What’s it like to drive the XJ220C in anger? Win Percy, one of Jaguar’s nine-strong Le Mans squad gave the car a victorious debut in the recent Sports GT event at Silverstone. Here, he tells us just how it feels, talks us round a lap of the Grand Prix circuit, and discusses his hopes for the weekend of June 19/20…
My observations reflect how the car felt on the weekend of the Silverstone GT race, and we may have changed a few things by the time we get to Le Mans. In the three days between Mallory Park, where I first tested it, and Silverstone, we certainly made a number of modifications, and we made quite a few more at Silverstone, too.
Until the Thursday before Mallory I had only driven a roadgoing 220 for three laps around Donington, Allen Lloyd’s car. He had only just taken delivery of it, so obviously I wasn’t getting carried away!
I hadn’t driven a pukka race version until we went to Mallory. I had seen it going round Snetterton with David Leslie and, frankly, none of us really liked what we saw about the stability of the car. To be honest, the boys had put together a package which was very good on paper, but obviously needed an awful lot of firming up. We took some big jumps, though, and what we left with was certainly driveable. The work we did was all very progressive, and by the Sunday we had a very raceable car.
Compared, say, to the XJR-15, whose handling came in for criticism, the XJ220C is a lot better. I don’t really know how to explain the difference, except that it does the job more effectively. Genuinely, there are now no vices, it is very driveable. From a purely selfish point of view, that’s ideal for a race like Le Mans. There’s no point setting the car up so that it’s difficult to drive, or uncomfortable. It always amazed me that a Group C car was expected to – and could! – last for all that time, such are the constant levels of mechanical stress and vibration.
I think that TWR has done a super job with the car. What pleases me is that I was able to come into the pits and say what was happening, and the lads were able to change the car. Each change they made was positive, an improvement. The feedback we gave each other was obviously working.
The XJ220C was lovely to drive at Silverstone. On a flying lap, you pass the pits flat in top gear, fifth, and then you need a fairly heavy application of the brakes at around the 100-metre board before Copse. It’s deceptively quiet inside the car, but there’s a lot going on – Copse is a very quick corner.
All the power arrives in one lump, between 4400-4600 rpm, so you have to gun the throttle in a fairly straight line. Before the boost comes in, there’s a slight understeer at Copse. When it arrives, the car settles into slight oversteer, but it’s very manageable. From that point, the power curve is very flat all the way to 6500 rpm. Once the car is settled into the corner, you get hard back on the power and hold it in fourth all the way to Becketts, just kissing the limiter at 6800 rpm on the approach. You take third entering the corner, and that’s followed by a period of hard acceleration between the right and left-handers in the middle of the extended Becketts complex. You have to get off the throttle and feather it through the left-hander and into the next right. Once you’re committed, you can accelerate hard, driving through a little understeer and holding it flat through the left-hand kink on to the Hangar Straight, where you take fourth.
On a good lap, I was into fifth just before the bridge halfway down the straight. This is one of the fastest parts of the circuit, maybe even the fastest, though I’d have to check that against the telemetry. The approach to Copse and Abbey are phenomenally fast, too. The brakes were very good going into Stowe. The car was very stable. You drop from fifth to third and take the corner on a balanced throttle. The XJ220C turns in exceptionally well, but it would be easy to unsettle it by being too aggressive on the throttle. As the car straightens up through The Vale, you take fourth and accelerate hard, then go on to the brakes and straight down to second for the left-hander at the start of the Club complex. You need a gentle application of power here, and then a short shift to third for the righthander. Again you have to be delicate on the throttle, so as not to upset the balance. You don’t want to lose speed on the exit, and thus compromise straightline performance on the run to Abbey, so you use all the road on the exit to keep the car settled.
Accelerating hard out of Club, you take fourth and are into fifth well before Abbey, which the XJ220C was perfectly happy to take flat. At the time of the first race, there was a mild tendency for the nose to tuck in here, which needed to be dialled out. On the other hand, that helped to pull the car back over to the left for Bridge. You have to concentrate hard through Abbey, because it feels as though it might swap ends.
Again, it’s well balanced on the brakes before Bridge. With a fairly hard dab you get the car settled and then it’s flat in fourth. The car sits beautifully on the track here, just like a Group C. It gives feedback like the Group C car, too. Wonderful.
The approach to Priory is very quick. It’s sensible to brake in the middle of the road, with the nose pointing away from the apex so that you get square braking. The surface is a bit rough just here, but the XJ220C is much softer than the Group C car, so there’s less tendency for it to lock up under braking. Priory is taken in second, followed by a short shift to third for Brooklands. Second is too short for Brooklands, and it would unbalance the car if you had to change up before Luffield.
It’s third again for Luffields One and Two, with a gentle application of throttle in between. You need to keep it tidy to get a quick exit from Luffield Two, which is vital for the pit straight. You get hard on the throttle before the boost comes in, then you grab fourth and take top on the apex of the old Woodcote, before the run past the pits and down to Copse. The car’s quite loaded up through Woodcote, but there’s no drama as you change up.
The one thing that I had to get used to in a racing car was the synchromesh gearbox. Probably because of touring cars, I wanted to change down a bit too quickly so for a long race I’d have had to slow down in that respect. Overall, the car is deceptively fast. We did a 1m 56.6s in second qualifying at the Silverstone race, which was very pleasing. Touring cars take around two minutes, and believe me they are a lot more competitive than people realise in terms of speed. Our initial target was to get below touring car pace, so we were delighted to be that much quicker on our first run in anger. It won’t take much to get the car into the 54s, either. I’m confident of that.
The XJ220C is a bit like a touring car in its responses, and the seat-of-the-pants feeling that it gives. It’s a great thing to drive. GT racing appeals to me; it’s really not so far removed from touring cars, which are my present love (Win drives one of two works Nissan Primeras in the BTCC, and is grateful to his regular employer for releasing him to drive at Le Mans – Ed). They are a long way removed from ground-effect Group C cars, of course, and there’ll be a lot more emphasis on the driver to be consistent, to care for the tyres and so on. You don’t have to be so much on the knife-edge to extract the performance. I don’t think I ever really did enough Group C racing to say that I enjoyed it, but after short acquaintance I get a really good feeling about the XJ220C.
It’s probably what I’ve been used to more than anything in my life; a fair amount of grunt, rear-wheel drive and trying to balance the car. Now it really has a nice balance. If the steps we have taken have made such a big difference, then common sense says that there is more to come. It just needs to be fettled.
I think the days of pacing yourself for a 24-hour race like Le Mans have long gone. More money has been spent on making the cars more durable, so you’ve got to keep up a reasonable pace from the word go.
Even though, on paper, we’re competing for class honours, rather than an overall victory, it’s an exciting challenge. The motivation’s the same, and I genuinely think that we could do a bit of giant-killing if we’re sensible, if the three drivers work well together.
We’re not likely to lead the race outright in this car, so there’s more of a tendency to concentrate on the endurance aspect. If we are mechanically sympathetic, I think a good overall finishing position is entirely realistic.