I had the chance as a Formula One journalist to cover the U.S. Grand Prix at Austin, last year, and for the race weekend I had for my daily drive the latest Jaguar four-door sedan, the XJL Portfolio.
What better place than the length and breadth of the Great State of Texas with its fabulous network of high-speed highways, backroads and toll roads posted at 80 mph, to road test Jaguar's entry into the luxury sporting "saloon" market, as the British call a 4-door sedan.
As it turned out, the U.S. Grand Prix itself was the latest chapter in the year long struggle between the two Mercedes-Benz drivers - Briton Lewis Hamilton and German Nico Rosberg - who have dominated the Drivers' Championship all season, with Hamilton - who calls America his second home and spends lots of time in the USA where he garages several classic cars - winning the round in Austin, where he has now won four times, thus keeping the Championship pot boiling until the end of the season in Abu Dhabi.
Austin as a race venue is fast becoming one of the favourite places to come for both F1 fans and F1 insiders alike. Once again, Austin did not disappoint, packing 269,889 into the grandstands during the race weekend. And in the paddock everyone who is anyone in F1 showed up, including American Chase Carey of Liberty Media, the company that is the new majority owner of F1; Carey is successor to Bernie Ecclestone, the long-time impresario of the sport, who was also at the race, just ahead of his 86th birthday. Concerts by pop star and 10-time Grammy winner Taylor Swift and Usher & Roots rounded out the weekend, with Swift's concert scheduled after F1 qualifying on Saturday and Usher & Roots scheduled after the race on Sunday, keeping the fans occupied and the traffic jams down.
As I have been to most of the F1 races at Austin, it always attracts an international audience but it is becoming evident that the influence of the race is spreading even within Texas as road signs for the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) were as far out as Bastrop, Texas, where I was staying, giving local motorists backroad options to the racetrack as an alternative to the main highways.
As for Jaguar, it used to have a Formula One team during the 2000 - 2004 time frame when Ford owned Jaguar, but Jaguar sold the team and factory to the current Red Bull team, which built up the team on the ashes of the old Jaguar works.
But there is a Jaguar connection to the COTA racetrack since COTA was chosen by Jaguar as the place to introduce the ferocious Jaguar F-Type to the Jaguar Land Rover dealer network in the USA, with the dealers able to thrash the cars around COTA as a way to familiarize themselves with the performance potential of the F-Type. While not as brutish as the Jaguar F-Type, the Jaguar XJ Portfolio I had is a slightly de-tuned version of the F-Type. Given the sporty character of the Jaguar Portfolio, it would make a good car around which to develop a support series for the F1 weekend as in the classic Grand Prix era when F1 drivers also drove in the undercard races, taking off the hubcaps and taping over the headlights before running cars that fans in the stands had in their driveways back home. For the moment, it should be said that Jaguar's racing activities are focused on the future; Jaguar announced recently that it will enter a team in Formula E, the all-electric racing series with cars that run on electric motors with batteries but look vaguely like F1 cars, a series that goes to street circuits across the world in places as disparate as Buenos Aires and Brooklyn!
Already a Movie Star
So the Formula One race is what we came for but the getting there was the real fun. I have wanted to try out the Jaguar XJL - the "L" stands for long wheelbase, which means an extra 5 inches of space in the back seat - ever since I first laid eyes on this model in the James Bond movie "Skyfall" in 2012. In one scene, actress Judi Dench as "M," Bond's boss as the head of the British Secret Service, MI6, is in peril because of an assassination attempt, and to save her, Daniel Craig as Bond, takes the wheel of M's official car - a Jaguar naturally - and her black XJL Portfolio sweeps around a corner in a drift, showing off its elegant lines and sporting curvaceous tail lights to begin a fabulous chase scene through the streets of Central London.
Poignantly, the beautifully done chase scene ends in an obscure backstreet where Bond and M ditch the Portfolio to elude their pursuers and transfer to the original sportscar that is the trademark of the James Bond franchise, the silver-birch 1964 Aston Martin DB5, which Bond has kept hidden for just such an emergency. M and Bond then proceed for a 4-hour trip to Bond's ancestral home in Scotland in the forty-eight year old DB 5.
To my mind, Bond and M definitely made the wrong choice in abandoning the Portfolio as this Jaguar is the kind of roomy and fast Grand Tourer you would want for a long road trip from London to Scotland. Indeed, at one point Judi Dench - by now, used to the cushy back seat of the Jaguar - gets a bit huffy and comments that the DB5 is "not very comfortable."
Off to the Races
My race weekend with a Jaguar was in the best tradition of F1 journalism as the dean of Grand Prix journalists in the 1960s - the late Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport magazine - regularly drove to the classic European Grands Prix of his era in his Jaguar E-Type - "Jenks" actually bought two of them over the years - coming over from the UK on the car ferry and then heading out to France, Belgium, Zandvoort, Italy, Monaco or the Nurburgring as the Grand Prix weekend warranted. My trip to Austin was the modern equivalent and I hope Jenks had as much fun as I did.
The car Jaguar Land Rover loaned me for the Grand Prix weekend in Texas was its top-of-line 4-door luxury sedan (Base MSRP $83,200), painted Ammonite Grey, a close match to the color of the James Bond DB5. The current Jaguar XJ is the latest iteration of a long line of luxury sporting saloons that Jaguar has produced since the 1960's when the company had a bevy of such sedans (the Mark I, the Mark II made so famous in the "Inspector Morse" TV series, the S-Type, the Mark X), so many in fact that the policy decision was made to refine and channel Jaguar's design efforts in order to create one sedan, the original Jaguar XJ6 (1968-1973), the car which is the genetic forerunner of the Jaguar XJ Portfolio.
The design of these early XJ6 cars often took shape in the gravel driveway of Wappenbury Hall, the handsome pile that was home of Jaguar's Founder, Sir William Lyons, where he would ask the design team to do mock-ups of the designs they were considering in his driveway so he could see them in the flesh and then add his two pence as to the lines of the design.
I owned one of the original Jaguar XJ6 sedans - the last Jaguar that Lyons contributed to as to design - and this modern version, the Jaguar XJL, is a faithful update of the stylish but muscular formula that made the original XJ6 such a commercial success for Jaguar: a powerful 4.2 litre engine, beautiful and purposeful lines and chrome work, plush leather seats and Wilton carpets, burled walnut accents on the dash and window sills, independent rear suspension borrowed from the Jaguar E-Type, dual gas tanks and overall, an aristocratic air.