The new Aston: Vanquish: Aston Martin’s Ferrari From Aston’s super-group (Adrian Newey on aero, ex-Ferrari man Max Szwaj on chassis) comes a car we thought we’d never see – an Aston Martin with its engine in the middle. Words Ben Miller. Photography John Wycherley.
Aston’s Ferrari The inside story of Aston Martin’s mid-engined 488 rival – from the dream team that created it
Meeting Maranello in the middle
There’s no logic to cars like this – they’re entirely selfish propositions,’ smiles Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer. At the same time he prods one corner of a chart that neatly positions the range of cars he’s working tirelessly to put in place; territory occupied by some famous and formidable foes.
‘Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren, essentially,’ continues Palmer. ‘Until now we haven’t had a mid-engined car.
Or, more accurately, we haven’t had a rear/mid-engined car; all our current cars are mid-engined, albeit with the engine at the front. You can talk about polar moments of inertia – a car with the engine tucked behind the driver turns in more quickly – but this isn’t about logic. Cars like this appeal on an emotional level.’
HYBRID V6 POWER! RED BULL AERO! ASTON’S MASTERPLAN GOES INTO HYPERDRIVE
Here, then, is the car you probably thought you’d never see – a series-production Aston (let’s park the Valkyrie Red Bull collaboration for a moment) with the engine in the middle. Officially, for now, this is the Vanquish Vision Concept. Come 2022 it’ll hit the road as the Vanquish. ‘A £200k, 200mph Ferrari 488 and Lamborghini Huracan rival at the lower end, with derivatives that push that up towards Aventador,’ says Palmer. It’s a bold move, one that feels right and entirely unnatural at the same time. While clearly a battleground worth contesting – Lamborghini sold some 3000 Huracans in 2018, while McLaren shifted 4806 cars, all of them mid-engined – it is both fiercely competitive and populated by names with considerably greater mid-engined pedigree than Aston Martin. Which of course has virtually none.
‘It is a competitive market, which is both exciting and intimidating,’ says Palmer. ‘You have three amazing players: Lamborghini, which is doing really well at the moment, taking chunks out of Ferrari; Ferrari, who are just Ferrari; and the underdogs at McLaren, who’ve ramped up the pace of development across the board. We’re going into a crowded space.
‘We don’t have 70 years’ expertise in mid-engined cars,’ continues Palmer [Ferrari’s first mid-engined road car was the 1967 Dino, Lamborghini’s the 1966 Miura]. ‘We’ve had to create that DNA, and to do that you have to be best. That’s why we went into Formula 1 [with Red Bull] and why we created Valkyrie with Adrian [Newey, the da Vinci of F1 aero] – to cover off 70 years of historical deficit. Us announcing this car three years ago would have been incredulous, but now we have a mid-engined story. This is going to sound terribly arrogant but in my humble opinion there is no other car like Valkyrie; never will be. The comparisons being made to the AMG One and McLaren Senna don’t do justice to how amazing Valkyrie will be. In creating the halo car first we’re doing the opposite of what most mass car companies would do, which is start at the bottom and work up. It’s a bolder strategy because you don’t make a lot of money from halo cars, and most automotive CEOs need to go where the pot of money is. But I’ve been allowed time to create the DNA and legacy that legitimises our car.’ In development and with many aspects of its performance still fluid, the new Vanquish will use a bonded structure rich in aluminium and reinforced in key structural areas with high-performance composites.
The powertrain will be all-new: a performance hybrid marrying electrification with an in-house turbocharged V6 mounted longitudinally behind the cockpit. The aggressively mass- and weight-optimised package, shaped indirectly by the performance-obsessed brain of Newey, is cloaked in bodywork at once elegant like an Aston and aero-efficient like a Red Bull. The goal? ‘A true supercar,’ insists Aston’s chief technology officer Max Szwaj. ‘A car with a compact powertrain, mid-engined agility, impressive aero performance and light weight, with a fine balance of usability and performance. It’s easy to design a track car: it only has one function. This car will be usable. You could drive it across Europe, and yet it also needs the performance you’d expect on track, for a trackday or as the base for a Le Mans racer – that’s the challenge.’
If the Red Bull F1 tie-up is one neat way of fast-tracking Aston Martin to mid-engined pedigree, the other is recruitment. And with the Vanquish project breaking cover, some of Andy Palmer’s hires begin to look like the hand-picked dream team they are. Szwaj brings frontline experience from BMW’s innovative i programme, and thereafter the hybrid LaFerrari and the laying down of Ferrari’s current and widely lauded front- and mid-engined platforms (effectively the astonishing 812 Superfast and 488 GTB).
Then there’s test driver Chris Goodwin, who arrived from McLaren just over a year ago with a sparkling hypercar development CV, including the McLaren P1 and Senna.
‘The new V6, that’s all us,’ says Palmer proudly, adding that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Aston’s German allies in Affalterbach, AMG. ‘Just over a year ago we recruited Joerg Ross [ex-Ferrari, ex-Maserati, into the role of head of powertrains]. He’s a wizard on the engine side and this new turbo V6 is his baby. It’s a performance hybrid, not a plug-in. The two technologies complement each other; they’re at their best in different spheres.
Turbocharging brings with it lag but the electric motor gives instantaneous torque, so the two technologies meld really well. And we’re getting a lot of power from the capacity – it’s an impressive specific output.’
For reference, Honda’s NSX uses a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 with hybrid assistance to bang out 573bhp and 477lb ft. Perhaps more impressively, the non-hybrid Ford GT develops 647bhp from its 3.5-litre turbo V6. Aston’s powertrain will need to target at least 720bhp given the 710bhp McLaren 720S and Ferrari F8 Tributo are benchmarked.
Exciting though this hybrid engine is as a standalone proposition – An F1-inspired powertrain! In a mid-engined Aston! Like a mini P1! – Szwaj is at pains to point out that, given its less than boundless R&D budget, nothing Aston Martin does can be a one-shot. This hybrid is as much about future-proofing Aston Martin in the long term as it is building a Ferrari beater right now.
‘Cars like the P1 and the LaFerrari were laboratories to develop hybrid technology,’ explains Szwaj. ‘This technology is maturing. It’s still expensive but you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money, and we need this technology to meet the emissions challenge. There is a lot of uncertainty. We must design something that will excite and be socially responsible at the same time.’
These factors will challenge the next Vantage and DB11 just as they must shape the Vanquish, a consideration that serves to illustrate both the enormity of the task Aston’s team is facing (with no major OEM from which to pilfer parts and thinking, as Porsche can, for example) and the enormous flexibility this solution will bring to the firm’s technical arsenal.
‘The capacity of this base engine is to an extent dictated by what’s accepted in some markets, like China,’ continues Szwaj [China taxes engines over 3.0 litres much more aggressively]. ‘But you need to think of it as a platform for further development. The base V6 will deliver amazing performance but it’s also the base of the powertrain in the AM-RB 003 ‘Son of Valkyrie’, with a different kind of hybrid system to deliver the increased power. This is a powertrain we can scale up or down with a different number of cylinders. With the electrified transmission, we also have the possibility of all-wheel drive. We are looking at this – we’d be stupid not to. With everything we have to think about what it means not just for this car but beyond it, too. We’re seeding the technologies for the next generation of cars: updated versions of DB11, Vantage and DBS.’
Just as Vanquish’s powertrain demonstrates great flexibility, so the chassis structure Szwaj is developing promises performance with adaptability. Constructed primarily from bonded aluminium, as Vantage and DB11 are, the Vanquish will almost certainly use composites in key areas to reduce weight – a priority given a hybrid system is intrinsically heavier than an engine alone. ‘For us our bonded structure is a real luxury,’ says Szwaj. ‘We don’t have hot-joining, we bond, which in itself confers certain structural advantages. But it also brings far greater flexibility in terms of materials we can introduce. It’s important for us to expand this parameter into more exotic and challenging materials – we will push boundaries. A weight advantage is key as we seek to offset the additional powertrain weight conferred by the hybrid system – batteries are not light!’
Aston won’t be drawn on just how much additional weight switching to a hybrid brings, noting that, until performance targets are finalised, the final battery specification and size could change. ‘It could be a factor of 1.5 to two [times heavier than an engine alone], but until we firm up those attributes I couldn’t say,’ offers Szwaj. ‘But regardless we have set very challenging weight targets, and we’ll deliver through the use of materials that will give us an advantage. But be clear, this is not a marketing exercise. This is about the right material in the right place for the right function. This is not about being able to write about a carbon roof in a brochure.’
As Aston Martin merrily puts the engine behind the driver and turns the world on its head, so its design team has faced a challenge every bit as daunting as anything on the engineering side: deliver a car that, while being based on an engineering package quite unlike any other Aston Martin, nevertheless looks like an Aston Martin. At the same time the project’s ambitious performance targets also insisted form must be tightly tethered to function, with no indulgent style-led flourishes that might corrupt the car’s aerodynamic efficiency.
‘We’re looking at a very aggressive layout for our cooling, and therefore the aero performance of the car,’ confirms Szwaj. ‘We’ve a great bloodline from Valkyrie to this car. All the lessons we’ve learned, we’re trying to implement on this application – it’s fundamental to us.’
All of which is fine until, as designer Miles Nurnberger acknowledges with a wry grin, you appreciate that ‘Valkyrie is a very unusual piece of car design, not least because of all the negative space underneath – it’s what’s not there that really makes up the car’. So much for the obvious option: design a £200k baby Valkyrie…
Nurnberger: ‘The look and feel is shared with Valkyrie and Son of Valkyrie. But they differ naturally because there are things you can do at their price point that you simply can’t do at this price point.’
Put it to Aston’s designers that the result is a little conventional, with design cues familiar from the Aston’s existing line-up – notably DB11’s contrasting roof rail – and they give a little while refuting a lot.
‘I suppose this is more like a GT car, with very solid, fulsome forms,’ says Nurnberger. ‘There are echoes of Valkyrie, in the venting of the front arches for example, but it’s more fluid, more sculpted. There is elegance here – the direct Red Bull collaborations are extreme beasts. So yes, maybe it’s more like a GT car in that way. But in all other ways, not so much…’ Certainly Vanquish is a striking form, from the low, almost feline face, which borrows Valkyrie’s headlight shape, through graceful flanks to a tail brutally undercut with diffuser tunnels. The message, from your eyes to your beating heart, is clear: this is an Aston Martin that promises to drive like no other.
‘The R&D aim is to produce a true mid-engined supercar with a fundamental advantage in agility and sportiness,’ confirms Szwaj. ‘Compared to the cars we already offer it will be clearly differentiated; in how you sit, cab-forwards, and in its behaviour. We’re creating critical new intellectual property for Aston Martin and we’re creating a supercar. It’s a great vision for the future; incredibly exciting. We’re like kids in a candy shop.’
Turn the page for the car Vanquish must topple, Ferrari’s new F8 Tributo
‘It’s a £200k, 200mph Ferrari 488 and Lamborghini Huracan rival, pushing up towards Aventador’ Andy Palmer
WE MADE THIS
Aston Martin CEO Palmer’s patiently renewed Aston’s core cars while hiring the talent to build a car with genuine Ferrari-beating potential.
Chief technical officer Who better to lay down the technical foundations of your 488 fighter than the man who created that Ferrari?
Chief creative officer The guardian of elegance in performance car design, he’s deftly transitioned Aston design into its mid-engined era.
Chief engineer, powertrain Former Ford, Maserati and Ferrari F1 engine guru is fluent in both petrol engines and electric.
CTO, Red Bull Racing The Jimi Hendrix of automotive aerodynamics, Newey shaped Valkyrie – and in turn helped sculpt Vanquish.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
‘The Aston Martin grille has always been defined by the upper portion – look at DB5, DB6, DB9 and DB11,’ explains Marek Reichman. ‘The bottom of the grille doesn’t define the shape; that comes from the upper section. With Vulcan and then Vantage we emphasised that upper portion, and now – with Valkyrie and this car – the S-curve of the upper grille is extremely well defined in the surface language. You no longer even need the lower section. It might be lost in shadow but your mind reads it nonetheless, and completes the circle.’
A FACE TO LOVE
‘Thanks to Valkyrie you already know this as the face of a mid-engined Aston Martin,’ continues Reichman. ‘The others don’t really have a face; Ferrari doesn’t, McLaren doesn’t, Lamborghini doesn’t, apart from the eyes. But we do, and it brings character – our cars have character. The face helps bring that and, by employing the same team that sculpted the surfaces of cars like the DB11, the Zagatos, the DBX and the Vantage, you organically put some of that same Aston Martin character into a mid-engined car.’
Definitely still an Aston – just an Aston unlike any we’ve seen before. The heat flooding out of here will come from Aston's own new V6. Wheel not reinvented; rest of Aston is. Rear end contributes significantly to downforce – no kidding. Aggressively mass- and weight-optimised, and indirectly shaped by Newey. The message from your eyes to your beating heart is clear: this is an Aston that promises to drive like no other.
MORE BEAUTY PLEASE
‘Valkyrie was driven almost exclusively by aero, with something of the fluidity and beauty of an Aston,' says Reichman. 'Valkyrie’s cabin is minimal and very extreme for example, to minimise frontal area. On this car we could design in more beauty. You read Valkyrie in there but it’s less extreme. A lot of the aero work is done by the front of the car, the splitter, and the rear diffusers – on Valkyrie every surface works hard to generate enormous downforce.
‘Working with Adrian Newey gave rise to this really interesting creative tension,’ smiles Reichman. ‘I think we’d all agree creating Valkyrie was painful as hell, but it was painful because we were creating something truly unique – it won’t be repeated, and the genesis of this car is in that one. All of that learning and knowledge – that tension between design and aerodynamics – is in this car. Nothing on Valkyrie was the first answer; it was the sixth or seventh. We’ve pulled all of that blood, sweat and tears into this car.’