The ‘plop’ of Michelin maps on the passenger seat late Thursday evening was the yin to the 04:00 alarm’s yang the following morning. A solo drive, to and from the great 24-hour race in France, with just the Friday away from the office, results in a punishing schedule. In all honesty, the latest V8 Vantage S, with its more focused suspension, bucket seats and quicker steering than standard wasn’t the ideal car for such an early start.
Terrible road surfaces, closed and semi-closed motorways, radar-controlled speed restrictions and mostly lorry traffic at such hours made it hard going. But, once on the final stretch to the Eurotunnel, driving into the rising sun, Bang & Olufsen my only companion and the car ticking over in 7th gear... you know... things were on the up.
Ah, La Belle France with its magnificent autoroutes– the world’s finest motorway system – how we Brits love you. It’s a long, two-legged stretch to Le Mans from Calais. Rouen is the interruption, so mile-after-mile of cruising is interrupted by the now customary ‘Le Mans Friday’ jams through the Normandy city.
The new car’s extra (7th) gear, coupled with a reduced final drive and re-mapped motor bring out the very best in it, and cruising at the 130km/h mark (the French national limit, 80mph or near enough, around 3250rpm) there’s little noise in the cabin. The Sport button has yet to be deployed, as economy and everyday usability is uppermost right now. The first fill-up comes in Rouen, 239 miles from home and the average works out at around 20mpg – a figure the car maintains throughout the weekend. Not bad, not bad at all, although in ‘super-economy’ automatic mode Aston reckons figures in the high twenties are possible; 30.4mpg is the official ‘Extra-urban’ cycle figure.
Back on the road. With the constant lane-changing and on/off slip roads that are the motorway network around Rouen, it’s time to play with the latest Sportshift and explore the other end of the rev-counter. If you are in the market for a new V8 Vantage, this is the one to have, there’s no doubt about that. Purely from a performance perspective if feels much sharper than previous versions, the 430bhp, lower axle and extra cog makes the free-spinning engine really zing up to its nigh-on 8000rpm cut-out.
It feels more ‘planted’, too, cornering flatter, riding bumps better and providing greater feedback through the steering wheel. Yes, its suspension is a performance-optimised ‘firm’, but in comparison with a V12 Vantage it’s a far more comfortable car for a really long trip. As a Roadster, though, you’ll be in toothbrush-and-a-change-of-socks territory with it as the boot is terribly small due to the power roof.
Once at Le Mans, the Aston Martin Owners Club ‘John Wyer Tribute’ meeting in nearby Chartre-sur-le-Loir was the first port of call. The older satellite navigation system as fitted to all Astons prior to the new Virage has its detractors, that’s true, but it got me there, and then on to all the other jolly Le Mans stuff all weekend. And then around a crazy motorway closure when back in the UK on Sunday night – just when most drivers just want to go home. Come on, what more do you want?
The drive back from La Chartre to the circuit to collect tickets was a cracker. This was French D-road motoring in a fast car at its best. It’s quite extraordinary that the roads should be so quiet with nearly a quarter of a million people encamped only 20 or so miles away. Sport button engaged and top down, a beautiful sunny afternoon and verdant French countryside with well sign-posted and maintained roads, the drive was unforgettable.
And following another open, metallic green Aston Martin, which just happened to be the DBR1 which won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1959, was one of those things that life throws at you once in a while, to be savoured while you can. Distant relations and all that.
Come four o’clock on Sunday, one hour after the end of one of the most exciting races ever, it was time to squeeze out of the car park and head North West for home. The stop-start of the queues was fine, although when it came to actually switching off the engine, the car’s slippery ‘Emotional Control Unit’ key had me struggling to rein in my emotions when, for the umpteenth time, it boinged out of the dash and under the passenger seat. Next time, can we have a normal key and a starter button, please?
So it was then the reverse of the downward route, hitting home at 23:30 on Sunday night, 831 miles in total over the weekend, a mix of mainly motorway commuter work, jams and the occasional, delicious cross-country blast.
Just the sort of driving the average Aston-owner would be doing, in fact. And I can honestly say it did it brilliantly – the boring, hood-up sections were still satisfying, while in full-on Roadster mode in pursuit of a Le Mans winner it maintained every tradition of the marque. And, funnily enough, the last section, driving solo on pock-marked British Tarmac, in the dark with vile weather and even worse traffic, was one of the most satisfying.
I really had that “we’ve got through this together” feeling as I stepped out of the comfortable bucket seats. As with the legendary 24-hour event I’d just witnessed, a true test of endurance and one the V8 Vantage S Roadster completed without missing a beat.