Jaguars on the Nurburgring

By: Paul Murrell

Presented by

Jaguars on the Nurburgring Jaguars on the Nurburgring Jaguars on the Nurburgring
Jaguars on the Nurburgring Jaguars on the Nurburgring Jaguars on the Nurburgring

What's it like to be cut loose on one of the world's most famous circuits in one of the globe's iconic brands?

Jaguars on the Nurburgring
Jaguars on the Nurburgring

 

Jaguars on the Nurburgring

It's easy to tell when you're nearing the famed Nürburgring. Each postcard-perfect little village is crowded with ever-more exotic machinery - Nissan GT-Rs jostling for parking space with be-winged BMWs and extreme Porsches.

We've been invited by Jaguar to Germany to experience both the track and a bunch of cars for ourselves. A day before we are officially supposed to be at the 'Ring, though, a few of us venture there on our own to look for the best-known spectator points and conduct a little unofficial reconnaissance.

The track is narrower than expected, with nowhere to go if you get it wrong. It's covered with graffiti and edged by battered Armco (that they bill you for if you bend it). The butterflies in my stomach become more agitated. People die here every year and it's not hard to see why!

We adjourn to a picturesque little village for lunch. The peace is shattered by the BMW V10 scream of a €340,000 Veritas as it passes through on its way to the 'Ring for testing. Even the Dutch tourists put their beers down and pay attention.

The Nürburgring is in the Eifel Mountains, one hour 50 minutes north-west of Frankfurt (it would be considerably longer if we were restricted to Australia's draconian speed limits, rather than the 200-250 km/h we can comfortably maintain on the autobahn).

At one point, we spy a 'Polizei' car in the slow lane. Since we are in a 130km/h zone and doing 180, we slow, but faster cars continue to pass us at much higher speeds. As we overtake the police car, the driver casually glances across at us with little interest, even though we are travelling a comfortable 30km/h above the posted limit - safe in the prevailing conditions. Common-sense policing... you gotta love it!

The Nürburgring is acknowledged as the world's most famous and demanding racetrack. F1 legend Jackie Stewart called it the "Green Hell". It opened in 1927 as a motorcycle race circuit, a 28km stretch of road with 174 turns. The northern loop (the Nordschleife) is 22km long and the southern loop (Südschleife) 7km. The last time the full track was used for racing was in 1939. After that, only the Nordschleife was used for Grand Prix racing.

In 1961, Phil Hill became the first person to lap the Nordschleife in less than nine minutes. The track was used for a punishing 1000km race and in 1970, 24-hour racing began. From 1971 to 1983 changes were made to the track, removing some of the more savage bumps (but leaving many more) and widening the surface. In 1984, the GP-Strecke replaced the original southern loop, built to the high standards of safety for Formula One.

The Nürburgring has always been open to the public for an admission fee. Today, the 'Ring is used by many companies to develop their production cars and equipment. There is no speed limit on the circuit and, as on all German roads, passing on the right is illegal. The Eifel Mountains are infamous for their changeable weather and the track is often closed for weeks on end in winter due to unsuitable conditions.

Jaguar has been testing at the Nürburgring for more than 20 years and in 2003, opened a dedicated engineering test centre where up to 25 people work during peak periods. Welcoming us to the facility, Global Head of Communications at Jaguar Land Rover, Frank Klaas, introduces Phil Talboys - European Test Operations Team Leader and our instructors for the day - Sascha Bert, Tim Bergmeister and Tim Schwister, who between them have raced pretty much everything with wheels.

Frank explains the role of the Nürburgring in Jaguar's testing and development program. "This track is firmly established as the industry standard for durability and performance," he explains. "It is very bumpy, very difficult to learn. No video game or YouTube clip can prepare you for it." Phil Talboys, a man who has done thousands of laps of the 'Ring, reinforces the message. "The track is very demanding on the whole vehicle. The track surface and layout are unique, with bumps and crests providing a challenge for the chassis." And the driver, no doubt!

Phil continues: "The long, uphill section tests cooling and the twisting, downhill section tests the brakes. Being a volcanic region, there is a lot of water under the asphalt so the track is always bumpy - the car jumps all the time. We aim for reliability and robustness, regardless of the model badge on the back."

Just so we don't get over-confident (as if!), we're shown a video of some hair-raising and expensive miscalculations by over-confident (or stupid) drivers. Then it's our turn.

Jaguar has an impressive array of cars for us to drive: XKR coupe and convertible, XFR, and XJ Supersports. Close by is a heavily camouflaged XKR-S, a development mule that's done a lot of hard miles around the 'Ring. We don't get to drive it (it was yet to be released at the time of this trip) but Phil takes me for a run at the end of the day.

My first drive is in the XKR. Very quickly, I decide to switch the driver aids to a lower setting as the various systems kick in far too strongly for my liking. Frank Klaas advises that the electronic helpers deliver faster lap times, especially in the wet and particularly when there's 375kW and oodles of torque. The track setting opens the parameters, allowing a little slip but a goodly margin of safety if you get over-confident.

Following Sascha Bert makes us all look better than we are as he knows the perfect line for each corner, and where and when to brake (he tells us via two-way radio ... which means he's driving one-handed!) There are plenty of bumps that unsettle the car. On some bends, Sascha has us braking earlier than I would have (which means I probably would have speared off) and taking some unexpected turn-in angles.

After a couple of laps, our times are coming down substantially. The XKR flatters my limited skills, and looks as good today as when Ian Callum first designed it. Subtle enhancements since its 2006 introduction have kept it looking fresh and the sports models (XKR and XKR-S) manage to define subtle aggression.

For my next series of laps, I climb into the XFR. The additional weight makes itself immediately felt, but as my knowledge and confidence rise, it is astounding how this large, heavy luxury car attacks every element of the 'Ring with sure-footed competence.

My attempts to use the paddle gearshift prove the point that automatic gearboxes are now highly advanced. Nobody on earth could complete a gearchange as quickly as this eight-speeder does - just 200 milliseconds, four times faster than the average human resting heart beat.

There are so many turns on the 'Ring that it would take much longer than we have to know them all. Factor in off-camber turns and sneaky bumps and it becomes clear why only professional drivers and testers who do thousands of laps around here every year can truly learn the track.

Over-confidence will be rewarded with a fall, so I keep reminding myself how little I know as I buckle into the (expensive) XJ Supersports for another turn on the track.

Extensive use of aluminium means this, the biggest Jaguar in the range, is actually almost as light as its smaller XF sibling. The car is truly a revelation as I throw it into bends at ludicrous speeds and come out the other side unscathed. Can I really be driving this luxury flagship as if it were a sports car? My ever-improving times prove it and the engine snarls with barely concealed menace.

Into the hard braking zone at Hatzenbach, the tricky Schwedenkreuz, the right-hander at Aremberg, and through the Karussell, the car feels perfectly balanced (I follow Nicki Lauda's advice and aim for the "tallest tree"). The vicious little bump on the exit of Karussell kicks the tail wide, but only for a brief moment.

All too soon, though, our four hours at the 'Ring come to an end. Frank Klaas thanks us for not bending any of the cars and explains that the testing process here at Nürburgring is just the beginning of the process of improving quality, chassis, performance and driveability. Our time on the track shows they are doing a pretty fine job of it. Frank adds: "Everybody expects a spectacular lap in a sports car, but the saloons are the real surprise and we are really proud of our achievements."

He's right. Some weekend warriors having their own little tussle get the fright of their lives when we flash by them in a large, unmodified luxury car.

So how quick was I? Really not sure. Wisely, Jaguar wasn't timing the laps, but put it this way - Phil Hill's 1961 lap record time is safe. For now.

 

DIY RING

Since it was opened in 1927, the Nordschleife has been open to the public for a fee. Fast cars and motorcycles share the track with tour buses, motor homes, even cars towing trailers. It certainly adds to the excitement!

All German road laws apply to the circuit so there is strictly no passing on the right. As a public road (when open to the public), it is subject to the usual rules: anyone caught or reported driving dangerously can be fined or banned.

Currently, a single lap of the Nordschleife is 26 Euros for a car or motorcycle. Multi-lap tickets are available (four laps cost 95 Euros, or 22.25 per lap, and 25 laps 490 Euros). An annual (calendar year) card for unlimited laps is 1445 Euros. If I lived in Europe, I'd have to have one!

More serious expenses must also be factored in. Obviously, crash damage if you are unlucky enough, plus vehicle recovery, track closure penalties and repairs to the Armco you damage. Excluding your own costs, these can quickly hit 15,000 Euros.

Insurance companies are increasingly including an exclusion clause, so you may not be covered on the 'Ring and most hire car companies also forbid you taking their cars onto the circuit.

 

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