Last month, Jaguar approached PistonHeads with a competition which, to say the least, caught the attention of many PHers. On offer was an all expenses paid trip to Jaguar's Nurburgring Test Center (their spelling) to see first hand how they use this infamous track in the development of its road car range.
That rather dry description doesn’t really do it justice though, does it? Because as well as a trip around their development HQ the trip also included a chance to sample some 'Ring rituals'. That meant steak on a stone and war stories in the Pistenklause the night before a day spent on a near-empty track hammering around in Jaguar’s fastest production models: the XFR, the XJ Supersports (in lwb form) and their most powerful ever production car, the astonishing XKR-S.
With editor Dan off sick, it fell to me to accompany our PHers on the trip. As a bloke who spends his days wrestling with spreadsheets rather than the wheel of the latest press car, this was to be my first trip to the ‘Ring. Whilst I’m fully aware of the obsession with the place of many of my journalist colleagues, I’d always been a bit 'meh', a bit overtaken by manufacturer PR point scoring, and frankly a bit terrified by YouTube videos of big offs.
With all this furkling in the background I attempted to affect an air of detached nonchalance at the airport, and in the VIP lounge at Frankfurt, and in the fleet of XJ-Ls which ferried us down to Nurburg. I’m not sure I was managing to pull it off all that well, but when we spotted a superb 964RS on the outskirts of Nurburg (East German plates, mega cooling pipes, dour 50-something German bloke at the wheel) my guard dropped and my inner 7 year old was released. We’re going to the 'Ring. And we’re going to be driving really really fast Jags. Other people’s really really fast Jags...
First, a chance to chat to some of Jaguar’s Nurburg team. Good banter abounded with Phil Talboys, manager of Jaguar’s test programmes. He alternates between Nurburg and their winter facility up at Arjeplog in Sweden. Joining him were Vehicle Dynamics engineer James Matthews (steering feel specialist, top bloke and Shed fanatic - he owns an X308 XJR) and Klaus Panchryz - one of our racing driver instructors for the following day, ‘Ring veteran, Schumacher contemporary and 80s German hairstyle fan.
In conversation with Phil, Klaus and James it soon became clear just how useful this place is to Jaguar. Before our arrival they had completed two weeks of capability and durability testing as part of their manufacturer pool time. In essence this means setting a benchmark time around the circuit (the capability bit) and then repeating it over and over again (durability). For the XKR-S that means a time of “around 8 minutes” (they wouldn’t be drawn on the exact time) and then repeating that 390 times, always within 20 seconds of the benchmark time. That’s just over 5000 miles at full chat, in the interests of ensuring your car won’t boil its brakes after 5 laps at Bedford Autodrome.
What also became clear over dinner is the enthusiasm and optimism at Jaguar under Tata ownership. There’s a refreshing sense of optimism about the future of the business, excitement about the coming product range (particularly just a few days ahead of the F Type’s Paris reveal) and a sense of a confident and well-funded business with a real desire to take advantage of the opportunities ahead.
The following day was our appointment with the Green Hell. After breakfast and a briefing, we were soon on track. An immediate surprise for all was the format - alone in a car with an instructor at the front of a group of 4, with turn-by-turn instructions by radio, and two laps per stint before a return to the Jaguar test centre for coffee and war stories. With three cars to drive, that meant 3 stints on track, with an adrenalin-dissipation break between.
We had plenty of track time, but it was very much in at the deep end. Trying to stay with the lead car, remember the instructions for the corner and keep an eye out for faster cars was quite a sensory overload. Finally the instructors took us out for flying laps in Jag’s XJ Ring Taxi (from where the video is taken) and in the XKR-S.
This isn’t a review piece on any of the cars, since we only had a limited time in each and I’m far less qualified than many colleagues to appraise a car’s handling characteristics. Still, I was left with some surprising impressions after my first time at the Nordschleife.
The XKR-S is as quick and as competent as you’d expect, but the XJ-L was surprisingly nimble for something so long. I felt far more at home and “together” in this car by comparison to the XFR, which felt heavy and with far more interruptive ESP.
The biggest impression by far though was not made by the cars, but by the place itself. I now absolutely get what the fuss is about. I want to do a better job of my approach into Brunnchen. I want to be faster. I want to go back. Immediately. In an XJ Supersports please. Black on black on black, with extra black.
Before you watch the onboard footage from one of our Ring Taxi laps at the end of the day, here's what our lucky competition winners thought of their day at the ‘Ring.
"From the moment Dan confirmed it was real and not someone on the internet wanting mysort code and account number, I was as excited as I was when I was nine and knew I was getting a Grifter for Christmas.
"I’ve driven the circuit previously in my S1 Elise, so from the minute I knew I was going back, I was constantly checking the weather and hoping for dry conditions.
"Meeting fellow PHers is always good, and our group was no disappointment. I’ve never been a VIP before so the Obama style XJ-L convoy from Frankfurt to Nurburg (and back) was awesome. It was also fantastic to spend time with people from the engineering side, so a big thanks is due to James and Phil for explaining what they do so well.
"Standout moments for me were many. The XKR-S was a complete weapon, and the XJ-L inexplicably good. The trip in the Ring Taxi defied logic (we overtook a GT3...) and Tom’s driving was incredible.
"However the passenger ride in the XKR-S challenged my understanding of what a road car can do. Klaus drove with his finger tips at corner speeds that made my eyes pop out. I think we lapped in about 8:30 but I was rendered mute for double that after the lap as I struggled to understand what had just happened. I texted my wife with the message "all laps done, I'm still here, I can't wait to tell you what I’ve been through" - the last part of that sentence indicating I felt like I had just survived some major trauma!
"All the drivers were great and very engaging. Klaus made me laugh after our lap when I offered him a Marlboro Light. He smiled and said “thank you, but I only smoke full strength”. Of course you do I thought, you're a proper hairy-chested racing driver and I am a mere mortal."
"I thought I had a rough idea as to what the Nurburgring would be like, but I didn’t thinkthat the reality would be so far removed. You expect it to feel much longer in time and distance, but after the first lap I remember thinking “have I done a lap already?!”
"First up was the XJ-L Supersport. I didn’t anticipate an almost 2 tonne car handling so well, it was very planted and gave bags of confidence.
"Next was the XKR-S, which caused me to utter an expletive as I really gave it the beans for the first time. Great pace accompanied by an amazing soundtrack. Last was the XFR which I started out loving but, after a slight 'moment' at Breidscheid just didn’t connect with again.
"My passenger fast lap in the XKR-S was with Klaus Panchyrz who has had an interesting motorsport career. This was the highlight for me, as was an 8:43.6 in the ‘Ring Taxi.
"The hospitality Jaguar laid on was wonderful and it was great to learn so much about the development of Jaguars and the how the ‘Ring plays such a part in what we drive on the road."
"I had masses of anticipation of what was ahead, but nothing could really prepare me forthe 13 miles of track that was in front of me. I can understand the deservedly fearsome reputation of the place, with blind crests and narrow long sweeping bends and only the Armco to collect me. The words “don’t be the first to bin it, please don’t be the first to bin it” certainly went through my head as I first entered the track.
"My car of choice would be the XKR-S. An addictive V8 sound track and nimble sports handling was a combination that I could’ve spent all day exploring.
"The XF was the biggest handful. You could feel the weight of the car as it was thrown into the bends with its traction control system trying hard to stop the car running off the track. I think a lot more effort was needed to keep the weight evenly balanced to get the most out of the car.
"The shock car of the day had to be the XJ-L. I don’t understand how a car that can be compared to the size of a small yacht can be so balanced and agile. No matter how hard I threw it into bends, it always felt stable, completely balanced through the bend and off like a shot as the power went down.
"The one thing about all the cars that will keep a smile on my face for a long time is the astonishing power delivery - I saw 220kph on several occasions.
"The Nordschleife is a driving Mecca and I could very easily see myself being addicted to it. I’m sold on it and want to go back and conquer it."
Kai Chung Lo
"Reflecting on the Jaguar/Nurburging experience, I’m actually feeling a little disappointed. I'm disappointed that the experience of my life has ended so quickly. Driving at the Nurburgring is special in its own, but doing it in three different Supercharged Jags and then riding with the ‘Ring Specialists was just Heaven. On top of that, from the moment we landed in Germany, the VIP treatment from Jaguar was amazing. And now it's all memories.
"I've totally fallen for the XJ Supersport, for me it was the Car of the experience, the breadth of its abilities is just totally amazing. Forget the M5 and E63, I want an XJ Supersport.
"Thank you Jaguar and thank you Pistonheads for this dream day!"
Here's a video of a flying lap of Jag's XJ-L Ring Taxi in the hands of Tom Schwister.