Around the 'Ring in a one-off Aston Zagato
Don't bend it. Obvious advice really, but that comment, said half-jokingly by Aston Martin's PR man, Matt, weighs heavily on my mind now. Good advice too, as crashing racecars is never clever, but it takes on even more weight when you're driving an Aston Martin V12 Zagato.
I'm in the green car, or Zig as Aston's people named it. The second car, a red Zagato dubbed Zag, has been converted back into road-going guise and is currently sitting on the Frankfurt motor show stand. There, it is hoping to attract some buyers for the 150 that Aston Martin has said it'll build, at £330,000 (Dh1.9 million) a piece. And it should, it's absolutely gorgeous.
No pressure then, as I flick the ignition switch and press the crystal start button, high and central in the console. There's a slight delay, then the whirring of a starter motor as the 530bhp 6.0-litre V12 explodes into life. Vibrations and noise engulf the interior. The man who had helped strap me in fixes a net to the window and closes the door, and I'm alone. Very alone and, I'm not too big to admit it, a little bit scared.
On my own, in a car that has to be worth in the region of £500,000 to £1 million if not more, at a circuit I've been at for an hour. I've had some sighting laps, but the 10 or so I've got under my velcro, fireproof, racesuit-belt aren't really enough to say I know where this track goes with any real confidence. I'm first too, which means I'll definitely get my allocated laps, but also means that if I do ‘bend it' there'll be a couple of very unhappy people in the queue behind me.
Unblinking, I pull the right paddle and engage first, tentatively brushing the accelerator to trickle out of the pits. There's no clutch here, the automated manual taking care of that, although through the windscreen the technician is suggesting I give the right pedal a bit more. There's some initial dead play it seems, but push through it and the engine's revs rise, the cacophony of sound and vibrations increase inside and the V12 Zagato rolls out of the pit lane onto the Nürburgring.
Not the Nordschleife, but the track you see the F1 jockeys on one weekend a year. It's different from how it looks on the TV, not least the undulations, which mean a couple of the braking points are blind, a few others are downhill and many of the apexes are unsighted as they drop away from you. Fine in the one-of-many Aston N24 racer I did my sighting laps in, but a whole different proposition in an unfamiliar car that's lighter, more powerful and has some very serious aerodynamics on it. The first corner arrives, slowly, discretion taking priority as I familiarise myself with the Zagato's responses and work some heat into the tyres and brakes. It's always a tricky balancing act between overdriving a racer, with the horrible potential of a tank-slapper, and finding a point where you're pushing it hard enough to start working it properly.
The first lap definitely errs on the side of caution, although the speed does rise as I get used to the different braking points, the faster approach speeds and quicker response of the paddle-shifted gearbox. That six-speed shifter orchestrates the terrific sound from the 6.0-litre V12 engine up front. The glorious engine sits under a completely bespoke, hand rolled aluminium bonnet, itself framed by front wings that I'm told cost around £26,000 (Dh150,000) each to produce. That's some expensive metal.
Entering the last corner before the main straight, one thing pops into my head: the advice to take it easy because, if I lose it here, it'll more likely slip than grip and fire itself directly into the concrete pit wall. Tentatively pushing the accelerator as I brush past the apex I'm clear of danger and push it to the floor. The speed piles on with the sound, which although great in the car, sounds even better bouncing off the pit buildings and unoccupied grandstands surrounding one of the fastest parts of the circuit.
All too quickly, I'm back on the brakes as the V12 spits out the start-finish straight as if it's not there, my entry speed way greater than that I achieved in the N24 racer earlier. The brakes need a serious push, though the ventilated, floating grooved discs with six-piston callipers and four pistons at the back wash off the Zagato's easily gained speed with relative ease. The pedal is surprisingly road-car-like in its response, there's progression in its operation, the usual stamp on bleed off means of braking a racing car not required here. That's unusual, but undoubtedly less tiring, which, in a car built to go 24-hour racing, is no bad thing.
I miss the apex slightly, requiring more lock on the steering and messing up the line for the next long left-hander. It's easy to see how you can lose time in racing cars by making just the smallest of mistakes. What's difficult to comprehend is what it must be like barrelling into the first corner with 69 other cars trying to get through at the same time. The guys that raced this very car at the 24 Hours Nürburgring only a few months ago must have had nerves of steel, as both this and the now road-car converted Zag finished the gruelling 24-hour race — covering more than 230 laps and close to 6,000km between them.
The next bend is trickier than ever; the low seat, tight belts and mass of metal of the cage combine with the thick webbing of the window net to create a huge blind spot in my right three-quarters. Not ideal when you're trying to hit a falling, tight right apex before quickly changing course for a short right hander. I'll get it right once in my five short laps, but this first effort at speed is a stab that's all about luck rather than real skill or judgement. With the traction control light flickering a touch on the exit, (I'm thankful I took the sensible option when I was asked whether I wanted it on or off while getting in), the opportunity to push the accelerator to the floor again presents itself and the V12 Zagato fires down the next straight.
It's quick rather than explosive, the performance not so shocking if you've experienced fast road cars. Where it is so much faster is the cornering speeds. The aero helps push the tyres onto the track, allowing the V12 Zagato to carry so much more of its speed into and through a corner. It's this that's so addictive: feeling your way through the bends with light steering that responds immediately and delivers plenty of information to your palms to judge the levels of grip available.
That same steering bucks violently as I momentarily kiss one of the vicious kerbs heading up the Schumacher S bends. The red and white painted sections on the track here demand real respect — as in, don't go anywhere near them.
In other places it's possible to use the painted extremities of the track, the last chicane almost able to be straight-lined over the blue and red rumble surfaced concrete. Doing so, I picture the car in glorious hi-def slow-mo lifting a wheel on the inside, the other testing its sidewall as the car bucks and ripples while the taut suspension transmits the road's surface though the Zagato. Not that the TV editors would have to slow the film down as much as they might were a proper hand to be driving, but it's my dream and in it the Zagato is being pushed to the very limits of its adhesion and speed.
In no time, I flash by an ‘in' board at the pits. The temptation to stay out for another quick lap is huge, but sense prevails and I slow down, take the opportunity to blink, and cruise around the last lap soaking up the experience I've just had in this very exclusive racecar. Track-unfamiliarity aside, the Zagato has proved remarkably friendly. Not easy, but with more time I can see how you'd be able to settle into a decent rhythm with it. On a track on my own perhaps, rather than with cars all around me, as that would present too much of an opportunity to bend it. Something I thankfully managed to avoid…
Specs & ratings
Model V12 Zagato racecar
Engine 6.0-litre V12
Transmission Six-speed automated manual, RWD
Max power 530bhp @ NA Max torque NA