Call it a lack of imagination, or simply an unerring belief in their abilities, but there’s something very special about rally drivers and what they can make a car do.
After all, being able to drive around a circuit is one thing, but being quick down a narrow forest track or twisting mountain road, and on any surface from gravel, to mud, to snow, demands a level of skill that’s difficult to comprehend.
I’m about to find out how difficult rally driving is for myself, courtesy of a brand that is celebrating 70 years of building sports cars: Jaguar. Now, think of Jaguar sports cars and it’ll probably be Le Mans that springs to mind. But the company’s XK120 used to do pretty well in the odd rally, too, with notable triumphs including consecutive victories in the Alpine Rally in 1951 and 1952, as well as first place in the 1952 Tulip Rally.
UNDER THE SKIN OF THE F-TYPE RALLY CAR
Which in a roundabout way is why Jaguar decided to build a modern rally car. It’s based on an F-Type Roadster, but instead of a convertible roof there’s an FIA-approved roll cage, and the adaptive suspension has been replaced with EXE-TC competition dampers and softer Eibach springs. There’s also 16-inch gravel-spec competition wheels shod with Maxsport gravel tyres, a mechanical limited-slip differential, an underbody guard and 295mm grooved AP racing brake discs grasped by four-piston gravel-spec callipers.
Inside, there’s carbon door panels, no side glass, and a pair of lightweight bucket seats with six-point racing harnesses. From where I’m sitting now, the driver’s one is done up so tight it’s verging on uncomfortable. I’ve also noticed there’s a button to fire the fully plumbed-in fire extinguisher system into life – and have made a mental note that I really don’t want to have to use it. I have no such qualms about the great big stick protruding from down on the floor though; it operates a hydraulic handbrake that locks the rear wheels.
This is all standard stuff for competition rally cars, as is the removal of the traction control, electronic stability control and the ABS brakes. All of which means that keeping the car on the straight and narrow falls to me. Gulp.
Power comes from Jaguar’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which sends drive to the rear wheels. Jaguar could have opted for one of its larger, more powerful V6 or V8 units, but must have decided that less is more than enough. Anyway, with 300bhp this engine isn’t exactly lacking.
GET A GRIP
The stage I’m driving is short, but the surfaces include wet tarmac, slick mud and deep gravel. It’s tight and testing, with plenty of scenery to hit should I make a mistake. And there are a few cones littered around just to make it even more interesting. And by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘difficult’.
Getting 300bhp off the line without masses of wheelspin proves pretty tricky. Short shifting up the eight-speed paddle-shifted automatic gearbox helps, but the traction is so scant that the F-Type’s 5.7 second 0-62mph time isn’t going to be troubled. It’s huge fun though, and as the rear squirms under acceleration I quickly learn to be patient with the throttle, and positive and early with the brakes and steering. The lack of ABS means I’ve got to be particularly careful not to lock up the wheels, particularly as doing so means I lose the ability to steer…
It’s amazing just how much work there is to do. Mostly it involves masses of small inputs, whether it’s catching slides with the steering, easing off the accelerator to trim the speed, or grabbing another gear to use the engine’s torque to regain traction. Mixed in with all this is the need for some larger, more deliberate movements, such as preparing for a turn by lifting abruptly off the power, then using that handbrake or the steering to flick the F-Type sideways. It’s much trickier than it sounds, and certainly more difficult than the pros make it look.
It’s also a huge amount of fun, not to mention a good demonstration of the F-Type’s fine poise and balance. Most of all, it’s extremely addictive. Half an hour of sliding around in the F-Type has left me sufficiently convinced that a one-make Jaguar rally championship for 2019 could be an even better way for the company to mark 70 years of building sports cars. And if it fancies including a media car, I’d be only too happy to drive it…
Like the F-Type but want to drive on the road instead? Search for a used Jaguar F-Type on CarGurus.
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