You are here

Aston Martin Zagato: driven at the ‘Ring

  1. When Jackie Stewart christened the Nürburgring the ‘Green Hell’, he wasn’t being complimentary. In fact, he hated the bloody place. At the start of the 1968 German Grand Prix, Stewart’s then team boss, the irascible Ken Tyrrell, leaned into the cockpit and told his driver: “Today, you are certainly underpaid.”

    Stewart, of course, went on to win the race in treacherous conditions by just over four minutes from Graham Hill. It was probably his finest hour, but also the one that scared him the most. Forty-three years later, those crazy Germans have taken the idea of the grüne Hölle and run with it.

    Words: Jason Barlow
    Pics: Aston Martin

  2. It’s on T-shirts straining across many German chests, daubed on walls, and even in restaurants. It’s also the name of the entertainment and multi-media complex that’s all part of a - currently misfiring - plan to turn the ‘Ring into a kind of motor-racing Disneyland.

    But there’s absolutely nothing Mickey Mouse about this track, as everyone knows. Fickle weather, endless corners, zero run-off, slippery surfaces: it ticks all the boxes. The experts will tell you that you can always find grip out here, if you know where to look, but they’ll also tell you that it’s usually not in the same place on the next lap. Cheers for that, experts.

  3. It’s the Monday before this year’s 24-hour race, and Aston Martin has block-booked the Nordschleife for the day. It’s raining extremely hard. Grip has gone on holiday with its mate, traction. Former F1 driver Christian Klien is among the assembled drivers, and his eyes flick forlornly from a circuit map on the wall to the sky above.

    But most of the attention is focused on two familiarly unfamiliar-looking Astons - one green; the other, red. These are Zig and Zag, the stars of this year’s ‘Ring race campaign. Both are wearing bespoke bodywork designed in collaboration with Italian coach-builder Zagato, creator of some of the comeliest cars of all time, not least the DB4 GT Zagato, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

  4. Around 100 road cars are promised for next year - at a price not-unadjacent to £330,000 each - but, for now, these race versions of the new Vantage V12 Zagato are your lot.

    For the Aston Martin crew in the pit lane, the weather is prompting some distinctly mixed emotions. The team could do with getting some proper wet running, given that anything could happen at the weekend. But TopGear has managed to secure a drive in Zag, the red car, and frankly would be a lot happier if the rain would just bugger off.

  5. Crashing anything is probably the most unfortunate by-product of this job. Crashing one of only two brand-new Aston Zagatos at the Nürburgring in the pissing rain four days before its big race debut would add acute embarrassment to the misfortune. Crashing the car that Aston boss Dr Bez is due to compete in would necessitate swift relocation to South America.

    It’s an unusually ballsy way to roll out a new car, although as Aston’s commitment to the ‘Ring stretches back five years, this race is an established part of its development process. In fact, the car has already raced here in the preparatory four-hour VLN race, and a red Vantage Zagato has also notched up a winning outing at the upscale concours show Villa d’Este on Lake Como, where it won the coveted ‘design’ award.

  6. Back in the day, Touring, Ghia, Bertone and Pininfarina all bodied and rebodied Astons, but it’s Zagato that has the strongest relationship with the firm. I’m convinced the old man Ugo Zagato had a thing for a shapely lady’s bottom
    - he wouldn’t be the first Italian artist to have looked there for inspiration - and Zagato’s various Alfa Romeos, Fiats and Lancias are among the most appealingly eccentric coach-built Italian specials of all.

    Arse-fixated he may have been, but Ugo was also among the first men to spot the potential of aluminium in the car business.

  7. The DB4 GT Zagato is a definite highlight. Only 19 were originally made, and the car neither sold well nor raced with any great success. Which is interesting. Because that means the DB4 GT Z’s reputation and value - a decade ago the car was worth £1.5m; now, they’re nudging the £5m mark - isn’t to do with its racing provenance, it’s almost entirely down to its phenomenal beauty.

    Only the most myopic Aston fan could say the same about the Vantage Zagato that followed in the mid-Eighties, which fatally swapped the curvy arse for a lantern jaw.

  8. Most recently, Aston resumed relations with the Italians in 2003, when the DB7 signed off with a 99-strong Zagato limited-edition coupe and Volante. One owner only registered his so that he had something interesting to go to lunch in when he saw Michael Caine. Eccentric, you see.

    These days, Aston Martin is made of far sterner stuff. The deal with Zagato might look a bit sentimental, but it isn’t really. Chassis boss, One-77 project manager and works driver Chris Porritt explains the background. “We only started formulating the idea to do something last December,” he says, immediately suggesting an appealingly seat-of-the-pants approach.

  9. “And we wanted to develop something that would commemorate the DB4 GT Z’s 50th anniversary, but also work at the Nürburgring. The development team on the One-77 was nearing the end of that project, so we had some resource to tap into there.

    “The priority here was absolutely to develop a racing car, and as the car is based on the V12 Vantage, we needed to work out what needed to change to make it effective on the track. The cooling, the exhaust system, a new flat under-floor to reduce drag… we’ve done a lot of work. As a test venue, the benefits of coming to the Nürburgring are huge - in terms of durability, stability, braking, traction tests… it has everything.”

  10. In terms of the visuals, this is a more collaborative effort. Previous Aston Zagatos have been designed and fabricated entirely by the Italians. These days, Aston’s design director Marek Reichman likes to remain in control, and while the design themes were worked on jointly, the finished car owes more to the English Midlands than Milan.

    The same applies to the construction process: this was handled by CPP Holdings, a Coventry-based outfit that recently acquired Dutch supercar oddballs Spyker for £27m. Hand-beating aluminium is an old-school skill, though, and the new car’s bonnet uses five separate sheets, its roof - complete with Zagato signature double-bubble - another five.

  11. The result might not be as effortlessly fluid as the original, but it’s still way more than a callow tribute act. The nose and gaping grille - it needs to be that way
    to maximise airflow - are serious statements, the roof and glasshouse add emphasis, and the rear end is both super-curvy and dominated by some hugely aggressive aero and a monster exhaust.

    Riding on angry 20in rims, the new Zagato has a bit of edge and grit to it, which is exactly how it should be. “Zagato likes to do things differently,” Porritt admits. “Those guys have some very… specific design obsessions.”

  12. Not all of which are that helpful when you get to the track, it turns out. The show car has sprouted an enormous rear wing to generate some much-needed downforce. It’s a two-piece carbon-fibre item with endplates fashioned from marine ply. “For testing only,” Porritt says with a wink. “Though it works perfectly well.”

    He also says that the front end is currently a bit lifty, but that a few tweaks will easily balance the car out. Cooling the transmission has necessitated cutting ducts into those curvy rear wings, and there’s a cooler in the rear floor. The 6.0-litre V12 we already know about, though it’s pumping out a thumping 530bhp in this car and is harnessed to an amazing-looking, bespoke race exhaust.

  13. The transmission is the six-speed paddleshift system used by the One-77, and makes its competition debut in this car. The single clutch has been recalibrated, and there’s a magnesium rather than aluminium torque tube. The suspension has adjustable, spool-valve dampers, but uses rubber bushings rather than being rose-jointed.

    “Rubber bushing provides a bit more compliance in the system,” Porritt says. “It isolates the shocks and bumps you invariably get in a 24-hour race.” In race trim, the Zagato looks a bit under-nourished on 18in rims, but that’s what the Yokohama slicks require. Carbon brakes aren’t allowed, so instead there are cast-iron discs, 330mm upfront with six-pot calipers.

  14. Getting into it is another shock, and requires the sort of yogic bendiness I barely had when I was 20, never mind 40. But it instantly feels right once you’re strapped in. The dash architecture is much the same as the regular Vantage, but the buttons are all pure racecar in function and there’s carbon all over the place. Trip the ignition switch, and fire her up…

    Another huge shock. This thing is loud. And hot. I mean, LOUD and HOT. We haven’t even exited the pit lane yet, and already I’m being soaked in noise and heat. Porritt says that it can get up to 40°C in here during a race, and the makeshift pipe funnelling cold air through a hole in the driver’s window is as effective as an emphysemic OAP.

  15. Into first. The Zagato pulls away surprisingly smoothly, and we pour onto the track. A quick exploratory stab on the throttle immediately lights up the back tyres. Yep, there’s precious little grip out here. Self - and car - preservation - and the weather - mean this is never going to be the definitive encounter. But even so, this thing rocks.

    Bumbling along at 50mph behind the photography car is pretty frustrating, but proves that Zag - far from feeling like a caged animal - has an unexpected docility. Weave side-to-side, though, and there’s no slack in it at all. The steering is effort-free, but still feels supremely accurate. It feels stiff, but expertly damped. God, racecars are fun.

  16. Tap the left-hand paddle twice, and Zag drops into second gear with the sort of throaty roar that makes Brian Blessed sound like Alan Carr. It’s so loud the V12 really is in-yer-face. Pile on the revs, and the cabin fills with a noise that manages to sound both spectral and intensely physical at the same time. As is the rest of the car, but in a good way.

    It’s balanced and progressive, and the three-stage traction control keeps it more or less tied down, although standing water can defeat even the sharpest electronics.

  17. Basically, it feels like a Vantage V12 with all its senses and responses turned up to 11. It’s lairy, in other words, but progressive and predictable with it. And I cannot tell you how happy I am when I return it to the pit lane intact. South American exile postponed…

    Fast-forward to Saturday afternoon. There are 220,000 spectators in the grandstands and surrounding forest. The weather has been iffy right up to, and beyond, qualifying. The green car - Zig - lines up 47th on the grid, with a lap time of 9mins 7secs.

  18. Tyre choice has to be finalised a few hours before the start, and standing on the grid with only 15 minutes to go, a dry line is clearly starting to appear. There’ll be pit stops at the end of the first lap. There’s a Ferrari 458 in pole, with Merc SLSs, Audi R8s, BMW M3s and numerous Porsches at the sharp end of a grid that runs to more than 200 cars.

    No wonder this race has grown in stature. It’s supercar central down here, and we bump into the man from McLaren, who promises a full-on MP4-12C GT3 assault here next year.

  19. It’s a long 24 hours. We shuttle between Jim Glickenhaus’s P4/5 garage and the Aston one. Jim’s obsessed with 1967, when the 330P3 and P4 dominated endurance racing, and the modern reinterpretation he’s dreamt up with Pininfarina is his gift to himself and the rest of us.

    It goes through so many gearbox linkages that he quips about talking to Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo about whether it’s covered by warranty. The P4/5 finishes 40th, 23 laps behind the winning Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.

  20. Zig and Zag have a tough time of it. Zig is T-boned by some clod as it’s exiting the pit lane, disturbing its engine mounts and triggering a chain reaction that knackers all
    sorts of sensors. It gets sorted, but sets the team well back. Zag needs a new gearbox, a refit that takes well over two hours. They wind up fifth and sixth in their class, 118th and 94th overall. But at least they finish.

    Green hell? Maybe. Time for a beer? Definitely.

What do you think?

This service is provided by Disqus and is subject to their privacy policy and terms of use. Please read Top Gear’s code of conduct (link below) before posting.

Promoted content