Stig drives the Jaguar Project 7
Jag's design study gets the ultimate litmus test. Enter TG's tame racing driver
Posted: 08 Oct 2013
When styling Jaguars in the Fifties, designer Malcolm Sayer stuck tufts of lambswool to a car's bodywork and then drove along and observed how the wool was shaped by the airflow over the surface. One of his machines was the D-type, and, through his sheepy science, he determined it should have an aerodynamic fin behind the driver's head. This would steer air over the car, keeping it tidy as it slipped off the tail, and might also help drivers hold things steady at 170mph along the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. It worked. Some even took their hands off the wheel.
Fast-forward 60 years, and TopGear is conducting a similarly primitive aero test. We also have a Jaguar. It, too, has a fin. Except ours isn't decorated with fleece - and the driver's seat is loaded with a Stig. He's just performed a lavish burnout and now the electric blue Project 7 - a modern tribute to the D-type - sits in a cloud of its own smoke. The exhausts summon a primal roar, and The Stig's off, bursting through the artificial mist, vapour streaming over the bodywork in delicate white lines. It follows every contour and curls off the rear wing in little wisps. If old Malcolm were here now, he'd be taking notes. Who needs wool and sticky tape when you have a Stig and fresh tyres?
So, then, the Project 7. Officially it's a ‘design study' based on an F-Type V8, and its name refers to the number of times Jag has won Le Mans. There are pictures of the old winners all down the corridors of the company HQ, a sort of Cool Wall to remind employees of the good old days. A few months ago, after walking past the framed images, designer Cesar Pieri felt inspired to get his pencil out. He began sketching something influenced by the old stuff, based around the hard points of the F-Type.
He showed it to his boss Ian Callum, who told him to show his colleagues. Soon they were all scribbling, and eventually it was decided to make the thing. It would be debuted at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Which was just four months away...
And so the work began. The project went from sketch pad to CAD renderings in a few weeks, and from CAD to clay in just 10 days. Then it was over to the team who'd make the real thing. But we're not just talking about some stickers and stripes here. Look at the windscreen - it's been turned into a thin sweep of Perspex like you get on the front of a speedboat. There's an entirely new face with stronger cheekbones, a pointy carbon chin and a bigger mouth lined with white lipstick. The side sills are dark blades of carbon that could probably slice your ankles. Then there's the fairing behind the driver's head, which is more of a hump than a fin, but still tapers like a neatly butchered chicken fillet.
Back in the day, Jag's Le Mans racers were run by Ecurie Ecosse and painted the same colours as the team's native Scottish flag. The Project 7 is a more electric interpretation, but it gives all the right Celtic hints. It even has a man skirt, albeit a carbon-fibre job. They could've gone with purple and yellow in homage to the Silk Cut XJRs that also won Le Mans in the Eighties/Nineties, but design boss Ian Callum is a Scot, which probably swung it. The 7 also comes with a matching helmet, featuring a white stripe the same width as the one over the bonnet. Usually it sits in its own quilted pod, strapped in by a tiny harness and buckle. But today it's replaced by a proper passenger seat for our benefit.
Once the designers had finished, they handed over to the engineers. Their first job was to release more horsepower from the 5.0-litre V8, which was quickly achieved with laptop surgery. Goodbye 488bhp, hello to the 542 (the same as the XKR-S). Then it was out with the fabric roof and its motors, saving 20kg. Down went the 0-62mph time from 4.3 seconds to 4.1. Next job: rear wing. With the front splitter poking out 15cm further than usual, and therefore pushing it harder into the ground, they needed a similar force to balance the tail. So on went an aggressive carbon wing set to a 14° angle of attack. Then it was over to Mike Cross, the quiet genius who makes all Jags behave properly. He also happens to be an expert at misbehaving, which may explain what happens next.
You know that feeling when you think the toilet seat's down, but actually it's not? That's what happens when you first sit in this thing. The thinner seat is mounted 3cm lower than usual, so your backside arrives with a bump. If it were higher, the top of the short 'screen would slice in front of your face and you wouldn't see out. So you sit way down, and it feels like getting into a driver's seat recently vacated by Stephen Merchant. I pull the four-point harness over my lap and shoulders, which hunkers me down even more. I adjust the seat manually. And leave the thin wing mirrors (nicked from the C-X75 hypercar) where they are. There's no rear-view mirror to worry about.
The controls are familiar. So I press the start button, and the 7 lets out a snarl from its quad exhausts, tipped with ceramic tubes to prevent hot metal searing through the new carbon venturi. The pipes now go straight through the silencers, rather than through a maze of baffles. I blip the throttle. The V8 grumbles, and the car rocks. About a second later, the exhaust sends a whipcrack echoing through nearby trees. Click the gearstick into first gear - one of eight in the auto 'box - and roll forward. Looking at the world through the thin screen is like looking out through a helmet, and, because it's so short, there are no side windows. They wouldn't meet up with the edges of the screen's frame.
Traction control is off; dynamic mode is on. And first impressions aren't too scary. The 7 might ride 10mm lower than a standard V8, but it's not bumpy. The steering has the same meaty texture as before. But then you try the throttle and - if you were hooked up to a heart-rate monitor it would become spiky. Goodness, this thing's quick. Maybe it's because you sit lower and everything's louder, but the extra 54bhp feels like much more. And let me warn you now, if you're considering going around any corners, you should hold your breath. We know the F-Type can slide... but with the 7, the slide goes on for longer and the smoke somehow clings to the car and follows you down the road. It pours over the rear deck like dry ice over a stage. It billows over the sides of the car and over the tiny screen. It's like being blown along on the breath of an especially grumpy dragon.
This thing is obviously programmed to show off. The regular V8 is not a particularly understeery car, but whatever nosiness was there has almost disappeared, and it feels very willing to swing its bum around. And, although we're told the springs are a touch softer, they also have a little less weight to shoulder, especially over the rear. The upshot is a car that's easier to unsettle, but also one that's less likely to help you out once you've busted the limit of grip. Perhaps that makes it less friendly than the regular car, but that's what happens when you make things racy. It narrows the focus. And certainly sharpens the senses...
In a few days, this car will be flown to Pebble Beach in the States, where rich people will stare at it. Many will produce wads of dollars and insist on taking it home. But Jaguar says it's not for sale. Asked whether it might form the basis of a more hardcore F-Type, company insiders declined to comment. But it's not hard to work this one out. The XK already has R, RS and GT versions (GT being the hardest, most concentrated of the lot). It's inevitable the F will receive similar treatment, and we'd wager that the Project 7 previews at least some features of a go-faster F, whether it's the engine or the aero of its full humpy goodness.
Or just maybe... it's a sign that Jaguar might go racing again. An F-Type GT3, anyone? No way, say the bosses, and we're inclined to believe them. So, for now, then, it's just a bit of fun. Something to pass the time before we get our hands on a buyable, hotted-up F. And in a world of serious people who speak of streamlined platforms and downsized everything, it's good to see a car company with a sense of humour. Think of the Project 7 as a cartoon for grown-ups. Just look at the Jag badge on the front - they've put shades on the big cat's face. A growler in glasses, they call it. And you don't see one of those every day.
Words: Dan Read
Pictures: James Lipman
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine