x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Aston Martin and Zagato rekindle perfect partnership

Eight years after their last collaboration, Aston Martin and Zagato have come together to create a truly amazing road racer: the V12 Zagato. Adam Towler was one of the fortunate few to drive it.

The V12 Zagato can rocket to 100kph in less than four seconds and has a top speed of 305kph but its handling inspires the confidence needed by a driver to be able to properly put this machine through its paces. Photos courtesy of Aston Martin
The V12 Zagato can rocket to 100kph in less than four seconds and has a top speed of 305kph but its handling inspires the confidence needed by a driver to be able to properly put this machine through its paces. Photos courtesy of Aston Martin

Fifty years ago, a fusion of delectable Italian coachbuilding and thoroughbred British manufacturer created one of the most desirable road and racing sports cars of all time - the DB4 GT Zagato. If they could bottle the styling, you'd keep it in a cellar and be scared to drink it, but the beauty of it is that this is 3D art; it moves fast, it makes a wondrous sound, it even smells good, like only high-performance cars from the 1960s can.

And so the names Aston Martin and Zagato have always possessed that special link, further bolstered by 1985's V8 bruiser of a machine and the DB7-based collaboration of 2003.

Now the companies have joined forces again. They may be very different from years gone by - Aston Martin now a modern car company with a high-tech home in Warwickshire, and Zagato part of the Russian-owned but British-based CPP (Coventry Prototype Panels) group - but the fruits of their labours are equally exciting.

The V12 Zagato is essentially a brawny, even more ferocious V12 Vantage with a hand-formed aluminium body manufactured the traditional way by CPP's craftsmen in Coventry. In due course, a select bunch of customers will have the opportunity to buy the V12 Zagato road car but, to thoroughly test the new model in prototype form, Aston Martin decided upon a demanding and very public schedule.

They built two cars, christened by the team Zig and Zag. Green Zig would always be a racing car, taking to the Nürburgring circuit for rounds of the VLN series ahead of the big test - the Nürburgring 24-hour race at the end of June. Red Zag would begin life among very different surroundings, built initially without the wild spoilers and slipping gently over the lawns at the Villa D'Este concorso d'eleganza in Italy, rather than pounding over red and white kerbs and trading paint with Porsche 911s. Zag would win the Concepts and Prototypes Design Award, and then would don warpaint to take the start at the N24 race alongside Zig.

The race would be an eventful one for the cars; Zig showing great speed until it was savaged by a fellow competitor, requiring lengthy repairs. But both cars did finish, and now, a few months later, someone is holding open the door to Zig and beckoning me to jump into the drivers' seat.

The pitlane at the infamous Nürburgring racing circuit is wide and long. When it's your turn to drive you loiter uncomfortably far from the garage, a lonely and nervous wait in no-man's-land as the great, lime green beast rumbles towards you.

We're using the Grand Prix track today, not the full Nordschleife, and earlier I'd had the chance to re-familiarise myself with the layout behind the wheel of a VLN-spec V8 Vantage GT4 racer. It's a fantastically driveable car, set up to be friendly for the gentleman driver who wants to enjoy his weekend racing, but quick and grippy and with the most divine V8 exhaust note, devoid of any silencing.

The ruthlessness of the aerodynamic appendages is startling up close, particularly the simply massive rear diffuser. Zig is also on open pipes and the sound of Aston's venerable but robust V12 is overwhelming. This, undoubtedly, is how a racing car should sound.

Climbing in is tricky. I'm tall (about 1.89 metres), and I really struggle to wriggle between the bars of the elaborate roll cage. You lead with your right leg onto the floor and then aim your posterior through the gap and down into the uncompromising bucket seat. But then, what to do with your left leg? Somehow I have to try to pull it far enough back, with my knee heading for my chin, so I can get my foot past the corner of the dashboard. The crew find this amusing, but it does cross my mind that if I needed to get out of here in a hurry, it might not be so funny.

Once inside, it's pure racing car. The dashboard sculpture looks familiar, but all the main controls are cited on a bespoke panel in the middle of the centre console. I flip the ignition toggle on, and then, as the safety netting is attached to my left, fire the 6L, 530hp engine into life. Blam! My heartbeat ratchets up several bpm as the raw intensity of the noise hits me, but it's a nice noise, not an ugly one, and the driving position instantly feels just right, so I decline any adjustment from the mechanics.

Zig features a six-speed sequential paddle shift gearbox, a boon in endurance racing where tiredness can lead to a costly miss-shift in cars equipped with a manual gearbox. It's also ideal when you've only got a few precious laps in a car such as this because it's basically one less thing to worry about. You pull the lever. It changes gear. End of.

I take it easy out of the pitlane, conscious to not look like a hooligan, but the Zagato is soon shouting in my face about its character and abilities. The engine dominates the experience: it pulls from low revs with determination and then really savages the upper rev range before tailing off when I lift the accelerator with a series of pops and bangs.

The Zagato runs on 46cm wheels with slick Yokohama tyres, and with fully adjustable dampers and metal-jointed suspension. It immediately feels a lot more alert than the V12 Vantage road car on which it's based. You can sense there's a very big engine in front of you in the way the car reacts, but it's also blessed with light, quick, accurate steering and, when you want to adjust your trajectory, you only require small, precise movements on the steering wheel. It's a car that inspires confidence, not feeling like it wants to catch you out, and although it's obviously an altogether more serious proposition than the V8 Vantage GT4, neither is it suddenly like trying to wrestle a grisly bear. Of course, with a car of this performance it may be different when you reach its limits, which I freely admit I didn't get near given the track time available, but neither was it a sweat-inducing session at the wheel. Frankly, I wanted to keep lapping until the fuel ran out.

As carbon-ceramic discs are banned in the VLN series, the Zagato runs giant iron discs with Brembo callipers and they, too, feel tremendously effective.

The Zagato isn't a full-house GT3 car: it's still very much a road-racing car, and it therefore doesn't have quite the no-compromise specification or attitude of one of those machines, but there's no denying the performance.

Pulling onto the start-finish straight I soon learn that it's a good idea to use a gear higher than you might imagine you need, relying instead on the V12's broad and elastic powerband to scoop you up and fire you down the road. It's fast: think 0-100kph in less than four seconds and about 305kph flat out.

I am just getting comfortable when the crew hang out the board signalling I need to come in on the next lap. Perhaps just as well; they say the moment you start to feel confident is when it all gets messy.

Even so, this big-hearted machine must surely be one of the most charismatic, gorgeous-sounding and effective road-racing cars of recent years. Much like the 1960s original, then. Bring on the road car.