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Claw Marks: The Jaguar Driving Experience.

Many car companies offer buyers of their products a driving school experience. Jaguar is no different in that respect. Where this fabled British car company does differ is that…well….you get to drive Jaguars. Sydney Motorsport Park is the venue in NSW and I recently had an opportunity to do a session with the Jaguar Drive Experience.The afternoon session kicks off with a catered lunch, before an introduction to the team and instructors. There’s no doubt as to the qualifications of the drivers, with V8 Supercar driver Tony D’Alberto and GT driver Nathan Antunes amongst them.

Each session is planned to be timed down to the second; that includes a video presentation, a rundown of the history of Jaguar, and splitting attendees into teams and being identified into numerical order for the driving sessions. The cars on display give a good insight into what Jaguar is all about: a choice of supercharged V6 and V8 hardtop F-Types, the supercharged V6 XE, and the limousine with a machine gun, the supercharged 5.0L V8 XJ.

For many, this will be their first time on a dedicated race track’s surface. The people are all Jaguar owners with many of them new to the brand. The car park is full of Jaguars belonging to the drivers that have, as a result of their purchase, been invited by Jaguar to find out just how their cars can be driven. At speed. Safely.

There’s a couple of sighting laps for each team, but before that, some basics. Seating position (low and with arms and legs bent, not straight.) Why? In a full frontal impact the kinetic energy is directed through the chassis and will be transmitted along straight lengths, like arms and legs, and terminate in the hard spots, like shoulders and pelvis. A high incidence of injuries are of these types due to people being seated too far from the seats and having their legs ramrod straight. Position of hands on the tiller? Nine and three, thank you, not ten and two. It makes it easier to reach those funny sticks that make ticky noises and causes lights to flash on the car’s corners or to engage the wipers when that strange wet stuff comes from the sky. Oh, and it’s also where the companies that use “flappy paddles” tend to put them, too.

Being driven in the cossetting surrounds of a top spec XJ, with narration from your instructor as he points out marker cones where you’re looking to line your car up when it’s your turn to drive, interspersed with terms such as double apex and off camber curves, is an unusual feeling. Now, it’s time to drive. First up? The sweeting looking and brutally powerful F-Type V8. It’s a snug fit, especially when wearing the mandatory helmet. My instructor, Andrew, ensures that the helmet is correctly fastened before covering off some points about the car and, more importantly, emphasises the safety factor the sessions are intended to further imbue Jaguar drivers with. It’s also pointed out that the rear vision mirror inside is pointed towards his position in the passenger seat. Why? So for the…more conservative driver…he can see following traffic and advise said conservative driver to clear the racing line.

The starter button is prodded, an instinctive check for traffic and D is selected. There’s an intoxicating burble from the four exhaust tips as the revs climb, a crackle from the pipes as brakes are applied in corners, a nicely weighted steering wheel responds to input as cones on apexes are lined up and…two laps later, the first run is done.The other three drivers, including Melissa from Penrith, who had taken delivery of her first Jaguar, an XE, earlier in the year, and had the widest smile possible, take their turns. If it were possible to have a smile that encircled the entire head, she’d have it.

Next up, the biiiiiiiig XJ R-Sport. It’s a long car at over five metres in length, and with a wheelbase close to three metres it offers leg room enough to please a giraffe. Andrew explains that a different driving style is required due to the sheer size of the vehicle, yet, being largely constructed of aluminuim, tips the scales at under 2000 kilograms. This has the effect of making the XJ surprisingly nimble and easy to easy to punt around the fast and fluid Sydney Motorsport Park circuit. There’s a subtle yet noticeable difference in the exhaust note, a subconscious recognition of the extra space behind you and the fact that the car does indeed handle like a smaller car.It’s the back to back comparisons that make doing such a course so utterly important in the greater scheme of safety on the roads. One of the factors here is the instruction to look ahead, to plan your entry and exit. What this does is have the driver look at where they can get their car to go but, crucially, where to go in the event of an issue further ahead. It’s human nature to pick out an object and the brain momentarily focuses on that. But, in an emergency situation, what a driver should be looking out for is the road out, not the tree, the sole tree, next to that exit, as all too often single occupant fatalities have been caused by the car hitting the only object around, such as a tree or pole.

The other part of using a race circuit to conduct driver education is showing how a fluid and smooth movement is safer than a sudden sideways wrench of the wheel. Far too often a car has rolled simply because of drivers suddenly veering left or right, primarily becuase of inattention and suddenly realisied the truck in front is a whole lot closer than expected. Indicator stalks are placed at fingertip’s end and designed to move at a soft touch as the wheel is turned gently when changing lanes. The instructors are at pains to point out that a smooth and fluid handling car responds to smooth and fluid drivers far better than those that are not. The end result? A safer driver and safer journey.The final session covered off two distinctly different driving examples. The first was the XE V6 for our group and our last car. Andrew points out the flashing red Start/Stop button and mentions off handedly that it’s a heartbeat, the timing of the flashes. That heartbeat is 66 times per minute. Why? It’s the heartbeat of a jaguar, at rest…

Both in this and inside the XJ we were given three laps and it was here that a stretch of the legs was really undertaken. The subtle wail of the supercharger bolted atop the V6, the imperceptible change of the auto’s gears, and seeing the speedo hit 160 kilometres per hour in a legal environment is one thing. By now there’s more familiaraity with the track and the laps feel quicker, the braking points become more instinctive, the apexes get closer and the points between acceleration and braking become shorter. Being taken for hot laps by the instructor? Another thing entirely.

Andrew checks the helmets straps and nods towards the V6 F-Type. They call the hot laps “The Instructor’s Revenge” and is mainly because of the people that see themselves as a better driver than they really are. Going quick in a straight line? Sure. Hitting the apexes whilst experiencing a car for the first time? Well done sir. But here’s the reality check.

Fire and brimstone, lightning and thunder, Thor’s hammer meets the awesome power of Superman. That’s just the basic 250 kilowatt V6 F-Type. Bump it up to 280 kW for the F-Type S or go full metal jacket for the bellowing 404 kilowatt 5.0L V8. Torque? “Just” 680 of them. We’re in the F-Type S, with the 280 kW V6 and 460 torques from 3500 revs. There’s noise, a sweet sound to a Jaguar fan, of a restrained and angry machine wanting to pick a fight with an ill educated driver but Andrew controls the beast.

There’s moments of sensing the car about to lose contact with the track as the F-Type goes sideways but it’s a controlled movement, a pucker moment here and there as the chassis squirms around under power. The traction control kicks in and out, obeying the commands of the computer which itself is obeying the commands of the organic computer sitting a couple of feet above the seat cushion. Snarls from the front, a surge as the accelerator is pressed, the snap of the exhaust as spent dinosaur juice is expelled.

There’s flicks of the wheel, left, right, but never are they a sudden movement in response to panic or fear. Andrew holds the F-Type in his grip and the car fights back but recognises who its master is. And that master is what we’re and they’re to get a glimpse of: a properly educated driver that understands what a car can do and just how much can be extracted from the car in the right hands. It also shows just how undertrained and woefully dangerous other drivers are as the chief instruction is left ringing in our ears when the sessions wrap up.

“You’ve had your brain recalibrated. Remember that when you leave.”

We’ve spent the last few hours travelling, in a safe and legal environment, at speeds that just a few hundred metres away would be deemed dangerous and illegal and license losing, and it’s here that the great safety conundrum again rears its head.

On my way to the circuit, I passed a clearly marked police car. It was on my left and nestled in one of those little spaces roadside. Ostensibly they’re there for safety and we’re told they scan numberplates for stolen or unregistered cars. Scarcely two hundred metres away, on the opposite side of the freeway, there was a four car nose to tail pileup. This incident was inside a line of single lane traffic waiting to enter a congested road, were some distance away from the traffic light controlled intersection and it would have been impossible, absolutely impossible, for those crashes to have occured at anything more than sixty kilometres per hour. You should be able to appreciate the irony here.

It’s fact that most nose to tail crashes happen at or below the posted speed limit and are a massive contributor to insurance and hospital costs. Yet we have speed cameras in odd locations and they have simply failed to have an impact on saving lives, irrespective of the propaganda governments would have you believe. A solid indicator of that failure is the simple and sheer amount of revenue these devices deliver to governments. They’d tell you that they’d be happy to have no revenue from these devices, inferring that no speed, no pay. This ignores the fact that if they weren’t also revenue raising devices then the government wouldn’t attach a revenue raising amount to them along with the demerit point system.

It’s also a fact that at the velocities we were travelling didn’t kill us. The cynical would say it was because we were on a race track. This overlooks the fact that race drivers, the most highly trained and experienced drivers on earth and who regularly travel at illegal road speeds (on the race circuit), have a death rate, world wide, of a miniscule fraction of one per cent of those Australia has per year on the roads.  The cynical would say it’s because we’re on a race track and not surrounded by other drivers. Again, race drivers are at higher velocities and surrounded by drivers doing similar high speeds.

The Jaguar Driving Experience has shown that it’s possible to travel at high speeds but, vitally, it’s shown how to travel at high speeds and corner properly, SAFELY. And that is the crux of any driver training and the crucial part that isn’t seen as essenially worthwhile by governments.

(With thanks to the Jaguar Driving Experience and The Formula Company.)