PH pays a flying visit to Jag's tech centre for a fast ride with 'Ringmeister Dirk Schoysman
Dirk and Jag XFR sight another target...
"Holy f***ing sh*t!!!" Not the most imaginative use of language, I’ll admit, but unusually appropriate under the circumstances. The circumstances being the moment I’d staggered out of the passenger seat of a 500bhp Jaguar XFR following a trio of crazed, flat-out laps of the old Nurburgring North Loop – laps expertly conducted by one of the few Belgians I can name who is truly deserving of that overworked epithet ‘legendary’.
The ‘legendary’ Mr Dirk Schoysman is encumbered with neither the facial hair nor the sleuthing ability of his ‘legendary but fictional’ Belgian compatriot Hercule Poirot, and as far as I know he doesn’t sing like ‘legendary for all the wrong reasons’ Belgian Eddy Wally. I have also to admit that, unlike Belgian racing legend Jacky Ickx, there’s a chance that some PHers untutored in ‘Ring-lore (or for that matter Skyline GTR-lore) may not have heard of the ‘legendary’ Mr Schoysman at all.
XFR was honed at the 'Ring
In case one of those readers is you, Dirk Schoysman is famed for his virtually unmatched experience of the old Nordschleife circuit – that 13-mile ribbon of twisting, undulating tarmac built in the Eifel mountains of Germany 80 years ago to help separate great cars from the ordinary ones, and true driving heroes from pretenders.
The fact that Schoysman played a pivotal role in the development of all the Skyline GT-R generations at the Nurburgring since the late 80s should be enough to tell you he’s no wannabe, but how’s this for another fact? Driving an average of 1000 laps of the North Loop per year, his total of 14,000 laps of the circuit is roughly equivalent to having driven seven times around the earth itself. There are a tiny handful of individuals who have driven it more, he says, including ‘ring taxi’ helmswoman Sabine Schmidt (who claims 20,000 laps) and one or two other professional development drivers like Dirk himself.
It took a while to find 'traction fully-off'
Dirk was an acknowledged ‘Ringmeister’
with just 3,500 Nurburgring laps under his belt when I first started hearing about his exploits in the mid-90s. Quotes lifted from UK car magazine on his website are littered with adulatory comments about his driving skill from starry-eyed hacks even then, and although I never rode with him at the time, it’s nice to think that an extra 10,000 laps might have refined the experience further.
All of which helps to explain why, when we trickled gently back into the car park after my Dirk Schoysman XFR meister-class, I was pretty much good for nothing except a stupid grin and a string of expletives. He probably gets a lot of that.
Chris-R stumped for words!
To be fair to Jaguar, the car’s performance at the ‘Ring startled me almost as much as the driver’s. Dirk’s demeanour behind the wheel is so cool it’s almost laconic, and even though I’d asked him to frighten me, he did it with charming good grace while rattling off a guided tour of the circuit that made it all look a bit too easy. Experience and skill appears to have made the man immune to the utter insanity of careering up, down, and around the Eifel mountains at speeds approaching 140mph through the fastest corners in what – let’s face it – is a luxurious four-door saloon car weighing almost two tons.
There's always something interesting to see
Dirk drives the Nurburgring North Loop with the assurance of a man who knows not only which way the 74 corners go, but every nth degree of camber, and the friction co-efficient of every square inch of surface for every yard of the circuit’s 13 miles. Hands barely moving on the wheel – unless it’s to deliver his trademark waved acknowledgement to those ‘good drivers’ who check their mirrors to let faster traffic (him!) past safely, the car and track seem to work harmoniously together as he uses throttle, brakes and the mass of the car over every bump, undulation and kink in the road to set the car on the fastest possible path around the course.
It’s by no means a serene experience. In Dirk’s hands the big Jag leaps and bounds explosively across the tarmac, accompanied by the bellow of that mighty supercharged V8, and the roar of tyres stretched to the limit of grip and beyond as he steers the car on the throttle for the sake of his awestruck passengers’ entertainment.
XFR is a joy on the road, and track
From the passenger’s perspective, it’s both a physical and mental work-out. Physical, not because the ride is uncomfortable, in fact it’s notably supple. It’s simply that the car’s body moves up, down, left and right so fast, and with such brutish violence that it’s impossible to process the information fast enough to react without Dirk’s intuitive knowledge of every inch of the tarmac. You brace a split-second after the car moves one way, by which time it’s already launching itself off the tarmac in another direction. The loads inflicted on the human body feel phenomenal, and make it instantly evident why the Nurburgring plays such a vital role in the development process for Jaguar. Frankly, if an XFR can stand 5000 miles of this treatment, it’s got to be bulletproof.
Another evocative 'Ring shot
Our XFR soaked up the punishment without complaint for most of our three laps – or almost 40 miles – with the engine at peak revs pretty much all the way before the ‘torque vectoring’ rear differential called time on Dirk’s fun and games. Having finally worked out how to turn the traction control fully off mid-way through lap two, (you need to hold the button for something like 20secs) the ride had turned from a scientific exploration of the car’s incredible agility and poise, to a gung-ho demonstration of Dirk’s drifting skills. A few corners from the end, a warning light blinked on the dash as the super-heated oil in the diff sent it into ‘self-protect’ fully open mode and the car’s sense of self-preservation brought the traction control back into play. When we got back into the car park, there was so much heat coming out of the rear wheel arches, it was uncomfortable to stand too close. We left the car to simmer down as I wondered whether – after such a blisteringly spectacular tour de force
– there was actually any point in me taking the car around the loop myself. With no knowledge of where the circuit goes, and the comparative car control skills of a monkey, the experience would surely be a disappointment at best, and a terrifying accident at worst!
Sign of the er, 'lap time'? No, alright...
At which point PH contributor and part-time Nurburgring instructor Jim ‘many tanks’ Cameron appeared in the car park, looking for all the world like a chap who’d gladly swap a lap or two of free instruction for an opportunity to sample the XFR on the Loop himself.
We gratefully press-ganged him into service as our (relatively) high-speed guide and navigator, and photographer Steve Hall (aka Track Demon) and I both had a crack at the course record. Disappointingly, the diff still hadn’t cooled enough after Dirk’s antics for the electronics to release their ‘fail-safe’ grip on the traction control, and it was frustrating to be able to carry so much speed into a corner, only for the ECU to rein in the blast out of the apex. In spite of this the XFR’s abilities shone through, with astonishing punch delivered right across the rev-range, silky-smooth gearchanges from the ZF auto ‘box, and a chassis that demonstrated amazing self-control through the demanding corners.
Jag's Phil Talboys, and even taller Chris-R
Steve seemed considerably more at home on the circuit than I, but he did let it slip that he’d been practising on the PlayStation, while Jim kindly rated my debut performance better than Jeremy Clarkson’s. In turn I felt duty-bound to apologise for a high speed wheel-on-the-grass moment that for a split-second felt as though it might undermine Jim’s years of military training… Oops! In the event, the XFR chassis soaked it up with barely a twitch off-line. If Jim twitched, it was somewhere not immediately obvious!
When the three of us returned to the car park after a lap each, it was once again to marvel at the car’s ferocious performance. Jim summed it up aptly enough: ‘You can do all that, and you’d still want to drive it all the way back to England,’ he said. It’s not something that would necessarily be so easily said about the more highly strung BMW M5, the Jag’s key rival – and it wasn’t only us thinking that, because Dirk said as much too.
'Durability spec' roll-cage and race seats
The next day, after a night at the Nurburgring Dorint and the obligatory session at the Pistenklause restaurant, we met up with Dirk again at Jaguar’s impressively shiny Nurburgring test centre, and he gave us a few insights into the world of vehicle development at the circuit – where his company Top Line Development provides driving services to a range of manufacturers including Jaguar..
“We do 100 laps a week during a test, depending on the job. When it’s suspension set-up it’s a little less, when it’s durability it’s more,” he says.
Test cars eat tyres at the 'Ring...
“It’s not a coincidence that manufacturers come to the Nurburgring. The loads are very high so when there is a weakness it shows up very quickly. Doing 5,000 miles at the ‘Ring with 8min 30sec laps, you get a very good idea of all the potential problems - and when you have solved all the problems here, you can be pretty sure there will be no problems in the marketplace!”
Jaguar’s manager at the Nurburgring Technical Centre is Phil Talboys, and he gave us a tour of the facility that was built by the company (in less straitened times) to house its engineering effort as well as to host ‘experiential marketing’ opportunities for fortunate clients in Germany.
...and guzzle 'super'
According to Phil, different teams of engineers decamp from the UK to Germany for the different stages of a car’s development.
“First there are cooling tests, then chassis and stability control system tests, and finally the 5000 mile durability tests,” he says.
“We are not necessarily engineering for people who want to drive at the Nurburgring, but definitely for what you might call the ‘extreme customer’ who regularly drives hard over long distances, and expects to be able to drive hard all day with no problems. We are basically engineering to protect those sorts of people.”
Jim Cameron and Chris-R do a deal
It’s an impressive set-up, and one that soaks up resources: “A single durability car will get through 100 tyres in 5,000 miles, and we generally get around 30 laps out of a set of brake pads,” says Phil. It’s the enormous fuel bill that stuck in my mind, though – the supercharged V8-engined cars manage just three laps of the 13-mile circuit between fill-ups, which equates to something in the region of 4-5mpg.
I seem to remember there used to be a car magazine that asked its interviewees how they’d choose to use their own last tank of gas when the oil wells run dry. Sticking it into the XFR for three more Nordschliefe laps beside Dirk Shoysman would do it for me.
Jim presses on, Chris-R grits his teeth...