The Nordschliefe. That’s the infamous northern loop of what of what is commonly known as the Nurburgring. It is easily the most daunting race circuit in the world, and is without doubt the most challenging, if not the most scary.
Formula One legend Jackie Stewart, who coined the name ‘Green Hell’, said of the track,
“For a quick lap at the Nurburgring, you’ve probably experienced more in seven minutes and six or seven seconds than most people have experienced in all their lives in the way of fear, in the way of tension, in the way of animosity towards machinery and to a racetrack.”
But it’s not only race drivers who get to battle the nearly 20.832 kilometres (that’s the length of just one lap) at speeds of up to 290km/h down the main straight. Believe it or not, at certain times of the day, anyone can have a crack at it, as long as you pay your 34 euro toll. If you’ve ever driven here, the mere thought of Joe Public winding out his Mazda3 MPS to 250km/h down through the foxhole is frightening stuff.
It’s not just the speed either - it’s the collection of steep dips and blind crests with bumps and lumps that are all but invisible to those unfamiliar with this place. And that’s not the worst of it. If you don’t line up your apexes perfectly in some sections and you’re carrying too much speed on the approach, sports car racer and ‘Ring instructor Sacha Bert says that you will have a “big problem”.
What he means is that sometimes you need to miss the second apex in order to hit the third and exit the corner just right, otherwise it’s as Sacha says, “you’ve got a big problem”. And the emphasis being on ‘big’, as in, there is no (nein, none, zilch) runoff area.
We've driven in Germany before at speeds that would be considered insanity by authorities back home in Australia, but I’ll confess, there were a few butterflies going bananas in my stomach on the morning of what would be my first time on this hallowed piece of racetrack. At least we were driving ourselves to the ‘Ring, which from Frankfurt would be a proper high speed test in itself, and a little bit of a warm up given that we would be in mostly left-hand drive cars on the circuit.
My colleague and I ended up with the naturally aspirated XF 5.0-litre V8. There were a couple of XFRs in the pool, and frankly, we would have preferred to pilot the supercharged XFR on the Autobahn, but who’s complaining.
The 2012 XF is an improved look over the existing model with its front headlight assembly now streamlined and looking similar to that of the class-leading XJ.
Time to get cracking to the ‘Ring though, and see how the XF measures up to the German boys on those unrestricted zones. For those folks who haven’t experienced life on Germany’s highway system, the left lane means that you can drive as fast as the car can go, no ifs, or buts. But there are strict rules: no overtaking on the right, and if you’re travelling in the left lane you must automatically move over to the closest right hand lane to allow faster cars an unencumbered passage.
I’m told that the penalty for not adhering to these simple practices is that you could be charged with a criminal offence, rather than a traffic violation. You can understand why too, as at 300km/h on a public road there is no room for lane hogs as in this country, the fast lane means ‘fast’.
The Sat-Nav screen says that that the Nurburgring is 160km from Frankfurt, so that should take us less than an hour in the Jag, even with a driver change stop.
I’m not sure why I’ve offered my colleague the first driver stint; perhaps I was thinking that there would be valuable kilometres wasted in peak hour traffic around Frankfurt. Wrong.
Within five minutes, we’re blasting along the autobahn and the needle is showing 200km/h, but there’s a late model 7 Series Beemer on a fast approach.
It seems my colleague won’t be moving over, rather he’s planted the throttle and we’re doing 263km/h (indicated) and the BMW is no longer in the picture.
It’s not like we’re missing the supercharger either, this stock standard XF is a very quick bit of kit indeed. Throttle response is instant and the V8 spinning at 6000rpm is providing the music on this brief journey. But first things first.
Now we’ve got a black VW Passat doing 200 km/h plus behind us that has an annoying habit of playing catch up on the straight sections of the autobahn, but then dropping off speed in the sweeping bends. That’s something you won’t need to do in the Jaguar XF. Keep the throttle pinned at these speeds and the chassis doesn’t flinch. The Armco is just a blur at 250km/h, and there’s no body lean whatsoever.
If we had any complaints, it would be that at speeds above 150km/h there’s too much power assistance in the steering, but it’s only relevant on the speed-friendly German autobahn.
We’ve backed off to 220km/h, and amazingly, it feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon drive with the family. That might sound outrageous coming from a country where the maximum speed limit is 110km/h, but that’s the perception from behind the wheel.
After a quick bathroom stop (that will be .50 euro thanks) it’s my turn to slide behind the wheel of the XF for the last 80km. Thankfully the speed cameras are few and far between on this stretch, and the unrestricted zones are more frequent.
Even without the extra boost from the supercharger, there’s more than enough torque to provide rapid in-gear acceleration with the added bonus of that free spinning V8 growl.
Big speeds require heavy duty stopping power and there’s no doubting this car’s ability to wipe off such huge pace. You won’t need to stomp on the brake pedal either, nor are they too sensitive like those employed by one particular German marque, just nice and progressive.
In less than hour, we’ve arrived in the crazy town of Nurburg, and just up the hill is the Nordschleife. It’s almost to good to be true. The drive up here from Frankfurt has been a blast in the XF, but just a few laps in a freshly shod XKR will be momentous.
Welcome to the Jaguar test centre at the Nurburgring. All the other performance marques are here too. Aston Martin is next door, and Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW are just a short walk up the road.
Thankfully, Jaguar has arranged for some German sports car racers to provide the pace car around the course, to shows us the correct lines. Each track session will be three laps, but remember, that’s nearly 70km during each driver stint.
The 'Ring has an infamous reputation, and many enthusiasts and race car drivers have lost their lives here. The fact that many of us are here for the first time is indeed a humbling experience. For those of us in the industry and for motoring enthusiasts, driving here is akin to a religious experience.
There is no way on Earth to remember the lines through 147 corners, without the experience of hundreds of laps behind you, so while it’s fantastic that anyone can come and take the family chariot around here for a lap or two, it is strongly advised to book some time with one of the many driving schools that will enable you to enjoy the experience so much more, and with a safe outcome.
With the driver briefing over, I’ve been assigned a 2012 Jaguar XK Convertible. Not my first choice for a few high-speed laps of the ‘Ring, but the XK is an aluminium construction with a fabric roof, so it’s lighter than the mid-size XF sedan.
As you can imagine, I’m itching to get out there, but take the time to properly adjust my driving position, which Sacha refines further. Now I’m closer to the steering wheel than ever before.
I’ve also set the Drive Selector to 'Sport' mode, as well as engaging ‘Track DSC’, which will optimise throttle and shift response for quicker acceleration out of the corners. And I’ll need both.
It’s all but impossible to keep a slow pace on the Nordschleife, especially when we have the unusual benefit of a closed track. That’s no one else on the course except the Jags, and each group is properly spaced out.
It doesn’t take long before we’re full throttle through the faster sections and I’m loving it, despite the fact that it’s an XK soft top. It doesn’t drive like a typical luxury convertible, there’s no sign of scuttle shake, not even a hint of it, and trust me, I’m starting to push hard.
There’s loads of grip from the standard 285’s on the rear, and the chassis feels wonderfully balanced, even under huge brake loads. With a car that feels properly plated like the XK, you start to gain more confidence and step up to the next level.
There are more than a few bumpy sections of tarmac on the Nurburgring but not once does the car feel unstable or move off the line. It’s even comfortable, with the suspension soaking up some major compression in the surface.
What normally fails you when driving a production road car at race speeds on a circuit like the Nordschleife (especially the Nordschleife) are brakes and tyres. Both these components held up well despite repeated track sessions with little or no ‘time out’ between groups.
The other equally critical thing is seat bolster. Without enough of it, your torso slides around too much and can affect almost every aspect of car control. Only after the event did I even think of this aspect, and realised that a stock XK has sufficient side support for high speed laps, but without any compromise to comfort.
Next up is a red XFR with the same 5.0-litre V8 powertrain, but with one key addition: the ‘R’ denotes this variant is also fitted with a supercharger, providing extra power and torque whenever you squeeze on the right pedal.
While there’s extra 92kW under the bonnet of the XFR over the XK Convertible, it’s a steel construction over aluminium, which makes it 92kg heavier.
Within just a few corners, you are definitely aware of the additional kilos, but the XFR still feels poised on turn in. At over 200km/h in the faster sections of the ‘Ring, it’s easy to forget you’re piloting a mid-size family sedan, such is this car’s propensity for devouring tarmac at a seriously rapid pace. That’s especially true on the uphill sections when exiting the corners, where the supercharger is a welcome addition.
At 6000rpm, I’ve got all 375kW on song, as well as 625Nm from 2500-5500rpm, and that means very some solid punch out of the slower sections. It also means an intoxicating V8 roar, which is all part of the XFR experience.
What really surprises me is how the brakes are holding up. This car has been on the go for more than 200km on the Nurburgring and I’m yet to experience any brake fade. If you’ve driven this course, then you’ll know that represents outstanding durability and robustness. Not bad for a four-door family chariot.
The final track session this afternoon will be in the current Jaguar ‘halo’ car – the XKR Coupe, a black one at that. With a bonded and riveted aluminium monocoque helping to keep the weight down on the big GT Jag, it also helps that there's a 5.0-litre V8 under the bonnet developing 375kW and 625Nm. That said, it still weighs in at 1753kg, but that’s considerably lighter than the smaller XFR.
With ‘Sport’ and ‘Track DSC' dialled up, it doesn’t take long before I’m nailing the apexes at higher speeds than I would have been comfortable with earlier in the afternoon.
It’s no wonder the XKR has been a solid platform for a GT2 car if the road car is anything to by. The chassis is incredibly stiff and the grip is phenomenal as the car weaves from left-to-right through the chicanes.
The brakes have been infallible, even though I’m pushing harder than ever with late braking at the end of the faster straights.
Just as good is that boosted V8 grunt on tap when you load up the throttle for those express exits.
It’s also the speed you can carry through some of the faster corners. The XKR is able to flatfoot it through the likes of the Fuchsrohre (Foxhole) without the car moving off the line, even by a single millimetre.
There’s also a camouflaged XKR-S around here, which is still testing, so although we couldn’t drive it ourselves, we did get to ride shotgun for what was a reasonably quick lap with Phil Talboys at the helm. The car is a rocket ship and we’ll publish our impressions piece entitled “Jaguar XKR-S on the Nurburgring” on June 1, once the embargo has lifted.