x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Aston Martin goes galactic with One-77 at New Mexico space tourism base

Kevin Hackett goes for an exclusive first ride in Aston Martin's even more exclusive One-77

Courtesy of Aston Martin
Courtesy of Aston Martin

If you're seriously wealthy, I mean so wealthy that you have no idea how much you're actually worth, then I don't actually envy you. Well, maybe just a little bit. But I'd hate to lose that sense of what things are worth. It breaks my heart to see rare supercars being left to rot in the heat and dust of the desert just because their owners have got bored of them and have moved on to something else - their latest car du jour.

The car you see here, more than most, deserves better than that. It's Aston Martin's only bona fide supercar and just 77 of them will be hand built to the specifications of their extremely wealthy owners. It's the One-77. Geddit? We've drooled over the photographs and technical details for the past two years and almost 12 months ago deliveries started. Yet the media has, until now, been unable to get anywhere near enjoying the performance potential of this exquisite machine. When it was time to experience the One-77 flat-out, only one newspaper in the world was invited for the ride. This one.

In the auto industry, as in many others, timing is everything. And Aston Martin's timing could not have been worse when it came to announcing its plans to build a car for the seriously wealthy. Priced stratospherically high (think along the lines of Dh7.8 million), was there any way the company could pull this off when the entire world had plunged into the most severe economic downturn in living memory? Fingers were pointed in derision, the motoring media spoke of a company losing the plot, the writing was on the wall. Surely, they scoffed, Aston must be joking.

Only they weren't. One-77 had to happen - the recession could not get in the way of progress and the company was convinced that 77 discerning customers would come to the fore and open their cheque books, and it would seem the gamble has paid off. More than 50 have been built to date and there's opportunity for half a dozen potential candidates to put down a deposit before the order book is closed. Against the odds, they've done it.

Unusually, this success story has come about with no media stories or reports about what it's like to drive. Normally us hacks get to drive new models long before any deliveries are made but not this time, and there's a very good reason for that: several customers have made it very clear that if some jumped-up journalist gets behind the wheel before they do, the order will be cancelled. Aston's top brass is used to taking risks, but this wasn't going to be one of them.

If there had been an opportunity to drive this rarefied supercar, I would have been there in a shot. Was this it? Had my time come? All I knew was that there was "an opportunity" to experience the One-77 in New Mexico, but not on the roads because the car is still being homologated there. To be honest, with the draconian speed enforcement by the state police, driving a car like this on the road would be a bitter-sweet experience marred by constant paranoia about what lay ahead in even the most deserted desert environs. But how about a runway? Not just any runway, you understand, but the runway that Virgin Galactic will soon be making history with. That's it! Bags packed, I'm heading Stateside.

New Mexico is a surreal place. It has a rich history and is famous the world over for previously being home to sheriff Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid. It's the Wild West personified. And it's also home to Roswell - the centre of ongoing controversy and the source of a million conspiracy theories surrounding UFOs and aliens. It's that kind of place - there's definitely something in the air.

And now it's where Sir Richard Branson has based his new Virgin Galactic enterprise. Commercial space tourism has become a reality and, if you're wealthy enough to place an order for a One-77, perhaps you'd care to drop Dh1.2 million for a two-hour excursion to the edge of outer space. Abu Dhabi has played a key role in bringing the project to fruition and hopes to soon have its own spaceport, so this should be a fascinating glimpse into the UAE's future. Not surprisingly, several UAE nationals have signed up for the initial space flights, and who can blame them?

But for now, my main interest is in this One-77. I've been given a brand-new DBS to drive to the spaceport from our hotel in Las Cruces and the three-hour journey is an utter joy.

As I approach what has been dubbed Spaceport America (which happens to be in the middle of absolute nowhere, about 1.5km above sea level), there's the sound and physical vibration of a colossal explosion - thankfully it's just the boom from a supersonic jet, not a stray nuke. We have the treads inspected on our tyres before being allowed onto the runway, to make sure there are no pesky pieces of gravel that could end up troubling future space missions, and this is where my first alarm bells start ringing. Are they really going to let me loose on this stretch of pristine concrete in a screaming supercar? It turns out that no, they're not. Health and safety: they're the two most dangerous words in the English language and today it'll be a passenger ride or no ride at all. Virgin's people are jittery and for a while it looks like even a ride with Aston's chief engineer, Chris Porritt, at the wheel is in doubt. I've travelled across 10 time zones just to look at a car in the desert? Thankfully not quite.

Beggars can't be choosers, as they say. So a flat-out passenger ride is better than no ride at all and at least it's still a world first. With promises of a future actual drive ringing in my ears, I climb into the waiting One-77 that's sat outside the main hangar building with its 7.3L V12 rumbling menacingly. Porritt is a handy wheelman, having raced Astons at countless endurance events, and I trust him implicitly - not that there's much that can go wrong on a runway this size. Even my mother could rag a supercar here without causing any harm.

Porritt floors the throttle and I'm pinned to my seat, enveloped in a wall of sound, an angry, almost F1 race car sound, as the One-77 rockets down the first stretch to join the main runway. The gigantic rear tyres relinquish their grip and the car's rear end squirms while those 750 horses instantly go from canter to gallop. Even after just a few seconds, I can tell this is brutal.

We get to the runway, keeping the power on as the car turns in. With the throttle mashed, the One-77 simply grips and goes. And goes, and goes. The speedo, in no time at all, is showing 305kph - not bad but still way short of its 355kph maximum. Turns out that's because the air at this altitude is just too thin for the V12 to perform with optimum efficiency; but the thrill, even from the wrong side of the cabin, is visceral.

It's everything I expected it to be. Massively powerful and fast, yet refined and utterly composed. It's stunning in its construction, even in areas no human will ever get to see and it's a huge step for Aston Martin. One giant leap, if you will. And the best possible news is that it looks like the next DBS (rumoured to be just months away) will distance itself from the DB9 and look and feel more like this amazing machine. It should be a proper supercar and the One-77 will be its daddy. And at least I'll get to drive that bad boy on the road. On the basis of this all-too-brief encounter, Aston's star is very much in the ascendant and you won't need to head for outer space to catch a glimpse.