Twenty years ago the Jaguar XJR-14 changed the face of sportscar racing. It was such a leap forward in terms of what a two-seater racing car could be that its legacy can arguably still be seen today in the Audis and Peugeots that will race at Le Mans next month.
The car also helped to define the career of its creator, Ross Brawn. Just a few months after it first appeared he was installed by Tom Walkinshaw at Benetton. And a couple of months after that Tom and Ross head-hunted the sportscar racing rival that they really rated, a certain Michael Schumacher.
Martin Brundle, one of the drivers most closely associated with it, still cites the XJR-14 as his favourite racing car.
"It's not often that a car comes along like that and moves the goalposts significantly," he says. "It must have been like a Chapman F1 car. I always say it's my favourite racing car. And it got me the Benetton drive for 1992, because Tom - and Ross in particular - were so appreciative of how I drove it. It was a magnificent car."
It has a special place too in my memory. As AUTOSPORT's World Sportscar Championship man in 1991, I was invited to the top secret initial shakedown at Silverstone - the first day that anyone in the team saw the XJR-14 running. And I was the only journalist to attend all of its races that season, including a one-off outing in the Japanese series at Sugo at the end of the year.
Jaguar had returned to the World Championship with TWR in 1985 to prove the worth of the mighty V12. Almost by default, in 1989 the team had to hurriedly create a V6 turbo as a response to the ever more competitive Sauber Mercedes V8.
But for 1991 it was all change after the FIA introduced the 3.5-litre atmospheric engine rules, giving F1 and the WSC the same engine specfication.
And that meant a different type of car from what came before. Walkinshaw cannily prepared for the change by hiring an F1 designer who would bring some fresh thinking. Brawn had worked at Williams, Beatrice/Force and Arrows, and had begun to get noticed. Nevertheless, hiring him was an inspired move by Tom. Initially Ross reworked Tony Southgate's turbo car before setting to work on what became the XJR-14. The car was to use a version of the Ford HB V8 engine that Benetton was running in F1, with sportscar-friendly Bosch electronics.
Derek Warwick raced Ross Brawn's Arrows in Formula 1 in 1989 © LAT
Brawn meanwhile played a part in selecting the main driver. Derek Warwick had driven for TWR Jaguar in 1986 before returning to grand prix racing. He worked with Brawn at Arrows, and the two men had huge respect for each other.
"He built that lovely little Arrows in 1989," says Warwick. "It was a fantastic car, with a Ford engine. We could have won a couple of races if we'd had a bit more money.
"So I knew he was good. He brought with him this air of confidence, of organisation, this ability of understanding how a race works in all the elements."
Without an F1 drive for '91, he was willing to return to Jaguar.
"Ross rang me and said, 'Look Derek, two things. One is that it will be a fantastic car, and the second thing is Tom has to have you. So you can do whatever deal you want...'
"I'll never forget that! Tom sent a plane over to Jersey, picked me up, a car took me to Kidlington, and I looked round the factory. And I thought, 'Yeah.' All the plans I saw, the downforce figures and so on, convinced me that I had to do it.
"I signed the contract, but Tom was really pissed off, because I'd really got my dollar out of him! So I'm sat in the reception, opposite his secretary, and I said, 'When am I going back?' And she said, 'I don't really know, let me see.' She came back and said, 'Do you want me to organise a taxi?'
"I said, 'Taxi to where?'. She said, 'I don't know, where are you going to go back from?' I said, 'Isn't Tom's plane going to take me back?' 'No, the plane's not available.' He had sent his private plane to pick me up, then just left me there to make my own way back..."
The deal was supposed to remain top secret for the time being, and it was, until I got a call in the AUTOSPORT office. It was Walkinshaw.
"If a little bird was to ask me if Derek Warwick is driving for me next year," he said, "Then I might have to confirm it. Goodbye..."
Somewhat puzzled, I rang the Kidlington switchboard and asked for Mr Walkinshaw. I was put straight through.
"A little bird tells me that Derek Warwick will be driving for you next year. Is that true?"
"Well as you've found out, I can't deny it," he said...
So what was the point of this little charade? The bottom line was that Alessandro Nannini had just had his helicopter accident, and now there was half an opportunity for Warwick to stay in F1 with Benetton.
The TWR deal was not due to be announced, but Walkinshaw wanted it in the public domain to make any contractual backtracking by Warwick nigh on impossible. And if anyone asked how AUTOSPORT found out, he could say "apparently a little bird told them..."
Warwick hadn't heard this version of events until now.
"It makes sense," he smiles. "It sounds like Tom. But I did have the pleasure of raping him over my salary!"
Meanwhile as Brawn and the TWR crew worked through the winter, the rest of the line-up took shape. Alas team regular John Nielsen was out of the equation when he proved to be too tall. Instead Tom took something of a punt and hired Teo Fabi, just about the smallest driver he could find.
Peugeot's 905 had given a hint to how the new generation of Group C cars would look © LAT
The car was finally ready to run in the middle of March 1991, which is when I saw it at Silverstone. It was a truly astonishing machine, with its huge rear wing, massive ground effect tunnels, beautifully honed chassis and tiny little cockpit, complete with a centre mounted gearlever. Its exhausts exited ahead of the rear wheels - much like those on the Renault R31 of 2011...
To be fair Peugeot had given some indication of how a 3.5-litre car might look - the 905 had raced at the end of the previous season - but this was something else again. And unlike the Peugeot, styled by committee to suit a marketing theme, this car had been designed to be brutally fast. And it was.
"I was the first guy to drive it at Silverstone South Circuit," recalls Warwick. "I did an installation lap, came in, and said 'Guys, this is special.' I remember coming through that right-hander where people used to hang the boards out. Everybody ducked behind the barrier because they thought the throttles had jammed open. I already knew it had so much grip... It was just a fantastic car."
It's funny that, 20 years on, he uses that word. The week after the shakedown I wrote in AUTOSPORT: "The superlatives run out pretty quickly. Stunning, fabulous, magnificent; the word Derek Warwick chose after his first run in the car was a simple 'fan-tastic,' but he made it last about five seconds."
The article also noted that "Brawn has moved the goalposts even before the kick-off, and he's hidden the ball as well..."
That day I did a lengthy interview with Walkinshaw about the gestation of the car and his hopes for the season.
"Ross sat down at the beginning and drew up a list of requirements," he said. "And they've been no compromises made on it. We've done the best job we possibly can, there's been no restraints in terms of cost or time."
Tom had decided that he could get away juggling around three regular drivers over his two cars, and it was with some inevitability that he called on his old protégé Brundle, who would combine the WSC with his Brabham F1 commitments.
"My first memory of that whole project was sitting in a wooden mock-up at Kidlington and talking to Ross," Martin recalls. "It was the first time I'd really met him. It was very small inside, but you could sense it was going to be some kind of creation.
"Derek and Teo had a car each, and I'd end up driving both cars, which is how I finished first and second at Monza! I'd do one stint in each car, so of the six stints between the cars, we did two each."
The first race was at Suzuka, a perfect venue to showcase the car's strength in fast corners. Warwick took pole, but both cars were hit by niggling mechanical problems, allowing the Peugeot of Baldi and Alliot to take a lucky win. The XJR-14 was some 4s a lap faster in the race.
Tom Walkinshaw learnt all about Michael Schumacher during his Mercedes sportscar days © LAT
"It never had a lot of power," says Brundle. "The HB engine was quite stressed, one slightly hasty downshift and you'd over-rev it. But it had endless amounts of grip. It was flat through 130R, which was a proper corner back then, compared with the one they've got now.
"It had so much more downforce because it had a much bigger plan area underneath. It was a flying wing, basically. The venturi started from the back of your seat. It was incredible in the corners. The car was immense."
"It felt nimble, like an F1 car," says Warwick. "It felt small, like you were in a single-seater. And it had more downforce than an F1 car. The only negative thing was the left-hand gearchange, that was really weird for me."
At Monza things went much more smoothly, and Warwick and Brundle duly gave the car its first win. After a late problem Martin had also started from the pit exit in Fabi's car, and eventually they finished second.
"I started in the pitlane after all they'd all come past on a rolling start," Martin recalls.
"It was like a Playstation game. A lot of them were C2s and so on, and then some Porsches. It was properly wet at the two Lesmos, and I was on slicks, and I could see rooster tails in my mirrors.
"I was absolutely thrashing it, and I came round eighth or something on the first lap. They thought I'd gone off because they were looking for me, and I'd gone through already. We finished one-two, and I didn't know what podium step to stand on..."
At Silverstone Fabi and Warwick won together after Derek had to switch to the Italian's car when his own machine hit trouble while Brundle was driving. Unfortunately it was decreed that he was ineligible for points, as he hadn't been nominated to drive that car.
With Warwick in the other car Brundle ended up driving solo all the way to the flag. It was a remarkable performance.
"Silverstone was probably my best ever race. It was really bizarre because the throttle cable broke coming out of Woodcote and I coasted between the cones into the pits, and that same thing happened to me in the Brabham in the GP two months later!
"We lost 10 minutes changing the throttle cable. I didn't have a drink in the car because I was only supposed to drive one stint at a time. But I stayed in the whole race and drove it flat out. I remember going round the outside of Keke Rosberg and Michael Schumacher in Becketts. The thing had so much grip.
"Half way through the race they showed me a pit board saying I was 14th. They were trying to perk me up, and I was feeling shattered by then, as I'd driven every lap flat out. It was, 'Take the pit board away, don't show me it again!' I think I took three laps off the Mercs and five laps off the Peugeots, and finished third. But my body had run out of something, whatever fluids you need in your system!"
Warwick describes the old V12 XJR12 car as a 'shed' compared to the 14 © LAT
For Le Mans, Jaguar reverted to an updated version of the trusty V12 car. The XJR14 was brought along for an opportunistic shot at pole, but when it emerged that Warwick couldn't score points if he qualified that machine, Andy Wallace was hastily installed. With barely time to get adjusted to the car, he didn't get pole, much to Walkinshaw's chagrin.
"Le Mans was disappointing, to have to get back into that V12 tractor," says Warwick. "It was horrible, it really was. It was such a shame because the 14 would have broken the lap record forever..."
Nearly two months passed before the next race at the Nurburgring. During that time a lot happened, to say the least. In July Walkinshaw took over the running of Benetton, and Brawn was installed as its technical boss.
Then Warwick's brother Paul was killed in an F3000 race at Oulton Park. It took huge resolve on his part to return to the cockpit, helped by a special private test laid on by Walkinshaw in Austria, a gesture that Derek still praises his former boss for.
Warwick and Fabi also had a new team-mate. Brundle's ongoing F1 commitments meant he couldn't continue to freelance for Jaguar, so Tom hired David Brabham, setting the Aussie on a sportscar career path that continues to this day.
Derek and David scored an emotional win at the 'Ring, while Brabham also helped Fabi home in second. It was all looking so easy, but during the break, Peugeot had studied the XJR-14 and made a massive step forward, pushed to the limit by team boss Jean Todt. Jaguar meanwhile did no development, the available budget having been thrown into creating the car in the first place.
When the Jags slipped up at the next two races at Magny-Cours and Mexico City, Peugeot pounced. The pressure told and pinpointed the car's previously disguised weakness in slow corners. Both cars were hit by reliability problems in Mexico, Fabi not even making the start. Warwick/Brabham recovered to sixth after a bad race, which was just enough to secure the teams' world championship.
In the finale at Autopolis in Japan there was a surprise when the hitherto hopelessly unreliable Mercedes C291 - which was literally prone to blowing up as it left the pit lane - not only made it to the flag, but did so in front of the two XJR14s. Warwick finished second with a heroic solo effort, while Fabi and Brabham took third. TWR had at least secured both world championships, with Fabi - helped by Warwick's loss of points at Silverstone - taking the drivers' version.
"Silverstone cost me the championship," says Derek. "Unfortunately that's missing off my CV. That really pisses me off."
Despite the Jag's failure to win the last race, Walkinshaw was able to raise a wry smile. The driver of the silver car was Schumacher, who had made his F1 debut for Jordan at Spa in August. Tom had subsequently snatched him from under the nose of EJ, and ushered him into Benetton, where he had already made a huge impression in between his final Mercedes outings. Walkinshaw and Brawn knew that they had a raw talent on board who would help them transform Benetton in the coming years.
Defeated Peugeot boss Todt meanwhile scratched his head and made a few mental notes of his own. That Michael Schumacher is bloody good, he thought. And so is the bloke who designed the Jag...
After Autopolis there was to be one more outing. TWR had been running an old turbo car in the Japanese series for a wealthy sponsor, and the two XJR-14s were taken straight to Sugo for the final race. The cars started on the front row, and Toyota driver Roland Ratzenberger was forced to jump the start just so he could maintain his record of leading every round that year. He didn't care about the inevitable penalty...
Fabi and Brabham duly won, while local stars Jeff Krosnoff and Mauro Martini had an eventful run to ninth in the other car.
It had been a great season, but alas, the world championship was slowly beginning to implode. The title won, Jaguar withdrew its official support, and there was to be no official WSC campaign in 1992. Plans for the cars to run in private hands came to nothing when the man behind the proposed deal proved to be a total time waster.
The XJR-14 raced on in Budweiser livery in IMSA in 1992, driven by Davy Jones and Arie Luyendyk. Jones took several poles and a couple of wins, but the car was hardly suited to the rough and tumble of the bumpy American tracks. The design was also reworked as a Mazda for the 1992 world championship, although in this new guise, with a Judd V10, it never achieved the heights of its forebear.
And most famously, the Jaguar turned into a Porsche. In 1994 TWR IMSA team boss Tony Dowe chopped the roof off the ex-Warwick car and tried to convince the Stuttgart manufacturer that, with a turbo engine fitted, he had the bones of an ideal Le Mans contender.
That October I was on my way to visit Dowe at TWR's Indiana factory, only to be mysteriously turned away at the last minute. Later I found out that on the very same day Porsche's top brass had shown up to view the mocked-up prototype. I had been steered away from a scoop.
Porsche liked the concept, and after something of a false start, the car duly won Le Mans in both 1996 and '97, giving a first victory to a certain Tom Kristensen. But that's another story...