Rush Hour: Testing the Limits of Bond’s Wheels
The things we buy are getting smarter. Many of them now know how to do all kinds of things we don’t. You’re not missing out on much when you don’t understand how to operate the eco-function on your washing machine or the reading mode option on your Samsung S5. But what about your new £190,000 car? Wouldn’t it be good to know what that sports button really does? And, by extension, what you and your pride and joy can do within the limits of physics and the Highway Code?
That’s what the Aston Martin Performance Driving Course is for: one day of eyes-open, brain-on, all-out driving. They told me it’s about ‘showing you how to handle the car safely’. It wasn’t. It was about showing me just how effing fast these things go, how they know how to go round corners with adverse camber, up hills and down the other side with a minimum of fuss.
The location was the Millbrook Proving Ground near Bedford, UK. When I arrived, I soon had my phone taken off me and stickers carefully placed over its camera lenses. There is some secret stuff going on, but it was probably also a good idea that no one got to see the silly expression on my face the first time that Andy, a competitive saloon car racer, successfully coached me to take the crested 75 degree bend at 70 mph without lifting my foot off.
During the day, I had access to the many different circuits – special tracks for ABS testing and emergency stops etc. (I guess I could have asked to have a go on the Belgian Pavé too, but I left that for when Aston decide to bring out an SUV). Most people choose one car for the whole day, but for you, dear LUSSO reader, I tried a selection of the newest and best Aston Martins. First up, it was helmets on and into the Vanquish Volante for the high-speed banked circuit.
Aston’s confusing nomenclature is certainly tricky to negotiate. But it’s also true that the body styling of the range is essentially variations on an iconic theme, much like that other great British standard, the Fred Perry shirt. If you appreciate nuance, you’ll nod at the subtle decisions the designer’s made. If you don’t, well that’s OK too, because somewhere in Aston’s brand values, the word ‘discreet’ plays a big role.
That’s why it’s James Bond’s car: not just because it means you can get away fast, but also because you can arrive without being noticed. You don’t see many yellow Astons. The Vanquish is certainly a grand tourer, but it plays the role of ‘feisty young pup’ compared to the gentlemanly restraint of the DB9 that sits at the heart of the range. The Vanquish’s bodywork is carbon fibre, so it’s lighter but it can be shaped more than aluminium, giving it more tucks and turns.
It was just as well I hadn’t invited any vegetarians along for a ride because inside there’s more shaped and hand-stitched cowhide than at a medium-sized abattoir. There’s no central gear lever but, instead, four buttons quietly marked P, N, D and R. So. To the high bank.
This is a NASCAR round, raked to 21 degrees and as high as a house in the top lane, where I needed to be doing about 130 mph to comfortably maintain my position. The Vanquish isn’t bothered by the speed and it felt like 60 mph in a conventional car – even if I was acutely conscious of how high up I was, my proximity to the barrier, the sheer drop below it and the mental images of going airborne into infinity if my hay fever should invoke an inopportune sneeze.
In fact, the only disconcerting thing was adjusting my eyes to the speedo dial.
In most cars, the numerals are big and fat. Here the numbers are small and, of course, discreet. Plus, when I’m going 70 mph in a conventional car, the needle is usually pointing somewhere skywards. In the Vanquish, the needle’s hardly been distracted enough to stop pointing at the knees of your passenger.
The second drive of the day was round the ‘handling circuit’ and the car for that is the DB9. At Millbrook, this is 2 miles of concrete road with very tightly twisting turns and short humps. Driving it feels like trying to escape a posh housing estate when you’ve just been caught with your trousers down by the builder husband returning early. If I could have been sure I would get out of there alive, I’d actually have been laughing. (LUSSO utterly distances itself from this morally dubious simile. Ed)
After a discreet and classy nibble at Aston’s very own cafeteria (smoked chicken, if you’re wondering), there were two more drives. The first was the rollercoaster ‘Hill Route’ and the car was the Rapide S: the four-door, true four-seater. The cunning logic here is that you can take the marque’s most family friendly car and still have a thrill or two. The hill circuit has inclines of 21% and 26% and blind tops to hills where my only hope of a successful exit was to fix my eyes on the line of the barriers and not lift off, otherwise I would lose traction and go sideways.
That’s where Andy the instructor came in. The first time round, he drove me fast, and I thought, gosh, I’m feeling a little bit giddy, I hope he hasn’t had a row at home this morning or anything.
The second and third times round, I drove and Andy coached me. Suddenly I realised how much fun driving seriously fast can be. Pushing through bends, rather than tip-toeing around them, keeping the car balanced by using the throttle, braking later into corners, flipping the paddles to shift it down and roaring out.
After that, I pulled into a lay-by and, perhaps because Andy liked me, or perhaps because he didn’t, he offered to take me once more round the Hill Circuit, with him at the wheel and driving ‘a little bit faster’. Strangely, the car felt surer at 120 mph than it did at 80 mph. At the bottom of the hill, this was comforting as the force pressed me down, and we braked, turned in, feeling the wheels and the smoked chicken giving a little bit as we accelerated out. It really was worth the £1,200 price tag for the day just for that single moment.
The final drive was the mile straight, where, in the company of other drivers, I found a competitive streak developing. The car was the Vantage V12 S, a pure two-seater, track-friendly sports car. Officially, it can reach 60 mph from standing in under four seconds. But that’s not what we were there for. What we were there for was finding out how fast we could go in one mile. Straight. Top speed. No excuses.
Going out of Aston’s VIP suite, the lady behind the desk said she’d done 167 mph just that morning. As we approached the car, another driver stepped out and said that on a rolling start from the top of the little slope that leads into the straight, he’d hit 170 mph.
We had a trial run first, getting a rolling start down from the slope on to the track and then flooring it, but then coming off the gas early so my driver could be sure I wouldn’t freak out when I had to brake from 150 mph to walking pace before we hit the bend at the end of the straight. He said he wanted to show me how sticky the brakes are (they are actually amazing: it’s like being sucked into the ground by a massive magnet), but I know it was more selfish interest in preserving his own life.
Reassured I wasn’t going to kill him, he let me drive back round on to the head of the straight. 170 mph to beat. Unfortunately, half a mile up ahead of us, a McLaren P1 was taking some time to stretch its legs. so we had to press P. Pass the time of day. Talk about things. Watch clouds pass. Until the McLaren could eventually finish staggering through its mile. But when they finally cleared, we wound the windows up, pressed Sports mode and I pushed the accelerator through the floor.
With the throttle remapped and a snappier automatic gear change, we touched 100mph in about the same amount of time it’s taken you to read to here from the start of this sentence. As the car carried on flicking through the gears and picking up speed, the instructor kept his voice gently reassuring.
‘One twenty…keep going…’
The heat was shimmering off the track. Cones on the left, Armco on the right. (If something went wrong, which way would we go?) ‘One forty…keep going.’ Now I can see the exit bend through the heat haze. ‘One sixty…’
That bend is coming up very fast. Not sure how near it is with the heat haze. ‘One six five…keep going…one sixty-eight…keep going…’
Chris West is a Contributing Editor at LUSSO. Back in 2008, he drove the Koenigsegg round Bruntingthorpe. Until the roof fell off. He steadies his nerves by writing on brands and branding for Verbal Identity.
For more info on the Aston Martin Performance Driving Course, visit www.astonmartin.com, email events@AstonMartin.com or call +44 (0)1926 644944.