Night and Day: 24 Hours in a V12 Vantage from London to Le Mans
It’s a marketing man’s fantasy. Thursday night: a smart dinner in the West End, after attending a preview at the Summer Exhibition. 03:00 Friday morning it's off for the Eurotunnel and a brisk drive through northern France to Le Mans – all accomplished in Aston Martin’s most sporting model, the 510bhp V12 Vantage.
A demanding schedule for man and machine. One minute, lightweight suit, Berkeley Square traffic and pockmarked English roads, the next, all-weather clothing for the Le Mans 24 Hours, an overnight bag and smooth-as-the-baby’s-proverbial French autoroute.
From 20:00 on Thursday to 20:00 on Friday (when we turned up at the Aston Martin Racing pre-race BBQ), I spent a long time in the lightweight sports seat of the Morning Frost Aston – a quite appropriate 24 hours.
Driving a supercar in London has its ups and downs. True, park anything north of £100k in Mayfair and you’re in good company. However, the road to riches can be a rocky one – quite literally, in the case of the UK’s capital city. The Aston’s uncompromising suspension, Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres and wafer-thin seats are not exactly the osteopath’s friend.
Hang on, though, this is why you’ve bought the car in the first place. It’s the modern version of a DB4 GT or Ferrari 250 GT, a real driver’s car, uncompromising and built for speed.
This particular driver was up and ready for action at 03:00 the next day (I’ll spare you the packing-the-car-at-midnight story), which makes three hours' sleep – yes, THREE. A stopover to collect my co-driver and we were soon cruising down the M20 with other Le Mans-goers, in torrential rain.
The weather was so bad you simply had to slow down and let the car take things at its own pace – which it did, very well. No time for heroics so early in the first stint.
Emerging, mole-like and blinking from the Calais end of the tunnel, it was time to stretch our legs. This is where the big-hearted car comes into its own, loping along stretches of the world-class French motorway system with ease, a real ‘horizon-shrinker’. On decent Tarmac the transformation is extraordinary: much, much smoother, with beautifully weighted steering and little bump-thump over expansion joints. I would apportion this 50:50, tyres:dampers.
A breakfast break meant a driver-change, too, and it was time to appreciate the car from the other side of the cockpit. There’s no doubt about it, for all the virtues of upmarket Audis, Mercedes and BMWs, an Aston or Ferrari is a special thing.
Come midday and we were closing on our first objective, a stop at the hotel to drop off bags and make sure our reservation really had been taken (no worries there, thank you, Rob and Bernard), then an hour out for some D-road driving and photography. This was a journey – not a full-on road test, but just 30 minutes at speed in the Aston is a pleasure. Keep the big engine turning over in a high gear and let the now desirable hard damper/performance tyre combination look after you.
Fast, assured motoring on dry public roads: the V12 Vantage is made for it.
Having picked up tickets and met the rest of the Friday evening drivers' parade party (a Rapide and a DBS), it was time to follow-my-leader to the city centre. While all nine Aston Martin racing drivers travelled in open vintage cars, we were the meat in the sandwich, showing the crowds just why the British company competes in long-distance racing with production-based engines.
And the sound of the V12 in ‘Sport’ (the remarkable setting that really opens up the engine's performance, almost as if a turbo has cut in) is better than a diesel’s, n’est pas?
Come 7 o’clock, everything was over and it was time to drive to the Friday night party. There was one teeny-weeny problem, though, as we needed to cross a heavily congested city with many road closures. Well, we got there, with the sat-nav saving us on more than one occasion, so don’t believe everything you read in the press.
As we crunched up the gravel drive to the Gite, the 24-hour mark was up. My personal test of endurance was over and the next day it was time to hand the key back to Aston in exchange for that of a 2011-model DB9. A very different machine, more suited to the journey we’d just done, perhaps?
Maybe. And there’s no doubt that if you needed to commute to work the next day, the DB9 would be the better choice. However, for those ‘get in the car and just GO’ occasions that come over us all, once in a while, the V12 Vantage has few peers. And as a road car in the Aston Martin range that seems to have most in common with its similarly engined racing relations, what better destination to go to than Le Mans?
Postscript: A couple of comments after the flag had dropped. It uses a lot of fuel; don’t bother working it out (I didn’t), just be prepared for it. And prepare yourself, too, for a damp road; with all the safety systems on, it will still kick the tail out, and needs respect at 100mph and beyond, even in a straight line. There: never say I don’t tell it like it is.
Text: Steve Wakefield
Photos: Classic Driver, LAT/Aston Martin
ClassicInside - The Classic Driver Newsletter