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Clarkson on: the Jaguar XJ220
One hour ago, I was
nudging 200mph on a desert highway in a Jaguar XJ220. It felt good, but it was
not quite as good as the view in my rear view mirror, because behind me was a
Porsche 959 and a Ferrari F40. And in front was an F50.
We weren’t exactly racing but it was
impossible to come out of a roundabout without mashing the Jag’s heavy duty
throttle into its equally heavy duty carpet and feeling those turbos start to
sing their alto tunes.
It was the first time I’d driven the big
Brit bruiser and though it was ponderous compared to the Italian duo, it was a
lot better than I thought it would be. However, despite giving the fat cat some
serious stick, I was left feeling a bit empty. Here I was in one of the most
exciting cars ever made, and I was bored. You see, I’ve now driven the ultimate
machine, a world championship winner which is hurled along by 1,800 horsepower.
Team’s all-conquering Class One 43-footer with its brace of big block Chevy
units, tuned to rip the ocean apart with 1,500ft lbs of torque. There are only
two seats. On the left was Saeed Al Tayer, who would operate the throttles and
the four gears. I was in the right pod, with the wheel. The cockpit glass is
taken from an American F-16 fighter and the dash has all the hallmarks of a jet
too, but there’s a steering wheel, a racing seat and a five-point harness, so
it feels kind of like a car too.
The points of the twin hulls stretched into
the middle distance, obliterating the view. This was a problem because Saeed
had just fired up the £600,000 beast and it was my job to get it out of the
“You must be pretty nervous,” I said over
the intercom as we headed into the open sea. “Oh no,” came the reply. “I’ve
never done the throttleman’s job before.” With that, he pushed them all the way
to the stops.
“The gearchanges are ponderously slow, but the GPS speedometer’s relentless churning defied belief”
The gearchanges are ponderously slow, but
the GPS speedometer’s relentless churning defied belief. Thirty seconds from
the line and we were doing 100mph. Then we went past 120, 125 and 130. At
132mph, you could hear us in Barnstaple but that was all the small propellers
would give. With the big racers on, they’ve had this baby up to 144mph. 132
feels fast enough though, especially when you look out of the side of the
canopy at the water just four feet below. It has a solid, concretey sort of
appearance. I was mesmerised and didn’t hear the rescue helicopter’s pilot
begging us to slow down. Seems his Jetranger couldn’t keep up.
Now, so far we’d been on a flat sea, going
in a straight line, but with Iranian waters ahead, Saeed asked me to make a
wide right turn. And that was like nothing I have ever felt. Damon Hill tried
this boat and said it was like a 300mph fork lift truck but that’s cobblers
because the response was immediate - one twitch of the wheel and those twin
points were turning, with no roll. And I could feel, even though Victory weighs
four tons, the hull on my side gripping the water. This was like a racing car.
“Yes,” said Saeed, “and it will spin like a racing car too, so not so much lock
The deck of the boat is essentially an
aeroplane wing, designed to hoist the hulls out of the water and reduce
friction. So, as we cruised past the ton once again only the bottom third of
the props were in the water. Everything else was airborne. This makes the ride
almost Jaguaresque but it’s not always so. A modern day powerboat is expected
to race through 40 knot winds in six-foot seas if need be, and they must be
able to average 100mph in the process.
If you’ve never seen this spectacle, I urge
you to catch a race one day soon. The boats skip from wave to wave, with the
throttleman desperately trying to make sure he has full power when he’s in the
sea, and not much when he’s twelve feet above it. To land with props spinning
at Mach Two would rip the shafts apart.
Race tracks are designed to
aid the passage of racing cars, but the sea is designed to create weather, and
as a home for sharks. If you get it wrong in a race car, Murray Walker will
have something to talk about. But if you get it wrong in a Class One boat, you
will only need a coffin big enough for your ear, toe or whatever tiny bit they
happen to find. It is the ultimate thrill.