A Club Worth Joining – Aston Martin Drivers Club Takes on Historic Brands Hatch
What could be better than driving a twin-turbo eight-cylinder chariot produced by one of the oldest English marques around one of the most iconic and well-known English race tracks? The opportunity for The Speed Journal to spend time with the Aston Martin Driver’s Club at Brands Hatch was a perfect excuse to visit the English countryside.
While the Aston Martin Drivers’ Club is a new concept, it is exactly as advertised. The idea is to bring together Aston Martin enthusiasts who appreciate time behind the wheel at interesting racing venues. Starting in 2019 at tracks around Europe, Aston Martin intends to extend this concept to tracks worldwide. Aston Martin Racing (AMR) provides the spice of spirited driving in the form of cars, instructors, and the Aston Martin Drivers Club wraps the experience together with welcoming hospitality and charm. While the experience undoubtedly includes the technical aspects of finding the right line through the corner and unleashing the marque’s performance potential, it also emphasizes enough of the “Club” aspect to provide an unforgettable experience.
Representing The Speed Journal, Jeff Francis joined four other guests for the Brands Hatch Aston Martin Drivers Club experience. With such a small group, a bond quickly formed as everyone got to know each other. After all, the language of driving performance cars on track is universal. The experience started with lunch and an afternoon of instruction. Guests came from various backgrounds and skill levels and the half-day helped to establish a baseline of knowledge for both instructors and guests.
The Aston Martin staff created a comfortable atmosphere, fashioning more of a get-together among friends than a formal classroom environment. Ali McColl, the Manager for Aston Martin’s Driving Experiences, ensured that the program ran smoothly. The Aston Martin staff seemed to know what to do instinctively, making their unruffled approach part of the relaxed and enjoyable surroundings.
The Driver’s Club concept is new, only having been launched in February 2019, and the program has three flavors.
“Discovery” is a half-day introductory program targeted to those unfamiliar with marque or driving at speed on track. Three 15-minute sessions with an instructor gives a glimpse into the experience of driving an Aston Martin on a race track.
“Performance” is targeted to Aston Martin owners who wish to take their own cars to the track and spend the day in open lapping sessions learning more about their car’s capabilities and developing their own driving skills. Instructors are on-site to provide guidance such as picking out the correct racing line.
“AMR Academy” involves a day and a half of tailored instruction to develop driving skills at the wheel of an AMR prepared Vantage. It is designed for those with at least a foundational level of driving experience that can be further refined and enhanced. The day and a half scheduled included an overnight stay as part of the package. This was the program The Speed Journal had traveled to Brands Hatch to experience.
In addition to this stop at Brands Hatch, The Aston Martin Driver’s Club had also taken their Vantages to other tracks earlier in the year to other European venues, including Zandvoort in Holland, Silverstone in England, Algarve in Portugal, and Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. Dates at the Nürburgring, Barcelona and Dijon and a return to Silverstone are also on the 2019 schedule.
Little brand touches around the venue and on the cars tied everything together. The Aston Martin Driver’s Club logo of a driver’s helmet silhouette was displayed proudly on each Vantage. McColl explained that the logo outlines the contours of a helmet visor while also suggesting the flow of a race track. The sweeping line laid across the helmet also echoes the stylized R found in the AMR logo.
After lunch, lead instructor Anthony Dunn led the afternoon education sessions. Anthony seamlessly wove driving technique together with wisdom of approaching the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit and taming the Aston Martin Vantage. Although the Brands Hatch grand prix circuit covers 3.9km/2.4 miles, it only has nine corners. Each corner, however, is challenging and unique and Brands Hatch features very unique elevation changes that boost the adrenalin level.
As rain is possible at any time in England, part of the classroom content included guidance to work with limited traction and rain lines around the circuit. Fortunately, rain never featured for the event, but the knowledge was valuable. The classroom instruction was capped by a guided tour of the track via shuttle bus. Anthony drove the group around the full circuit, pointing out nuances and keys referenced in the earlier briefing.
Later in the evening, the Aston Martin team picked up the group from the hotel lobby and headed for an intimate dinner in the English countryside. Getting to meet new friends who share common interests but with very different backgrounds and experiences is part of the magic. The “Club” part of the driving experience is all about the hospitality, camaraderie, and instant sense of connection with other enthusiasts. The nice hotel and lovely dinner are part of the Club package, extending the Aston Martin touch beyond the track.
Talking with Aston Martin staff during dinner and throughout the two days, the performance emphasis of the company’s current and future road car offerings are setting the tone and corporate culture. The Valkyrie hypercar was revealed about two years ago as a 1000+ horsepower collaboration with the Red Bull Formula One team. It is a pet project of legendary designer Adrian Newey. The halo project will be limited to 150 units (yes, all are sold out at $3.2million USD each). The recently announced Valhalla road car joins the Valkyrie as a junior sibling. Still ambitious and exotic, the Valhalla will be a mid-engine coupe limited to 500 units. These types of projects are energizing the brand and establishing channels to infuse engineering wisdom into future models.
This recent trend is the culmination of several decades of Aston Martin history. In 2004, Aston Martin Racing was born with partner Prodrive and quickly set course for factory-supported racing to burnish the marque’s performance credentials. After a year of preparation, AMR put Aston Martin on the world stage of sportscar racing and began claiming class victories with race cars that shared links with the company’s road cars.
Other signs of progress emerged as well. Building a brand-new test center location adjacent to the Nürburgring Nordschliefe in Germany in 2008 was a tangible signal of intent. If Aston Martin was going to complete in the marketplace, it needed to have the credibility of well-engineered performance to match the luxurious interiors its craftsmen designed and assembled. In March 2016, Aston Martin and Red Bull announced their technical partnership which led the way for projects such as the Valkyrie and Valhalla.
After an enjoyable evening filled with Aston Martin hospitality, the group retired to prepare for the second day. The next morning featured breakfast at Brands Hatch and a safety briefing, which prepared the way for on track activity. A fleet of Aston Martins awaited their pilots on the famous Brands Hatch Grand Prix course. The model of choice for the group was the Vantage, a beast with the heart of a twin-turbo eight-cylinder engine. The Vantage benefits from a weight saving campaign with the target of a visceral and athletic performance car wrapped in distinctive and elegant Aston Martin styling.
Brands Hatch itself is a course with decades of history. A perfect example of a natural terrain road course, the circuit itself first took shape in the 1920s as motorcyclists turned farm roads draped across the rolling countryside into a makeshift race course. A kidney shaped course evolved over the years before military conflict intervened in the form of World War II. In the 1950s, however, the course was paved and Brands Hatch became England’s first post-war road-racing circuit and hosted a range of racing. The track continued to evolve towards the configuration recognizable today. The track was extended in 1960 which paved the way for the arrival of top tier grand prix racing which joined sportscar and touring car racing.
The great names of English motorsport such as Jim Clark, Stirling Moss and Graham Hill electrified a generation of spectators who made the journey from London and the surrounding countryside. Formula One featured at Brands Hatch before eventually finding a more permanent home in England at Silverstone, but many decades of professional racing, amateur racing and track days testify to the popularity of the natural terrain road course. The roller coaster elevation changes make it easy to understand how the course got its start in the 1920s and retains much of its old school character.
The group was introduced to their coaches – each guest had a dedicated tutor for the day. Francis was introduced to instructor Mark Cole, a driver with extensive experience in many racing disciplines and many laps around Brands Hatch. The duo strapped on helmets and Cole took the wheel of a Vantage for a sighting lap. He used a two-way radio to talk his way around the course, pointing out details important in the pursuit of the perfect lap. Sighting lap done, Francis assumed the controls for the first of six sessions throughout the day.
The personal coaching focused on the ideal racing line to make the most of the available track time. The steep first corner known as Paddock Hill Bend is a dramatic and fast right hander that plunges downhill before the track regains altitude towards a hairpin simply known as Druids. Paddock Hill required scrubbing a touch of speed from the front straight as the track gradually shifted to the right, but choosing the right braking point while the apex remained blind required knowledge of the track and confidence in the car. It is a high-speed corner which makes the roller coaster ride quite a thrill. The elevation change is in the same category of corners as the famous Laguna Seca corkscrew but Paddock Hill involves much more speed through the corner.
Similarly, the final corner known as Clark is a fast right-hander that leads to the front straight. It is wide open but requires the right line to carry full speed down the front-straight. A lap around Brands Hatch rarely permits a rest or the luxury of a straight piece of track, so the driver is often working through a corner or setting up for the next set of turns.
Cole offered just the right amount of input and coaching and the morning sessions produced continued improvement. After a lunch break, Cole and Francis reviewed video and telemetry from the VBOX system to identify areas for potential improvement. The technology confirmed subjective sensations from behind the wheel and set the agenda for the remaining sessions. AMR technicians took care of the cars all day and made sure the fleet of Vantages remained in top operational condition, including checks of the Pirelli tires to ensure they remained properly inflated and had sufficient tread to endure the punishment.
The Vantage proved worthy to carve corners around Brands Hatch. Sport mode released a number of performance features such as slightly stiffer suspension and quicker gear changes. The more aggressive suspension settings kept the grippy Pirelli tires planted, but offered enough compliance to absorb bumps and curbs. The Vantage was well balanced, forgiving when pushed and predictable at the limit. The steering gave just the right feel and feedback when the front tires protested and the brakes were solid. The roar from inside the engine bay matched the aggressive exterior styling but was still appropriate for a luxury grand touring car.
Leather wrapped around most visible interior surfaces with silver metal outlining the instruments and subtle black carbon fiber accents adding visual interest. With plenty of room, good sight lines, and luxurious appointments, the Vantage is a grand touring car rather than a purpose-built race car or sportscar. Aston Martin met the challenge of designing a nimble and spritely grand touring car with performance car credentials lurking just beneath the surface awaiting the call to action.
While the group circulated in their Vantages, other Aston Martins shared the track as well. AMR Academy junior drivers pushed their track prepared Aston Martin Vantage GT4 mounts while another guest took advantage of the opportunity to exercise his daily driver four-door Rapide. A beautiful and rare vintage DB4 GT from the early 1960s brought out camera phones and the inevitable James Bond references.
Improvement continued with three spirited afternoon sessions. With Cole’s encouragement, the laps became smoother and the stopwatch surrendered fractions of seconds. Francis returned his Vantage at the end of the day with a mixture of satisfaction and a sense of unfinished business. Brands Hatch had not yet given up all of its secrets. While the circuit was immensely rewarding, it enticed the driver to ponder how to chase speed and conquer its challenges in the days after leaving.
While the day had ended for Francis and his Vantage, a special treat awaited. Aston Martin factory driver Darren Turner was on hand to give hot laps around the circuit. Turner’s professional resume includes driving open-wheel single seat race cars, sports cars and touring cars with distinction, but he is best known for success with Aston Martin since 2004. The three time 24 Hours of Le Mans GT class winner buried the throttle and showed what the Vantage is really capable of around Brands Hatch.
Turner danced the Vantage on a knife edge through each corner. Hair-raising speed through the Paddock Hill only accelerated downhill as the track fell away to the compression dip at the bottom of the hill. Somehow Turner positioned the car with precision for each corner despite momentum constantly pulling the car in varied directions. It was an electric demonstration and an unforgettable exclamation mark to complete the day. As if written in a storybook, a World War II era British Spitfire airplane swept over the circuit adding its own roar and imprimatur of English history.
The Aston Martin story stretches over a century with many different chapters. To some, Aston Martin is refined motoring with English design tradition of a distinctive interior and exterior styling. For others, Aston Martin is the car of James Bond with presence and grace but capable of spirited performance and clever gadgetry when needed. Yet many consider Aston Martin a grand touring car for a weekend get-away, combining the best features of a sportscar but with more comfort and luggage space.
The Aston Martin Driver’s Club seeks to give owners and enthusiasts of the marque the opportunity to sample the performance edge of current models in an environment of exclusivity and hospitality. The Aston Martin team is proud of its heritage and the energy that AMR brings and the Drivers Club is a great way to share the things that make Aston Martin special.
For more information on the Aston Martin Drivers Club, please visit: www.astonmartin.com/amrdriversclub
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