F-Type rally car: What it's like to go off-roading in a Jag

The Jaguar F-Type may be getting on a bit now, but during its six years it’s proven itself to be both a very talented, and extremely versatile sports car.

Take the engine options, for example. You can have your F-Type with a fizzy little four-cylinder or a monstrous 570bhp V8 and it’ll charm you either way. That’s a trick few other cars could pull off.

And yet it seems that until recently, some nutter at Jag remained convinced that the car still had more to show for itself. ‘But what if Sir wants to go across a field sideways in his F-Type?’ they clearly lay awake at night wondering. At least, that’s our best guess as to why Jaguar has built two rather stunning F-Type rally cars, with no intention of ever actually racing them. We paid a visit to Jaguar’s Fen End testing facility to find out more - and to have a go in the maddest F-Type to date.

Remembering how good the standard F-Type is

My day began as I now wish all of my days would - with a thrash around a tight handling circuit in a V6 F-Type. A handling circuit which, years before the site was acquired by JLR, was frequently used for testing by the Prodrive rally team. My knees went a bit wobbly when someone told me Colin McRae himself logged 1000s of laps on this very track back in his heyday.

The V6 F-Type in question was a rather special one too - a new Chequered Flag Edition. This limited production model celebrates 70 years of post-war Jag sports cars by adding some aesthetic modifications to the standard car. Most notably, these include lots of embossed chequered flag badges and some seriously posh leather seats, as well as a few subtle bodywork tweaks to make it look meaner, and a black roof for the coupe. The end result is essentially a very well-specced F-Type with an added dash of exclusivity.

The F-Type - particularly in rear-wheel-drive form – was a hoot on the twisty track. I was pretty tired having woken up in the small hours to make the long drive up from London, but a few sharp hairpins with the traction control turned off were more than enough to snap me awake for the rest of the day.

The challenging circuit flattered the F-Type, which showed off its excellent damping over the uneven, cambered surface. And how on Earth do Jaguar manage to make a V6 engine sound so good, yet the entire world of Formula 1 is unable to do so?

After the handling circuit we transferred to a larger, faster track to really stretch the F-Type’s legs. Fen End being a JLR testing facility, we found ourselves in the company of some rather special cars on-track, including an immaculate, dark blue XJ220 from the heritage fleet, and several brand new V8 Works Defenders. This made for a particularly memorable moment when – while negotiating the alarmingly bumpy banked corner at 100mph – I looked UP out of my side window to see a V8 slab of Defender on the inside lane, doing its utmost to keep up with us. That’s something you don’t see every day.

On to a rally good thing

Then it was over to the dirt track for the main course – the F-Type rally car. Now, the cynics among us may assume that since this car will never go racing, it is probably therefore a half-hearted PR stunt, with little in the way of actual rallying ability. So, allow me to share the recipe behind it to silence any doubt:

Take a convertible 4-cylinder F-Type (the V6 or V8 would only add unnecessary weight and power), and lift the car by 60mm. Fit chunky off-road tyres, a rollcage and bucket seats. Protect the fragile underbits with an aluminium undertray. Mount obligatory xenon lamps onto bonnet and finally, add a dash of hooliganism by removing a middle section of the exhaust and installing a Ken-Block-esque hydraulic handbrake. Voila.

What was it like to drive? Glorious.

Granted, having never really driven off-road before I would have been just as excited sliding around in a knackered old Defender. But the Jag was flattering. The joy of driving on a loose surface is getting to experience what a car is like beyond its limits – at non-frightening speeds. More than once I found myself exiting a corner far too sideways having gone in way too hot, but with a dab of throttle and armful of opposite lock, I was able to recover from slides I had no right to be getting away with thanks to the car’s exceptional balance.

Mercifully, I wasn’t left to my own devices in the two-of-a-kind Jaguar. Rally driver, Jade Pavely - an exceptional up-and-coming British talent – gave me my very first lesson in off-road driving, providing a stream of clear and calm instruction, and even encouraging me to to push a little harder.

And then Minna Sillankorva – a Finnish rally legend – showed me how it was done by taking me for a preposterously fast flying lap at the end of the session, further confirming my suspicions that rally drivers aren’t in fact human. She also said one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard on the way back from the rally stage. While making conversation during the ride back to base, I asked her what her favourite rally car she’d ever driven is. ‘Group B RX-7’ she replied, without glancing up from the road.

Be that as it may, but for me, the rally-spec F-Type is now one of the coolest ways to take to the mud.