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.
Eau Rouge, that winding sliver of tarmac carved into the Ardennes forest, is its USP. It's not just one corner, it's a complex of three. A jinking left-hander buried in a treacherous dip unsettles the car and sends it bouncing into the right-hander that is sharper than you'd ever think and requires an early apex. The exit into the left-hander at the top is totally blind, a leap of faith, and the car pops out of the Radillion corner over the crest while the momentum tries to rip the dampers from the car. The gradient is the most impressive thing, and television cannot relay the experience as the straight plunges downhill before the corner takes off like a ski-jump. When stoned surfers rattle on about 30-ft breakers they've never actually seen, this is the driving equivalent.
In racing it's vital, as it leads onto the long, uphill Kemmel Straight, where Formula One cars fly through at 180 mph-faster in qualifying trim. I was in a highway cruiser that could carry five people across a continent in comfort on leather seats, with music wafting through the sophisticated speaker system and rain-sensitive window wipers, and I could still do 110 mph on the way in. The clocks weren't on us, though. A track day is all about personal limits, coming into each bend a touch faster every lap, hitting the apex and feeling the tires squirming. It's all about personal limits was the obvious conclusion from watching some of the straightline superheroes hammering the throttle on the straights before slowing to grandmother speeds for corners. Being forced to brake mid-corner to avoid compacting a Westfield was a shock, but the talent was as varied as the machinery and some were more than useful.
As for the Jag, it should have been as out of its depth as a bleeding swimmer dropped into a shark-infested ocean, and on occasion it was. But the four-wheel-drive system designed to keep leadfoot junior execs out of trouble in the rain proved a big surprise. Under acceleration the 231-bhp, 24-valve machine revved freely to its 6800-rpm limit and even left sluggishly driven Porsches behind out of the hairpins due to a 0-to-60 mph time of 6.6 sec. From 110 mph up to its 146-mph top speed, a saint's patience would wear thin, but that is beyond the remit of most road cars.
And while others battled with skittish Caterhams in the twisty bits, if the Jaguar turned in at all, it would come out pointing the right way. Even at Pouhon, which is much underrated as a mind-shattering, scary corner. This double-apex left-hander has just about every obstacle going. It's downhill, off-camber, blind and bloody fast. It's a testicular test that's all about final exit speed, but it invites you to grab the first apex too early and run out of road. I did this once, hearing the crunch of my right rear tasting gravel and the "pooshp" of my heart slamming against my ribs. True to form, the Jag pulled out of the danger area, however, to the echo of my infinite thanks.
Only twice in 30 attempts did I get this corner right, reining in the horses to the first apex, running to the edge of the circuit and constantly applying the gas through the second left-hander, hitting the rumble strip at 95 mph. It was worth the price of admission on its own and was arguably as satisfying in the surprisingly spritely Jag as it would have been in a McLaren. Well, almost....
Pouhon and the fast back end of the circuit, carved into the Ardennes forest, is what gives this track so much of its character. Having seen F1 races here, I expected a serious challenge through the undulating kinks and twists leading to the Bus Stop, but only the left-handed Blanchimont required real nerve. Feeling the tires working at well over 115 mph was an adrenaline rush, but the rest of the back end requires a seriously quick car to get excited about. The two complexes, Fagnes and Les Combes, take real technique-especially in a heavy car that could easily slip wide, but they're hardly fun and merely serve to link the good bits and provide a place to play with left-foot braking to balance the throttle and trim the car's line for a better entry into the second curve of each complex.
The two hairpins, La Source and Beau Rivage, were no match for the Jag, which transfers power via viscous couplings to the wheels that need it most. The four-wheel drive simply pulled the car around when thrown in, no matter what the speed, and closed on the skittish Porsches. I even had time to take in the stunning cottage on the outside of La Source: Scenery is a big part of the Spa experience. The slower stuff tore my Pirelli P-Zeros apart, though, and I also picked up marbles, the pieces torn from other cars' boots, which eventually coated the contact patches with slippery debris mixed with oil. On my final outlap, this came home to roost with a huge moment at relatively low speed on cold tires. Another experience for the Spa memory bank.
Strangely, even though braking boards were out, the famous Bus-Stop chicane proved one of the toughest on-track challenges, and the four-channel ABS came into effect every time. In fact, this was the only place the heavy Jag felt totally unwieldy, as the all-wheel drive was defeated by the sheer weight of this 3,428-lb car, and it slipped sideways into this 30-mph chicane. This is the place where races are won and lost, as braking down from flat-out to a virtual stop challenges car and driver and the line determines the tire damage. From here it's back on the power, through the left kink and up past the start-finish line towards La Source. Then it was back down that ski jump towards Eau Rouge, winding up the power for fun and the air-conditioning for wind-in-the-face atmosphere.