Race
relation

Born of the sublime V8 Vantage but corrupted  by the altogether more extreme Le Mans race car, is Aston Martin’s new £165,000 Vantage GT8 the perfect blend?

by henry catchpole
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

oichiro Honda said that racing improves the breed. Slightly ironic, given the big H’s recent track record in F1, but it’s a good statement and one that applies to plenty of other car manufacturers, too. Some of the greatest ever road cars have been homologation specials; creations that would never have seen the light of day were it not for a specific set of racing regulations. The Ferrari 250 GTO, the BMW E30 M3, the 993 GT2, the Integrale, the RS200… all were built as a direct result of competition.

Sadly these days we don’t really see homologation road cars, but we do see plenty of inspiration taken from motorsport. We see it in carbon-ceramic brakes, we see it in the front arch vents of a GT3 RS, we see it in the laser lights of an Audi R8, we see it in the steering wheel of a 488 GTB, we see it in every inch of a Radical. Racing is shot through the double helix of many of evo’s very favourite cars. Why? Because racing is the ultimate expression of so many qualities that we crave in the best road cars.

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Racing requires lightweight solutions, it requires the best damping, it requires the strongest engines, it requires a car to have balance in its handling. But perhaps above all these, racing requires a car to strive for the highest levels of interaction between man and machine. When your foot hits the brake pedal in a racing car, you need not just response and power, but also the feel to allow you to ease off as aero decreases, or avoid locking up right on the limit when it’s wet. When you’re deep in a corner with warm slicks clinging to the tarmac, you need to be held securely in a seat that makes you feel like an extension of the chassis. You also need to be able to tell when those same slicks are dipping out of their ideal operating window.

All of which brings us to the Aston Martin Vantage GT8. Not many road cars look at home in a genuine factory racing workshop, but I think the GT8 manages to blend in pretty well. In fact, if you painted it white or Gulf colours and slapped a number on it, I think it would remain incognito long enough to slip past security and out onto a grid. The inspiration for the limited-edition GT8 is Aston’s Vantage GTE race car. The classes are confusing, but that’s the V8 that races in the World Endurance Championship (and therefore at Le Mans), not the V12 GT3 that was the inspiration for last year’s GT12 road car. The race car that’s being prepped in the workshop when we visit is a GT8 that will compete in the SP8 class at the 2016 Nürburgring 24 Hours…

Compared to a GTE car, the road-going GT8 actually looks like the more elaborately aerodynamic proposition from the front. The additional carbon pieces that appear to hang the splitter from the red bodywork have small fins, while the splitter itself is more sculpted than the completely flat item on the green race car. It’s what happens behind the GT8’s front wheels that really makes it stand out among other road cars, though. Like the GTE car, there are significant cut-outs in the arches, allowing high-pressure air to escape. Regardless of the performance benefits, it’s a gorgeous styling detail, exposing the minimalist tread of the Cup 2 tyres. At the back is where the race car reasserts its authority, with a significantly larger wing and diffuser, but the GT8’s items are hardly small and I love the way the wing reaches backwards from the boot lid. The GTE regulations for this year allow the race car’s items to be extended 100mm further than before, resulting in the wildly distended carbon confections it now has.

Over and above looks, however, I always think that what makes racing cars really intimidating initially is the noise they make. Unencumbered by muffling, the best race cars resonate in your chest and sound resolutely, threateningly angry. When they start up, however much you love the noise that emanates from the exhaust pipes, I swear the natural inclination is to take a step back. It must be something primeval (and sensible) in our make-up that renders us instinctively nervous around loud, furious sounds.

There’s no question that the GT8 has the intimidation factor when it starts up. A new, big-bore titanium exhaust exits just above the rear diffuser (sadly not out of the side skirts like the race car) and Aston has taken out the secondary cats so it is megaphone loud. You actually need to be careful who is around when you fire it into life because it is capable of giving people the fright of their life. I know this because at one point during the test I inadvertently (and rather embarrassingly) manage to elicit screams from three women in a car park purely through plunging the glass key into the dash at the precise moment they walk past the rear diffuser. I literally couldn’t have timed it better if I was trying and it is only because their shocked squeals chime in at a totally different register to the gruff Aston that I hear them at all.

If you want the full effect from the driver’s seat, then I recommend parking backed up against a wall overnight. That first cold start in the morning is always the best anyway, and with the brick or stone to contain and reflect the sound it is just fabulous. The starter motor spins briefly and then there is a slight metallic crack as the V8 explodes into life, settling to a wonderfully deep rumble. Thankfully, after the initial eruption the way it idles isn’t too anti-social, but this is not a car for shy retiring types or those with early morning commutes and neighbours they wish to remain friends with.

Of course, looking and sounding like a racing car is all well and good, but the GT8 needs to be more than just a poseur’s trinket. It  has something of a head start in this department, because the V8 Vantage (particularly in N430 spec) is already a rather wonderful thing, so if it is an amplified version of that then it should be onto a winner. So, after settling into the largely Alcantara and carbon interior, photographer Aston, the Aston and I all head out into the very leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

There are two gearbox choices: a seven-speed Sportshift II paddle-operated automated manual or, as fitted to our car, a six-speed H-pattern manual. The gearknob looks a bit ordinary, but the short, relatively light throw of the stubby lever feels good. Given that the race car has a paddle-operated sequential, you might think the Sportshift ’box would be the racier option, but somehow the extra interaction between driver and drivetrain that you get with three pedals seems to make the manual feel like the more appropriate choice.

The fixed-back bucket seats are as supportive as you’d hope, although I’d want to get the Allen keys out and tilt them back a degree or two more if they were mine. What I wouldn’t want to change is the simple, uncluttered steering wheel. The carbon door cards also deserve a special mention as they are sumptuously sculptural and look good enough to mount on a wall or plinth in a gallery.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again for those at the back – I like driving in the wet, especially when a car communicates as well as the Vantage GT8. And that’s just as well, because nothing but rain and grey clouds are forecast for the next 24 hours. For the photos, we’re heading to a section of road that I know relatively well. It’s not the Nordschleife, but the way the road steeply climbs makes it feel like we’re on the way up to Hohe Acht. And with the tightly packed trees in full spring get-up, it is certainly Grüne, if not exactly Hölle.

The GT8’s Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres are indisputably designed for warm, dry conditions, but thankfully they are progressive enough that you can still push them to the limit and beyond when water is filling the limited tread. As soon as you begin to turn into a corner, the tyres filter subtle information back up through the hydraulically assisted steering so that you know how much more lock you can add and how quickly.

With the front balanced on the edge of breaking away, you can almost tease the front tyres through longer corners at times, just making tiny, quick adjustments with the steering as the weighting of the wheel flutters subtly. The fun thing is that while you’re driving it on the nose, the rear is always ready to be called into action. Either a little lift or prod of the throttle depending on the situation can have the rear of the car moving, and such is the beautiful poise of the V8 Vantage, with its engine tucked all the way back under the dash, that it feels like an easy, fluid transition of the load from front to rear. The ideal is to get the front tyres to the point where they are just sliding, then pick up the throttle a little more so that the rears break away too. Then, right there, balanced, you have the GT8 gliding in a genuine four-wheel drift.

Of course, if you’re over-eager with the power in the wet then it’s easy to find yourself travelling at a big angle very quickly, trying to look through an A-pillar as you chuck lock at the situation to keep things pretty. That’s if you’ve decided to turn the DSC off, which doesn’t really feel necessary when the semi-slack Track setting is so well judged.

A straight section of road bisecting a forest allows for a clear run up through the first few gears. Watching the gunmetal rev counter, with the curious anticlockwise sweep of its silvery needle, confirms what I thought I was feeling earlier when I was concentrating on where the road went next. There is a definite surge in power at 4000rpm and then another kick at 5000rpm. Even in a straight line the rear tyres want to light up if you’re on full throttle as you go through these increments, and it feels like there is more than the quoted 440bhp. However, because the engine is naturally aspirated, it makes the Vantage GT8’s power delivery and traction much easier to manage than the similarly Cup 2-shod BMW M4 GTS. Yes, the GTS has a bit more power and torque, but it’s the turbocharged delivery that specifically makes the BMW feel spikier and harder to drive in the wet.

The 4.7-litre engine is hearty, rather than flighty and instantly responsive, the revs building and dying with a little more lethargy than you might expect. However, the soundtrack that fills the cabin is pure motorsport. It is sensationally loud, building from a rich burble at low revs into something with a real hardness once the V8 spins beyond 6000rpm and reaches for the 7500rpm limiter. The nice thing is that in the dry, the power is of a magnitude that you would find it easy to constantly visit the thrilling upper reaches of the rev range. Providing your eardrums could take it, of course.

With the photos done and photographer Aston off to catch a plane, I roam around middle England, diverting to favourite stretches and snippets of road. As you might imagine, the suspension gets a good workout, yet impressively the splitter doesn’t once catch and although firm, the damping retains a pliant edge that means you never feel beaten up. The passive setup is obviously calibrated to work better above 40mph limits, and with pace you feel the car riding the road more contentedly, soaking up bumps in that transparent way that only fixed-rate dampers seem truly capable of.

Just occasionally, over bigger lumps, I think that either a little more control is needed or the GT8 could do with losing even more weight. A saving of 100kg (with all the options ticked) over a standard Vantage is good, particularly given that things such as air con and satnav have been retained, but at 1510kg it is still no lightweight and it tips the scales some 265kg heavier than the minimum permissible weight for a GTE car.

Interestingly, one area Aston could have saved weight is in the brakes. The unsprung weight at each corner has been reduced by 2kg thanks to rather attractive magnesium centre-lock wheels, but the discs behind them remain steel, not carbon-ceramic. Presumably this was done to keep the cost of the GT8 down whilst mimicking the steel brakes that FIA regulations dictate the WEC car has to use. Brembo supplies the brakes for both the race and road cars and, although the weather means I can’t really give them the toughest fade-inducing workout, the pedal feel is superb with a lovely progressive feeling through the travel as you increase the pressure.

Aston Martin
Vantage GT8

Engine V8, 4735cc
Power 440bhp @ n/a  
Torque 361lb ft @ n/a
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear
Wheels 9.5 x 19in front, 10.5 x 19in rear
Tyres 255/35 ZR19 front, 295/30 ZR19 rear, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2
Weight 1530kg
Power-to-weight 292bhp/ton
0-60mph 4.4sec (claimed)
Top speed 190mph (claimed)
Price £165,000
On sale Now

evo rating: ★★★★

I approached the GT8 with the aim of seeing how much of the feeling of a race car Aston had managed give it. But of course, what it has tried to achieve, what anyone like Porsche with the GT3 RS or Mercedes with the SLS Black is trying to achieve, is far more nuanced than that. Creating a road-racer is a tricky business, because you have to instil those race car feelings of intimacy with the chassis and rawness of performance while maintaining enough pliancy in the suspension to tackle something even bumpier than the Nordschleife and enough usability to make it desirable to drive for more than half an hour.

I think Aston Martin has done a very good job. We will obviously have to get the GT8 back and drive it on dry roads and on track, but with greater friction between tyres and tarmac the feedback through steering and seat should only increase. It certainly possesses enough drama to fill a Netflix mini-series, and the sopping-wet conditions have showed that none of the standard V8 Vantage’s wonderful natural balance has been sacrificed in pursuit of increased lateral G. In this case, racing has definitely improved the V8 Vantage.

‘The soundtrack that fills the cabin is pure motorsport, with a real hardness above 6000rpm’

‘If you’re over‑eager with the power in the wet then it’s easy to find yourself travelling at a big angle very quickly’