Jaguar is the most successful British marque at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Here’s just a hint of the excitement created by the company’s seven victories at the legendary track.

  • 1951

    Drivers: Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead
    Car: C-type
    Laps: 267 
    Distance: 2244 miles (3611km)
    Average speed: 93mph (149 kph)

    Winning Le Mans – the most internationally recognised of all motor races – was hugely important to Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons as he bid to raise the profile of his new cars. After a promising debut with the XK120 in 1950 (running as high as third before clutch failure), Jaguar’s new racing department created a lighter-bodied XK120C – the C-type – with a fabricated steel tube frame and an aerodynamically honed aluminium skin.

    Three works entries were sent to Le Mans in 1951, and the C-type instantly proved the pace-setter – the car of Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman clipped six seconds off the lap record. By midnight, the Moss/Fairman car and the entry of Clemente Biondetti and Leslie Johnson had retired with oil-pressure failure, left only the car of Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead. Fortunately, the fast pace of Jaguar’s ‘hares’ had left the competition reeling in their attempts to keep up, and Walker and Whitehead could easily control their 45-minute lead to score a memorable first Le Mans win for Jaguar. It was the first car to cover more than 3500km (2174 miles) in the race.

    “During practice, Peter Walker – a very good driver indeed – came in complaining he couldn’t go any faster. He had some strange tinted goggles, and I told him to put clear ones on. He went back out and broke the lap record. Towards the end of the race, Walker and Peter Whitehead had built up a lead of three-quarters of an hour, which I felt was quite sufficient. I hung out the SLOW sign to conserve the car. However, someone had persuaded Sir William Lyons that this lead wasn’t sufficient and he told me to put out the FASTER sign. I did, but in a way that Walker couldn’t see it. Obviously, he continued at the same pace, and Sir William noticed this. ‘Sure he can see it, England?’ he asked me. ‘Better stick it out a bit further’. We then had a situation where I was showing FASTER when Sir William was looking, and SLOW when he wasn’t. Poor Walker got rather confused, so I had a word with Whitehead before he took over. I gave him a stopwatch and told him to keep to a certain time and ignore all signals. We hung out FASTER signs regularly, but as Sir William commented, ‘It’s not making much difference, England’.”

    Competitions manager Frank ‘Lofty’ England on unusual race tactics for Le Mans in 1951

  • 1953

    Drivers: Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton
    Car: C-type
    Laps: 304 
    Distance: 2540 miles (4087km)
    Average speed: 106mph (170kph)

    After the first Le Mans success of 1951, improvements to the C-type for 1952 focused on improved aerodynamics with a streamlined body, but this caused engine overheating which forced all three cars to retire. One piece of then revolutionary technology that improved performance was Jaguar’s innovative disc brakes. Although some rivals were more powerful, the disc brakes gave the C-type a huge advantage into corners. With the old 1951 bodywork back on the C-type, Duncan Hamilton and former war hero and Colditz escapee Tony Rolt dominated, winning Le Mans with a 100mph-plus (160kph) average speed for the first time in the event’s history (this was despite Hamilton suffering a broken nose – and the car a smashed windscreen – after hitting a bird at speed). It was the first time a car had covered more than 4,000km (2485 miles) in the race. All three works Jaguars finished in the top four, with Stirling Moss and Peter Walker second, and Peter Whitehead and Ian Stewart fourth, while the privateer C-type of Belgians Roger Laurent and Charles de Tornaco finished ninth. The result – against the greatest Le Mans line-up of drivers and cars to date – was praised by The Daily Telegraph as “Britain’s greatest motor-race triumph of all time”.

    “The disc brakes gave us a great advantage over our principal adversaries and we knew they’d last the 24 hours without having to be nursed. At the end of the Mulsanne straight, we Jaguar drivers could bring the cars’ speed down from 150mph to 30mph in less than 300 yards.”

    1953 winner Duncan Hamilton on the significance of the C-type’s disc brakes

    “We realised that competition was the best way of producing publicity. If you were in a Jaguar, people would pull up beside you and ask: ‘What is it?’ But, as soon as we won Le Mans, people would immediately know what a Jaguar was. That win put us on the map. And winning Le Mans didn’t cost much. I’d be surprised if it cost more than £15,000. But it was most important, for it helped our sales hugely in America.”

    Competitions manager Frank ‘Lofty’ England on the benefits of those first Le Mans wins

    “My proudest moment was when my Jaguar first won the Le Mans 24 Hours race – the first time a British car had won since the Bentley boys. A manufacturer has to remember that participation in racing is for the benefit of business, and this attitude can dilute the pleasure. I must say, however, that I do get pleasure from racing, even if a great deal of it is spoilt by the anxiety which one cannot help but feel during an important race that one hopes to win. To hear one of the timekeepers in the pit announce that so-and-so who is in the lead is overdue compares unfavourably with the most hair-raising nightmare.”

    Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons on the thrill of racing.

  • 1955

    Drivers: Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb
    Car: D-type
    Laps: 307  Distance: 2570 miles (4136km)
    Average speed: 107mph (172kph)

    An all-new Jaguar – the D-type – was produced for 1954, moving away from space-frame construction to a lighter, and more rigid monocoque design. A sleek body profile (made even more streamlined by turning Jaguar’s distinctive vertical air intake horizontal) helped improve the car’s straightline speed and cornering over the C-type. Despite fuel problems for all three works cars, the D-type proved instantly fast on its 1954 debut, with Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton missing out on victory by only 105 seconds (a blink of an eye in Le Mans terms). In 1955, it was the car to beat, with Mike Hawthorn setting a new lap record of 122.39mph as he raced to victory with Ivor Bueb. It was a hollow, bittersweet win, though. In addition to another manufacturer’s tragic pit-straight accident which resulted in the death of 80 spectators, the Jaguar family had its own reasons for grieving – John Lyons, the 25-year-old son of founder Sir William, had died in a road accident on the way to the circuit.

  • 1956

    Drivers: Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson
    Car: D-type
    Laps: 300  Distance: 2507 miles (4034km)
    Average speed: 104mph (167kph)

    The 1956 Le Mans 24 Hours would be Jaguar’s last official appearance as a works team at La Sarthe (for a while), but there were already a host of privateer teams ready to take the Jaguar endurance-racing baton. One of the most prominent of these was Ecurie Ecosse founded by Scottish businessman David Murray. The team’s cars were finished in a metallic blue to match the Scottish flag. At the start, two of the three works D-types crashed out at the Esses, while the third works car would later be hampered by fuel injection problems that would limit it to sixth place. Into the breach stepped Ecurie Ecosse drivers Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart, winning by just one lap. On October 13, 1956, Jaguar announced it was withdrawing from motor racing to return its focus to the international expansion of its road-car business. Le Mans had proved good to Jaguar, but there was still one more win for the D-type to come…

  • 1957

    Drivers: Ron Flockhart and Ivor Bueb
    Car: D-type
    Laps: 327  Distance: 2732 miles (4396km)
    Average speed: 114mph (183kph)

    With a new, three-litre engine limit due to be introduced at Le Mans for 1958, the 1957 race would prove to be the last hurrah for many classic post-war sports car designs – including Jaguar’s D-type. The Ecurie Ecosse entries of Ron Flockhart and Ivor Bueb, and Ninian Sanderson and John Lawrence scored a memorable one-two, while the French Equipe Los Amigos D-type of Jean Lucas and Jean-Marie Brousselet, and the Belgian car of Paul Frere and Freddy Rousselle made it a clean sweep of the top four. Rounding out the top six was former works driver and 1953 winner Duncan Hamilton in another privateer entry. It is still the best-ever performance by any marque in Le Mans history – five cars entered and five cars at the finish, in first, second, third, fourth and sixth.

  • 1988

    Drivers: Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace
    Car: TWR Jaguar Sport XJR-9LM
    Laps: 394 Distance: 3313 miles (5331km) 
    Average speed: 138mph (222kph)

    Although the Jaguar E-type was a 1960s style icon, and was raced with success, it never won Le Mans. A new, V12-powered XJ13 was designed, built and tested in secret, setting a 161.6mph record at the UK’s MIRA proving ground in 1967 (a benchmark which stood until 1998), but it was never raced. It wasn’t until Jaguar’s XJS won the 1984 European Touring Car Championship that Jaguar returned to sports car racing. In 1987, the V12-powered XJR-6 dominated the World Sportscar Championship (WSC) and finished fifth at Le Mans. An all-new XJR-9 was built for 1988, with a low-drag aerodynamic package (designation ‘LM’) for the long straights of Le Mans. A mammoth five-car entry was put together, but it was the lead car of Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace that narrowly pipped the works Porsche 962C, marking the first time the German marque had been beaten at Le Mans since 1980. Another XJR-9 finished fourth. The car also won a second WSC title for Jaguar, all celebrated with a parade through the streets of Coventry.

    “The Mulsanne Straight … is a public road, a Route Nationale, complete with trees, cafes, houses, telegraph poles and everything else. Trucks run down it, and produce tramlines in the road. And this is where we’re flat-out for over a minute at 200mph. It scared the hell out of me. Then there’s the Mulsanne Kink. It’s not a kink, it’s a bloody corner. But somehow the Jaguar Le Mans cars felt totally at home there. It was like riding a bike. When you’ve done it once, it seems easy thereafter.”

    Martin Brundle on his first impressions of Le Mans with Jaguar in 1987

    “The car handled so well. Because the chassis set-up was so good, we could run a lot less wing than the other cars, so we were absolutely flying. We managed to reach about 390kph on the Mulsanne Straight.”

    1988 winner Jan Lammers on his view from the driver’s seat

    “The Porsche Curves [a series of corners near the end of the Le Mans lap] were a revelation in this era. It’s one of the best sections of the track, and I couldn’t believe how good the Jaguar was through there. Turning into the right-hander it’s a case of smashing it down a gear or two, dabbing the brakes then nailing the throttle to the next left. In the Jaguar, you just kept your foot flat.”

    1988 winner Andy Wallace on the high-speed challenge of the Porsche Curves

  • 1990

    Drivers: John Nielsen, Price Cobb and Martin Brundle
    Car: TWR Jaguar Sport XJR-12LM
    Laps: 359 Distance: 3034 miles (4882km)
    Average speed: 127mph (204kph)

    The addition of chicanes on the Mulsanne straight may have changed the nature of Le Mans for 1991, but it was still renowned as a circuit where raw power and straightline speed were key. So, although the turbo V6-engined XJR-10 and XJR-11 were used for more conventional circuits in the World Sportscar Championship (WSC) and IMSA series, the V12-engined XJR-12 was retained for Le Mans. The TWR Jaguar Sport team scored a memorable one-two, with the car of Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Franz Konrad coming in a close second. This would be Jaguar’s last Le Mans 24 Hours victory to date – the TWR-run XJR-12s would win a third WSC title for the marque in 1991, and score a memorable two-three-four finish at Le Mans that year, but the end of the Group C rules era would be the last time Jaguars fight for overall victory.

    “At night, you need five laps before your pace settles down. Le Mans is not particularly well illuminated out in the country. Another problem is flash photography, especially when you leave the pits. Within a minute you’re doing well over 200mph. When you get flash cameras in your eyes when you’re tired, it’s bad news, so you have to keep your wits about you. I think it’s unfair to say that sports car racing is a one-race championship, as some of the Fleet Street boys think, but there’s no doubt that – along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix – Le Mans is truly one of the great events.”

    1990 winner Martin Brundle on racing at Le Mans at night

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