2011 Aston Martin Vantage S
You'll lose the empire if you choose the easiest way through those knots, because Ascari forgives bad drivers less than Zeus would. Those were lightning bolts the night before, after all, but the track's dry. A stiff, steady 20-mph wind will do that.
Think it's daunting? Then sidle up to the driver's door, with an XXL helmet almost sitting on your shoulders, and try to fold into an electric-blue Vantage S coupe with hard-formed seats we won't get in the U.S. versions. It's impossible, at least with my inseam. I feel a neck disc flex--oh hai, C3, and maybe C4, too--and decide it's probably better for consciousness if I swing open the roof on the viridian roadster in the next parking spot over. Hey, it's also right-hand drive. Perfect, marvelous. I wanted to get that much closer to the curbs, anyway.
With little prep time, I press the Start button to life--if it were only that easy at 7 a.m., I can't help but think--and swing out of pit lane with my huge, white head bobbling in the jet stream a good three inches above the windshield header. And it's on, oh, it's definitely on. Cone 1 cues up a downhill double-apex that slaps you into shocking reality, as you push deeper into the throttle and let the Vantage flatten out into speed-building neutrality. Curb after curb, cone after cone, Ascari has 26 turns equally split between left and rights, and two of them will remain hypotheses even after the first 20 minutes of lap time have been erased.
While I figure out the easier corners, the Vantage S' backing track begs to be let off its chain. No one does balanced aggression like this: it's a throbby, ripe exhaust note marbled with rich metallic veins, perfect from intake to exhaust. Blipping it against the rev limiter lets it whuffle off its peak shriek for a second or two, but you really want to let it run open through its sweet spot, from about 4000 rpm to 7000 rpm. It just howls, like you want anything under your control to howl with the right touch.
And it's relatively easy to bring to a boil. The gearbox works perfectly in sync with the Vantage's roadgoing personality, which means it's a little less quick to shift than a dedicated dual-clutch transmission. The payoff comes in smoothness. Even when it's in Sport mode, this automated manual never hits the janky rough patches of those old BMW SMG units, and it's probably just a touch more suave in action than the Audi r-tronic and Gallardo semi-manual boxes. It couldn't be much faster, but a dual-clutch could cut shift times considerably--and you need every tenth of a second here, between Ascari's constant curb-to-curb pummeling. Just like you need its limited-slip diff to keep everything in balance when the inside rear wheel hunts deep in a corner under a fully compressed suspension, while the outside rear wheel checks its email and updates its Facebook status.
The Vantage S doesn't want for anything mechanical, especially for tire meat, but it's still more overtly a GT. You can tell how the front end lifts a little at triple-digit speeds, how the slight body roll that keeps it pliant on the street demands a half-moment of patience to take a set on the track before it sounds the all-clear. But the brakes stay alive, lap after lap, up to the challenge that the big, rorty V-8 throws down, corner after corner.
Laps add up slowly at Ascari. They're long loops, at almost 3.4 miles apiece, and cooling the car down gives you plenty of time to smack your forehead at turn 6's obvious orthodoxy--hit the middle before you apex, or you're slow, or you're off-road--or how the esses at 12 and 13 really want second gear. If your head's even further in the clouds, you can marvel at how the Vantage has more different kinds of body pieces than almost any car on the planet (the aluminum frame wears magnesium, composite and steel panels). Or you can tally up how much the bespoke car you're ordering in your dreams will cost, once you've tagged up the sheet with front and rear parking sensors, the fabulous 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system and its rising-mushroom tweeters, and maybe opted out of one of the least user-friendly nav systems you can find.
Or if you're like us, you gently ignore the call to cool down and draw this out as long as you can, as fast as you can, until the pit lane reappears a couple of miles down a very kinky road.
Checkered flag, my ass. You can just hang for a few.