A few weeks ago I saw a competition advertised on Twitter to win an Aston Martin Experience day courtesy of Hackett of London http://www.hackett.com/index.cfm?page=1108, manufacturers and retailers of a line of a clothing bearing the Aston Martin racing team logo DBR 9, they are also sponsors of the Aston Martin Racing Team http://www.amr-teams.co.uk/
I jumped at the chance to enter as I have loved Aston Martins since my Uncle took me to see James Bond “Goldfinger” back in 1964, I was 6 and my interest in cars developed from then. The DB5 is my earliest memory of a super car, growing up in Swinton Manchester you didn’t get to see a lot of super cars, my Father had a Standard Vanguard, so to me the Aston was a like a vision from the future, it was to make a lasting impression and when I got home from the Cinema I wrote a letter to Corgi toys asking if they would make a model of the DB5, they were kind enough to reply thanking me for my letter and enclosing a Corgi Model Club Badge, a few months later the new Corgi James Bond Aston Martin complete with, machine guns, bullet proof shield and ejector seat was in the shops although as I remember the model was Gold and not Silver as it had been in the film.
I have been in the Motor Trade all my working life and I have been lucky enough to drive most makes and models of cars, the Aston however has always eluded me. The Hackett driving day competition was pretty simple to enter it was just a matter of repeating or re tweeting their offer on the social media site Twitter to create more awareness for their brand; or entering the competition on their own web site by correctly identifying the flag on an Aston Martin jumper.
The experience day would take place on the 30/10/2009 and would be held at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Milton Keynes, I knew already that this venue was used by a lot of manufacturers to test their cars to the limit and in some cases destruction, it has been featured a number of times on Top Gear, and I remember when Vauxhall launched a new model at Millbrook a number of years ago the drivers weren’t allowed to stray into the outside lane of the banked circuit as the unlaunched and top secret Jaguar XJ220 was being tested and was lapping the track at a phenomenal speed, the last thing the driver of the 220 prototype needed was to rear end a Cavalier 1.6.
I arrived at the track around 7.30 am suitably attired in my DBR9 Cardigan and proceeded to get my camera equipment ready to document what I was sure was going to be a very enjoyable day, With my bright silver camera suitcase hanging over my shoulder I set off to reception, the lady behind the desk looked horrified, she shook her head and politely pointed to the sign which read “No Cameras Allowed In The Grounds”
Johnathan Lewis from Hackett was the next to arrive, he had brought with him a couple of White Aston Martin Jackets which were from a new soon to be released line, he and his colleague were going to wear them, there would be 8 Hackett guests and two Hackett employees, One of the other guests confessed that he had been an instructor on some Toyota track days, as Hackett had promised to award prizes on the day I resigned myself to second place, then a Ferrari 355 pulled up and out jumped Craig to join our team of drivers, so now 3rd place was probably the best I could hope for.
We were ferried to the Aston Martin Hospitality Building and we all had our driving license’s checked, after signing a disclaimer we were given a briefing and an outline of the days events, my intentions had been to take lots of photographs and to update my Twitter site in between drives, but no cameras and no signal on my 3G dongle put paid to that idea, I was starving so I tucked into a continental breakfast before the driving commenced.
My name was called first and I was to experience the handling circuit, I would not be allowed to drive on this occasion, my driver was Chaz, he showed me to the car, placed the key into the slot on the dash, Actually, It’s not a key, its an ECU, an Emotion Control Unit, the ECU is made out of stainless steel and glass, there is no ignition lock, instead there’s a circular starter button made out of clear glass, in the middle there’s a docking station for the ECU, Chaz placed the ECU in the docking station and the engine burst into life.
The last 3 cars that I have bought specifically to use myself were a Porsche Boxster 3.2 S, a 911 C2 996 Cabriolet, and a new Boxster 3.2s Tiptronic 550 Anniversary Special, I am no stranger to performance cars, I love the way they look but I just don’t drive them fast when I sold my Boxster anniversary special after 2 years and 5000 miles it still had the moulding injection pips on the edge of the tyres.
We made our way to the handling circuit where Chaz had to inform the Marshall of our Plans, Chaz told him that we would be doing a couple of “spirited laps” nothing too scary, he lied big time! I presume he lied because had he said that he was going to scare “The Living Daylights” out of his unsuspecting passenger, I may just have got out there and then while the vehicle was stationary and elected to watch from the comfort and relative safety of the marshals Renault Scenic, I say “relative safety” because the Scenic was well within 7 barrel rolls from the edge of the track. We were in a 2010 spec Aston Martin Vantage 4.7 Litre V8 6 Speed Semi Automatic Sportshift which costs approximately £99000.00, http://www.astonmartin.com/eng/thecars/v8vantage
We drove on to the handling circuit and Chaz put his foot down, I was being thrown from side to side, pushed back in my seat, and then pressed against the seat belt as Chaz cornered left to right, right to left, braking and accelerating as he weaved the car round the track, he calmly explained above the roar of the engine what he was doing where he was looking and where the car should be positioned on the track to get the best lap time and the fastest corner speed, as we came to the end of the first lap I remember thinking it was’nt anything that I couldn’t do after a few practice laps.
We approached the filter lane for the start of our second lap Chaz floored the accelerator the engine roared, and the tyres fought for traction, I felt like I had just been shot out of a cannon , Chaz threw the car sideways into the first 90 degree right hander, I didn’t think we were going to make the turn, I held on for dear life pressing my feet into the bulkhead, gripping the gear tunnel, and the door handle as tight as I could, but as fast as I overcame the effect of G forces on my body, the car would change direction and my battle would begin again.
I guessed the Bond movie scriptwriter had spent some time in the passenger seat of Chaz’s Aston, and this was probably where he had come up with the idea for the torture scene in Casino Royale, as we started the second full on lap Chaz turned to me and said, I’ve got to short shift and take it easy this cars only done 1000 miles, I grimaced in his direction and through gritted teeth said “Oh dear that’s a shame” with as much sarcasm as I could muster, I think he could see the relief on my face and he chuckled to himself, if there had been an ejector seat in this Aston Martin I would have pressed the button myself.
When you put the ECU into the docking station the instrument cluster displays the message Power, Beauty, Sole, I thought to myself “Dearly beloved we are gathered here today” would have been more appropriate! We slowed down, exited the handling circuit and headed back to the Hospitality building, the adrenalin had now kicked in and I couldn’t wait for the next task when I would finally get my chance to drive an Aston Martin, As there were 10 drivers and only 5 cars I had to wait till the others had their turn, I decided that I would study the drivers when they came back and try to judge the adrenalin rating of the different tasks by the looks on their faces so i knew what to expect.
In my opinion Jonathan had drawn the short straw and had just been round the handling circuit with Chaz, he came back into the room looking as white as his jacket, and I suspect he too was now wishing he had forgone the breakfast, as far as I could judge the Hill Circuit was going to be the next challenging, followed by the “Mile Straight”, The Banked Circuit, and lastly the “DSC Test” The only Lady driver on the day was looking pleased with herself she had just reached a speed of 135 on the mile straight, that sounded fast to me! Dam I thought at this rate I will be lucky to win anything.
It was my turn again I would be seeing how fast I could get the V8 Vantage to go down the Mile Straight before slamming on the carbon ceramic brakes, and scrubbing off enough speed to allow me to negotiate the banked right hander at the end, the instructor drove first and showed me how it should be done, then it was my turn, I sat behind the wheel of the Aston, I was beaming as I thought back to my childhood I was a little boy in the cinema again, the instructor explained what I had to do, we were parked just off the mile straight, which was to our right, I had to make sure the track was clear, put the Aston in first, turn right on to the track and as soon as the steering wheel was back in the central position, I was to floor the accelerator, and wait for him to tell me to change gear.
Hands gripping the steering wheel at the quarter to three position I centralized the wheel pointed the Aston up the track then jammed the pedal to the floor, the acceleration was ferocious, “Change” i slammed it into second, a few seconds later “Change” (the instructor had told me when changing from 2nd to 3rd my hand just needed to be on the left hand side of the gear stick and press forward, the gearbox was balanced for the stick to be in the middle, it would move across the gate itself and forward pressure would take it into 3rd), it went straight in I let the clutch out and floored the pedal again, the crash barrier in my peripheral vision was a blur and my eyes could only focus on the track in the distance.
We were hurtling down the track, “Change” The Aston was still accelerating and showed no signs of running out of steam, “Hand back on the wheel” I was still holding the gearshift and we were doing about 130 mph, “Change” 4th to 5th Hand on left side of gearshift applying pressure towards my leg, push forward straight into 5th, clutch out accelerator floored, “Move over to the left, nearer the cones set the car up for the right turn at the end of the straight, I made a slight adjustment of the steering wheel and we moved closer than I liked to the cones, “Get ready to brake, Ready, Ready, Ready, Now BRAKE! ”, I had been told to apply light pressure to the brake at first till I felt the pads engage the discs, the nose of the Aston would dip as the weight transfered to the front of the car, then press the brake hard.
I took the right hand turn at the end of the straight with ease I could have left it later to brake and achieved a faster top speed, the Instructor told me I had reached a speed of over 155 mph. We came round on to the Mile straight again, this time the hazard warning lights had to be switched on to show others behind us that we would be performing a brake test, we were going to accelerate to 100 mph and then on the instructors command I was to jump on the brakes, without touching the clutch till just before we came to a halt, this was to allow the engine braking to help stop the car even quicker, we reached a 100mph and I was told to “Stop” I hit the brakes hard, but before I could stop myself I pressed the clutch as well, I felt the car speed up momentarily, I took my foot off the clutch again quickly but tried to do it without the instructor seeing, we had accelerated to 100mph and then back to 0 in less than ½ a mile, right lets do it again but this time without putting your foot on the clutch!, no prizes for the ABS test then.
Next was the DSC test on the low grip area, that’s Dynamic Stability Control this is an incredibly important function and allows the worst drivers to make massive errors in judgement and still live to tell the tale, I was Sales Manager at a Mercedes Benz garage when the A Class was due to be launched , we had pre sold our first 12 months allocation and things were going well, that is until the infamous “Elk Test” when it was discovered that the A Class turned over when performing high speed side to side maneuvers, as soon as the story hit the news, people were phoning to cancel their order, I lightheartedly suggested that if they saw an Elk in Blackpool they should knock it down instead of taking evasive action as the A Class had been proven to be as safe in a head on collision as the much bigger and more expensive E Class.
I thought that I had put forward a compelling argument for the A Class but some customers still cancelled, Mercedes Benz delayed the launch, and at an incredible cost decided to fit ASC + T which was their version of DSC problem solved, Customers happy. Before we started the test a tanker drove round the low grip area releasing gallons of water on to the track making sure that we would be facing extreme conditions, The instructor first explained how DSC worked, and asked me why I thought Aston would include an off switch in their specification, and in what circumstances you would turn it off, the answer was if you were on ice and the system wouldn’t let the car move at all.
The car we were in was an Aston Martin DB9 Touchtronic 2, 6 Speed Automatic gearbox, http://www.astonmartin.com/eng/thecars/db9 An automatic was used for this test because you have enough to think of when your pirouetting in the £100,000 car without having to depress the clutch to avoid stalling, I turned the DSC off, to make sure it cant be switched off accidently the button has to be pushed for at least 4 secs, we drove round clockwise trying to stay inside the circle painted on the track gradually increasing the speed, I am glad that the track is wet, otherwise nausea would have made my head spin before the car did, on the limit the back end eventually steps out and we do a 360 spin.
With the DSC switched back on we drive inside the circle anti clockwise (to even the tyre wear) with the accelerator pressed to the floor, the cars computers do their calculations, the throttle is backed off, the brakes are applied to the wheels that are about to lose traction and we drive round inside the circle as fast as possible whilst still retaining grip. For the next test we are in the imaginary scenario of turning left and accelerating to join a lane of fast moving traffic, turn the wheel to the left and floor the accelerator with DSC switched off, after a neck jolting 540 degree spin we are now facing the way we were coming from, repeating the test with DSC on, we make the turn and the car accelerates towards the middle of the two cones that signify our imaginary lane.
The low grip area was next to the mile straight and while I was doing my Torville and Dean impression in the DB9, I saw the reason why Millbrook were probably a little more camera shy than usual, a bright blue Stirling Moss Mclaren SLR Millie Miglia speedster http://www.stirlingmoss.com/photos/mercedes-benz-slr-mclaren-stirling-moss-2009-mille-miglia was just about to be put through its paces
Next was the Hill Route, this is the track where the crash scene in Casino Royale was filmed and the Aston Martin won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records by barrel-rolling seven times. The Casino Royale Metallic, Aston Martin 6.0 V12 DBS http://www.astonmartin.com/eng/thecars/dbs was waiting for me outside and I couldn’t help thinking that this was tempting fate, after all the stunt driver knew what he was doing and I didn’t, and I didn’t particularly want a posthumous mention in the Guiness Book of Records. The DBS costs in excess of £170,000 and if the car alone is not flash enough, you can actually buy a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch, which will remotely open the doors of your DBS when you press the crystal face, http://www.astonmartin.com/eng/thecars/dbs/amvox2dbstransponderwatch
The instructor took me for a lap of the track, it was exhilarating either I was getting braver or my nerves had been shot to pieces, he made the lap look effortless, and as we got to the crest of a hill all I could see was the 4 louvres in the bonnet of the DBS, and the sky, I had no idea where the road was going or what was on the other side, it could have been the edge of a cliff for all I knew, the car became weightless, and so did my stomach, we landed still on the track and the instructor casually said “oh the new tarmac there is where they filmed the Casino Royale stunt!
I had enjoyed the lap so much that I had forgotten to listen so deciding that honesty was a lot better than killing us both I turned to the instructor and told him that unfortunately all the advice he had given me when he was driving had gone in one ear and out the other, I was very happy to get the chance to be at the wheel of the DBS, and it was a fantastic track it reminded me of the road from St Tropez to Monte Carlo and on up to Monaco although I have made that trip on several occasions I had never been fortunate enough to make it in a car like this.
Paul went through the initial brief again, hands at quarter to three, thumbs through steering wheel so you cant get confused as to the angle of the front wheels, first lap in 3rd gear, 2nd lap in 4th gear no changing. We set off and I was trying to digest and react to the Pauls instructions, I was driving way beyond my comfort zone but after the DSC test I knew that the car was very forgiving and would more than make up for my lack of skill, I looked at the instruments to make sure that I hadn’t accidentally knocked off the DSC button, Paul told me to take the car out wide and turn in hard, but it wasn’t quite good enough for him so he grabbed the wheel and turned us into the hairpin harder the car went round as if it were stuck to the track.
The crest of the hill that had worried me on the first lap approached, and I realized that if Vesper Lynd the femme fatale in Casino Royale was lying unconscious in the middle of the road I would struggle to make the decision whether to write her or the Aston off, I tried to resist the urge to brake but i couldnt, my second lap went well and I didn’t need any further steering assistance from the instructor, the Casino Royale stretch approached again fast but by now I had solved my dilemma, it wasn’t good news for Vespa, This time I kept my foot down and completed the lap, on the off chance she was lying in the road I was confident I could steer round her, That got me thinking I never saw Daniel Craig press the DSC button for 4 seconds before he set off in pursuit of Vespa and the baddies, perhaps In order to make that part of the film believable Bond should have been driving an early A Class instead.
Next Steve took me out to the 6.0 Litre V12 48 valve 510 bhp 190mph top speed Vantage http://www.astonmartin.com/eng/thecars/v12vantage for my last experience of the Hackett driving day at Millbrook we were going to lap the high speed circular bowl banked circuit, Steve demonstrated the sport button. Selecting ‘Sport’ mode gives you a sharper throttle response, we were traveling at 100mph when Steve pressed the button the car immediately accelerated without the throttle being pressed further, it was like the Starship Enterprise going to Warp.
My turn in the drivers seat, we were travelling anticlockwise round the bowl and the faster we went the higher the car wanted to go up the banking, I held it steady at about 140 mph, Steve told me to slow to around 100mph, then he told me to put my right hand on my leg, then my left hand on my other leg, both hands now off the wheel the car did a full 4 mile lap of the circuit without me touching the steering wheel once, “now foot slowly off the accelerator” the car started moving down the banking making slight adjustments to our speed using the brake and accelerator the car steered itself off at the track at the next exit.
During the morning briefing Paul had explained that the V12 was the best car for the bowl as it had almost zero understeer this was a perfect demonstration. I had thoroughly enjoyed the day, we went back to the hospitality lounge for a fantastic lunch and we were all given gifts courtesy of Hackett and Aston Martin, I was given a beautiful leather Aston Martin Racing Stripe A5 Agenda portfolio, and after comparing notes with the other drivers I can only think I had been given the Safe Driving Award.
We were joined by the new drivers who were attending the afternoon session, not surprisingly the newcomers seemed to have better appetites than the morning group, I contemplated warning them not to eat too much, then I thought “Nah” nobody warned me this morning and its all part of the “Aston Martin Experience” Thanks Again to Hackett and Aston Martin Racing for making a dream come true!