Two Ross Brawn designed cars were to play a big part in my racing career, both were formidable contenders and race winners, but in a totally different formulae. My experiences in one led to a drive in the other. The two cars are the TWR Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-14 and the other the Benetton B192.
The Jaguar XJR-14 was a strikingly good-looking car resplendent in its purple livery. It was powered by the Ford HB engine, which was basically a Formula One engine. It also had an incredible amount of down force. Driving the car was a great experience as it seemed to stick to any surface, even a wet track on slick tires – it had an incredible amount of grip. I must regard this as my greatest racecar.
The Silk Cut Jaguar team manager, Tom Walkinshaw, had been very instrumental in my racing career. I remember writing to him when I was a teenager telling him how I wanted to be a top racing driver and asking for a drive in the BMW County Championship to represent Norfolk. Although he didn’t know me from Adam, he gave me the opportunity to race the Norfolk BMW car at the Norfolk round at Snetterton. There was stiff opposition, with drivers such as Andy Rouse and a lot of other famous names. He went on to support me in F3, when I was up against Ayrton Senna.
I had been with Jaguar at the time of the first Tony Southgate designed XJR-6 and, pretty amazingly led the first of the car’s first race at Mosport, Canada in 1985. The Porsche 956 was the car to beat, and I drove through the middle to the front two and took the lead. I led a number of the initial laps, but then I think Porsche turned the boost up on their cars and that was it for us. An impressive start nonetheless, with a podium finish. It was a very sad race, though, as it claimed the life of Manfred Winkelhock. He crashed at Turn 2, colliding with the concrete safety barrier.
Ross Brawn had taken over from Tony Southgate as the designer at TWR Jaguar. I don’t think it was the fact that the former designer had run out of steam at that point, I think it was just Tom Walkinshaw had his eye on Formula One and Ross was the man to have. Just as Tony had in the early days of the Walkinshaw era with Jaguar, Ross was given a clean sheet at the outset of the design stage of the XJR-14.
I remember racing the XJR-14 at Silverstone in the 6-Hour World Sportscar race, in 1991. I drove it single-handed, flat-out for the entire race distance. Although tiring, I was pleased with my podium place, 3rd. I felt I could have probably gone on to win the race, but I had a ten-minute pit stop that put me at a significant disadvantage. The sister car driven by Teo Fabi and Derek Warwick went on to take the honors beating the Sauber Mercedes of Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher. Funnily enough, that drive with the Jaguar team, so impressed both Tom Walkinshaw and Ross Brawn that it got me the Benetton drive in Formula One the following year, as teammate to Michael Schumacher.
The Benetton B192 was the best Formula One car I ever drove. I would describe it as a very straight car, very benign. It had a normal H-pattern shift gearbox and normal suspension. It was simply a great car that could be driven flat out – and a race winner too. It took Michael Schumacher to his first win at Spa, and my best finish, 2nd in the Italian GP at Monza.