Panic descended across the UK last week due to the threat (imperative word) of striking tanker drivers leaving motorists stricken; bereft of fuel. In reaction to this possibility, the entire motoring populace filled their own tanks, ironically enough leaving many others at the risk of being stricken; bereft of fuel. It seemed somehow unjust that this occurrence coincided with a trip away in my rattly old Lotus. I was choked to find the only super unleaded in the area priced at 161.9p/litre. However, the tank was brimmed, tyre pressures moderated from the previous week’s track activities, harnesses strapped and we hit the road destined for North Wales. 20-something miles of road works on the M62 ensured there was no danger of any fun on the country’s motorway networks and fuel economy hit a VHPD record high.
Over in Wales, the reason for taking the Exige was to try out some of the country’s fine driving roads. The ‘evo Triangle’ is triangulation of three roads forming a neat loop across glorious open countryside between Betws-y-Coed and Rhuthin. This section of highway has adopted the moniker due to evo magazine’s regular occupation for road testing. Accompanied by clear blue skies and warm sunshine, the first day of April promised much. The Triangle itself is spectacular – with the ever present danger of errant sheep and pontificating farm vehicles keeping one on high alert at all times. There are some fairly quick sections, with good visibility for the most part, and the surrounding countryside ranges from rolling valleys to woodland and desolate moorland. It’s almost like the North Yorkshire Dales compressed into a half hour blast. It seemed only to last a few minutes. Given sufficient time, it would be easy to justify three or four passes to get a proper feel for the road.
From there we decided to head up to Rhuthin for something of a minor pilgrimage. Tom Pryce was one of the UK’s most promising racing drivers of the 1970s, with a flamboyant style which earned respect from his peers and the general public. He had found a home at Shadow, first alongside Jean-Pierre Jarier, then for 1977 leading the team himself. He was killed in the most appalling circumstances at Kyalami during the 1977 South African Grand Prix. He had yet to win a World Championship Grand Prix but that famous sideways style and trademark deerstalker hat were already lost to the Formula One fraternity.
It gladdens me to know that Tom’s home town of Rhuthin has seen fit to pay tribute to him by erecting a permanent memorial to their fastest son. Right in the centre of the town is a brass plaque depicting him behind the wheel of a brace of Shadows – distinctive black stripes on his helmet obviously visible. I imagine many younger residents didn’t know the name ‘Tom Pryce’ until the unveiling of the memorial but I hope some have chosen to research his legend. His was a natural, world-class talent, aided by an apparently gentle personality – definitely a Welshman to be proud of.
Following a weekend in Ottawa, we travelled north in the glamorous confines of a particularly recalcitrant and wallowy Dodge Grand Caravan to the Mont Tremblant National Park. This area had jumped out when planning the trip, due in part to its stunning countryside, but also because the eponymous village features one of Canada’s longest-running race circuits. Established in the 1960s, it has hosted Grand Prix, Can Am and, in 2007, the ailing Champ Car series. I was keen to find the track and learn a little more – its reputation suggesting it to be fast, sweeping and slightly dangerous, in the tradition of the North American road course.
We were directed to the circuit on Tuesday afternoon, though our guide suggested the gates would likely be locked as it was a week day. Not to be dissuaded, the Grand Caravan lurched its way down some spectacular roads and, to our delight; we found the gates were open. It came as a surprise when we stumbled not upon the main circuit, but instead a brand-new, very long and utterly enticing looking kart track. A little investigation revealed a workshop full of equally brand-new and enticing looking karts – obviously immaculately prepared and pretty serious bits of kit.
At this point I’d rather assumed it was a closed test session of some kind, but persisted and found myself in reception. It transpired that this housed a very recently opened Jim Russell karting academy. They offer a range of instructional race courses for all levels of age and experience; this taking an educational bias, rather than ‘Arrive and Drive’ sessions prevalent in conventional commercial tracks. The senior instructor at the Acadamie, it transpired, was a remarkably friendly French Canadian with a long international career in racing and providing tuition in both cars and karts. Much banter about racing history swiftly ensued and before we knew it a credit card had appeared and we were booked the following day onto one of their courses – to drive 125cc Rotax Max race karts. While we were organising the booking, Sebastien – our instructor – was interrupted in French by a colleague. He explained that on the Wednesday morning he had another visitor to the circuit and we might end up sharing the track with him. Duly sworn to secrecy (actually not difficult with no phone reception or internet in the Canadian wilderness), he revealed that Lewis Hamilton was due to attend the following day.
This caused a certain degree of excitement, and of course I immediately planned an overnight crash diet in order to lose enough weight to make myself competitive with the great man. Before leaving we spent a few minutes getting seats fitted so the karts could be ready for us the next morning. This duly done, we decided to go round to the main circuit to see if anything was happening – the sound of distant race engines had been teasing from behind the trees. It being late afternoon, the place was only due open another few minutes, but it seemed worth a punt.
Driving into the paddock, there was little going on, but one could see a sizeable transporter and awning in one corner which required further investigation. Mechanics were packing away but the front of the awning was open and the contents just visible under covers. Not often do I find myself struggling for words, but the sight of a longtail McLaren F1 GTR with Ferraris 333SP and FXX Evoluzione lined up next to one another was enough to render me briefly speechless. An attendant from the circuit was happy to allow a look around the cars (as much as one could see from the partial coverage) but photos were strictly forbidden.
With a little research it was possible to ascertain that the cars all belonged to the circuit owner – a Canadian multi-millionaire who earned his fortune in the fashion and clothing worlds called Lawrence Stroll. He regularly uses the facility to exercise his enviable fleet of cars which also included two Ferrari 250GTOs, an ex-Penske 512M and a 330P4, among a number of others. Sadly there was no opportunity to see these cars running in anger, but a little time with a search engine reveals photos and race reports of the very machines we’d seen. Jacques Villeneuve had raced the McLaren in an historic race a few years previous and it was the very chassis we’d seen splashing victory in a famously soggy FIA GT race at Silverstone in 1997. I never imaged we’d be reunited under such circumstances…This was turning into something of a day.
Next morning and the tuition began at 9.00am, hosted by Sebastian and another instructor, Zac, an aspiring young racer with a successful career in karts already to his name. It started with a session on braking, which was particularly informative as it is certainly an element of my own track driving which I know suffers on track as a result of my slightly conservative attitude to road driving. We discussed some basics concerning traction and threshold braking techniques before heading out to try them on the main straight. A fairly rudimentary-sounding exercise was employed where one accelerates to good speed and then brakes in the shortest possible distance. Initially there were locked brakes aplenty, but with feedback and practice, it became far more natural to carefully regulate the pedal to ensure maximum pressure without braking traction, and stopping distances came down accordingly.
With a new-found confidence under retardation, it was back inside and to try to get to grips with cornering. Mark Hales writes a fascinating monthly column in Octane Magazine concerning track driving techniques and he often employs the ‘Wheel of Traction’ to illustrate his descriptions. He recently revealed that Mark Donohue referred to it as the ‘Wheel of Life’, which struck a chord. Sebastien used simple PowerPoint slides and two props: a tyre; and a steering wheel with a piece of rope and a noose attached. Mercifully this isn’t for hanging slow English tourists, but instead a succinct way of illustrating steering position relative to brake or throttle openings. The rope hangs from the wheel with the noose tied around one’s foot. As you pull your foot down to imitate acceleration or braking, the wheel is naturally pulled straight: Simple but effective. The ‘Wheel of Life’ was also highly illusionary and made a huge amount of sense with a little discussion and tuition. It helps to offer some scientific articulation of something which I vaguely understood, but could never really explain, or grasp how it could be utilised to go faster.
With some good, solid theory under our belts, it was time to hit the track. Suitably armed with box-fresh clobber (including on my part a pair of overalls 3 inches too short which made me look slightly ‘special’) we started getting comfy in our conveyances for the day. Wearing rib protectors was a first, but certainly welcome later as cornering speeds increased. Another first was a starter button on the steering column; no cord-pulling antics for once. Very helpful as the engine was a proper little bugger which spluttered under anything other than generous throttle openings and would stall in the pitlane at every available opportunity. Somehow this imbued it with a sense of character I rather admired – thus ever spoke a Lotus owner.
These early laps were completed behind Zac, who acted as pace car and introduced us to the correct lines. We were running on one of the short configurations of the circuit which was initially a disappointment as the full 1,300m layout looked astounding. However, with considerably more horsepower than any other karts we’d driven previously, learning fewer corners soon became of huge benefit. The first time Zac gave it full beans down the long back straight and I obediently did the same, was briefly shocking. The acceleration was brutal, with that rasping, buzzing engine having a peculiar, cammy delivery which took some getting used to. Throttle response was sharp, as one would expect, but it felt as if there were three different cam profiles, each more savage than the one which preceded it. This session lasted about 20 minutes with the speed steadily increasing each lap. By the standards of the kind of machinery I’d driven previously, we were really motoring, but barely scratching the surface of the karts’ capabilities.
The end of the session and back inside to top up on water and debrief which proved welcome as the ambient temperature was rising quickly and the karts were physical to drive, even at low speed. We followed this with two sessions out by ourselves, with Sebastien and Zac stood trackside to monitor our progress. I experienced a couple of scary moments when the back stepped out suddenly, once under braking and another through a flat-out left hand bend. I had barely caught the ensuing slides but Sebastien called me in and a deflated tyre was diagnosed, which was something of a confidence booster. Upon returning to the track with what felt like a new kart underneath me, I immediately span under braking for the hairpin. Evidently too much of a confidence booster…
While I cannot claim to have achieved anything like the dynamic potential of the karts, they were astoundingly good fun. Significantly quicker and more agile than anything I’d piloted on track before, there was a joyful purple patch in the middle of the last session where suddenly everything was coming together. The kart felt as if it was just dancing on the edge of adhesion, little dabs of corrective lock through the fast stuff. Everything was slowing down and it felt as if I was almost thinking the kart around the track, though the illusion of serenity was marred slightly by the constant physical assault. One corner in particular was entered at very high speed and featured three apexes, using the lateral acceleration to slow the kart as the final apex was the tightest. By the end I was simply hanging on, my tired shoulders struggling to cope with the forces involved. What a tremendous opportunity though.
After the practical sessions were over we received certificates and a pack including the PowerPoint slides, which should prove a useful reference document for all track driving in future. As we were winding down, a helicopter made its presence known in the vicinity. So it was true…Lewis Hamilton was really here. As it transpired, he was a guest of Lawrence Stroll and had been around the main Mont Tremblant circuit. He had come to look at the karting facilities and also to meet Lawrence’s son Lance, who is a Ferrari junior driver – at the tender age of twelve! What was remarkable about this scenario is that Lewis was present without minders or groupies. He was in ‘civilian’ clothing, without branding from McLaren or Vodaphone. He was just there as a normal chap, enjoying being in the presence of racing machines. Whatever you might think of him, I can resonate with that passion. He chatted with Lance for some time about international karting before retiring to the shade. I decided it was my opportunity to steal a few minutes with a World Champion. He turned out to be a witty and down-to-earth conversationalist and we enjoyed some banter about poor qualifying strategy at Monaco and the problem of how to defeat Red Bull, he even complimented us on our choice of grandstand for the forthcoming Grand Prix. A quick photo, a couple of autographs and he was off again. A surreal moment, but definitely one to treasure.
Following all the exertions and excitement, it seemed an appropriate time to head off so we thanked Sebastien and Zac sincerely for their wonderful hospitality. They have a fabulous facility to work with and I dearly hope they will be able to make a success of their Academie. The quality of the equipment, tuition and the circuit is all second to none so they will doubtless do extremely well.
We wandered over to the full Mont Tremblant circuit where a Ferrari Owners’ Club event was taking place. A number of 458s and 599s were circulating at varying pace. A bit of investigation revealed it was a private session so there was no possibility of jumping in for a blast ourselves but it was enlightening just to see high performance machines on track. With instructors driving, the 458s looked savagely quick and sounded amazing, very much at home. Unfortunately we were prevented from spectating around the full perimeter but the location is spectacular – epic topography, surrounded by forests, mountains and even a lake nestling adjacent to the paddock. Whoever thought it was a good idea to ruin such a lovely place with a race circuit…?
The British winter can be an unsettling time for the motor racing enthusiast. As the circuit racing season comes to an end and only the bobble-hatted rally fans dare venture out. The 2010/2011 winter seemed only to further discredit itself with virtually unprecedented levels of snowfall drowning the country and leaving sportscars safely garaged but under-used. When early January presented a break in the weather, it was time to re-enthuse oneself with all matters automotive – a boys’ trip out in a proper sporting motorcar.
A 6.00AM alarm call is never really welcome, especially when the January dawn is still some hours away. But slumber was soon rejected in favour of excitement, for today we were heading first to Prodrive in Banbury and then later to the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, and doing it in dad’s rather special new car; itself dormant for several weeks.
A little about our conveyance: Despite Ford’s claims during the last Century about the Capri, I suspect for most men, an Aston Martin is “The car you always promised yourself”. Collected in October, but sadly little used since then, the V8 Vantage is as beguiling a motorcar as I have yet experienced. Blessed with a remarkable extruded and bonded aluminium chassis and motivated by a magical 4.7L V8 engine, there was never a moment on our south-bound journey when one might have wished to be sat in any other machine. The coarse yet crisp timbre as the revs rose through the gears leaving the toll booth on the M6 seemed worth the financial sacrifices in itself.
The decision to take the Aston on this particular trip carries a little more depth than simply the pleasure derived from the car itself. Prodrive is owned by David Richards, who himself heads the consortium which owns Aston Martin Lagonda, sited at Gaydon. There exists a delightfully symbiotic relationship between the two companies, with Aston Martin Racing working out of the Prodrive workshops, which prepare its many race cars.
Prodrive takes the business of its fine racing history very seriously and has recently taken the step to open up its own Heritage Centre to the public. This is a remarkable series of cars, which offers a glimpse of what this company has achieved in its 27 year history, on road and in the various disciplines in competition – GT, rally, Formula 1 and touring cars. It is here where we start our tour of the premises, led by Jackie, a lady who bubbles with an enthusiasm for her employer which verges on the obsessive. She clearly adores working there and her knowledge for her subject is remarkable. The collection changes depending on the cars which are available, but for our visit we were treated to Subaru World Rally Cars from McRae and Burns, Le Mans winning Aston Martin and Ferrari GT1 cars, the revolutionary P2 prototype road car, one of Jenson Button’s BAR F1 weapons and the 2000 British Touring Car Ford Mondeo, of the kind which took Alain Menu to championship glory, as well as iconic Rothmans sponsored Porsche 911 and Metro 6R4 and Bastros BMW E30 M3 rally contenders – a diverse group which serves only to scratch the surface of the group’s proud heritage.
What is remarkable about this start to the tour was that we were left entirely to our own devices in the Centre and told to properly explore the cars, take photos and even sit in them if we wanted. The conceit of the Lotus owner has never bitten so hard. Figuring that the contortianism required to access and egress an Elise would be sufficient to allow graceful progress into and out of the glorious GT1 Ferrari 550 was a significant mis-judgement. While I savoured the experience of sitting in a car I had seen pounding the race tracks in the FIA GT Championship for many years, there came a kind of rising panic that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to emerge from my temporary carbon fibre haven. With dignity thrown out of the window, and muscles used which I never realised I had, I was deposited on the ground unceremoniously, but with no little sense of triumph. What a machine though – unutterably beautiful and powered by a mid-front mounted V12, this car still displays its ALMS scrutineering stickers from a works campaign in the States. The very chassis on display took GTS class victory in the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hour race.
A break for coffee and biscuits was welcome after unexpected exertions before we accompanied Jackie into Prodrive’s engineering heart. First to the development area where gearbox, engine and damper assembly and testing takes place. A privileged opportunity to explore Subaru WRC boxer engines and gearboxes and a chance to chat to the technicians and engineers who make it all possible. Housed in the same area are the engine test bays and we were taken into the control booth where computers monitor and govern racing engines. Here they are able to program entire races into the computers and test the motors over the full range of stresses they will experience over a race. The engines are started with a mouse click, before the throttle openings for the race track are perfectly rendered and repeated for a race distance. There are two test cells, with one control booth, and we were able to see the very readings and parameters the engineers themselves use to observe behaviour. Before we entered, the blinds came down on the viewing panel into bay number 1. This, apparently, is housing the engine for the brand new Aston Martin LMP1 car, which Prodrive hopes will take the fight to the might Peugeot and Audi diesel prototypes next year. Its configuration has yet to be announced and despite some light-hearted probing, there was no way we were going to be allowed to find out. Despite the remarkable open access on our tour, there were to be no secrets shared, sadly.
Next stop was Aston Martin assembly. A small workshop housed V8 Vantage racers in GT4 and GT2 specification – all painted white. The GT2 machine has progressed well enough to take class victory in last year’s Silverstone 1000kms and it was fascinating to explore the car and chat to the guys who make them. With oil tank over the rear axle, huge cooling for the transaxle and an impossibly low engine mounting, this is a very serious car, and so it must be to take the battle for class wins to the likes of Chevrolet – with its mighty Corvettes – BMW’s M3, the evergreen Porsche 911 and Ferrari’s new 458. Of particular interest was the final checking and assembly of a GT4 Vantage race car for a customer. The hand-over ceremony was due the following day in the Heritage Collection and technicians were working through an exhaustive list to ensure the car was perfect. It certainly looked the part, though much work remained for the busy team.
Into the adjacent workshop and it is a feast for Subaru enthusiasts. Prodrive (with a little help from McRae, Burns, Sainz and Makinnen) created the cult of Subaru in the UK and a variety of WRC and Group N Imprezas were available for us to explore – from a bare shell ready for transformation to a remarkable early WRC car which was recently shipped over from Uganda. This grubby and tatty machine had lain dormant for 10 years, only the warm, dry climate keeping it from rotting to dust. It had come back home for a total rebuild – and it needed it. There was some banter about emerging spiders and scorpions, though one suspects this might become rather real when the technicians commence work.
And so the tour continued, allowing us remarkable access to the facility. We inspected the new LMP1 wiring harness, welding on the new Mini Countryman shells, a bare V8 Vantage chassis – a chance to savour that same aluminium network of extrusions which makes the road car such a delightful companion – the fabrication workshops, suspension turrets formed from single billets of magnesium in enormous computer-controlled lathes and even David Richards’ own Morris 1000 nestling in a corner. Apparently his AM Rapide (which was visible, and utterly filthy elsewhere on the site) doesn’t suit Cornwall so he purchased the Moggy and allowed a group of apprentices to refurbish it to his exacting standards for use around the lanes of the South West. All the while, we were fed information and allowed very privileged access to one of the UK’s great enginering success stories. In fact, motor racing doesn’t even tell the full story – you’ll have to attend yourself to learn it all!
And so we were back to the Heritage Centre for a few final photos and a nose around the small shop. In total, we were on site for three and a half hours and enjoyed Jackie’s undivided attention for that time. It really was a wonderful way to enjoy a peak into what makes one of the world’s great engineering concerns tick. We’ll be keeping all digits crossed in the hope that the Mini and the new LMP1 cars enjoy success next year.
By now it was lunchtime and we were ready to press on to our next destination. Only a junction up the M40 from Banbury is the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. During the Second World War, Gaydon was a bomber base, and continued to be so after the end of hostilities, housing the V-bombers. Following decommissioning, it was purchased by British Leyland, who formed a test facility to match that of General Motors at Millbrook. The site now houses Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, as well as the old BL collection of cars – now the Heritage Motor Centre. Unfortunately dad’s own car wasn’t able to visit the Aston premises itself, but it felt right that the car was back where it was first created, and perhaps the opportunity to visit the AML factory will prevail in the future.
The HMC is an enormous, circular, mock-Art Deco building which houses not only a remarkable collection of static exhibits, but also workshops and significant conference facilities for lucky delegates. Following much-needed refreshments, we explored the sizeable collection of cars. Being born in the 1980s, the history of British Leyland is a virtually impenetrable maze of take-overs, mergers, acquisitions and industrial action – with some car production thrown in along the way. So much potential and yet for someone of my age, it sometimes feels like there is little to get excited over in terms of actual output. It wouldn’t be over-stating things to say, however, that we are enjoying something of a purple patch in British car production at the moment. This country can claim world-beating products from Jaguar, Morgan, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Land Rover, Lotus and Aston Martin.
The HMC celebrates these current success stories, as well as innumerable previous triumphs and flops from history – from the mundane to the remarkable. There is a tremendous selection of relatively ordinary family cars which illustrates a timeline of British car production, which even allows the inclusion of a Toyota Carina, due to their production facilities in the UK. Photos of the enormous Longbridge plant seem almost spooky, but clearly there is also much to celebrate today – with the monumental Rolls Royce Phantom produced at Goodwood in Sussex and a fascinating selection of modern Aston Martins, including the V12 Vantage RS prototype which shoe-horned the DBRS9’s 600bhp racing engine into the svelte Vantage bodyshell as a prelude to the road version on sale today.
Of most interest to an enthusiast for racing history is the competitions area. This is a disparate selection of racers from the UK. From that great flop of the last decade – a Jaguar R4 F1 car – to a TVR T440 GT2 racer, this isn’t exhaustive, but highlights some fascinating vehicles. The two most significant displays of BL competition history are the MG record cars and the Monte Minis. The MG record cars driven by Capt. George Eyston, Sir Stirling Moss and Phil Hill are akin (as one might expect) to scaled-down LSR cars – junior Railton Mobil Specials, if you will. They set records which still raise eyebrows today: 250mph in the 1950s with just 1500cc. All three of the Monte Carlo winning Mini Coppers line up as well. These tremendous little cars too victory in the arduous, snowy rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 in the hands of luminaries Hopkirk, Makkinen and Aaltonen. The 1966 Monte was won on the road by another Mini, before the entire podium, and the fourth placed Lotus Cortina was disqualified on a lighting technicality, allowing Citroen to win. You couldn’t write the script…And so it will be fun to see how the new BMW Mini we saw down the road at Prodrive is able to compare to the illustrious record of Issigonis’ iconic BMC original.
In an adjacent area sat some of the great prototypes and show cars, from the BL era, as well as more recent efforts. From the Triumph Lynx to the strangely alluring Rover SD1 estate – so many oddities history has almost forgotten. A brace of gas turbine powered Rover prototypes caught the eye. Having recently inspected the famous JET 1 in London’s Science Museum, this pair offered Whittle’s jet engine a more practical home. These were numbers three and four, including a vaguely rakish coupe profile. A snapshot of a time when jet travel looked to be the future of personal mobility on the roads, as well as in the sky.
By late afternoon, we were sated; bristling with automotive fact but also aware that slowly the museum lights were dimming and the staff there were ready to shut up shop. The prospect of hitting the mad Midlands’ motorway network at rush hour didn’t seem quite so arduous knowing we were to be doing it in the glorious Vantage. A day to take stock of the UK’s place in automotive history and consider the future – it looked pretty good from where we were sitting.
At the Le Mans Classic in June 2010, I took the opportunity to complete the parade laps of the circuit. My dad (who actually funded them) took passenger seat and volunteered to photograph so all of the below are courtesy of him. Having watched the GT40 Enthusiasts’ Club and a group of Ferraris out on track on the Friday evening, I was approaching the laps with a little trepedation. The pace was pretty strong and I’m no trackday hero, despite the undoubted talents of the Elise. We were heading out in a mixed group of cars of all varities – from old MGs to modern Ford GTs and Ferrari 430s. However, with a keen eye on the mirrors for fast-moving machinery, it was a total joy to really stretch one’s legs around such a iconic circuit. The Elise proved itself a superb track toy and kept up with the exotica, but it was amazing to hear 997 GT3s and Ferrari 550 howling by down the long straight of Mulsanne and on the run down to Arnage. Just felt like we were getting into our stride and then we were flagged into the display area once again. It was a terrific opportunity to sample one of the world’s great circuits.
It was with some excitement that I embarked on the short hop from Ampthill to Millbrook on Tuesday morning. As the local commuters went innocently about their business, I was guiding the Elise to the Millbrook Proving Ground, where the UK motor industry goes to test its machinery, away from the public eye. With my dad having just bought a new Aston Martin, I was to be the lucky beneficiary of a trip to AML’s small facility on-site.
I met up with the dealer representatives where my phone camera was covered and ground rules were put in place. The facility is to be considered top-secret and all guests must respect that; seems pretty reasonable. We trundled onto the site in a minibus and before us opened the vast expanse of the famous 2 mile bowl. Bit of a flutter of excitement over trying that one out later in the day.
AML’s facility is half clubhouse, half showroom, with the full current line-up arranged perfectly outside. Inside are comfy leather sofas, neatly arranged dining tables and refreshments awaiting guests. I settled with a coffee and signed the requisite indemnity forms. Well, what better way to go than at high speed in such a car?
The course I was due to complete is a special gift from AML dealers to their customers and allows them to drive a range of cars over several of Millbrook’s most unique and challenging tracks. Having never driven any kind of Aston before, this was some treat. The first batch was ready to go and my name was called – V8 Vantage around the city course. Given the choice between Sportshift and manual transmission, I plumped for manual. I’m afraid I’m one of these luddites who enjoys swapping cogs the old-fashioned way. The city course is a tight, winding series of bends arranged over open macadam to test the low-speed reactivity and agility of a car. It looks and sounds simple and only in a couple of sections does one get out of second gear, but it takes some real concentration to proceed quickly and maintain smooth momentum to offer your passenger a comfortable ride. I was seriously impressed by the car. The steering is fantastic, with a nice weighting at all degrees of lock. The steering, pedals and gearbox all shared a similar feeling of solid, engineered precision. That consistency of weighting between the major controls is something which, for me, always marks out a real driver’s car and it is one of the factors I so admire in my own little Lotus. All too soon, my laps were over and it was time to hand over to my instructor. I wrongfully presumed he was going to show me how to traverse the city course correctly. To my delight, we were to tackle one of the handling courses at speed. A relatively flat concrete surface peppered with expansion joints, this was a high-speed challenge to show off the “baby” Aston’s capabilities. It didn’t disappoint with that wonderful V8 bellowing from behind. The rigidity of the chassis and balance offered by the transaxle layout were obviously apparent and it handled tightening bends, mid-corner bumps and high entry speeds with utter disdain. Make no mistake, this is a very serious sporting motorcar and one whose limits you would struggle to approach on the open road. It left a deep impression, though tinged with a hint of gentle envy that one of these wonderful cars now resides with my dad who can enjoy that poise whenever he wishes. We returned to the clubhouse in time for a quick drink while steadying nerves for the next drive.
My name was called again and it was my turn to join instructor Ben in the DBS on the famous Alpine handling course. The DBS is AML’s flagship car, with the image and price to match. It is a quite stunning machine and carries a huge presence compared to the DB9, upon which it is based. We proceeded at a reasonably sedate pace onto the Alpine circuit, which is every bit as challenging as its reputation suggests. Ben was driving to show me lines and techniques around this breathless track. Having never visited the Alps, it’s hard to say how accurately their topography is rendered at Millbrook, but what is certain is that the blind crests and off-camber corners lined with unforgiving armco makes for a slightly intimidating drive. I took over behind the wheel and introduced my own ineptitude to this marvellous piece of macadam. I was trying to remember which way the track went and maintain decent progress while savouring the experience of a 6L V12 masterpiece. My first mistake was wheel-shuffling. I never do this in my Elise, but around town in my Peugeot, with its relatively low-geared steering, the IAM way is the only way. It was a habit which needed breaking and it was certainly much easier to progress with hands constantly on the wheel, especially with the paddles controlling the gearbox being mounted behind the wheel. This was to be the car’s achilles’ heal around such a circuit, at least for me. Being a full auto with manual over-ride, I found the throttle response a little lacking and, when I was able to give the mighty engine its full head, it shuffled for the appropriate ratio before violently kicking down and thrusting me towards the horizon with utter glee, but zero subtlety. I’m sure that out and about in the real world, the ‘box makes perfect sense, but as a manual driver I struggled with it and it slightly let down the whole DBS experience. Putting aside my own limitations, this is a quite remarkable car – a true comfortable GT but with a tactile feel and total stability. Despite its size, value and power, it was a friendly companion and to tackle a serious continental blast, I doubt there is any car better qualified. I’d love to have a run in a manual.
With my DBS experience over all too soon it was time to prepare for its little brother – the crazy V12 Vantage. This takes the V8 Vantage’s small and svelte body but shoehorns the DBS’s monster 510bhp engine under its louvred bonnet. This was the car I was most excited about driving and the course we were to tackle was a simple one – a gently inclined mile-long straight. I was passenger for the first run and we tickled our way onto the straight before nailing it in second. Through the gears, we were north of 150mph before slowing to 100mph to demonstrate the huge carbon ceramic brakes. This was perhaps the most impressive display of automotive retardation I have ever experienced, and as cliched as it sounds, I genuinely was hurled into the seatbelt and left bracing myself bodily against the bulkhead. It was even more vivid than the acceleration. Then it was my turn. We eased onto the straight and it was foot to the floor and round to the redline in second. Then third. Then fourth. Then fifth. Finally into sixth and the end of the course was looming rapidly. Despite my urges for the horizon to move ever further away so I could allow the monumental urge to continue, the opposite was true and it was very apparent that I would need to test those mighty brakes for myself. At just over 160mph I was off the throttle and starting to brake gently at first to settle the car before using full force to bring the car to a standstill. So rapidly does one slow down, that I almost didn’t get the clutch dipped in time to prevent a rather undignified stall. It was a quite remarkable experience and the car, with its single-piece seats and little suede-covered steering wheel, was as informative, noisy and generally brilliant as I might have hoped. While the V8V would appear a better compromise for normal road use, the V12V felt like a delightfully unruly beast by comparison and to unleash that savage speed on the Queen’s Highway must be a tremendous sensation. For our final run, we had to attempt to outwit a slow-moving double-decker bus conducting straight-line test work and perform the same exercise but from a rolling start in fourth gear instead of second. To my amazement, our terminal velocity was remarkably similar and the linearity and feeling of total relentlessness as we surged towards the redline and into fifth was deeply impressive. Another 160mph run and another chance to demonstrate those massive brakes. The stability of the car at such speeds was far greater than that of its driver and the impression it gives is that you will always be the weak link in the chain. Despite the big numbers, it was a serene and very enjoyable experience and not in the slightest bit scary.
Back to base and a good chat with sales exec Tim before the penultimate test of the day and a car I hadn’t really thought too much about driving – the new Rapide. As AML’s big four seater, I was struggling a little to see its relevance to me. While it is handsome in the extreme and something I appreciate for its elegance, preparation and engineering soundness, I cannot pretend to be a fan of big cars particularly. My preconceptions took a bit of a battering. Straight out onto the Alpine course again and I felt much more comfortable than before, with a slight recollection of which way the corners went, working on improving my lines and steering technique. It became apparent that this 5m long behemoth is a most remarkable machine; perhaps the best in the whole range. It shares its 470bhp V12 with the DB9 and makes a delightfully sporting noise, while bathing you in leather-clad opulence. Despite this luxury and the car’s not-inconsiderable heft, it was so easy to throw around the circuit. Tightening bends, constant radii, mid-corner bumps, a little lift mid-corner; nothing shook its composure and it immediately shrank around you, feeling V8V sized. While it is hard not to be impressed by any true sportscar, this was the model which surprised me the most and probably left the biggest impression. I could’ve gladly spent the entire day behind the wheel on that twisting course before pointing it North and wafting back to Yorkshire in style.
Age hasn’t dimmed the DB9’s beauty. This was to be my final ride of the day. While, rather controversially, I actually think the V8V is the better proportioned of the pair, this is a most elegant conveyance. It will live as a true classic and certainly helped establish AML’s current reputation for curvy beauties in this millenium. Instructor Simon took the wheel and we pottered past various automotive prototypes testing over Millbrook’s range of courses and slotted in behind a tank as we crossed the bridge over the bowl. Military vehicles are tested here as well and clouds of dust rose from the various off-road courses as vehicles of war pound the countryside. As we crested the bridge, I noticed a satin black supercar being checked over by a small team of engineers. It transpired that McLaren were working on their forthcoming MP4-12C and there was prototype XP7, as compact and discrete as any 600bhp supercar might dare to be. We turned onto the 2 mile bowl and entered a new surreal world. Simon built up the speed slowly, moving out across the five lanes as the pace picked up, finally into the outermost lane which is as steep as you like and nudges the armco at the top. Up here he demonstrated the legendary “hands-off” technique where science permits the car to lap of its own accord at 100mph without steering input. As a passenger it is bizarre, but not un-nerving and I was excited about having a go myself. As we swapped seats a walkie talkie crackled and we were told that another car would be carrying out high-speed braking on the bowl. Best keep an eye on the mirrors then…I eased out onto the bowl and started to build up a little speed, following Simon’s actions from a few minutes previously. As I moved into lane two, that same McLaren came bellowing past us in lane five. I cannot comment on that car as a driving experience, but it really does look good lapping at speed. At 96mph, and myself up in lane five, it was my turn to try the hands-off routine. It was deeply unsettling, with the proximity of the barriers and the nature of the constant cornering proving to be a genuine leap of faith. I put my life in the hands of science of crossed my arms, scanning between the surface in front of me, the far distance and those barriers once more. To my surprise we avoided a massive accident and instead proceeded without fuss at significant speed and all the while cornering hard left. It was a must unusual sensation; only heightened when I was told to ease off the throttle to move down the banking, before performing the opposite manoeuvre to settle myself back in the groove at the top. All the while my arms remained folded. With that demi-miracle performed and my nerves totally shattered, it seemed only right to up the pace a little. With significant shove from that delightfully mellifluous V12, we piled on the power and were soon lapping at 135mph with some mechanical ease. The same could not be said of the driver. The steering is weighting up hugely at those speeds, with the neck muscles braced, this was not the serene cruise I was expecting. Instead, with those ever-present barriers only a couple of feet away, this was very visceral and very real. While not one to usually be shy of speed, the whole feeling is peculiar, yet strangely addictive. I wanted to go faster still, but felt I was at the limit of prudence so completely a couple more laps at 135 before it was all over and I was gently bringing down the speed, trying to feel what the vehicle was telling me and rather helplessly searching in the mirrors in case I was obstructing Ron Dennis’s latest baby at real speed.
And so back to the clubhouse and lunch. Time to reflect on a morning which had offered me the chance to sample a clutch of the most iconic, aspirational and powerful sportscars in the world; and from a marque which I’ve admired from afar for so many years. The current range of Aston Martins is sensational. At the risk of being accused of gushing, these are just terrific machines – elegant, comfortable and tactile. I returned to the car park and settled myself into the Elise’s fibreglass seat. As I eased out onto the flowing road passing Millbrook and got up to speed as the car warmed up, I had a thought: Those Astons were amazing, but my little Lotus…it feels like home.