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km : Grand Touring

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19 August 2010

The Jaguar of today is a far cry from the Jaguar of recent years. Modern, lust-worthy models like the XF and the all-new XJ sit proudly in showrooms that once hosted the embarrassingly low-rent X-Type and the stodgy and comically ancient XJ8, which didn’t appear to change much in four decades of production. The XK coupe and convertible sort of represent a crossroads, as they carry a lot of that traditional Jag styling draped over engines and a platform shared with the XF, but those too will soon get the new corporate face. All told, the current lineup is as fresh and innovative as the first post-WWII Jaguar sports cars that put the company on the map.



Problem is, for so many years Jaguars appealed to a largely traditional (read: aging) demographic that looked fondly on the slow-moving evolution of the products. This latest generation of models, particularly the new 510-horespower supercharged V8 models that wear the “R” designation, is aimed at real driving enthusiasts. But how do you convince a new Jag owner that his car can really perform? Perhaps a free ride at the Jaguar R Academy is the right answer.



Earlier this year Jaguar announced that original owners of its 2010 R models would be invited to learn the finer points of performance driving on real racetracks and with the help of professional racing drivers. Since the springtime, the Jaguar R Performance Academy has visited several different regions of the country, instructing owners in New York, Miami, and Las Vegas; the latest party was held at California Speedway in Fontana, 45 miles east of Los Angeles. When kilometer was invited to check out the program and maybe log some track time behind the wheels of some fast cats, who were we to refuse?



BJ Colaric is the general manager of sales operations for Jaguar of North America, and after just a few minutes with him, it’s clear he didn’t take the job just for its 401k package. Colaric races vintage cars at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, he is well versed on the history of Jaguar in motorsport, and he decided that a driving school for the owners of these cars would help Jaguar the old fashioned way — by word of mouth. As a result, if you buy a new XKR or XFR, this class comes free of charge. Better still, you don’t even use your own car on the track; they provide the machinery. So depending on how you look at it, the class is either free with the purchase of a really great car, or costs you upwards of eighty grand, but comes with a supercharged Jag as a receipt.





The instructional program for the one-day R Academy was designed to get the most out of a student’s abilities without sacrificing the cars. The activity schedule should look familiar to any track school veterans. First are introductions, then an hour of basic but important classroom time explaining how the instructors plan to see how well each participant can drive and how to improve on those abilities. Then comes a series of driving exercises follows, with increasing levels of speed, coupled with a gradual decrease in the use of electronic driver aids.



So what makes this particular course so special? For one thing, the level of experience among the instructors is notable; for our session we had Roberto Guerrero, who has finished second a few times at the Indy 500 and was a rookie of the year for that series, and Davy Jones, who drove many years for Jaguar in the Le Mans series, co-drove the winning 1996 Le Mans TWR Porsche, and holds a handful of notable Indy 500 finishes. The rest of instructors — Chris Munro, Mike Finch, Morgan Cavanaugh, and Adam Andretti (yes, from that Andretti family) — were all genuinely committed to getting a bunch of Jag owners (and a handful of hack journalists) to noticeably improve their driving ability in just one day.



After the classroom, the first in-car exercise is a lap of the autocross course with the traction aids fully engaged. I watch the first few guys run through to get an idea of the course, then jump in an XKR coupe and do a timed run. The instructors had set up electronic timing lights to record our times, but they intentionally keep the results to themselves — not until the end of the day will we get the embarrassing results. My run involves way too much throttle, making the electronic nannies shut the party down a few times, and we discover my first issue — I really need to stop treating the gas pedal like an on-off switch. This supercharged Jag doesn’t respond to that as graciously as some more pedestrian vehicles.



Next up are specific lessons in car control, where I’m introduced to Chris Munroe and his instruction on a short and tight figure-eight course. The idea is to get an XFR sliding sideways through the top of the figure-eight, use momentum and timing to catch the car as it swings the other way at the crossover point, and drift sideways the other direction through the bottom of the eight. I am, to put it charitably, unsuccessful at this, save for one accidental moment. My problem is finding that happy spot on the throttle to keep the car balanced, and as a result the poor Jaguar keeps getting jerked around between heavy understeer and hanging the tail out way too far. Humbling, but not all that surprising; my lack of rear-wheel-drive hooligan experience shows.





The next exercise is more my speed. An oval is set up with cones, with no more than 75 yards of straightaway, and tight right-hand turns. The idea is to teach the driver to look for the apex, and in practice, I discover that I’m barely ever looking ahead — instead, I’m constantly looking out the side window to focus on the apex, all while concentrating on feathering the throttle for maximum acceleration and braking smoothly and cleanly before turning the wheel. To make it more interesting, the instructors have two cars out at a time, spaced exactly half a lap apart, and sure enough, it turns into a game of each student trying to catch the other. This exercise emphasizes patience and establishing a rhythm, and with instructor Mike Finch egging me on, I find chasing the other student to be a lot of fun. Not to mention the fact that the XFR I’m driving for this exercise seems to be particularly good at laying down rubber while still finding strong forward thrust. At every corner I find myself suddenly able to get just sideways enough to brush the edge of the cones while aiming down the short straight and then leaning on the brakes. And thanks to the humbling experience on the figure-eight, I bring much better throttle control to this exercise, getting a feel for how much power — or how little, really — the Jag needs to get through the course quickly.



Following that, the instructors bring us back over to the autocross, where they ride along for successive laps and really start focusing on improving each student’s ability to get the most out of the Jaguars. This is a real highlight, because for the better part of forty-five minutes I have either Davy Jones or Roberto Guererro in the car with me, telling me what to work on to improve my times (which for me involves smoother inputs). Otherwise I’m hopping in the passenger seat and having them show me how they get the most from the car. To see them work from the passenger seat, especially the complete stillness they exhibit behind the wheel compared to how we students are mostly thrashing about, is one of the most vivid experiences of the day.



Lunch comes too soon, and while it could be used to just regroup and consider the morning’s lessons, the Jaguar folks decide to break out a couple of toys they brought along. For fans of the marque, this moment is truly thrilling in a way only kids (or adults with arrested development) usually experience. First up is the 1988 LeMans winning Jaguar XJR9 — not a replica, the real deal — in all its Silk Cut livery glory, surprisingly small and a wonder to behold. But it almost pales in comparison to the special Jaguar next to it — the prototype XJ13, a car crashed and rebuilt by the factory. Developed for racing, it packed Jaguar’s first V12, but it was sidelined when new rules limited engine size for its intended class. It’s a rare glimpse into Jaguar’s very special place in motorsport history. Just seeing the two cars would have been enough, but to our collective amazement both are started and driven on spirited runs up and down the infield straight. Cell phone and video cameras come out, but the sounds of the engines bellowing off the concrete barriers would be tough to record accurately even with the best equipment. The experience peaks when BJ Colaric walks me over to the XJR9 and allows me to get in for a photo op. Take me now, oh Lord.





After that amazing interlude, it’s time for more driving. We get into groups of six and play follow the leader around the infield course at Fontana; it’s time to really let the Jaguars show their stuff. Traction control is set to sport dynamic, allowing some slip angle but eventual intervention. Each car is equipped with a walkie-talkie, letting instructor Morgan Cavanaugh talk us through the laps. We’re also given the choice of staying out of the lead-follow train and getting more one-on-one schooling with the instructors to help find the quick way around the course. Here, at speed, I find all of them commenting on my curious need to turn in later than they ask me to at a critical part of the circuit; bad habits being what they are, it takes many laps to start doing what they ask of me. Who knows why I was so resistant to what seemed like a reasonable request, but when I finally start aiming for the apex the way they want me to, the huge difference in my speed through the back part of the course is undeniable.



Next to last in the series of training sessions is a final lap on the autocross, for which I choose an XKR. Now allowed to run with the traction control turned off, we’re allowed one attempt; to none’s surprise, every student’s time improves. Since this morning I have become aware of how to get the most from the throttle without spinning the car off the track. Kudos to the instructors for helping me gain that much from a single day’s work.



The instructors finish the day by showing us what they can do on the infield track. As gracious and patient as they have been all day, it’s clearly a great release for them to finally cut loose. I’d watched these cars all day, yet suddenly they’re coming down the front straight at a ridiculous pace, the supercharged motors emitting that amazing whine as they fly by. Again, the silky precision is amazing to see up close, but at the end, instructor Adam Andretti decides to show us his dirt track background, tossing around an XFR in full-on drift mode. Suddenly, after a day of learning how to smooth out and minimize inputs, most of the students are lining up to get a ride in the passenger seat to witness Andretti drive in a manner than is totally, staggeringly, barkingly mad. My ride with him is a lesson in contrasts — the car is completely sideways through the first five corners, smoke billowing off the back end in full Hollywood style, but Adam is just as relaxed and precise as can be, taking the car right to the apexes every time, even with the ridiculous angle of attack. The other instructors jokingly say everything they taught us would blow right away with the tire smoke, but if anything, the lessons are emphatically underscored by this impressive display of talent and precision. Good show, Adam.



The day eventually comes to a close, and while my brain says I want nothing more than another hour or so behind the wheel, the truth is I’m fully knackered. The cars, though? They seem ready to start the whole process over again. I can’t help but think again of the Jags from less than a decade ago. An older XJ, at this point, would have nothing left of its door handles, which surely would have scraped on the ground in every corner. An X-type? We’d be writing its obituary, and Jaguar would be ordering a new one over-nighted straight off the Ford Mondeo assembly line. It’s safe to declare the mission here accomplished. The cars were not only bulletproof, they were packed with so much potential we couldn’t even find it all in a single day. Judging by the reactions of the owners in attendance, the day-long course changed their ideas of what their cars could do; they could hardly wait to tell their friends about it. Word of mouth seems a certainty, and enthusiasm — not just admiration, but real wide-eyed happiness — is palpable.



For more information, check out the Jaguar R Performance Academy’s website.


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