There’s always a strange atmosphere on the shakedown of a new racecar. A mix of excitement and dread that seems to build and build as the moment the car exits the pits creeps closer. I’ve been to a few of these things and always feel like a real impostor… The weight of expectation on the assembled team is already massive thanks to months of development and head-scratching and having a journalist there to report if things go badly wrong only adds to the pressure-cooker environment.
Of course the Aston Martin Vulcan isn’t really a racing car but the atmosphere is similar when I join the team responsible for it at Snetterton for one of the early shakedown tests. The car has already wowed the crowds at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and now the real develeopment work begins – today they’ll concentrate on the basics and then the Vulcan is off to Michelin’s test track in France, then to Spa for some demo laps before the Spa 24 hour race and finally to Nardo for some tortuous endurance testing.
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Darren Turner, factory racer for Aston, is in the driver’s seat and he’s been intrinsic to the project almost since it started, working with designers on the interior layout and now fine-tuning the car’s dynamic behaviour. It’s a process he’s clearly relishing. ‘We did a shakedown at Turweston the Wednesday prior to Goodwood, I think they’d finished it at 4am,’ he begins. ‘We ran at 10am for the first time and probably did 30 or 40km over those two days. It was only a straight line but fundamentally it felt pretty good already. Today it’s the fundamentals. The downshift, the upshift – they’re not quite on par with the racecars but they’re getting close and that’s me being really picky.’
I’ll get my chance in the passenger seat soon, and Darren gives me a little insight into what to expect. ‘Once we’ve got all the basics done and we’re happy with that then we can start looking at performance. The key will be to find a performance window that is fast to drive and useable for the type of owners we’ll attract,’ he says. This sounds quite cuddly and unintimidating. Then he hits me with, ‘Everything is here for this car to be significantly quicker than the best GT3 car out there. You can see it on the stopwatch already.’
I’ve been in a few GT3 cars and climbing into the Vulcan is a very different experience. It’s beautiful. The interior was intended to have the feel of a racer but with the exquisite finish of the One-77. The gorgeous steering wheel has all the major controls on it like a racer but the design and materials create something that’s as much art as function.
The Vulcan could be described pretty much in the same way. It has a carbon chassis (based on the One-77 but heavily modified), inboard suspension, new carbon-ceramic brakes from Brembo and built for the racetrack and creates a vast amount of downforce – 1360kg at 200mph. The car itself weighs around 1300kg and I suspect it’ll come to be defined by its 7-litre V12 engine. Developed by Aston Martin Racing, the engine is based on the 6-litre V12 of the GT3 car (as opposed to the Cosworth-built 7.3-litre V12 used in the One-77) but with a bigger capacity and no restrictors it will make 820-830bhp when it’s fully calibrated. There will be two lower power settings to help the 24 owners get to grips with the Vulcan initially – the first putting out around 550bhp and the intermediate setting at around 650bhp. It drives through a six-speed Xtrac gearbox, also shared with the Vantage GT3 car.
Today the engine isn’t fully unleashed but it feels mighty as we pull out of the pit lane and sweep onto Snetterton. The Vulcan is a big, wide car and it feels it at the first tight hairpin, the tail slipping sideways and the traction control cutting in as Turner makes a swift correction. But once up and running into the faster turns the aerodynamic grip starts to take hold and the car seems absolutely nailed to whatever line he chooses. It’s a spooky feeling as the car tips in and your brain is convinced you’re about to disappear into a gravel trap only for it to turn with no drama and then thunder out onto the next straight. The brakes feel superb too, hanging me on the four point harnesses with a tireless ferocity.
Turner completes a handful of laps, each one slightly faster than the last but well within the Vulcan’s comfort zone. I suspected this might be a bit scary but actually I’m smiling (and sometimes hooting with laughter) and just enjoying the noise, the acceleration and the massive lateral Gs that this extraordinary machine serves up. Early days or not the Vulcan is already a spectacular machine to experience and I’m sure the 24 guys and girls lucky enough to be buying one will love it to death.