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On the trail of the Jaguar F-Type…

Published: 02 Nov 2012

James May really really doesn't like the Nürburgring. That much is clear. After all, this is the man who, on Top Gear telly a few series ago, declared that had he been in charge of bomber command in 1943, he "would have bombed the Nürburgring every single night until it was gone."

Yikes. The statement itself was strong, but the sentiment was clear: cars developed at the Nürburgring a) rarely make you popular with the opposite sex, and b) are largely irrelevant if you never plan on spending lots of time at the track.

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So it will probably come as a bit of surprise to learn that Jaguar has a base at the Nürburgring. That's right, Jaguar: purveyor of some of the finest suspension damping known to Britain, was one of the first car manufacturers to set up a dedicated test centre at the Green Hell for the sole purpose of injecting some sporting enthusiasm into its range. Somebody distract James...

"Back then, before we opened our facility, the Nürburgring was coming out as the industry standard," says Phil Talboys, head of the centre. "At the time the bosses of the company though Jaguar needed pushing more towards the sporting character they were known for. If you look at our heritage, we've got fantastic race and road cars. We needed to get back to that."

Quite. It's almost embarrassing how rich Jaguar's heritage really is. You're talking 1950s Le Mans winners (driven by the likes of Sir Stirling Moss), the Mark II, the XK120, the XJs and of course, the glorious E-Type. But the company is also saddled with - unfortunately - the lingering whiff of the cigar-smoking, golf club set. The owners of Jaaaaaaaaaaags, in other words. Which is why this place is important to Jaguar's future.

"We're at the very front of the industry park," Phil says, pointing out of the window to a grey, humourless and intimidating industrial park straddling the entrance to the ‘Ring. "Now everybody's here. I think if you want to build sports cars you have to come testing here."

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And building sports cars is something Jaguar certainly knows how to do. Witness the snarling, thunderous XKR-S Coupe and XFR super-saloon. And take a gander at the company's model range and it is clear Jaguar is heading back in the right direction after the S-Type years. So the F-Type cannot fail. Cannot.

"We've done an awful lot of testing with the F-Type [pictured above at the prototype build centre at Jaguar HQ]," says Phil. "In fact, it's had more dynamic tuning and setup work using this test centre than we've ever done previously." There are some eight ramps, tyre fitting machines, boxes and boxes of brake discs and pads, and a whole storeroom full of tyres and seats. Plus, an Internet connection so fast it would make the most ardent keyboard warrior blush. Worried about this track fetishism? You should probably look away now.

"For durability testing, as an example, we do around 5,000 miles, which is around 390 laps of the Nürburgring driven by current or ex racing drivers," Phil says, like he's repeating a shopping list. "People like Dirk Schoysman, who's probably recorded around 16,000 laps of the ‘Ring; double Belgian touring car champion Jean Francois Hemroulle; ex British touring car driver Vincent Radermecker. This is the calibre of people we use - they're not hanging around."

They're not hanging around because they're trying to break the F-Type; lap it to destruction. Jaguar told that to date, the F-Type development has eaten up around 300 sets of tyres, 180 brake discs, 80 sets of brake pads and has covered more than 1,200 laps of the Nordschleife. In its busiest week, the centre hosted 28 test cars with 40 engineers. That's more than Jaguar has ever done.

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"The durability cars would be knocking out 20 to 30 laps of the Nürburgring every day," Phil notes. "When they come back in, we assess the data (the cars are loaded with data loggers) and ask if everything felt all right. We obviously ask the racers for their opinion on how it drives because they've driven lots of nice cars themselves."

And? "The drivers have been really complimentary, actually. They like how agile the F-Type is." Of course, you cry, they're bound to say so. But you only have to look at how well Jag has made the snorting, GT-based XKR-S handle - and the fact this is 10 per cent stiffer - to understand it won't be a slouch.

Speaking of handling, the F-Type is, as you read this, undergoing final testing. "We've had six F-Types here in the last couple of weeks with the stability guys, tuning the ABS, traction control, track DSC and such. They're all Jaguar engineers - each one schooled in an XF training car to make sure they're qualified and safe on the circuit. I'd say there were less than 30 people in the whole company qualified to drive our cars on the Nürburgring. It's an exclusive club."

All this work is coming your way next year, ready to buy, and carrying huge expectation on its svelte, streamlined and rather gorgeous shoulders. This is the successor to the E-Type, don't forget; a car Enzo Ferrari once remarked was the ‘most beautiful ever'. Will the ‘Ring-honed chassis match those looks? Those in James May's camp might be surprised to hear that despite this rigorous training schedule, the company isn't about to throw its heritage down the Flugplatz.

"I think there's a fine line between over Nürburgring-ing a car," Phil confesses, "so you've got to be careful that you don't engineer it purely to perform on the ‘Ring." He looks out over into the dense, thick forestry of the ‘Ring and smiles. "I can name a few cars that were tuned purely for this place and their lap times are absolutely astonishing. But you wouldn't want to drive them 500 miles back to the UK."

Naturally, there exists a sheet of the F-Type's ‘Ring lap times buried deep within the test centre, but Jaguar isn't too bothered about it. "People always talk about lap times when they come here," says Phil, "but we're more interested in making a car that's the best road car. It's got to be a ‘Jaguar'." Indeed, Jaguar merely told us the F-Type is "astonishingly quick" in each of its powertrain guises, but will offer a "spectacular handling and soundtrack combination".

It certainly promises ‘astonishing' pace, especially from a small aside garnered from Phil. "I couldn't possibly comment on whether there's friendly competition when we're out on the Nürburgring with other manufacturers," he says, laughing quite heartily. "But it does raise a smile if you overtake a 911 every now and then..."

As we walk back through the centre, something parked inside exudes a very graceful menace. TG points to something matt grey, roll-caged, and V8-shaped in one of the bays. Phil raises an eyebrow: "Oh that? That's just a bit of fun. We'll send you out in it later if you like." He did. In the wet. Check back on next week to find out what it was...

Vijay Pattni

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