The first lap of Le Mans last weekend passed in a daze. The thought of performing on that hallowed 14km (8–9 mile) circuit in front of thousands was bad enough, even for one who would have been content with the record for the slowest lap, but the thought was as nothing compared with the fact.
I’ve no idea what people imagined as they watched the only tweeded figure on the circuit pressed into the cockpit. But no time to worry because without a by-your-leave we found ourselves out of the paddock and on to the track in unfamiliar left-hand-drive cars, there to be enveloped in a fog of noise, heat, speed, corners, brakes, throttle, change up, up, up on the Mulsanne Straight, then — oh, Jesus — down, down, down for the chicanes, now hammer it towards Indianapolis corner with the sun in your eyes, what the hell’s the car in front doing, daren’t brake with someone up my exhaust pipe, what speed are we, no time to look, gun it past the stands and scores of flashing cameras (gratifying, that), then — Jesus — yellow flag at the Dunlop Curve, three cars off, just miss the recovery truck, under the bridge without touching the sides, and round again. Twenty-four hours later an almost empty tweed jacket is unpeeled from the seat and hoisted victoriously on to the podium…
Dream on, petal. Actually, only the last bit isn’t true; it would anyway be the stuff of nightmare. A couple of laps in a standard Aston Martin V8 Vantage at somewhat less than the 120mph-plus average achieved by the DBR9 GT racers over 340 laps is unsettling (and exciting) enough. But when you see from pit-level what those cars do you realise that — however good a boy racer you might secretly fancy yourself — you wouldn’t last ten seconds out there. David Beckham has two legs and plays football; so did I when I was young, and we road-going mortals have a similar relation with the gods of the track. They’re a different order of being.
I don’t know what inspired Aston Martin to combine the launch of an uprated model with the chance to thrash it round the Le Mans circuit, drive it for a day on normal roads, then watch the race from privileged hospitality suites, all the while staying in a beautiful private chateau. You might think it so seductive as to be corrupting. You’d be right and wrong: wrong to think it corrupting of independent judgment, right to think it seduces you away from the competition. But what does that is the car itself.
From the 2005 V8 Vantage launch in Tuscany I recall a muscular performance car with handling limits beyond my skill to surpass on public roads. Although not, according to some, quite on a handling par with Porsche, it was also a thoroughly usable everyday car, if fairly chunky and masculine to drive, quite stiff, heavy on clutch and gear change. It was the entry-level Aston and has since become their bestseller ever. Now they’ve uprated the 4.3 engine to 4.7 (420bhp, 346lb.ft. torque), modified the clutch and flywheel, introduced a new transmission option and improved the suspension, particularly the dampers. The result is higher performance (0–60mph 4.7, 180mph max.) and better handling, with more of both more easily accessible to people who are not competition drivers. In May, against top-notch competition, V8 Vantages (a mix of 4.3 and 4.7) took the top three places in the 4-litre class in the Nüburgring 24 hours.
The new car has lost nothing of the original’s muscularity but it is slightly more civilised with better handling feedback; you feel more in control as you approach the limits. The Sportshift option offers a combination of six-speed paddle shift and automatic, while the manual is the original short-throw gear change. The former may prove the more popular, offering best results if you ease off throttle fractionally as you flick up, but the latter offers the more traditional Aston feel. As demonstrated by Hong Kong-based racer Matthew Marsh (one of the victorious Nüburgring drivers), in either option the car is sufficiently tolerant and torquey for you to do almost everything you want in fifth. It is now even more of what it was to start with: a seriously high-performance thoroughbred that is reliable and forgiving enough to be used as everyday wheels. Two criticisms: the slightly raised centre console may take some getting used to, and that fiddly ECU, the so-called Emotion Control Unit that starts it. Bring back keys and buttons.
At 3 p.m. on Sunday the DBR9s did it again, winning the GT class for the second year running against formidable Corvette competition. It was tense in the pits during that last hour; Aston were ahead but anything could happen — a puncture, a moment’s lapse in concentration, an accidental nudge — and when they called David Brabham in for refuelling with eight minutes left I feared they might have blown it. But refuelling was brutally swift and when Brabham exploded out of the pits only seconds later, victory was assured.
It was exciting enough and draining enough to make you feel you’d done it yourself. I await the call from Bernie Ecclestone.