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Aston Martin V12 Zagato & Vantage GT4 Review

2014-04-21 Read: 282x

Aston Martin V12 Zagato: Two-door, two-seat coupe with hand-crafted aluminium body, Aston Martin 6.0-litre V12 395kW, six-speed automated manual gearbox with auto shift manual/select shift manual (ASM/SSM) electric hydraulic control system.
Aston Martin Vantage GT4: Aston Martin Racing 4.7-litre V8 GT4 engine, six-speed sportshift (ASM) transmission
CarAdvice Exclusive: Track testing Aston Martin’s endurance racers
The Aston Martin Vantage GT4 is a very quick bit of kit; it’s a lightweight racer that weighs in at 300kg less than its road going V8 Vantage sibling. It’s also more road car than race car and that’s the way Aston Martin chief Ulrich Bez likes it.

Aston Martin has been racing production cars, pre-production cars and prototypes at the one of the world’s toughest endurance races – the 24 Hours Nurburgring – for years. It’s also one of the world’s most demanding road circuits with way too many corners to remember and several twisty sections (some of those downhill), which are driven flat out at speeds approaching 300km/h. Each lap of the combined Nordschliefe and Grand Prix circuits is near enough to 26 kilometres.
It is home to without doubt the trickiest stretches of tarmac on the planet and, as such, provides a unique test track experience for many of the world’s car manufacturers intent on providing the best possible driving experience for their production car customers.

Aston Martin likes to go one step further though. It likes to race its production-car prototypes at the ‘Ring using the famous 24 Hours Nurburgring as a virtual ‘sign off’ before green-lighting series production or further improvements to existing models.
That kind of strategy might seem to represent a sizeable risk to the company by exposing these prototypes and virtual production cars to as many as 250,000 spectators. But that’s what it’s all about according to Dr Bez, who believes running these cars at race pace for 24 hours and finishing without a mechanical failure is sure-fire proof of Aston Martin’s reliability and robustness under the most arduous conditions.
This year was no different, with no less than three factory-backed Aston Martins lining up on the grid of the 39th ADAC Nurburgring 24 Hour race.

Two exceptionally rare Aston Martin V12 Zagato concept cars, one of which had recently premiered at the exclusive Concorso D’Eleganza at Villa D’Este in Italy, joined a V8 Vantage N24 racer.
The V12 Zagatos were an ambitious project from the start. Only one was ever built for the event in Italy, mainly to gauge interest in the possibility of doing a road-going version of the car. The show car in red livery was quickly modified into the No. 3 race car, while a second V12 Zagato, was built as the No. 5 car in green livery.

The two Zagatos were true hand-built prototypes and, as such, as rare as hen’s teeth and not the ideal racing package due to the risks and replacement cost.
Despite an incident-packed 24 Hour race, as is generally the case at the Nurburgring, all three cars crossed the line in commendable positions in their class. The red V12 Zagato finished in 6th position in class, while the later-build green car, nicknamed ‘Zig’, finished in 5th place.
So you can imagine the sheer rapture when I got an email asking if I’d like to test drive both the V12 Zagato and the latest Vantage GT4 car at the GP Circuit at the Nurburgring.

This was a unique opportunity afforded to just handful of motoring journalists from around the world. It was also a chance to see just how close Aston Martin’s racers are to the car you can purchase off the showroom floor.
First up was the Vantage GT4, a 1330kg race-prepared version of same 4.7-litre V8 Vantage that you would find on the showroom floor – only this one is both quicker and blessed with a substantially louder engine note, if that’s possible. If you’re lucky enough to have ever heard a stock standard V8 Vantage accelerate away from a set of traffic lights or blasting along a suburban street at anywhere north of 3200rpm, then you’ll know exactly where I’m coming from.

Under the bonnet sits the same 4.7-litre V8 engine, but Aston Martin Racing, a separate division within the same company, prepared this unit with a different engine map, generating more power and a lot more noise.
The aerodynamic package is essentially borrowed from the V12 Vantage road car, but with some extra modifications. It’s about increasing the car’s downforce without increasing drag.

Apart from rear wing and various carbon fibre aero bits on the car, it really doesn’t look that different from the road-going version of the V8 Vantage. In fact, I asked Aston Martin’s Head of Motorsport, Dave King, about the differences between the road cars and race cars and he more or less said the race cars are basically road cars with some racing bits added on.

Dress code of the day was race suit and helmet. (Apart from the mandatory safety aspects of such attire, it helps you squeeze through the FIA-approved high-strength steel roll cage that frames the interior of the GT4.)
The Vantage GT4 has shed a whopping 300kg from the road car, employing a suite of weight-saving measures that you won’t find on any other Aston Martin Vantage. The most obvious are the polycarbonate side and rear windows and the super-lightweight magnesium five-stud wheels. There’s also a lightweight battery and reduced-weight wiring harness, which further shed those showroom kilos.

The lightweight diet continues inside the Vantage GT4, with a total absence of that superb hand-stitched leather that is so much a part of the Aston Martin appearance, at least with the road version. Instead, the leather has been replaced with Alcantara on top of a weight-reduced facia, although you’ll easily recognise the general layout and architecture of the model.

There’s a superb single Recaro race seat (although this car has had a co-driver’s seat installed) and the same transmission buttons on the centre console as you would find in the road car.
Time to fire up the GT4 for at least 30 minutes of track time with my designated Ring instructor who will show me the correct lines through this circuit before I get approved to pilot the single-seat V12 Zagato racer.

There’s the same centre-mounted starter button, but there’s no fob to insert. Just flick the ignition switch, wait a few seconds and hit the starter button. You’re suddenly rewarded with some GT4 magic as the unsilenced V8 barks to life.
Thankfully this car is fitted with Aston Martin’s Sportshift (ASM) transmission with a set of the finest paddle shifters that are fixed to the steering column. The steering wheel isn’t what you would normally find in a stock V8 Vantage either. This is a three-spoke quick release tiller, trimmed in suede for good grip and feel.

Suspension-wise, little has changed from the road car except for larger diameter front and rear anti-roll bars, adjustable aluminium dampers and single rate springs. The brakes have also been uprated with a set of highly regarded Pagid RS 29 race pads.
The free flow exhaust system combined with precious little noise insulation means the car idles loudly even with my helmet well and truly secured.

One right hand tap of the paddle and we’re making our way along pit lane before drilling the throttle down to the 50m braking point before the wide right hand first corner.
After only a few corners and I’m already thinking how easy this car is to drive and how quick it is down the straights, even with a co-driver on board. The grip levels from the racing slicks will have you wanting to push the GT4 harder and harder, lap after lap, and trying to do the sums on how best to get your very own Vantage racer.

With beautifully weighted steering and superb response, it’s one of the easiest racecars to drive that I’ve ever experienced. It’s a very similar feel to driving the road car only all the dynamic attributes of the stock car are amplified.
I can’t get over how easy the steering is. It’s not that its overly assisted, on the contrary, there’s plenty of weight from dead centre and through to lock, but the car is just so responsive that it feels just as easy to drive as the road car.
My Nurburgring instructor isn’t saying much, just correcting my line through one or two corners, which take some getting used to. But the car is so incredibly agile that you tend to keep increasing the pace, lap after lap. Soon after I find myself wanting even more power out of the corners and down the various straight sections. The chassis feels more than up to the task.

The brakes too are superb. It doesn’t matter how much pace you carry into a corner, the four-piston monoblock calipers with Pagid pads around the uprated two-piece front discs are able to wipe off speed at a prodigious rate. I mean, we’ve done close to 20 laps – most of those flat strap – and there isn’t a hint of brake fade.

For those fortunate buyers looking at a stock V8 Vantage, you can rejoice in the fact that the car’s underframe and active safety systems including ABS and Dynamic Stability Control are directly carried over to this GT4 racer. That’s a comforting thought when you’re next driving your road version across a twisty mountain pass with a good measure of enthusiasm.
Pushing harder into the corners and the GT4 refuses to tip in, even by a millimetre. Bodyroll, as I know it, is absolutely non-existent. After lap 16 the driving becomes almost relaxed, despite the substantial increase in pace that comes with knowing the track.

With the Vantage GT4 you can find your comfort zone fairly quickly, but as much as I’m looking forward to more power, the thought of climbing aboard the same V12 Zagato concept racer that claimed 5th place in class at the 24 Hours Nurburgring race is more than a little intimidating.
That’s especially so when you are aware that Dr Bez has an unwritten rule that all cars should be brought home unscathed unless of course your unavoidably hit by another driver.

There is no doubt about it, Aston Martin has always created some of the world’s best looking cars. It’s the same story with its racing cars, and these two examples are testament to that.
Aston’s V12 Zagato racer is easily one of the rarest cars in the world at this time After all, there are only two in existence, although, a green light has already been given to build a limited number of road-going versions.

Its official nameplate is the Aston Martin V12 Zagato Endurance Race Car Concept and, standing beside it, you can’t help being impressed by the unique styling.
It’s a rock solid platform too given these two concepts covered over 5900km during their Nurburgring 24-hour test over a course that best simulates the extremes of driving on public roads.
Under the bonnet is the same all-alloy quad overhead cam 48-valve 6.0-litre V12 that you would find in an Aston Martin DBS, only this unit develops slightly more power at 395kW (530bhp) yet with the same compression ratio of 10.9:1.

It’s not that I’m over manual transmissions, but with a car I’ve never before driven and one of only two in the world, I’m more than happy with the Zagato’s six-speed automated manual gearbox with paddle shifters.
This is a big step up from the Vantage GT4 in the ‘hard-core’ department and something that is patently obvious when you flick the ignition switch, wait 10 seconds and hit the starter button. There’s a fractional pause before the unsilenced V12 fires up and settles into an up-tempo rumble.

There’s even less room to squeeze through the bespoke steel roll cage in the Zagato (I seriously shouldn’t have had the mash with that Bratwurst), but once harnessed into the Recaro racing seat it’s actually quite comfortable inside this cockpit.

I’ve got less than 15 minutes in the driver’s seat of the Zagato, so time to tap the right paddle and engage first gear for blast off. The temptation to drill the throttle down pit lane is huge, but protocol and general safety prevents that from happening. No sooner though and I’m up to third and braking at the end of the main straight for corner one and I’m already loving the extra grunt from Aston’s tuned V12.

Even though it’s a larger car than the Vantage GT4, it doesn’t feel that way from behind the wheel. It’s just as easy to drive despite the significant upgrade in power and performance. Turn in is super sharp and the grip levels from massive slicks is huge and on a different scale than I’ve ever experienced.

The main straight after you round Coca-Cola Curve isn’t particularly long but the Zagato is winding up in fourth before I need to think about jumping on the Brembo six-pot front brake setup.
Not only can the Zagato carry serious speed down the straight, it’s more the aerodynamic stability of this car that excites me most. Rock solid stability is how I would describe the characteristics of this car. And like the Vantage GT4, the Zagato is an exceptionally easy car to drive with steering that at times feels effortless, even lap after lap.

It’s a fairly hard brake pedal in terms of pedal application but the stopping power is more than sufficient to rein in speed on the approach to a corner.
It’s hard not to want to stay in the car but laps are limited and I’ve just inadvertently missed the pit board to come in on this lap (I doubt they’ll believe me) so lap number five will be the last of an extraordinary opportunity that few sports car manufacturers would ever afford an eclectic group of journalists. That’s flat out on a full length GP circuit in one of the rarest race cars in the world.

Interestingly and by way of a comparison, we jumped in a Vantage S road car back at Aston’s test centre at the Nurburgring for a road drive down to the small German village of Adenau. It’s difficult to overrate a solo drive in a Vantage S on a twisty road in Germany’s Eiffel region, suffice to say, it felt little different in the chassis department to the GT4 race car. If only I was paid more!

CarAdvice is massively grateful for such a unique test drive opportunity, part of which was captured on video by David Shepherd and edited by Mike Askew.

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