About 15 years ago, I spent a ‘track day’ at Silverstone with my best friend Sean Langan. The climax was an Audi TT race, the result of which has always been a matter of dispute. I crossed the line first, but a race official told us afterwards that, technically, I should have been disqualified for illegal overtaking. Needless to say, we both claimed victory.
This disagreement was destined to remain unresolved, until last week when Quintessentially invited me to the Millbrook Proving Ground to test-drive the Aston Martin range. I asked if I could bring Sean along and, to my delight, they said yes. The rematch was on.
Millbrook is a testing facility owned by General Motors set in 700 acres of rolling countryside in Bedfordshire. It’s used by everyone from the British Army to JCB and contains a range of different tracks where human crash-test dummies put the latest vehicles through their paces. There’s quite a lot of emphasis on ’elf and safety, as you’d imagine, but it’s by no means risk-free. Last month, a Honda test driver was killed while working here.
Unfortunately, individual races weren’t on the agenda. Most of Millbrook’s tracks are only designed to be driven along by one car at a time and, in any case, Aston Martin were reluctant to let Sean and me go head-to-head in a couple of £150,000 supercars. Nevertheless, there were opportunities to compete. There was a ‘city handling circuit’ in which we were expected to drive between zigzagging cones at 30mph and one of the tracks is known as the ‘mile straight’, on which we’d be taking turns to see what speed we could get up to in a V12 Vantage.
The day contained so much promise, but it soon became clear that Sean and I are simply not the same men we were in the mid-1990s. I discovered this on the ‘hill route’, an undulating circuit that was used to film the sequence in Casino Royale when Bond crashes his Aston Martin DBS. I was in a DBS when tackling this particular challenge and the 510 bhp engine frightened the life out of me.
‘You only need to brake going into the corners,’ said Andy, the laconic driver from Aston Martin who was sitting beside me. ‘Try to open her up a bit more on the straights.’
But it was no good. I crawled around the track without exceeding 50mph.
Later, comparing notes with Sean, he confessed to being equally cautious. He told me that his co-driver had praised him for managing to navigate the ‘city handling circuit’ without knocking over a single cone. ‘But he did add that I was going much slower than everyone else,’ he said.
Sean claimed a top speed of 130mph on the ‘mile straight’ — the V12 Vantage is capable of 190mph — so that was the number to beat. I gingerly approached the starting grid and then eased the car into second gear.
‘OK, floor it,’ said Andy.
I did as instructed and heard the unmistakable engine note of an Aston Martin in full cry. As soon as the rev counter hit 7,000 I changed up to third, then fourth, then fifth, then sixth. The speedometer hit 125mph — I was going to beat him, goddammit — but by now the end of the track was looming into view.
‘Keep going, don’t let up,’ said Andy.
‘It’s no good,’ I said, then slammed on the brakes as the speedometer crested 128mph.
I looked guiltily at my co-driver as we drove back to the clubhouse, but he just smiled at me sympathetically. ‘Nothing to be ashamed of,’ he said. ‘It’s just the self-preservation instinct kicking in.’
Nail on the head, I think. Back when we were in our early thirties, Sean and I still thought of ourselves as immortal. But now, as we’re both hurtling towards the grave, we realise how fragile life is. The reckless abandonment of our Peter Pan years has been replaced by an obsessive monitoring of various medical conditions, some of them real, most of them imagined. Where once we compared notes about our sexual conquests, we now compete to see who takes the most vitamins before turning in at 9.30 p.m. And there’s no mug of cocoa to wash them down with. We’re both desperately trying to lose weight.
How tragic life is. As Philip Larkin remarked, ‘The years 20 to 40 are what you might call the fillet steak of life. The rest is very much poorer cuts.