Top Gear in the Aston Martin Vulcan | Top Gear
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BBC TopGear

Top Gear in the Aston Martin Vulcan

Time to go for a fire-breathing blast in the £1.8m, 820bhp Vulcan

  • To paraphrase the Blues Brothers, I’ve got a full tank of gas, it’s midnight…

    …and I’m wearing shades. In my defence, Yas Marina has a severe case of nyctophobia, and if I lift when I’m alongside a wall, it glows orange from the reflected flames. I kid you not. The Aston Vulcan is named after the god of fire and volcanoes and forges and other things that are hot, orange and perilous and is clearly anxious to prove it’s not the runt of its mythical Dad’s litter.

    Then, a black cat runs across the track as I’m braking for Turn 1. Bad luck, good luck? I don’t have a position on black cats, but, either way, I balls up the braking, so I miss the apex while considering the luck paradox, and, since 1 links straight into 2, make a hash of that as well while attempting to jab a thumb at the pit radio button to warn my race engineer of an unusual on-track sighting. Reckon he won’t have heard that one before.

    Photography: Richard Pardon

    This feature was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Top Gear magazine.

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  • Besides revealing that my mental acuity isn’t in the Schumacher league, and the happy evidence that Yas Marina has a mouser on duty, what this reveals is just how stable the Vulcan is when presented with a sudden, ill-advised jink left while braking from one-hundred-and-god-knows into a blind second-gear left-hander. No fuss, no bother and, if I’d been less distracted, I’d still have made the apex, too.

    This calmness under pressure is characteristic of the Vulcan. Out at Turn 14, I left my braking too late and backed the damn thing into the corner. Anything mid-engined with lock this minimal would have pivoted on the spot, but the Aston just nudged out a couple of degrees as a warning, and I got to keep my dignity and feel like a hero for whapping into, through and out of the crucial marina corner while carrying a breathless gasp of oppo.

    That was with the traction control turned to some midway stage between one and seven and the power dial pointing at two – only 675bhp.

  • Only. Power figures are disruptive. They condense everything about a car’s performance into a solitary, web-digestable, easily repeatable number. But it’s what that horsepower feels like, that’s the ticket. So no, even with brave pills swallowed and dial twisted its final click into position three, 820bhp isn’t as much muscle as mustered by a P1 GTR or Ferrari FXXK. If you’re of the opinion that, as a result, those cars are better, stop reading now. This isn’t as simple as good, better, best.

    The Vulcan started life when Fraser Dunn, chief engineer of Aston’s Q Advanced Engineering division, and David King, director of advanced operations and motorsport, got chatting about some old One-77 development prototypes that were kicking around. Unsurprisingly, their first thought was to make a faster one. They envisioned a One-77 R.

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  • The trouble was that the project that interested and excited them also bought out the small boys in almost every other department at Aston Martin. Design wanted a piece of the pie, and when they got the go ahead to make some sweeping changes, including shaping the bodywork in carbon instead of aluminium, every other department started pushing to make equally significant changes.

    So the plan to use the existing 7.3 V12 was abandoned. Aston Martin Racing pointed out it had a very potent 6.0 V12 running in the Vantage GT3, that, with a significant amount of modification (including gaining a litre of capacity), would deliver on one of the key parameters – over 800bhp.

  • Whether another parameter was the ability to drive upside-down is doubtful, but, given the right location, at 190mph the Vulcan would glue itself to the ceiling. Since it weighs 1,350kg, you get an idea of just how much use the Vulcan makes of the tortured air that beats over its surfaces. And under. The single most effective aero device on the car is not the rear wing that’s big enough to taxi a Boeing on, but the diffuser underneath. Look at the size of the front splitter and imagine how much air it channels under the car. And, because it’s front-engined, once air is slicing along underneath, the diffuser can be opened out earlier, generating more suck further forwards.

    But it’s not just the big aero components that count. Those vents aft of the front wings extract the high-pressure air that builds up in the front wheelarches. The race-minded engineers wanted them to expel upwards through the bonnet, but Marek Reichmann, Aston’s design chief, wouldn’t permit that – he wanted the big expanse of bonnet – so they vent onto the flanks. The aero compromise turned out to have an unanticipated benefit: the tumbling, extracted low-pressure air draws higher-pressure air from the bonnet down on to the sides of the car, improving the flow.

  • It wasn’t all so mutually beneficial. All parties admit there was a certain amount of ‘creative tension’. But it would be a dull old world – and a dull old car – if the people involved weren’t passionate enough to fight their corners.

    Look at the Vulcan and tell me you don’t want to drive it. Ok, less so if you’re viewing it from the front, but the low rear-three-quarter angle where the view is mostly wing, the carbon bazooka that passes for a side-exit exhaust, lollipop-stick rear lights and a rear haunch that appears to be forcing its way forward into the back of the driver’s head. That view is the one you can see on the cover. We didn’t choose it by accident. When I ask Marek what his favourite viewing angle is, that’s the one he cites. 

    So, the front. It’s striking alright, can’t be mistaken for anything else, but in pictures it’s a curious thing, not even particularly car-like. Two things cause this – the lack of a visible light signature, and the domed, bubbly glasshouse. True, pictures fail to convey the nuance of the design, or just how crisp and heavily folded is the line that runs up to the base of the A-pillar, but… it’s just not to my taste.

  • We arrive at Yas Marina stupidly late at night. We shouldn’t have, but customs got twitchy and kept our bags. Currently neither Richard Pardon nor videographer David Hale have a single camera to point about – they won’t get them back until 3pm the following day. But we can’t wait and, because Yas is Yas, the place is lit up like a Christmas tree. Still, it seems right to be quiet as we creep into the back of the pit garage. The Vulcan is silhouetted, nosing up to the translucent shutter door. It looks mega. I sit and drink it in for a minute then open the garage door. Shadows climb up over the car and the pit straight here is revealed; the thrill hits me. Driving a sodding Vulcan around Yas Marina. That’s not shabby, is it?

    I’m not the only excited (and slightly apprehensive) chap here. This is the first event Aston has laid on for Vulcan owners. It held a special unveiling earlier, the first time each had seen their finished car in its chosen colour scheme. Aston will lay on three Vulcan events for owners this year – the others at Silverstone and Spa – and another three for two years beyond that. On top of that, you can do what you like with the car – have it at home, do other track days (noise permitting), even race it (Aston has fitted it with an approved roll cage, so with minimal mods it would be eligible for a few race series, including the VLN championship). 

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  • Will any of these cars work hard? Unlikely. Certainly none of them will be as abused as the development motor that did over 10,000 ‘flat-out Darren Turner’ kilometres around Nardò’s infield track, including setting the all-time lap record there (nine seconds faster than a McLaren P1 road car, apparently – see what I mean about power figures being misleading?).

    It’s the next morning. Vulcan owners may have good cashflow, but they’re not racers, more track-day enthusiasts with extra zeros to their names. Their experience of racetracks and cars specifically designed to forcibly rip them apart is varied, so Aston is putting them through their paces. The plan is to give them each an instructor and have them drive a V12 Vantage S so they can learn the lines around here. Then move on to a Vantage GT4 to introduce them to slicks, a One-77 for power and, finally, hop into their car, put it all together and do what they’ve come here to do.

  • So I’m going to shadow that, until an unforeseen incident (we’re at a track – you don’t need me to spell it out) causes a chunky delay and means I’ve only got time for the GT4. It’s one of Yas Marina’s own cars and is pretty shonky – hard-abused by the clientele and prone to selecting neutral during high-rev upshifts. Still, it sounds good, has bags of grip and due to not breaking down on circuit, lets me find my way around.

    To drive, Yas Marina isn’t a sensation, mostly made up of tight 90s, but it has one or two ballsy corners – Turn 3 is fast and cresting, and the double-apex right that brings you face on to the hotel. The backdrop is what sets it apart. The hotel, the people on bridges, the boats in the marina, the vast grandstands, the sheer inclusiveness of racing in semi-urban surroundings. You’re on display, an actor on a stage. It’s a kind of motorsport utopia. Middle Eastern Monaco. It’s got a tunnel as well as those yachts. That there are no noise restrictions – none – during running hours that can extend beyond midnight is something else it has in its favour.

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  • I’m childlike with wonder at this. Giddy with the thrill of driving under spotlights at night and giving the Vulcan full voice. I get into it, appropriately enough, at golden hour, as the sun tocks down. I’m on Michelin Cup 2 road tyres to start and with the three-position power dial wound to its base setting. Just 550bhp – it’s good enough for over 150 on the long back straight.

    Do you know what stuns me about the Vulcan? The quality of the fit and finish. The door closure is precise, the bonnet rises on gas struts, the precise feel and click of the paddles, the power of the aircon blower, the leather, toggle switches… the design and execution is stunning. And the steering wheel. That’s plain glorious.

    Stuff this, you don’t care about 550bhp mode, nor 675. All you need to know is that each time I flick the dial onwards, the Vulcan kicks forwards. One fifty on the back straight becomes one-six-five, becomes one-seven-five. At the 200-metre board I hit the brakes with everything my left leg has. You can do this when the car currently weighs about 2.5 tonnes and is wearing 305-width front slicks. The power I can put into the carbon Brembos, can’t resist putting into them, will make my left hip ache for days afterwards.

  • It’s an addictive business, mashing the brakes, knowing you’ll never lock them, that your leg is the weak link, pummelling down through the gears, trying to remember to lift off as the aero grip bleeds away and the car lightens, carrying braking all the way to the apex to keep that nose locked on line. The forces on your body change direction, the push forward into the harness arcing round your body as the lateral grip takes hold, your neck muscles give way and your helmet-weighted head falls sideways to meet the welcoming arms of the headrest.

    You have to give yourself over to it, like a self-inflicted fairground ride. I whoop and holler, at once carefree and focused, both loving the wild ride and intent on getting the throttle application dead-on. Because, as the power comes on, it’s V12 time. Naturally aspirated, ultra-responsive, wondrous, strident and sonically magnificent. It howls. Shrieks almost. The sound pulses pile on top of each other, the detonations more densely packed than in a V8, coming faster and harder and more urgently, each forcing speed from the car. When they’re not gobbing out fire, each exhaust is an entrance to Hades, glowing orange in its depths.

  • You can’t not listen to it... feel it, even. Downshifts shock the car, the flames lick about, the side pipes pop, rumble and crash, shift lights flash, gears whine – it’s a mashing, roaring mechanical melee. Something you feel awed to be in control of. Every so often I have to go back into the pits to recover. Driving the Vulcan is a brutal, exhausting business. Five laps and I’m spent – I get a headache, I need to drink, sweat gathers, ears ring. I haven’t heard a word from my man on the pit wall, because even with the intercom turned right up, he’s fighting an unwinnable battle against the V12. When someone else goes out, you hear them around the whole circuit, each gearshift, each lift. When they howl down the pit straight, shockwaves battering the grandstands, it’s painful. Moments later, you taste the pungent fumes.

    Later, I get to park up on the corner right in front of the hotel. From this I learn two things. That if you blip the throttle, the revs flare and fade instantly – a spike of noise that speaks of zero flywheel effect. And also that it can rattle the windows of a soundproofed hotel, bringing people onto their balconies and evening diners out of the restaurant.

  • The Vulcan is thunderous and demanding and addictive. This is no surprise. But it’s something else as well: approachable.

    You have to drive it properly. If you’re late with your downshifts, each will kickback through the drivetrain, jolting the car. The brakes squeal madly, tauntingly, if they’re not used hard enough. The traction control isn’t that sophisticated. Try as you might to hold the throttle steady as you process down the pit lane, it’ll kangaroo and lurch. It feels truculent until you get up to its pace. Then it’s simply staggering.

    Just as with McLaren’s P1 GTR, Aston has got the balance between aggression and suppleness spot-on. When I eventually work my way up to pushing the Vulcan about a bit, I discover that it will understeer mildly wide of the apex if you’re too greedy too early with the throttle; it’ll also oversteer if you attempt to nullify that with extra throttle. Too much brake, and the back will step out when you put some steering on. The lateral grip, even at three-figure speeds, will eventually run out, pushing the front off line.

  • All these movement are smooth and well telegraphed. It doesn’t snap or twitch, but moves progressively, calmly, gives you pointers and nudges to make you aware. As it is, it’s deliciously neutral: small throttle adjustments, particularly at high speed, having marked effects on your trajectory and line. However, as I gradually build a better picture of it, I decide I’d quite like more direct steering just off-centre, the brakes to have even better bite right at the top of the travel, the gearing to be shorter so I could counter the downforce above 150mph with more high-rev shove in fifth and sixth, the damping to recover its composure more quickly after the nasty bumps just before the braking zone on the back straight. Maybe a little less roll to sharpen up the direction changes in the chicanes.

    And, of course, all of this is possible. It’s a racing car. You can change the dampers, toe angles, caster, cambers, gear ratios, fuelling, tyres, whatever. Just come in, have a word with your engineer, maybe go over your data traces. It’s the bloody ultimate track-day car and you’ve paid enough for it, so play around with it, indulge yourself. Why the hell not? That’s what it’s there for. It can change and develop with your talents and experience.

  • At midnight, the track closes. Midnight. Imagine being able to run that long in the UK. I’ve had some ridiculously good moments in my job, but I can genuinely say that each lap in the Vulcan was a privilege, particularly that plunge down to the glowing purple Yas Viceroy hotel, whapping down two gears, making sure you punish every apex and kerbstone in front of the spectators, V12 echoing, the knowledge of how many people you were affecting with your behaviour. Feels like power. Feels naughty. Mischievous. And I was wearing sunglasses, so I even felt a bit cool.

    The next day I watch others do the same. What a spectacle. I stand on the hotel balcony riveted by the gearshift wumphs, the flames’ crackle, the speed and grip. What an epic car. I must admit to having had my misgivings beforehand. I’ve never driven a One-77, but others hadn’t spoken that highly of it and I was fearful that the Vulcan would have a strong whiff of road car. Not a trace. It’s not a racing car either. It has aircon and lovely design touches. I can’t stop taking pictures of the rear lights. Forget the price – the Vulcan is a pulse-pumpingly, chest-thumpingly, ear-thrashingly, intoxicating machine that lets its owners indulge themselves in a fantasy. I thought it was magic.

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