The Guide to Road Racing, Part 9: Driving Academies
By Robert Harley
June 04, 2014
As more OEMs start to offer driving academies to owners, they're in turn becoming an increasing popular entry point into road racing for many enthusiasts. Recently Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, got a chance to check out the one such driving school offered by Jaguar.
A day at the track doesn’t get much better than driving Jaguar’s F-TYPE R Coupe at the Circuit of the Americas with instruction and coaching from racing legends. It’s all part of The Jaguar Performance Driving Academy, a program that teaches essential track-and-street driving skills as well as demonstrating the performance capabilities of the entire Jaguar line.
Who Can Participate in the Jaguar Performance Driving Academy?
The Jaguar Performance Driving Academy Level 1 is complimentary to owners of Jaguar’s R-spec vehicles within 12 months of purchase date and available on a fee basis to all U.S. and Canadian licensed drivers age 21 and over for $895. The half-day Level 1 program is geared toward those with little or no track experience who want to become better drivers and get a feel for the racetrack experience. Most of the participants were owners of Jaguar R-spec vehicles who could, for the first time, explore the capabilities of the entire range of Jaguar’s performance cars in a safe environment. Your author has owned several performance-oriented cars—including our current 2012 Jaguar XK—but hadn't spend any time on a racetrack until this event.
This version of the Jaguar Performance Driving Academy was special not just because of the world-class venue, but also because it marked the first consumer drives of the F-TYPE R Coupe. Jaguar called this event the “Villain Academy” to tie-in with their series of engaging television commercials for the F-TYPE Coupe featuring famous British “villains.”
What Did the Classroom Instruction Consist Of?
The day began with a briefing by Davy Jones and Roberto Guerrero, both of whom at one time held the record for the fastest qualifying lap at Indy. They were joined by eight other instructors, each with serious racing credentials. A special guest was Ben Collins, Top Gear’s “The Stig” and the stunt driver in the recent James Bond films.
The classroom instruction covered cornering techniques, braking, traction, and overall track safety. Because the Level 1 program was geared toward novices, the instructors went through the basics of the traction “budget,” understeer and oversteer, the lines to take through turns to carry maximum speed, and keeping the car stable through turns. Another key point for beginners was the need to look ahead much farther than during normal driving and anticipate actions well in advance. Humans are programmed to look ahead perhaps tens of feet, but when driving at high speed, looking up toward the horizon is essential because time becomes surprisingly compressed at racetrack speeds.
What Happened Out On The Track?
The driving began with five of us in our group following the instructor around COTA’s 3.4-mile circuit (Jaguar-supplied images are from Texas Speedway, but give you the flavor of this travelling event). We each had our own XJR, Jaguar’s high-performance luxury sedan. Our instructor provided a running commentary via two-way radio on when to brake, the lines to take, and how to keep the car balanced, smooth, and fast. Each successive lap went by quicker and was accompanied by less instruction.
After the laps in the XJR we switched to the F-TYPE R. As exhilarating as it was to drive COTA in the XJR, the F-TYPE R was another experience entirely. Emboldened by our XJR laps and familiarity with the track, we pushed the F-TYPE much harder. It responded with mind-boggling torque delivered the instant you asked for it, razor-sharp reflexes, and a chassis that remained perfectly composed, all accompanied by what must be the most thrilling exhaust roar of any production car. The car’s intensity is immediately obvious—the F-TYPE R Coupe belies the stereotype of Jaguar as a brand that leans more toward luxury than performance. This is an all-out track-ready monster that exudes athleticism. The stiff all-aluminum body responds crisply to the slightest steering inputs, and the adaptive dampers all but eliminate body roll. The sense of feedback is phenomenal; the F-TYPE seemingly becomes an extension of the driver’s intentions.
In the first tight turn at speed, we were a little startled by how the F-TYPE seemed to pivot itself around the turn. This was Jaguar’s Torque Vectoring technology at work, a system that applies light braking to the inside wheel and more power to the outside wheel in turns. The F-TYPE seemed to exit the turn pointed in just the right direction, allowing us to take subsequent turns much faster and with far greater confidence. Torque Vectoring allows the car’s rear to slightly drift for just an instant before it takes back control. This facet of the F-TYPE alone took the experience to another level. And as we discovered later in “hot laps” in the passenger seat with former F1 driver Roberto Guerrero at the wheel, we hadn't even begun to exploit the F-TYPE R’s cornering limits.
Next up were flat-out standing starts in the F-TYPE R with vehicle dynamics recorded in the on-board computer. The supercharged five-liter V8’s 550 horses and 502 lbs-ft of torque launched the F-TYPE R off the line like a rocket. Pulling off shifts with the paddles at precisely the right moment was made easier by the large gear display that changes color at redline. With this much power motivating a 3671-pound car, 100mph arrives in just over eight heart-pounding seconds. Equally as impressive as the acceleration was the F-TYPE R Coupe’s braking performance, pulling the car down from the 100mph runs with supreme confidence. These full-speed runs were repeated in two F-TYPES, one with standard steel brakes and again in an F-TYPE equipped with the optional carbon-ceramic brakes. Although an expensive option ($12,000) the carbon-ceramic brakes also includes a system that automatically builds hydraulic pressure in the brake lines when you lift your foot off the accelerator. The result is much greater response to brake pressure and faster stops—not to mention less fade under heavy use and 46 fewer pounds of unsprung weight.
The rest of the day featured timed autocross runs in the XFR, practicing reverse “J” turns in the XKR, and some passenger-seat time in the XKR with Ben Collins demonstrating drifting. The instructors couldn’t have been more skilled in both driving and conveying their knowledge to the students. To give you an example of their driving skill, the fastest student autocross time of the day was 54 seconds but our autocross instructor completed the course in 1:08—driving in reverse with perfect grace and smoothness.
What Did We Learn?
After years of practicing the driving techniques outlined in Speed Secrets on the streets, as well as your author's experience riding motorcycles (which makes one acutely aware of traction, as well as optimal lines through turns), much of what was taught in the classroom was already familiar. But the time on the track, and in particular the instructor commentary through the headsets during the laps, took that basic knowledge to an entirely new level. It was as though driving at speed on the track magnified all the phenomena that had been studied and experienced on the street. We realized that even many hours of spirited driving on deserted mountain roads in New Mexico offered only the merest hint of the thrill and exhilaration of driving an ultra-high-performance car like the F-TYPE R Coupe on a racetrack. Here’s what else we came away with:
• Just how mentally and physically demanding it is to drive a car at those speeds (up to 150mph in the F-TYPE R Coupe)
• There’s no room for even the briefest lapse in focus and concentration
• The techniques used to maintain balance through high-speed turns on track apply equally well to street driving
• What understeer and oversteer feel like when amplified by racetrack speeds
• The importance of brakes
• The high level of skill involved in driving a car fast
Overall, the Jaguar Performance Driving Academy is a great introduction to track racing and the perfect venue to sharpen your street driving skills. The ability to drive a wide range of Jaguar high-performance vehicles on the track and closed courses revealed the performance-oriented heart beneath the luxury. It was this perfect blend of sport and luxury that inspired your author to recently buy an XK convertible. We came away from the event with a new-found appreciation for my car’s high-performance capabilities.
The course we attended was Level 1; Jaguar offers the more advanced Level 2 and Level 3 versions of the program. We can’t recommend The Jaguar Performance Driving Academy more highly, both for the sheer fun of it and for the skills you’ll take back to your street driving. To top it off, Jaguar’s gracious hospitality was first-class. To learn more about future Jaguar Performance Driving Academy events go to jaguarusa.com.