If you’re lending out a 700bhp plus Le Mans winning Group C car, you’d be hard pressed to find a safer pair of hands than three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart.
Renowned for his smooth style, passionate about safety, mechanically sympathetic and with talent to spare, Stewart’s time testing a Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguar XJR-9 should have been mere convention.
Instead, he holds the unfortunate title of being the only driver ever to crash an XJR-9 beyond repair following a shunt at Silverstone. He had been invited to drive the car as an add-on part to a series of videos he was filming about testing F1 cars. Stewart was quick to complain about the balance of the XJR-9 with its heavy V12 engine dominating the driving experience.
It’s a shunt recalled by Tony Southgate, who still holds the accolade of being the only chief engineer to win motorsport’s triple crown in cars of his own design. Victory in the 1968 Indianapolis 500 courtesy of Bob Unser in an Eagle TG2 was followed four years later with a win for the BRM P160B of Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix.
It would be another 16 years before Southgate completed the set. Following a spell at Ford where his drawings won in a contest to design the chassis for the marque’s RS200 Group B rally car, he joined TWR and set about work on the XJR-9.
‘I went there and I enjoyed the TWR period a lot and so I was there about six or seven years,’ recalls Southgate. ‘The only brief for me was when Tom said, “you can do whatever you like, I want a nice modern car but it’s got to have a Jaguar V12 engine – the modified version of the production engine”.
‘I’d never seen one of those and it turned out to be the biggest bloody thing I’d seen in my life. A bloody great lump and it was so heavy, which made packaging the engine just where you wanted it for the weight distribution pretty difficult. It was right up against the driver, recessed into the bulkhead to get it as far forward. It worked out in the end.’
Navigating the design restrictions dictated by the 7.0-litre unit – derived from the 5.3-litre V12 found in Jaguar’s XJS flagship – proved immensely fruitful. On its Le Mans debut in 1988, the Silk Cut-liveried car of Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace took victory. It headed no less than nine Porsche 962Cs in the top 11, but nevertheless Southgate’s triple crown was sealed and the team also went on to win that year’s World Sportscar Championship.
‘Lots of people drove the car and tested for the heck of it,’ Southgate continues. ‘[Stewart] drove one of them and came here [to Silverstone]. He wasn’t familiar with Group C and, of course, it took a little while to warm up the tyres because we didn’t have tyre warmers so it was up to him. You’ve got a bit of power – 600 or 700bhp – and although there was a lot of downforce, you’ve still got to get the tyres up to temperature and I think he tried to press on too early.
‘Anyway, he came tearing round and went off! He managed to go through the catch fencing and hit something hard like a concrete post. It really bumped the front-left corner and went through the chassis and he damaged the monocoque. The monocoque was stronger than this paddock [Southgate points to the tarmac behind Silverstone’s National pit garages] even, it was a massive great thing and had incredible strength.
‘It was the only one which we technically wrote-off, we didn’t bother to rebuild it because it had loads of big cracks in it. So we just used it as a show car afterwards. I remember asking him what happened and he said, “oh, it wasn’t very user friendly".’
Stewart pushed on with the video and was unsurprisingly coy in his presentation. ‘In the early years of my racing life I drove a variety of different racing cars,’ Stewart starts. ‘At the beginning in fact, one year I drove 26 different racing cars in 53 races. It’s pretty difficult to find 26 different racing cars in 12 months. But it did give me an understanding of being able to apply myself to different problems of racing.’
Although Stewart criticised the slippery floor well in the XJR-9 which meant he struggled to brace himself in the car, he praised the space in the cockpit. Swapping from a single-seater to an endurance car brought with it amenities such as electrically adjustable door mirrors and a turnkey starter designed to improve usability.
But where he struggled most was with the V12, acting like a rear-mounted pendulum. He even called it ‘elephant-like’. Then Stewart’s tone in the video drops. ‘There’s not much footage of me driving this car and it’s all my fault because I made mistake,’ he says.
‘I let the car get away from me coming out of a relatively slow corner. I was powering the car with about 750 horsepower underneath my foot. The car began to slide just a little bit in the rear-end – quite normal for a race car and a race driver. The rear tyre got onto the rumble strip… without any warning at all the car went from a gentle, progressive oversteer to suddenly changing direction and going the way the front wheels were pointing.
‘Suddenly I was faced with the car rushing across a grass verge and suddenly coming into heavy contact with a bank. To say the least, embarrassing. Because here I’d been given this wonderful car by Tom Walkinshaw and Sir John Egan from Jaguar to test and speak about. This team had immaculately prepared it, they had brought it and done everything they could for me and here I had really made an error of judgement.’
Southgate, while at the circuit, didn’t see the accident. But he remembers the wreckage returning to the pits and saw its embarrassed driver watching on.
‘A lot of other drivers have driven it without crashing. I think what it was is that he pressed on too early and once it let go you couldn’t drive those things with the tail out, they’re not that type of car. You can only get a little bit out of line and if you don’t come off the speed then you’re in trouble.
‘“Not user friendly” – I always thought that was a good way of describing it.’
Rightly so, it’s an accident that few remember. Albeit the consequences were dramatic, but it can be boiled down to one small mistake on one particular day. And clearly all was forgiven as, in 2004, Ford purchased the Stewart Grand Prix team and renamed it Jaguar.
Images courtesy of LAT