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Of Jaguars, Penguins and Oversteer: The 2017 Jaguar Simola Hillclimb

A behind-the-wheel look at South Africa's coolest hillclimb competition

A behind-the-wheel look at South Africa's coolest hillclimb competition

Ever been to The Other Down Under—South Cape, South Africa? Sounds pretty far, oh, south, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. I always thought it went almost to Antarctica, like Tierra del Fuego. (That’d be South America, kids). Here’s a geography lesson: Cape Town is only about as far south of the equator as Washington D.C. is north.

And everything is upside down there. It gets colder the farther south you go. Toilets flush clockwise (barely). Highways are Keep Left. And even though we’re a long, long way from Antarctica—it’s 70 degrees in a stiff breeze at this sunny beach on the South Cape—penguins are chilling out on the sand. Never dreamed I’d see one live in the wild.

Recently, I had the honor of an invitation to compete at a wonderful motorsport gathering here: the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb. The circuit winds its way up to the tony Simola Golf and Country Estate, situated on a bluff overlooking the magnificent Knysna Heads—a towering, rocky, narrow passage suitable for Homer’s Odyssey that then leads into a wide harbor so peaceful that sailors dubbed it the Featherbed.

The whole South Cape suggests to me what Southern California might have been like before it was beset by sprawl. It’s arid, crossed by mountain ranges, bordered by the sea, and lightly populated by SoCal standards. Great driving roads take off in all directions—many of the best being unpaved and SUV-worthy, appropriate for the F-Pace S I was given for transportation. We visited an old racing buddy who’d been extolling the virtues of the South Cape for years then drove the six hours from Cape Town to Knysna on what they call the Garden Route. Main artery: two lanes. That’s it. At least there were shoulders that everyone generously used to ease over so faster cars could pass—a lost art in the U.S. South Cape Africans actually watch their mirrors and help you get by. Imagine that.

Or maybe they did it because of the imposing F-Pace S lurking on their backsides. Unlike in America, high-dollar cars are a rarity, and people take notice. At 380 hp, it had the guts to make quick work of most traffic, save one aged Honda Accord showing very impressive “pace” up the winding Sir Lowry’s Pass leading back into Cape Town, perhaps inspired by our Firenze Red Jag. The driving spirit lives down here, too, folks.

That same spirit emanated strongly from the crowd at the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb. It started with Classic Car Friday, with a surprising collection of vintage cars attacking the hill, from a perfect reproduction of a Bugatti Type 35b Grand Prix to a Chevron B19 much like the sports racer with which we won the Classic 12 Hours of Sebring last winter. Other South African gems included a rare Ford Sierra XR8 (a Merkur for you oddball American car fans), an MGB GT V8, and my first-ever exposure to the delightful 1974 Triumph Chicane.

I had the pleasure of whipping the flanks of a vintage Jaguar XJS V12 and gained great status from the generous owner when I correctly identified it as an HE model from 1983. What’s more, this Jag was a rare manual-transmission model, and my only complaints while flogging the willing old girl up the hill was the complete lack of front shock damping (ancient Monroes, we checked) and that it was too bloody quiet! Its V-12 howl was glorious but much too subdued. Oh, and shifting with the left hand felt awkward, as did getting into the “driver’s” door more than once to discover once again that the steering was on the (wrong) right side.

Classic Car Friday made a terrific warmup for the big event, known as the King of the Hill, which offered more impressive machinery from a wide range of motorsports. Nissan GT-Rs everywhere at the front, the lead 1,000-hp cars so vicious that they seemed to move the earth back from under them rather than propel the chassis forward. There’s a standing start, in front of the main grandstand and hospitality suites, and a kind of burnout box just before it for tire warming and playing the crowd. The big dogs all had racing electric blankets pre-baking their rubber, too, but the whole start spectacle was very much like an American drag race scene. This was a piece of public road, though, not a manicured surface so sticky it will suck the sneakers from your feet. Traction and the launch were critical.

Many cars, such as the 2017 F-Type SVR Coupe that I was blessed to use for my KOTH run, benefited from all-wheel drive. After a day in the sprightly 295-hp, two-wheel-drive XJS, the first launch in its 575-hp, all-wheel-drive progeny felt more like an explosion, the Leaping Cat doing great justice to the chromed feline adorning the hoods of earlier Jaguars. I banged my helmet off the quilted performance headrest … and loved it, of course. And with the QuickShift automatic, all-wheel drive, and twin-vortex supercharger, the launches were eeeeasy. I’d love to compare its 50-foot acceleration times to those of the 1,000-horsepower monsters ’cause I’d bet the premium-stereoed, climate-controlled F-Type SVR is better.

A fairly straight run carried us to the top of third gear into a sweeper right that turned uphill on exit and was my favorite corner as a result. The incline acts like banking and makes the Jag stick. With 516 lb-ft of widespread torque, it sure feels like even more and uses every bit of that all-wheel drive Intelligent Driveline Dynamics and Electronic Active Differential to get power groundward.

It’s claimed to retain the sporty agility and steering feel of a rear-drive car, and I have to agree. After the neck-snapping zero-wheelspin start, I don’t feel I’m in an AWD car. There is, in fact, a bit of power oversteer, encouraged by Jaguar sending 63 percent of power rearward and only 37 percent to the front. Reminds me of that Pink Floyd lyric, “Forward he cried, from the rear …” but with much better results. Old-school four-wheel drives were always plagued with power understeer, but now technology and the manufacturers’ engineers are finally relieving the former sacrifice of handling balance for traction under acceleration.

And someone in the handling department at Jaguar clearly likes oversteer. Every Jaguar I’ve driven since the happy day I was first invited to a Motor Trend track test has been strikingly easy to power oversteer save one, the extremely limited-production XKR-S GT. What the AWD system does for the F-Type is tame the powerslides. The F-Type SVR was in our Best Driver’s Car test last summer, so I searched Motor Trend online to recall what I said. Turns out I loved it! I raved about its balance, and what a step forward beyond the normal F-Types it was. It paid off at Simola.

My average speed was 93 mph (150km/h). Even though the run to the resort was short, it was fast, and we got nine runs to figure it out. After Turn 1 there’s a long, steep incline, where the Jag gets all the way to fifth, then it’s fourth and fifth through sweeping esses all the way to the finish line. It then crossed in fifth gear again, in a sweet power drift! I got my adrenaline fix, let me tell you.

This Jaguar features Adaptive Dynamics that “instinctively modify the car’s response to conditions and your driving style.” I have to laugh because I bet that computer had a rough time going from 100-mph (161-km/h) sweepers flat on the floor on the way up to idling back down through the Simola Estates and Jack Nicklaus golf course at 35 mph (56 km/h). I did not notice any ill effects, I must say. I even came across a baboon family on the way down on day one. (Cute but nasty creatures. Stay away.)

What helped me the most was my discovery of the Sport mode in the stability controls. There was enough 100-mph (161-km/h) tail play that I looked over the drop-offs and decided to leave the controls on, which I almost never do when testing for Motor Trend. This winding road was no racetrack—it was narrow and slippery. But when I switched to the in-between mode (you need to know your mode buttons for sure), I was very impressed. Loved it, in fact. The controls, if any activated at all, were not noticeable, and my times came down a lot. Power was not restricted as far as I could tell, and guess what? We won our class, by a smidge over another F-Type SVR and ahead of quite a few real race cars, with our unmodified luxury sporting street machine.

I look forward to returning to the competition next year, and I hope to see you there.

Editor’s note: Just a couple weeks after the completion of the Simola Hillclimb, a series of wildfires swept through the Southern Cape of South Africa, taking the lives of seven people, forcing the evacuation of thousands more, and affecting nearly 500 homes in nearby Knysna. Those wanting to donate disaster relief aid to the area can contact http://www.giftofthegivers.org/.