x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A shift in the wrong direction

It's difficult to call driving Aston Martins at speed around a race track "work" without smiling just a little bit.

This V12 Vantage comes with a humbling gearbox.
This V12 Vantage comes with a humbling gearbox.

It's difficult to call driving Aston Martins at speed around a race track "work" without smiling just a little bit. But I work for you, dear readers, so I found myself at Yas Marina with the full slate of 2011 Astons to push around. And what a wonderful slate it was. The highlight perhaps was its GT4 race car, with factory driver Darren Turner giving rides and turning stomachs in the process (why Aston execs didn't trust us motoring press to drive their multi-hundred thousand dirham race car around a track, I just don't know). The company did let us drive the DB9, DBS, DBS Volante and a V8 Vantage for fun (and learning, of course) on the track and skid pad.

But by far my favourite of the leather-lined coupes was the powerful, 510hp V12 Vantage, Aston's stylish and very, very quick sports car. It was complete with ceramic brakes, carbon fibre hood louvres - and a manual gearbox. In the pits, I was excited. And on track, I was rubbish. In all my time here in the UAE, I have tested one - yes, one - car with a manual gearbox, and unfortunately, my rusty gear-changing and heel-and-toe skills were all too apparent to the professional driver riding with me. There was no gear grinding or missed shifts, but I'll just leave it to myself and my co-pilot as to how bad it was.

Besides older taxis, most - actually, let's say almost all - cars on UAE roads have automatic transmissions of some sort, be they full-on autos with torque converters or sequential manual jobs with computer-controlled dual clutches and paddle shifters (you do know the difference, don't you?). In fact, Mercedes-Benz, which only imports cars with manuals by special request here, last sold a stick-shift at its Gargash dealership three years ago!

And that's really a shame. Because there is a certain grace and poetry in having the skill to, unthinkingly, control the gearing of your car like the great drivers have for the last 100 or so years. It's really something that makes you feel connected to the car; not just to the seat or to the road, but to the actual mechanicals inside of the thing; a driver isn't just commanding the car to do something, he's making the car an extension of himself. Well, that could be a bit romantic, perhaps.

But fewer and fewer people seem to care about that anymore. Admittedly, the new, paddle-shift manual gearboxes are better performing. They shift gears faster than any human can with a gear stick, they don't mess up the clutch or rev the engine too much on the downshift and they really can make it feel like you're driving a race car, no matter if you're behind the wheel of an Aston Martin or a Mini Cooper.

Even Ferrari, the legendary Italian sports car maker, is giving up on the stick shift. It's new 458 Italia will not be offered with the traditional manual gearbox, instead sporting a double-clutch, seven-speed transmission with paddle shifters. Another Italian supercar maker, Lamborghini, has acknowledged the quaint obsolescence of the manual box, but it did so in a subtle way: its recent Valentino Balboni edition Gallardo is a tribute to its namesake test driver and a nod to the 1970s. Of course, it comes with a manual box.

Soon, co-ordinating the clutch and gear stick in beautiful cohesion will go the way of tuning triple SU carburettors and changing the shoes on drum brakes. It will be a lost art, known only to strange-talking old men in greasy overalls clinging to the past. Sigh. I suppose I can see my future already. nvorano@thenational.ae