Bridgestone’s test track lies about an hour’s drive south of Rome. It’s an area with a distinctly different feel to the more overtly industrial cities of Milan or Turin further north, the impossible beauty of Tuscany, or the anarchy of Naples. As is the case with most automotive test facilities, you’d also need to know where this one was, despite the fact it houses 8km of test track, including a thrilling wet weather handling pad.
No one arrives here by accident.
We’re here because Bridgestone is the exclusive supplier of high performance rubber to Aston Martin. The company has been working with Britain’s ambitious and fast-moving sports car company for four years on what is irrefutably its most important new car since 2003’s DB9: the DB11. Former Nissan Vice President Andy Palmer took the reins back in September 2014, initiating a wholly different management approach to his predecessor, the brilliant but autocratic Dr Uli Bez. Those 18 months have been busy: we’ve seen the Vulcan track car, the DBX concept car, the Vantage GT12, while film director Sam Mendes decided James Bond needed not just a new car for duty in Spectre, but a whole new Aston Martin, the DB10. But those have all been distractions as the team prepared the DB11: an all-new car, with a new twin-turbo V12, pumping out 600bhp, and capable of 200mph and 0-62mph in less than four seconds.
And here it is. Really.
Peel away the stripey zebra camouflage and this is very close to the finished article. Even without being able to see the DB11’s impressive detailing – including the trick Aeroblade in the C-pillar that channels air across the rear of the car for improved downforce – this thing ticks the boxes when it comes to the vital elements of car design: stance and proportion. Today, we’re joining Aston Martin’s dynamics boss and overall handling genius Matt Becker, and his colleague Rob Fern. They’re into the final furlong now, and with the car’s chassis and ride parameters thoroughly sorted, they’re working on final damper settings. This is the detail stuff, but anyone who knows Becker – a lifer at Lotus who finally left the Norfolk-based sports car company 18 months ago – will attest to his obsessive attention to detail.
“This thing ticks the boxes when it comes to the vital elements of car design: stance and proportion.”
‘When I agreed to take on the Aston Martin job, I started to poke and prod,’ Matt says. ‘What’s the suspension system, what are its characteristics? I wanted to see some of the information, not necessarily to change anything but so I had an idea what it would be like. They’re a clever bunch of guys at Aston, and the car was in a good place. The only thing I was slightly nervous about initially was the steering ratio – it’s 13.1 which I thought was quite fast. Was it going to be too edgy, too nervous?’
Time to find out. The test track contains a small but challenging inner circuit, and 30 minutes pounding around that reveals the DB11 to be all the things you would expect: extremely fast, fluent, and responsive. It changes direction beautifully through one high-speed right/left corner, and though it understeers a little on the entry to a tight second gear hairpin, it doesn’t dissolve into tyre-screeching madness. Nor is its steering as hyperactive as the racks on the current Ferrari range; those are cars you drive using your wrists and wits, the DB11 needs inputs from your fore-arms. Most impressive, though, is its supple ride, overall compliance and refined character. What kind of 600bhp, V12 Aston Martin is this?
“When I agreed to take on the Aston Martin job, I started to poke and prod,” Matt says. “What’s the suspension system, what are its characteristics?”
A new one, is the answer. The DB11 features adaptive damping and electric power steering (EPAS), examples of electronic assistance that Aston insists will give the car class-leading dynamics, but that might trouble purists. The suspension uses double wishbones and has a trick multi-link rear (a first in an Aston). In GT mode, things are largely calm; in Sport, there’s more control and firmness in the dampers, and the EPAS and torque vectoring sharpen overall responses; Sport Plus sharpens everything up again without turning the DB11 into an unrepentant track warrior.
“Ride, ride, ride,” says Minards. “It was almost a daily mantra, and the thing I said most often to Matt. Give me handling, but not at the expense of ride…”
In other words, ease-of-use is key to the DB11. This is a high performance car that really does live up to the romantic old idea of Gran Turismo – of driving from London to Monaco in one hit in a car that happens to improve the lives of everyone who sees it en route thanks to its aristocratic aesthetics. Happily, the DB11 also sounds just as ear-popping as every other recent Aston V12, never mind those two blowers, and with a sub-4.0secs 0-62mph time and 200mph top speed, plus all that torque, it’s hardly slow.
But what really counts is the clarity of the information coming through your fingertips and other touch-points. Becker talks about ‘attributes’ and these are what you end up with when you’ve managed to integrate the simulation, aero and chassis departments in pursuit of a common goal.
“A car that happens to improve the lives of everyone who sees it en route thanks to its aristocratic aesthetics.”
“This pre-production car, Matt reckons, is about no.130 out of the 150 or so prototypes his team will run during the car’s four-year development.”
A stint on the wet handling track is more fun than anything else, but demonstrates how far you can push 600bhp these days before going into drift mode (not that that’s a problem).
More illuminating is how well the DB11 copes with a perimeter road around this facility that narrows perilously at points, and is badly surfaced in others. ‘Ride comfort and isolation – these are key. To me, a GT car is something you can drive a long distance and climb out of feeling refreshed,’ Becker says firmly. ‘But you must also feel engaged; it needs to give you information back. You don’t want a blancmange, we’re after a broad dynamic spectrum. The DB11 is comfortable and it heaves, but it’s still very connected. You can drive it on a circuit or drive it very fast and not be intimidated by it.’
The fundamentals certainly feel sorted. Matt also insists that the car’s EPAS offers a much wider range of tuning possibilities, way beyond the limitations of the less efficient hydraulic set-up.
“Engineers and handling gurus like Becker used to hate electric steering systems; they’re mostly all converts now.”
We’ll drive the finished car in July, when we’ll be able to assess how the DB11 works in a real-world context – and whether its radical new interior layout is as good as it looks. But as the first in a whole new wave that’ll roll out across the next seven years, crowned by the hypercar Aston is developing with the Red Bull F1 team, things are looking very good indeed.