The good news? The car was OK, nobody else was involved and, as my dear mother keeps reminding me, I'm not injured either. The bad news? I span a Vantage GT4, and beached it in the Paddock Hill gravel. On the lap I was due into the pits. To hand over to the Aston CEO. Humiliating doesn't even begin to cover it. Skip
to 6:55 in the video
and you'll see, because I'm sure you want to...
Good, now that's out of the way. Because right up until the 38th minute - and excluding a technical hiccup - racing a Vantage GT4 was one of the best experiences I've ever had. Racing often is, a point we'll return to, but here the combination of the car, the circuit and the situation made this all the more special.
The invite came from Aston on Wednesday, for Saturday. Having desperately cancelled all my plans - you can see friends another time, right? - everything seemed in place when, "bother," or something stronger to that effect, "I haven't renewed my race licence." Luckily, a few frantic calls to the MSA later - thank you to Joe for putting up with me - and with a borrowed balaclava under my helmet - thank you to whoever gave that up - I find myself in the Brands Hatch paddock in time for 9am practice.
Practice went quite well...
In at the deep end
If you can sleep, concentrate, sit still or, frankly, do anything normal before a motor race, I don't believe you're human. Waiting to drive competitively is a fraught, nerve wracking, lonely experience, but one entirely worth enduring because the high of racing is just so intoxicatingly addictive. Even despite Andy Palmer being the friendliest, most approachable CEO I've ever met, and even with the paddock being full of welcoming competitors, my stomach is in knots; you know the knots you get in headphones when they're left in a bag? The knots you cannot undo, ever? Yeah, it feels like that.
Here's a fun fact to lighten the mood: all the 'race car for the road' guff that manufacturers like to bleat on about, that they use to sell cars to impressionable morons, is balderdash. This Vantage racing car has a (round) removable steering wheel, but you can clamber in through a roll cage and over a bucket seat without taking it from the boss. So your RS5 does not need a flat bottomed wheel to aid access. At all.
This Vantage is a particularly interesting car; it's affectionately known as James (because of its '007' VIN) and was one of the first GT4s built back in 2006. As such it's covered 60,000(!) miles in its life and could surely tell some incredible stories. Its interior is a fascinating amalgamation of road car - the dials, the paddles, the gearbox buttons - and racer - the traction control knob, the harnesses, the wheel - yet it's fantastically comfortable once you're in. It starts, following a flick of the master switch and press of the conventional starter button, with an exciting, intimidating rumble.
... and qualifying went even better...
Practice makes, er...
Practice is less than 15 minutes, in a new car and on a track I hadn't driven for a while. With similar power to the road car - but 300kg less weight - and a conventional semi-automatic gearbox, the drivetrain isn't out of this world; but my aim is to get familiar with the brakes and slicks in practice, because they feel most different from the road car.
I love racing car brakes; while GT4 cars are closer to production than more serious GTs, even here you can have huge faith in the pedal and stand on it as almost hard as you want. Combined with a front end that's far more positive than the road car - but with lighter steering, which is odd - the car puts you at ease very quickly. That confidence we always bang on about in road cars that's needed to push hard arrives in a torrent here; the front end can be felt through the steering wheel, the rear end through your own and, if you miss those messages, all that reverberating noise from the engine, tyres and gearbox can't be ignored. You know what's going on beneath you very quickly and very explicitly. Practice also shows that both the dampers and traction control are fabulous; you can push so hard, and the car still feels totally composed.
Despite this, qualifying is still pretty intense. Now it matters, doesn't it? Each driver must record three timed laps so, not only would a whoopsie scupper our qualifying chances, it would also mess things up for the rest of the grid. Not cool. Andy goes out first again; once I'm in the car I find some additional time and a 51.5 puts us fourth on the grid, second of the four GT4s (with first just three tenths ahead) and only trailing the top two because they're a 458 Challenge and an Evora GT4 driven by Lotus chief test driver Gavan Kershaw. We're quietly confident...
... as was the race. Until the first corner
Confident enough, in fact, for Andy to suggest that I do a long stint - the pit window is open from 15-40 minutes in an hour-long race - because we really did have a podium chance. Oh, for the benefit of hindsight...
As the fastest qualifier, I will start the race. I hate starting races. I especially hate rolling starts to races. Where do I go? When do I brake? What are they all doing? When it comes to Paddock for the first time, I do a terrible job of it - so preoccupied with giving the guy on my inside enough room, I almost stuff it into the gravel at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps I should have taken that as a sign. That great qualifying effort is ruined, I'm at the back of the nine-car field by the second corner and desperate to get back into the action.
"Catching up is one thing; getting past is quite another!" That was Murray Walker's old adage and that's what happens over the next few laps, as I latch onto the back of a pack that features the other V8 GT4s and a fully Valvoline'd Holden Monaro. (I got to see that from many angles while trying to pass; from every single one it looked brilliant). Despite my frustration at not being able to get by, running in a racing group on a track, inches apart and making a glorious racket, is fantastic.
The fightback begins! Sort of.
Ask any racer, any real racer...
I get past one of the Vantages but the Monaro proves trickier, as well as being jolly quick, it's huge as well. Then, as I finally pluck up the courage to dive inside the Holden at Paddock, my Vantage loses gears. There's nothing. Just neutral. It's a problem Andy suffered in practice but I've not had all day. Nonetheless the car must be coasted up to Druids and turned off and turned on again (that time-honoured technique) to restore some gears. Fortunately it works and we're rolling again, but back in last and many seconds behind.
A few minutes after that is when the video starts. Quite frankly I was so cross that any thought of strategy, or tyres, or time left, was cast aside. We were quick enough to be competing in that top four, but through driver error and an electrical gremlin we were miles behind even second last. Not wanting finish there, I was driving the wheels of the Vantage (or as close as I could get to that) in an attempt to catch up. So if the driving is a bit scrappy then that explains it.
Lonely at the bottom!
Some of those laps felt absolutely superb. Seeing that gap to the others shrink with every circulation of the 1.2 miles egged me on to push and push, the car with me every inch of the way. I'm hot and sweaty and tired, but the speed, noise and immersion of racing a flippin' Aston Martin at Brands Hatch is more than sufficient to stave any concerns off.
By the time I've caught another car I'm desperate to get past, now conscious that the clock is ticking and, being honest, perhaps feeling a little overconfident. I'd caught drivers in identical cars in my first race driving them, which felt pretty damn good. So that's my excuse for flashing the lights. Of course, watching the video back I look like a prize pr*ck, but we all do things we regret in the heat of competition, don't we? It had worked on the Holden so I thought it might work on these, that was the logic. In the end I'm sure they got a good laugh out of seeing that particular Aston in the gravel anyway...
So yes, 38 minutes into the race and on the lap I was due into the pits - with a mile left to go, basically - I beached the Aston. What a tool. It was drivable though, and I made the slow and rattly lap back to the pits once the race had finished. It's the automotive equivalent of a tail firmly between the legs, and it sucked. In parc ferme I stay in the car, roasting, because I can't face talking to anyone.
This is close as you'll get to a Paddock crash pic...
Fortunately the whole team was very supportive, and even Andy was - to my face at least - understanding of the situation. Thank you so much Mr Palmer, but it might be best to race on your own next time...
There is a broader point here though, the one that was mentioned at the beginning. Namely that racing is the best thing you can do in a car. Or rather, the best thing you can do on your own in a car. And while I appreciate it's very easy for someone to say that fresh out of a V8 Aston, the vehicle is almost irrelevant. It's the thrill of competition that's like nothing else, a high that you can never hope to match on the road or at a track day. It applies whatever the car, because you're battling, fighting to prove that you're better than whoever's in that other car, and driving as fast as you possibly can to do that. It's a wonderful feeling. If you're in the position to be considering a track day car then I implore you to investigate racing instead, it's so much more rewarding.
Of course a V8 Vantage GT4 is highly recommended - though it is being replaced soon - but, being more realistic, look at this £5K Saxo. Add somewhere around £10K to that for a tow car, trailer, kit, licence, race fees and so on and I guarantee you that will be more fun than any M3 or Evo or other road car you could buy for the money. Racing an Aston Martin is bloody fabulous - even when you do crash - but the truth is that all racing is incredible really. Go and try it.
Watch the video here.
[Photos: Max Earey]