The pitlane setting is familiar enough, but Martin Brundle looks slightly naked minus his headphones and wand-mic weekend wear. Probably feels naked too, given the near-zero temperatures. Huddled inside a pit garage, he keeps toasty like a tyre under its warmer wrap, waiting to be fitted to a car by a team of dayglo stormtroopers and catapulted out onto the Tarmac.
Here’s the car now, the first Jaguar sports car since the E-type. And, Jag execs must be praying, the car to finally unshackle them from that millstone. Having a halo car is all very well, but when the car in question hasn’t been available to buy for nearly 40 years, well, it just gets a bit embarrassing. It’s not as if Jaguar hasn’t built a decent driver’s car since the E-type. But stuff like the XJ220, the old XJS-R 6.0 and current XKR-S are big machines, not aspirational sports cars in the Porsche mould.
But the F-type is exactly that. After decades of false starts, the F-type finally goes on sale in 2013. An aluminium bodied front-engine, rear-wheel drive two-seater, powered by a range of V6 and V8 engines, with pricing likely to straddle the divide between Porsche’s Boxster/Cayman double act, and the 911. ‘We benchmarked every competitor,’ says Adrian Hallmark, Jaguar’s global brand director, ‘but this isn’t a pastiche, it’s a true Jaguar. We have to have a point of differentiation from the Germans. Technology is crucial, but it’s more than that. The car has to feel alive in your hands.’
Like you, we’re absolutely gagging to measure its pulse for ourselves and discover what this thing feels like to drive. Unfortunately, Jag isn’t letting journalists behind the wheel until the spring. It will, however, happily toss the keys in the direction of Martin Brundle, and let us download his driving impressions. Full disclosure: Brundle might be best known these days for his F1 coverage on TV, and his past life as a driving component in the same circus, but he also has a long association with Jaguar. He raced TWR-prepared XJS Touring Cars back in the mid ’80s, won the 1988 World Sports Car Championship drivers’ title and took first place at Le Mans in 1990, before popping over to the Nardo bowl to record a 349kph top speed in the then fastest car in the world, the Jaguar XJ220. More recently, he’s become one of Jaguar’s Sports Academy ambassadors alongside the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.
So I know what you’re thinking: he’s hardly impartial, is he? But if you’ve watched Brundle in action on telly you’ll know that he doesn’t mince words. Spades are always spades, although after a knuckle-rapping for comments made about emergency track maintenance at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, members of the travelling community blessed with F1-grade road-repairing expertise are no longer ‘pikeys’.
Like most racing drivers and TV celebs, Brundle has a pleasingly low centre of gravity for this 5ft 9in interviewer. Dressed in regulation dark jeans and white shirt, and wearing a pair of handsome Prada sneakers that look a suspiciously similar shape to racing boots, he still looks in fine fettle for his 51 years. Thank the training he did in preparation for a return to Le Mans in 2012 for that. Brundle, together with his son, Alex, and another youngster, Lucas Ordonez, finished in eighth place in the tough LMP2 class driving a Nissan-powered Zytek prototype, prompting talk of a return next year.
Rockingham’s infield, then, should be a piece of cake, even though Brundle can’t remember whether he’s been here before or not. The F-type has though, at least half a dozen times this year as part of the chassis sign-off process, helping Jag’s engineers hone the handling, stability and braking ahead of the car’s imminent launch.
While we’re waiting for the PR equivalent of a lollipop man to let Brundle out on track, it seems a good opportunity to ask what he looks for in a sports car.
‘For me, a car starts and finishes with its engine,’ says the man I’d expect to be banging on about handling. ‘You can have the greatest chassis in the world, but if the engine’s no good I’m not interested. That’s why I love Jaguar’s supercharged V8,’ he says, perhaps predictably, then adding ‘and I’d include Mercedes’ AMG 63 V8 in my list too.’
Does it matter which end is doing the driving?
‘It’s got to be rear-wheel drive, hasn’t it? I don’t really like front-wheel drive anything. I mean, they can be engineered to be fun. And I don’t really like four-wheel drive either,’ he says, before going on to rip shreds from a recently released fast German estate.
He lifts his hands up to an imaginary steering wheel, the standard stance for any man involved in serious car chat. ‘I want to get in and go, I don’t really want any surprises to distract me from the act of driving. I like to sit low, like a Touring Car driver. You only have three contact points with a car: the wheel, the seat and the pedals, and if a car is going to slide, your eyes are the last to pick it up.’
Enough pit walking and talking. Time to get the man out onto the track. He’s got two cars to play with today, one visually representative of the showroom bound product, and the other a well-used, well-disguised, but dynamically perfect pre-prod mule. Both are mid-range V6 S-spec, the model likely to account for the majority of sales.
It’s a fabulous looking car in the metal. Not radical, but crisp, cultured and contemporary. Certainly there are historical Jaguar references for the anoraks to spot, but as Jaguar’s design director Ian Callum says: ‘If you’ve never seen an E-type tail lamp or bonnet bulge, it doesn’t matter; the design stands on its own merit.’
And, if anything, the interior is even better. The twin instrument dials – analogue affairs with hip-looking typeface – are stylish and easy to read, the rocker switches click satisfyingly and the rotary dials move with the sort of precision that suggest Jag’s chassis demi-god, Mike Cross, might have been involved in tuning their feel.
Initially, there’ll be three engines: the base car gets a supercharged 3.0 V6 good for 250kW, 259kph and 0-100kph in 5.3sec, while the V6 S gets the same engine boosted to 280kW, shortening the yardstick dash by four tenths and adding 16kph to the top end. S spec also means a growly exhaust, courtesy of some Aston-style flaps, adaptive, rather than passive, dampers, and a limited slip differential.
Step up to the V8 S and you get cosmetic sill extensions like a flying squirrel’s wings, plus quad pipes at the back in place of the V6’s twin-centre-exit exhaust, just to let everyone know. The mechanical limited slip diff is swapped for a fully active unit, while the blown V6 makes way for a supercharged V8 pumping out 364kW and 625Nm of torque. Zero to 100kph takes just 4.3sec and the top speed is 299kph. Hard to believe that Jag is working on even hotter R and RS models to follow.
A closed-roof coupe body will follow too, but the first cars are all convertibles, a simple cloth hood that folds away in 12sec and doesn’t impact on boot space. Which, in case you’re wondering is dire. ‘It’s as big as a 911’s’, chimes in one of the Jag team, seeing the unimpressed look on my face. Maybe, if you fill them both with Smarties, but the Jag’s is best reserved for Frisbee salesmen. Most cars will come with 19 or 20in wheels, of which there are half a dozen styles, some with carbon inserts in the spokes. Is there an 18in wheel? ‘We’ve got one,’ admits Callum reluctantly. ‘But I hope I don’t see many,’ he jokes under his breath.
You might not see that many F-types full stop, given that the sports car market accounts for only 0.1% of the 76m global car market. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Jaguar to prioritise an SUV? ‘The volumes may be small, but the image generated by them is out of all proportion,’ says Adrian Hallmark. ‘This car is going to help us project our brand image to a new, younger, aspirational audience.’
How it drives will be as much a component in that plan as how it looks. Based on the XK’s aluminium structure, but shortened by 324mmm, the 4.5m F-type is compact, but at 1597kg, not particularly light. It is, however, very rigid: 30% stiffer than the XK between the front shock towers. Double wishbones feature at either end and the steering rack – at 14.6:1, the quickest fitted to any production Jag – is hydraulic, which bodes well for Jag’s trademark feel. Compared to the loud and lairy XK-RS, Hallmark describes the F-type as more dynamic, more communicative and more precise.
Brundle is certainly communicating the F-type’s dynamism for all he’s worth. Tyre shriek and exhaust wail melds together like a warped Everley Brothers harmony as he teases the Jag between neutral and oversteer on the fast corners, then kicks the tail right out on the slow ones, riding out the slide in a fog of tyre smoke.
He rolls back into the pits, brakes trembling, exhaust pinging like a tin can firing range, and cracks into a huge smile as he lets slip about a near-off on a surface rendered dangerously slippery by debris washed onto the Tarmac in the recent floods.
So what does he reckon? How does he rate the new supercharged V6, given what he said earlier about the importance of a good powerplant?
‘I like the linearity of this V6 engine, the sound of the exhaust is great,’ he says, perhaps unaware that we’ve heard every single note. ‘I like the driving position. I feel like I’m sat in the car, not on it, and the visibility is excellent; I think that’s really important, it helps the car to shrink around you and you can place the front tyre exactly where you want. Direction changes are really good, particularly through that super-fast chicane, the steering weight is nice and the stability is impressive too. You can carry so much speed into the corner, push it and believe it’s going to stick,’ he says, reaching again for that imaginary steering wheel.
‘But the thing that impresses me most about this car is the front; I really like the way you can just trust the nose. Like all road cars, it’ll simply understeer if you go in too fast. But on the track you can really lean on the rear contact patch, particularly on this V6, then pick up the throttle and keep the tyre loaded. You can keep the steering wheel in the same place and just drive the car on the throttle.’
The V6? What about the V8, which I know he’s sampled previously? ‘Well maybe you could do it in the V8 if you had more time to learn it, but I don’t think it’s quite got the same delicacy.’ The V6 S is the favourite of Jag’s chassis guru, Mike Cross, too.
‘Having said that,’ Brundle interjects, ‘I’d still go for the V8, because where I live in Norfolk, you need to be able to overtake six trucks at a time.’ The total lack of a smile accompanying his delivery tells you he’s not kidding.
But would Brundle want the manual ’box option Jag is currently considering? ‘No, I’d rather have a really great automatic or dual clutch,’ he says, surprising again with his clear disdain for paddle shifters, and not simply because, disappointingly, the F-type’s are made from plastic instead of metal. ‘I think people who want to mess around with paddle shifters are just living out some kind of Michael Schumacher fantasy,’ says the seven-time F1 champion’s former team-mate. ‘When you’ve got a good automatic with a proper Sport mode like this one, you just don’t need them, but I was using the paddles a lot more today than I normally do on a road car.’
That’s not to say that he doesn’t still like changing gears the old fashioned way. Along with his wife’s XKR (‘massively underrated’) and a BMW K1600GT – which is a similar machine in the motorbike world, and his number one choice for a solo blast around Norfolk – Brundle has a Jaguar E-type in the garage. Based around a ’65 coupe, it’s been built from the ground up by specialists Eagle, with a five-speed gearbox, uprated suspension, modern tyres and a power boost to around 224kW.
So come on then Martin, Jag loyalty aside, do you really rate its supposed successor?
‘I do,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s great to drive, it looks good and it should be sensibly priced’. So many sports cars look too effeminate, but this is a clever car; it’s going to appeal to men and women.’
The Jag PR entourage disappears momentarily, leaving us alone in a freezing pit garage, gazing out through grubby windows as Jag’s crew spirits away the two F-types. Only one of us has been lucky enough to get behind the wheel today, but we both know that come launch time this car could well turn the sports car market on its head. But we also know that, while cars like the Aston V8 look decidedly shakey in the face of this threat, Porsche is at the top of its game right now. And I reckon it’s the superb new Boxster and Cayman pair, and not the 911, that is the Jag’s biggest threat. Thrilling to drive, beautifully crafted, and likely better value than the F-type, they’re not going to go quietly.