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Aston Martin’s Class Act – Autosport

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Sportscar racer BEN COLLINS samples Aston Martin’s four GT cars – from gentleman driver favourite the N24, to the DBR9 Le Mans beast.

Welcome to Bernieworld, also known as Paul Ricard or the HTTT – High Tech Test Track. “Today 007, you will be driving all the latest Aston Martin GT racers from GT4 all the way to GT1, so do try to pay attention…” Prodrive is Aston Martin’s own Q Branch, developing the full-blown racing versions of the marque’s cars.

Prodrive brought the brand back into top-line racing as a manufacturer for the first time in 16 years back in 2005. The cars may not have much in the way of ejector seats or smoke screens, but what they do have is serious performance across the board.

Since the GT1 DBR9 made its victorious debut at the Sebring 12 Hours back in 2005, the Aston Martin Racing portfolio has expanded rapidly – with the Prodrive Lola-Aston Martin B08/60 returning it to the prototype ranks for the first time since 1989.

But this test is all about real, road-based race cars. Since that glorious maiden victory in Florida three years ago, the GT1 car continues to be a winner and heads to this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours facing a tight battle with the Chevrolet Corvettes. But Aston’s racing programme is not just about GT1.

This year, the yet-to-be-raced GT2 Vantage will hit the track, making it the newest addition to the fleet. It joins the GT3 DBRS9, which began racing at the start of 2006, and the ‘entry-level’ Vantage N24 in an Aston Martin Racing range that caters for many tastes.

I make my way to the Aston Martin nerve centre in pitlane to meet George Howard-Chappell – ‘Q’ and ‘M’ all rolled into one at Aston Martin Racing and the modern day Merlin of sportscar racing. At 6ft4in in height, George is an imposing figure in the paddock and his focused demeanour confirms that he runs a tight ship. As I meet George he smiles and removes one ear-phone in order to communicate while listening to various other transmissions from the circuit. With Aston GT cars filling the whole pitlane, George is a busy man and if that’s not enough, he’s running the stunning new Le Mans Coupe too. He sets our schedule for the day and we get started straight away.

VANTAGE N24 GT4
First up is the N24, so-called because it was designed for competitors in races such as the Nurburgring 24 Hours, which has developed something of a cult following in recent years. In last month’s race, Astons finished 1-2-3 in its class. The project grew out of its desire to test production cars at the toughest track of all – the Nordschleife – and even marque chairman Dr Ulrich Bez has become a regular behind the wheel of the Vantage at the event!

The car is very much a race-trimmed road car, meaning that if you really love driving it, even after sweating and urinating in it for 24 hours, you can swap the tyres over to road-legal cut slicks and drive home!

In fact the tyres we used to try out the N24 were road legal Yokohamas. I have to say the car was mint. For an entry-level racing car, the N24 is fun, fast and great value at just over £100k. The brakes are mega, which is impressive given that the system (including ABS) is 100 per cent road-car spec. The servos really help to give the car aggressive deceleration and the ABS system Aston Martin has on all its road cars means that this N24 is more car-stopping than heart-stopping.

There is nothing worse than a lazy anti-lock braking system that’s incapable of using all the grip in the tyres, but this one really works. At the end of the long pit straight there’s a heavy braking area for the chicane and as I stood on the brakes the car would snake and scrabble for grip, but it didn’t lock its wheels. I’m not sure I’d have fared better without ABS – it’s that good.

After a great time on the brakes, you can gently nose the car into the corner and let it settle into roll understeer, which is nothing horrific. There’s enough power to balance the car well in the slower- and medium-speed corners. In some of the medium/fast corners the roll prevents any over enthusiasm but in really quick corners there’s a great balance thanks to the light aero package.

The manual gearbox is slick, the steering light and, all in all, there are just no vices. For an amateur driver looking for thrills and giggles, buy one of these.

DBRS9 GT3
Next, it’s a step up to the GT3 class. The new generation of Aston GT3 is very quick, thanks largely to the GT1-inspired aero package enhancement the firm homologated for the start of 2007.

Pressing the start button and catching the throttle, you instantly recognise the raspy crackle of 500bhp worth of six-litre V12 motor. The ‘go’ pedal is responsive and as I head out of the pits I slip straight into flat-shifting with the ultra-smooth sequential ’box.

At full tilt, the car doesn’t give too much away even to the GT1 on the main straight, and as I head for the first corner I’m intrigued to see how the braking will stack up against the Ascari KZ1 GT3 I used to race, which is renowned for its stopping power. As I anchor up, the first impression is just how solid the pedal is and how stable the car feels.

After a few attempts I try to really lean on the brakes and it takes a big physical effort to get the performance of them to match the grip in the tyres. Often, the gentleman drivers reported the brakes lacked any feel and I could see why. A more aggressive pad set-up would make it easier to get the car to the limit on the brakes, but that’s not to say the system doesn’t work well once you get used to it.

With brute force on the brake pedal, the car sails into the corners and has a superb balance. It’s very driveable, easy to control and is well balanced under power. Obviously in comparison with the N24, there’s minimal body roll and the slick tyres provide another level of grip and cornering speed.

One thing I really noticed was how lively the car was over bumps and kerbs, especially at some of the chicanes, which really makes the driver work hard. In the very high-speed right-hander, the car would start dancing from mid-corner, which was really fun. I later learned the car runs without a rear rollbar and even with greater downforce than the N24, GT3s are still under-winged so it’s natural that the car will slide when pressed. The car is a big step up from the N24 in terms of how much you have to drive it, but I loved it and found it a testing machine to drive quickly.

VANTAGE GT2
Time for a run in the GT2 car and you know it’s serious when men in green Aston Martin Racing shirts begin circling around their new baby as another thuggish racing driver makes an approach. With some
reservations I was allowed to drive the car, still in its ‘carbon primer’ and not really the finished product that Aston wanted us to evaluate. This new car is very important for the company and has a big job to do because GT2 races are currently only won by two marques: Porsche and Ferrari. If Aston Martin thinks it can enter the fiercely competitive and professional market of GT2, it had better have its act together.

Once aboard the car it bears the hallmarks of a well planned racecar with the machined sequential gearstick angled neatly towards the driver and all the bells and whistles across the dashboard. A cosy driving position, big fat slicks and some proper-looking aero suggests the car means business. As I hit the start button I get a real shock, it’s like I’ve stumbled into the angriest bear in the forest, kicked it in the belly and been deafened by the response. Where the GT3 was delicate and responsive, the GT2 motor is a raging, gurgling savage. The engineer informs me that the car is set up with understeer on the tyres I’ll be running, the engine was not tuned to the max and that if I didn’t return their development mule in one piece I would be set ablaze in the pitlane. Fine.

Within a lap I knew where the car was in terms of development because even though the gearing was long, the throttle worked well but was quite lumpy because it probably hadn’t been fully mapped. The power wasn’t hugely impressive, because it wasn’t fully tuned, and they weren’t lying about the understeer. However, I could see straight through all that to the real car that will emerge as a GT2 racing thoroughbred. The front left tyre was worn from set-up work and the car carried a lot of understeer in slow- and medium-speed corners, painfully so until the tyres began to heat up. Once the front began to bite I could start to reach the powerband midway through the corners and feel how the car really responded. The brakes were impressive and had far more bite than the GT3 as you would expect. The biggest difference from the GT3 that you feel is the additional weight and how hard you have to work to carry speed through apices.

I can’t give an honest appraisal of the power of the car because of the long gearing and how the motor was set up. That also made it difficult to enthuse about the overall feel and the response of the car out of corners. With that aside, what you do notice is the so-solid platform under braking, measured balance in highspeed corners and the potential this gives it over a Porsche for instance. When Aston Martin is ready to turn the wick up, there will be some very real competition for wins in GT2.

DBR9 GT1
Now it’s time for the big dog, the GT1 or DBR9. The car oozes Le Mans heritage in its Gulf livery with a finishing touch on the door: number 007. I’ve never driven a GT1 car but my expectation is that the car has enough aero and brakes to handle like a mini prototype. Even the bonnet is carved in such a way that if you look hard enough you can see the template of a giant front wing. I remember seeing this car clatter through Eau Rouge at Spa a couple of years ago at such a rate I thought the brakes had failed.

Feeling confident I blip the throttle and feel the instant rap of the highly tuned 6-litre, 600bhp motor. As I depress the clutch I notice the travel is really long and after a desperate search for the biting point I stall the engine… I opt for more revs to try again, when out of nowhere appears an extended finger that makes me feel like I’ve just been caught kicking the headmaster’s son in the shins. The long finger is attached to the long arm of Howard-Chappell and he kindly puts me out of my misery by explaining that the clutch is sensitive and would burn out with too much throttle. “Better to let the car idle and just pull away.” It’s a new one on me, but this works perfectly and the car pulls off. “Now do try to keep it in one piece, 007…”

Once clear of the pits I deck the throttle to see what she’s made of. The car is as smooth as silk, the power is clean and the motor sounds beautiful as I slap through the gears towards the first corner. It handles exactly as I expect, with tons of grip under braking and total precision in the corners, the throttle has enough response that you can drive the car on the power all the way through the corner. It’s awesome and relates far more to a prototype car than a GT car. In fact, the carbon brakes are so powerful you have to forget you’re driving a GT car at all, braking so deep into the
corners, then arcing the car in towards the turn. I was stunned with how hard I could brake on a diagonal line into a high-speed corner and, with the commitment into fast corners, it was totally reminiscent of a high-downforce LMP1 car. The only time you realise you’re driving a GT is once you hit sixth gear and the car stops accelerating. The GT1 is head and shoulders faster, smoother, prettier and, dare I say it, easier to drive than the lower-ranking Astons, so long as the driver is prepared to hang his balls out there.

The traction control system was impressive, just nipping at my heels on the exit of some heavily loaded slow-speed corners. I caught up with one of the other GT cars into the final two corners, a long left-hander where the junior Astons endured far more mechanical understeer than the GT1. Easing for the final tight right I suddenly saw the prized Aston Martin Coupe appear alongside, barely missing it before it then slithered down the inside of the car in front, which was equally stunned by the move. Pretty wild stuff for a test, but it sums up sportscar racing.

Has there ever been a marque in sportscars so well represented as Aston Martin, from the starter GT4 class, right the way through to the engineering masterpiece of the Le Mans Coupe, competing in the same events? I don’t think so.

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