x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Moving with light rapidity

Feature Driving an Aston Martin DBS Volante to Le Mans from London is the perfect way to show support for the marques return to the famous face.

The DBS is wider and has more presence than its counterpart, the DB9. It is a perfect amalgam of beauty and race-bred aggression and, unusually, looks even better as a convertible than as a fixed head coupe.
The DBS is wider and has more presence than its counterpart, the DB9. It is a perfect amalgam of beauty and race-bred aggression and, unusually, looks even better as a convertible than as a fixed head coupe.

There's a brief moment as I point the nose of my Aston Martin DBS down the legendary Mulsanne straight at Le Mans when the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and a shiver tingles its way down my spine. This moment will never leave me while there's blood in my veins. It literally is a dream come true and I'm driving one of the finest road cars available anywhere on this planet as the fantasy becomes a reality.

London to Le Mans via the Champagne region of northern France over five days, culminating in watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans race? Thanks, I'll take it, but, before anyone suggests this is simply another journalist's blag of a free holiday, consider this: 50 years ago at this very race, Aston Martin managed its only outright win and the company is once again racing, only this time in the tough LMP1 category, way outside the comfort zone of the GT1 class where plenty of success has been forthcoming with the DBR9s. Aston reckons it'll be a perfect opportunity for me to try out the new DBS Volante too, so, having pondered for all of a nanosecond I sign up. Well you would, wouldn't you?

It's the ultimate expression of Ian Callum's seminal DB9 - a car whose achingly pretty and timeless lines must make Marek Reichman, the current design director, more than a little nervous about replacing it with a new model. Put the DBS next to a DB9, particularly in their convertible Volante forms, and the differences between the two models are as clear as day. The DBS is wider and has more presence. It's a perfect amalgam of beauty and race-bred aggression and - unusually - looks even better as a convertible than a fixed coupe.

I've driven thousands of miles in DBSs over the past couple of years - every single one a joy. It's an astonishing GT car and I can't think of anything I'd rather take across Europe on a road trip. Yet the Volante (meaning "moving with light rapidity", appropriately enough) is an even nicer prospect as the weather will be baking hot and our planned routes will take us through some of France's most beautiful regions. With nothing between my head and the all-enveloping French countryside, who wants a roof anyway?

My car has a manual gearbox, so the only decent thing to do, as soon as conditions permit, is to drop into third and sink that throttle into the bulkhead. The DBS simply hunkers down and gets on with the business of going very, very quickly. Each gear change is an absolute delight and, talking to Aston's engineers later, it becomes clear that it's received much attention recently. It's slick, where the last DBS I drove tended to be a little obstructive. This feels like a Porsche 911 transmission and that's about as good as it gets for a manual.

Purists often dismiss convertibles for being a bit soft. They reason that a metal roof affords rigidity and that the extra strengthening required to compensate for this in a drop top adds undesirable weight. So manufacturers are, these days, at pains to point out how their products aren't adversely affected. To be honest, I can feel the extra weight in this DBS. It's not a big difference but it's there. Tipping the scales at a hardly featherweight 1,810kg, it's 115kg heavier than the tin-top, but then there's the small matter of 517 horses from the 6.0L V12 pushing the car along, so it's still a very rapid machine.

Where a convertible normally shows weakness is on twisting back roads, where the body's natural tendency to flex can make a poorly built car feel like it's made from balsa wood. Once the French motorways are left behind and 200km of France's finest unfold in front of us, it's time to see if the DBS Volante is a proper supercar or a wobbling embarrassment. Throwing the Volante into some tight corners with plenty of power on, it sticks to the road with no creaking, no softness, no discernible flex whatsoever. It feels every bit as tight as the coupe and, with the open air all around me, I wouldn't trade this in for a standard car, not for a second.

Another benefit to the Volante is the aural sensation of that awesome exhaust note. Driving through sections of forestry, the furious sound of the V12 bounces off the trees and back into my eardrums, compelling me to keep the revs fairly high and put my foot down at every opportunity, keeping the exhaust baffles open. There is nothing quite like it. After two days of long, hard charging across France, I struggle to find anything to fault with the Volante, apart from the centre console being about 30mm too high - meaning my arm feels unnaturally positioned when shifting gear - but it's hardly a deal breaker. It's colour sensitive too and, to my eyes at least, looks loveliest in the deep red known as Arena with silver-painted alloy wheels. White and light blue don't do the complex shape any favours but Liquid Silver does look stunning too, particularly with red leather in the interior.

Also worth noting is that the Volante is available with two rear seats. Snug doesn't come close to describing the available space but they're fine for taking a couple of children or for stowing extra luggage, and they do add to the sense of absolute luxury that exudes inside the cabin. With the fabric roof in its upright position, it echoes the profile of its brother and, when the weather turns inclement, it can be raised in just 14 seconds at the pull of a switch at speeds of up to 48kph.

Ending up at Le Mans, it's hot; very hot, and the Aston Martin LMP1s have proved to be the fastest qualifying petrol-engined cars, putting them just behind the first six, which unsurprisingly happen to be Peugeot's and Audi's diesels. Aston's achievement at just being here at all cannot be underplayed. Audi throws about ?70 million (Dh355 million) at winning Le Mans while Aston Martin's budget isn't even a tenth of that.

In 1959, the works team, which included the legend that is Sir Stirling Moss, took overall honours at Le Mans with the wonderful DBR1. The sense of anticipation this year, half a century on, is palpable and the parade lap I get to participate in is enough to bring a lump to the throat. The spectacle of 10 DBS Volantes, a DB9, V8 Vantage and DBS coupé thundering past the grandstands stops the crowds dead in their tracks and, as I pilot my car along this hallowed tarmac, I can think of no place I'd rather be. It's a privilege beyond compare.

All too soon it's over, and we have to pull in before the actual race commences. The LMP1s of Aston Martin battle it out with Audi and Peugeot, right to the bitter end and, as Peugeot scoops its first overall win there's jubilation within the Aston camp at a result better than they'd wished for: fourth overall and by far the fastest non-diesel combatants. "We came here to fight with minuscule budgets and a team of very determined individuals", Aston's CEO Ulrich Bez tells me later. "We thought that fifth place overall would be an achievement but we have surpassed ourselves. We will be back to fight again."

Aston Martin has always put up a fight, be it on the racetrack or public road. It has fought for survival for almost a century and it's still here. With Le Mans firmly on the agenda now and cars as stupendously good as the DBS Volante, there's no reason to doubt they'll still be here in another hundred years. And that's just cause for celebration any day of the week. motoring@thenational.ae