Our first taste of Aston’s hypercar – on an F1 simulator. Words Richard Meaden. Images James Arbuckle / Aston Martin.
We’re all well-versed in what the Aston Martin Valkyrie promises, but how do you take these remarkable claims with anything more than a pinch of salt when you know for a fact that until very recently a fully functioning car didn’t actually exist? Simulation, that’s how.
It’s appropriate that all the development work done thus far on this heavily F1-influenced hypercar has been conducted exclusively in the virtual realm, for that is exactly how F1 cars are designed these days. The work of refining this digital development prototype has fallen to Chris Goodwin, Aston’s high performance test driver, who has ‘driven’ the Valkyrie more than 8500 virtual kilometres.
The feet-up driving position in the sim is actually pretty close to the Valkyrie’s’
Now, with the simulated car at a stage where it can offer novice hands a representative taste of what the Valkyrie is capable of, we’ve been invited to Red Bull’s F1 HQ. Here we will be allowed into the normally off-limits area housing the third of Red Bull’s three simulators; Sim 1 and Sim 2 are dedicated to development work for the Red Bull and Torro Rosso teams respectively, with Sim 3 used for work such as that conducted on the Valkyrie programme.
How do you go about driving a virtual Valkyrie? Well, first you have to forget any notion of the sim experience being anything like driving any car. There’s a muddy, fuzzy approximation of engine noise, but for all the dazzling technology it’s actually reminiscent of a misspent youth standing in amusement arcades playing Sega Rally, only minus the musical accompaniment from the fruit machines.
This sim is built around a genuine Red Bull F1 tub. Naturally this means it bears zero visual resemblance to a Valkyrie, but the reclined, feet-up driving position is actually pretty close; the Aston’s driving position being less pronounced but much closer to that of a modern GP car than any conventional road car.
The sim’s screen is a huge wraparound affair with a nicely detailed rendering of the Spa start-finish straight. You can clearly see the top edge, which spoils the illusion, and of course there’s the fact you never actually move, but it’s still enough to get your heart beating a little faster.
You’ve got headphones on and are in contact with the sim team, who are sitting at a desk just a few metres behind you, eyes scanning their display screens and occasionally issuing instructions through your headset. It’s all a bit odd and, strangely, slightly nerve-wracking.
Just to ramp up the tension, moments before you start driving an alarm sounds – presumably to warn those in the room to stand clear of the sim platform. Then, with a satisfying click of the right-hand paddle and a squeeze of the rather dead throttle, we’re away. Initially it feels entirely disembodied, with literally zero sense of connection to your virtual car, but as your brain takes its feed from the few sources of sensory information it can find, something weird happens. I wouldn’t say everything clicks into place, but the subtle and carefully crafted visual, aural and feedback cues somehow contrive to fool your brain into believing that you are indeed behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Albeit a somewhat numb one.
From this point on, you are drawn deeper into the experience, which is odd as you never actually experience any lateral, longitudinal or vertical g forces. Instead you’re being tricked by perfectly timed tilts and jolts from the sim platform.
One thing I’m glad of is the total lack of jeopardy. Nobody wants to look like a ham-fisted fool in front of Red Bull’s crack sim operators, so there is some pressure to perform, but it’s nice to know mistakes won’t be punished by piling the Valkyrie into Spa’s unyielding steel barriers.
Cleverly we begin with a benchmark car – a crazy mash-up of cars that between them offer high levels of power and downforce and tend to top most of the magazine and TV show lap-time boards.
In my mind that means Porsche 911 991 GT2, McLaren Senna and the odd dash of Ferrari and Koenigsegg for added spice.
Once I’ve had a few laps to try and attune myself to the sim and the car, it’s clear the mythical mongrel is quick but unruly. It never seems to do the same thing twice and has a nasty disconnect between mechanical grip and downforce that make it frustrating in the slow corners and edgy in the quick ones.
Swapping to the Valkyrie is a surreal step. For starters it accelerates like speeded-up film, Spa’s pixelated scenery fizzing by much, much more quickly than in the benchmark car. That’s as you’d expect with H60bhp propelling an 1100kg car. Because we’re driving an earlier iteration of the Valkyrie sim than the team are currently working with, we have no ABS or traction control to rely on, so a degree of circumspection is required out of the Bus Stop and La Source, likewise braking into them and Les Combes at the end of the Kemmel Straight.
However, once your brain is dialled-in, the leap in performance is remarkable, especially in the high-speed corners. I’ve been fortunate to drive Porsche’s 919 Hybrid LMP1 Le Mans car – both in the sim and for real – and it’s this experience from which I have to draw to fully get my head around the Valkyrie’s cornering ability. Where the benchmark car was like walking a tightrope into, through and out of Eau Rouge, the Valkyrie allows you to tear headlong down the hill, flat-out almost as you enter the compression, then blend fractionally out of the throttle to settle the car before squeezing back on the power as the incline catches the car. It’s fast and committed enough to make you hold your breath, even though you know none of this is real.
Braking is equally emphatic, the car feeling flat and stable, even when braking from in excess of 210mph for Les Combes. Which, incidentally, is comfortably more than either a contemporary F1 or LMP1 car.
What’s just as impressive is how controllable the Valkyrie feels even when you take huge liberties with it. Its limits are sky-high, but once you reach them not only are they tangible, but you can lean on them, exceed them and come back from them without feeling as though you’re juggling chainsaws.
Annoyingly, but completely understandably, Red Bull Advanced Technology’s head of vehicle science, James Knapton, won’t tell me what lap time the Valkyrie will do. However, he and Goodwin do share this nugget of frankly extraordinary information: the Valkyrie comfortably puts between 25 and 30sec between itself and the benchmark car.
That suggests the Valkyrie is shooting for a sub-2min lap. For context, Toyota’s all-conquering LMP1 nudges into the mid-1m 50s, on slick tyres with Alonso at the wheel. The Valkyrie is a road-legal car on road-legal tyres. Nuff said.
Above: Which one’s the horn? Valkyrie’s ‘wheel’ won’t have quite as many buttons as F1 sim, but it’ll be close.
Left and above: Valkyrie has undergone all its development so far on Red Bull’s simulators, so where better to get our first taste of Aston’s hypercar. Valkyrie cockpit (top) places driver in reclined position with feet slightly up, so F1 tub is authentic in that regard. Meaden gets instruction from Aston’s Chris Goodwin (above).