercar to go and race – something that wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

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