There are a lot of people in sports car racing that aren't there because of talent. They're there because they have money and want to go fast. We call them 'gentleman drivers.' Most of the time you find them driving a Porsche or a Ferrari. Now there's another choice: The Aston Martin Vantage GT4. What's it like to drive?
(Full Disclosure: The Racer's Group wanted me to drive the V8 Vantage GT4 racer so bad that they invited me to Monticello Motor Club for some track day action in an actual race car. It also gave me a chance to squeeze my fat head back into my helmet, so my brains would be nicely encased for scientists to study if I died in a fiery crash.)
At all levels, racing is about money. Dollar for dollar it is one of the most expensive hobbies that you can possibly have short of Ming vase bowling. Serious drivers are lucky to find a car to drive without bringing along an absolutely obscene amount of sponsorship to fund the seat.
Then there are the rich folk, the glitterati, if you will, that want to race. They have the funds to do it, but they don't necessarily have the gobs of raw talent needed to be true professionals. Right now, you'll find them in Ferrari 458s and Porsche 911 GT3s, either running in a one-make series or tooling around in the amateur ranks at an ALMS or Grand Am race.
The problem with the 458 and the GT3 is that they need a lot of raw talent to get the most out of them. They are cars that are far from idiot proof, and it takes a lot to get the most out of them. The Aston GT4 car has been designed differently.
Steve Stander at The Racer's Group told me that the GT4 is much more forgiving and less of an animal than its competitors from Germany or Italy. Instead of requiring finesse and smoothness, the GT4 can be grabbed by the scruff. Instead of momentum, it's more of a point-and-shoot sort of car.
What he means is instead of being forced to concentrate on the track as a whole, you can focus on parts of the course. Fly down the long straight, get it stopped for a corner, turn in, and get back on the power.
An experienced driver will tell you that smooth is fast. You need to think of a track as a whole. The impact of one corner on the one succeeding it and stringing all of those lines together is what makes you fast.
Here's the thing: A lot of gentleman drivers are good, but they don't necessarily have the required talent to put a whole track together like that. They don't necessarily have the skill to get 10/10ths out of a Ferrari or Porsche. Their technical know-how might not be good enough to help an engineer tune the car. The Aston is designed to be accessible to less experienced racers. It was repeatedly called a "spec Miata on steroids" during the day I was with it.
I've raced enough in the past to have a helmet with my name on it, but that was in go karts. I've never driven an actual race car on slicks that produces real downforce on a real race track. And I've been out of karts for nearly a decade now.
The car itself isn't all that far from stock, other than your normal racing mods. About 800 pounds are pulled out, so all that Aston gentleman luxuriousness is gone. It still has the torque converter six speed automatic transmission, but the mapping is super aggressive to the point where I'm told it won't feel automatic at all. I like hearing about the car, but I'd much rather drive it.
First though, I have to ride shotgun. And getting into the car proves to the be the first challenge for me. I'm not what you'd call the most limber of people. I'm also 6'1" and gangly. Getting into the car is one of the more awkward experiences of my life.
I get a couple laps in the passenger seat around Monticello's North Course. Ironically, the track pro and instructor is this kid a couple years younger than me named Corey Lewis. Corey and I raced karts together years ago. At one point, I decided to go to school, he kept on racing. And good for him, because he's damn good at it.
He takes me for three laps around the track, and then it's my turn to slide into the cockpit, which I do no less awkwardly than getting into the passenger seat. Corey also politely reminds me a number of times to "not crash the car." It was nice of him to put so much faith in someone that he's raced with. I appreciate that.
So driving it... What's it like? You sit really low in the cockpit, like you're a 95-year old woman in a Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais-low. It's tough to see the right front corner of the car, so you just kind of have to assume when you are looking for the apex of a right hand corner. It's tough when you aren't quite used to the car, so you have to pray to Vishnu that you aren't going to stick the nose into the dirt.
I am repeatedly told an idiot could get up to speed pretty quickly, and, since I am an idiot, I can tell you that is 100 percent true. Handling is totally predictable, with a crisp turn-in and loads of grip. If you enter a corner too quickly, you do end up inducing understeer and overpowering the front end of the car, but that's true for any car on a track.
Through fast corners the Aston develops real downforce which makes it incredibly stable. In slow speed corners, it has sticky slicks. It also has traction control which was left on (boooo) for my run. I was later told it should always be off, and only on in the rain. Apparently it was just being left on for journalists because we tend to ruin things. Fair enough.
And that transmission. I was told I wouldn't know it was an automatic, and they were right. Shifts feel very mechanical. They don't bang home with an immediacy of a double clutch either; There is a very noticeable delay when you change gears. You also can't rapid fire gear change. A double pull of the paddle will result in just one change. A bit of patience is a big help when changing gear.
Brakes are not carbon ceramic, but steel rotors. Replacement costs are about $200 per corner. Over the course of repeated running, the brakes grab hard and don't fade... as you'd expect in a race car.
The car does inspire a lot of confidence. I only had a limited number of laps and I didn't want to break it, so I didn't exactly push with all my might. But I did get a lot faster over my time in the car. With a bit more time in the car, I bet I could be pretty close to the fast time of the day. That means that the goal has been accomplished: The Vantage GT4 is an accessible race car.
I truly enjoyed my time in the car, but it also left me in a philosophical quandary. Part of the romance, the allure, the appeal of racing is the challenge of it. Tuners and drivers work incessantly to get that perfect setup. There is also a very special feeling knowing that you need that extra bit of skill to get those last tenths out of a car to truly master it.
The Aston seems to be much more forgiving in both regards. Where a Porsche or Ferrari might have an incredibly small tuning sweet spot, with maybe a percent or two that it can deviate from the ideal, the Aston seems to have a broader spot and more forgiving driving characteristics. It also seems that a plateau of speed will be reached relatively quickly by a semi-talented driver, meaning that someone who kind of knows what they're doing won't continue learning the whole time they're in the car, and won't develop skills.
For a one-make series, which is what the GT4 is for, this car is amazing. It's bullet proof, easy to drive, fast, and a ton of fun. It's basically plug and play. But if the driver wants to move up to another formula, Ferrari 458 Challenge, Porsche GT3 Cup, maybe even pro racing, I'm not sure that the GT4 is going to develop the driver to the point where he'll be competitive in a different, more difficult car.
But who really cares? The bottom line is that this car is a solid platform, a ton of fun on track, and even a total moron like me can drive it and not go flying off the track in a ball of fire.
Photo Credits: Roger Garbow