Glancing at the speedo heading into Eau Rouge, literally translated as "red water," at Spa-Francorchamps was a sobering experience, especially when I saw 10 mph too many on the clock when it was too late to do anything about it. The fronts gave up the battle for grip going into the dip before the road climbed around to the right, and I missed the apex of the second part of the complex. In a much stiffer machine, this would be the precursor to plane-crash-style wreckage. This was the place where F1's resident psychopath, Jacques Villeneuve, had his "best crash ever," and one driver at our event, reportedly in the last Ferrari F40 to roll off the Maranello line, also tasted the Armco. To rub salt into his wound, he had to pay $400 for the barrier damage....
But I was driving a Jaguar X-Type 3-liter V6. When I slammed the curbs at the top of the hill, the soft suspension soaked up the significant impact and the car simply brushed down its sleeves and carried on. It's hardly an archetypal track car and is in fact based heavily on the Ford Mondeo's underpinnings, but Jaguar was one of the few that did not put the phone down on hearing the words "your car" and "Spa-Francorchamps," and I also have to admit to perverse pleasure taking this barge to the supercar frathouse.
Getting there was also important, as the 500-mile round trip with full photographic gear was not the role for an Elise. The Jag was a relative magic carpet, even at 130 mph with a little wind noise, and as a cruiser it was hard to fault. The precise five-speed was great and the exhaust didn't sound bad; it was certainly aggressive enough for this luxury-on-a-budget bracket. The marque hoped to attract a new, younger audience with this car, the lowest priced Jaguar for some time at just over $40,000-a good idea seeing as it was losing established customers to retirement homes and the Grim Reaper.
It's pretty enough, but it hasn't been the raging success Jaguar hoped for. It was, however, an eye-opener putting this four-wheel-drive saloon on one of the most challenging race circuits in the world for a track-day challenge. Days such as Autotrack's are big business in Europe, where Gatso cameras watch like Big Brother and the only places drivers can get their rocks off are the circuits they previously only dreamed about. We simply turned up, paid $280, signed a waiver promising not to sue if we severed our legs, and away we went. While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Public Liability certificate liaison reportedly hunched into the fetal position and started to cry at the very notion.
A mixed bunch came out to play at our event, with everything from a Mk1 Golf to a Formula Renault, together with a Lamborghini Murcilago, Ferrari 360 Barchetta, a Venturi, Caterhams and the odd Radical. Porsche, though, was the marque of choice here. With those speed differentials, overtaking is inevitable, and you're advised at the start to watch your mirrors and move over if required, with all overtaking done on the left. There were no sessions, and the 100 attendees went out as they pleased on the 4.5-mile circuit. Incredibly, it worked. On one occasion I didn't see another car for three laps. Spa was mine, all mine. Some did try and run all day, leading to overheated engines and oil slicks on the tarmac, which only served to add an even greater sense of occasion and danger to a memorable experience at this Mecca of motorsport, which rightfully blings as loudly on the emotional radar as the Brickyard and Monaco's street circuit.