On te track

Yas, that’s Saturday Night Fever

Car: Aston Martin Vantage GT4

Circuit: Yas Marina, UAE (3.2km)


Photos Yas Marina Circuit, Dawn Green


Apologies to The Eagles, for as their classic hit, ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’, goes I’ve also got what could pass for a billion stars all around me. 

But the feeling is the opposite of peaceful and easy – more a riot of noise and hyperactivity.

The ‘stars’ are actually tiny particles of desert sand stirred up by a pack of fast-circulating race cars, then suspended in the hot, arid air.

They’re glittering under the brilliant beam of the largest permanent sports venue lighting system on the planet.

I’m one of the aforementioned pack, at the wheel of an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 sharing track space with a spicy mixed grill of performance cars that includes another two Aston Martins, Mercedes-AMG GT Ss and supercharged V6 Jaguar F-Types.

The drive is one of a spoiled-for-choice range of experiences offered at Yas Marina in the United Arab Emirates, home to the annual Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix.

It’s a special place  – the Hermann Tilke-designed motor sport complex is said to be the most expensive ever, built on what is a man-made island at a reputed cost of $US1 billion. 

But, let’s rewind a little . . .

As at a ‘proper’ race meeting, our drive experience starts with a safety briefing.

It’s explained that this evening we will be using part of the grand prix track, the 3.2km North Corkscrew circuit.

We’re to keep five car lengths apart, pass only on the left – never under braking for a corner – and only when the other driver indicates. 

Superseded within the year by a new Vantage powered by Mercedes-Benz 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, the outgoing GT4 model I drove shares the same chassis, power train and drive train as its sibling road car, but from there morphs into a purpose-built racer. 

Enough chat, time to head trackside, pull on a helmet and wait for ‘my’ car, #1.

It’s having new brake pads bedded-in and is the last to pull in to pit lane.

With quick-release steering wheel removed, I contort my way over and in among the protective roll cage. 

In the passenger seat alongside is Andy Crabtree; he runs the show here and comes from solid racing stock.

His grandfather, Mike, was a regular race winner in the British Touring Car Championship in the 1960s-70s.

Strapped in by a six-point racing harness into the rib-wrapping Recaro seat, I’m getting mixed messages.

In one sense, the functional minimalism that is a race car interior feels familiar. 

But the darkness adds a dimension of the unknown.

I’ve driven a sprintcar at night on a speedway track and, many moons ago, drag raced a motorcycle under lights but this is the first time after dark on a proper racing circuit.

A different set of  circumstances altogether. 

Thoughts aside, I fire up the engine, which bursts bombastically into life and settles into a grumbling idle.

First gear selected with the Sportshift (paddle gear) we trickle onto the track. 

Then, it’s time to put my right foot down – but not too heavy, not yet.

To get a feel for the car and the track, the first two laps are limited to using 4000 rpm of the engine’s performance. 

Initial impressions –  even in this truncated form – Yas Marina has a very interesting layout comprising some decent-length straights, a little undulation with 10 turns of varying radii and technicality, its surface billiard table top-smooth.

And the lights! Did I mention the lights? 

The two warm-up laps go by and I’m able to push the Vantage’s 4.7-litre V8 to 6500 rpm (within 800 rpm of the electronic cut-out and 1000 rpm above peak torque).

Now it’s unleashed, Andy encourages me to keep the car balanced with no sudden, unsettling spiky inputs of throttle.

Charging down the main straight, we hit 5th gear and 220km/h, then hard on the brakes for what is a sweeping, gradual-radius left-hander.

The instant retardation pins me hard against the safety harness on downshift – blat, blat, blat –to 2nd gear. 

Release the brakes and the Aston Martin turns in, delivering, first, prodigious grip and then thrusting drive under power on exit.

In seemingly no time, we’re gathering in the other cars and – with their co-operation – pick them off, one at a time. 

Halfway through our 20-minute stint, the track-side marshal lights change from green to purple with skull-and-crossbones.

Bizarre, but it succeeds instantly in catching your attention to slow down to 80km/h for a lap and recalibrate. 

I take the time to make a quick appraisal of the drive so far.

It’s as if car and track are made for one another.

At the seven or eight-tenths pace we’re driving, the Vantage is geared and mapped spot-on; the brakes bite hard, but progressively, the car turns in and holds its line precisely then pulls seamlessly out of the slower corners. 

Through the faster stuff it remains glued down, rock steady and capably reassuring.

In manual mode (naturally), the six-speed auto is short of split-second precision on up and downshift, instead delivering with a heavy-duty mechanical action.

The engine soundtrack? Forget The Eagles, this is hard, rather than country, rock. 

The track lights go green and the red mist re-descends. Just joking – Andy’s there to keep me focused.

But he’s not a spoilsport either; there’s no suggestion of ‘slow down’, ‘back off’ or the like. 

We pick the pace up and I’m diving deeper into the corners and trying to carry more speed wherever.

I get a little too ambitious at the left-hander at the end of the main straight and run a touch wide, the front right wheel clouting a witch’s hat. Andy and I drop the ‘F’ bomb simultaneously.

No harm done, the Vantage continues to steer, brake and handle as it should.    

And so, it goes . . . a hot-wired, sequence of optimum acceleration, progressive braking and calculated steering input played out on what is a truly world-class racing circuit.

Further heightened by the amazing Musco Lighting system that virtually turns night into day, the overall experience makes for a track drive quite unlike any other.

But, don’t just take my word. Put it on your bucket list and find out for yourself.


Aston Martin Vantage GT4

Basic price: £96,645 (approx. $A200,000)

Engine: 4.7-litre DOHC 32v V8

Power: 313kW

Torque: N/A

Transmission: 6-spd sequential auto

Weight: 1330kg

Drive: Rear-wheel

0-100km/h: 3.5 secs


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