Emil Frey Racing’s Jaguar might be approaching the end of its homologation life and it may have never been a giant-killer, its fifth-place finish in Monza showed that the private-built Jaguar XK GT3 still has plenty of life left in it. Since the Swiss team first arrived on the scene in 2012 they’d never finished this high up, even being one of the contenders for the win in the early parts of the race. Despite Emil Frey Racing this year also bringing along a pair of Lexus RC-F GT3s and the inevitable shift of focus to the Japanese machines pending, the Jaguar was given a new lease of life with a line-up of young, quick drivers and a steadfast team.
“It was a fantastic race,” says Alex Fontana, who raced the Jaguar for the first stint at the 3-hour Autodromo Nazionale Monza endurance.
“We actually put everything that we did in the winter testing together and this was a big team-effort of all the drivers, engineers, management and mechanics to make every single thing work within the team and this was the biggest achievement of all of it.”
An unexpected charge in qualification put the Jaguar on the front row of the grid alongside the SMP Racing Ferrari 488 GT3. Even if this was the fastest the team had ever gone in qualifying, Fontana pushed for more at the flying of the green, even trying for the win.
“I certainly tried [to win]. I had the leader in front and in some places I was gaining, in others I wasn’t.
“I knew [SMP Racing driver Miguel Molina] was still managing his tyres so I didn’t force too much even when he was slowing down in some laps, because I knew he had it under control. But after half an hour he started to have some issues with the tyres and I tried to go for it, but I made some mistakes myself because I lost downforce and was pushing too hard.
“After that, I had to save some fuel and I decided to shield my place and let it play out in the long run.”
Twice at the lifting of Full Course Yellows the Jaguar lost positions, dropping the squad out of reach of the podium. They turned out to be valuable positions, as they would be the only places lost during the race.
“We had issues with the radio and couldn’t communicate during the Full Course Yellow,” Fontana explains.
“Eventually, I lost one place in my stint but the driver who passed me was penalised because he went back to racing too soon. But, regardless of that, we were having some troubles. In fact, my team-mate in the second stint lost some places due to some poor radio communication.
“The overall podium was achievable. I think we need to start from here; this is a very good starting point. The pace of the car was there, that’s for sure. There is still room for improvement.”
The young Swiss sees opportunities at race tracks still to come this year, in particular at the next Blancpain GT Endurance Cup race in Silverstone where the ‘Jags’ have traditionally fared well.
“I think Silverstone could be good, because the car suffered quite a bit in these hot temperatures here today and Silverstone shouldn’t be that hot.
“Obviously, there are some tricky sections, but also many high-speed corners and this car is very fast in high-speed corners. In medium-speed it struggles a little bit and in slow corners even a bit more.
“Although, today I had more issues in medium than slower corners compared to some other brands.”
The arrival of Emil Frey Racing’s Lexus RC-F GT3s in Blancpain GT hasn’t dampened the team’s enthusiasm for their self-built GT3, with team-owner Lorenz Frey reaffirming his dedication to the Jaguar program. Fontana, too, believes there’s still plenty left in the old beast.
“I think we still have some room for improvement, we are not at the limit of what the car is capable of despite its good pace and maybe nearing the end of its homologation life. We can still do some things to improve on the race pace.
“I think it’s a good way of thinking, to keep racing the Jaguar. The dedication to both cars is big. Even with the Lexus they went all-in. Despite perhaps right now performing a bit less good, they still manage to focus 100-percent on both teams, which I think is great.
“They do well to stay attached to Jaguar, because it’s a project they’ve built up and developed themselves. It’s a car that has much potential but has not always been able to put it all together for different factors, and today we did, but we can do even better.”
For Fontana himself, the story of how he joined his fellow countrymen is a somewhat unusual one.
“Our common Swiss nationality was helpful in the first contact, but I didn’t know Lorenz Frey initially. I was commenting on the Formula 1 Grand Prix for Swiss television and wondering out loud what to do for next season.
“I got Lorenz’ number and decided to call him randomly. We had a talk and I made a first visit to the team.
“The first race I got lucky to do, because one driver had a race in another championship that same weekend and they needed a driver. I got the chance to drive and they believed in me. The trust I was given felt good. The race in Barcelona went well and after that I got the seat.”
Just how serious the team is still taking its Jaguar program is also underlined by the fact that rather than taking in pay-drivers to steer the Jag around, Fontana for the first time in his GT racing career can call himself a truly professional race car driver.
“I was already a paid driver before, but not in Europe. In Europe it’s new—in China I was already doing touring cars [as a KIA works driver].
“Now it’s an even better taste. You’re in a car with a professional team and you know they want you there for your value and for what you can do. In a way, I get into the car more relaxed because I can actually focus on my job, knowing the team believes in me.”
Alongside his Blancpain GT campaign, Fontana returns to China next week for another partial season in the national touring car championship with long-time partner KIA Motors.
“I will leave soon to go to the first race in the CTCC.
“As a foreign driver I can only do four race weekends in which we have double races. We’ll push again for the win like last year, but this time to help the team increase their chances in the manufacturer championship fight.”