“It’s very user-friendly — I’m not sure it’s something that is often said about an 800-horsepower car,” says Darren Turner as we stand in Aston Martin’s special projects facility at Wellesbourne admiring the sleek lines of the Aston Martin Vulcan, the marque’s track-only supercar. As works driver at Aston Martin Racing, now in its 12th year of competition, Turner has got to know the car intimately and much of the credit for its user-friendliness must go to him.
He was offered the chance to play a key role in the development of this limited-edition piece of automotive finery by David King, Director of Special Projects and Motorsport. It wasn’t an offer Turner was likely to refuse — just 24 Vulcans are being built and 20 of those have already been sold to customers around the world — it’s a rare privilege to drive one, let alone have an input into its development.
“Dave told me there was a special project in the pipeline. It would need some driver input and would involve track days,” recalls Turner. “They wanted to ensure that the set-up would be what a race driver would expect from a car, but also that it would be user-friendly for the customers.”
The 41-year-old’s initial role was to hold in-depth discussions with the designers, principally regarding cockpit layout and what’s most important for the driver. “Essentially, they wanted to know which buttons you need and where you want them — for example, you need the control panels close but not on the steering wheel — and important modifications to the seating position.
“As they started to build the first prototype, I’d be invited down to check I was happy with the progress. ‘Is this right position-wise? Will that interfere with your driving?’ They might be small details but they are absolutely crucial when you are sitting at the wheel.”
Turweston airfield near Silverstone is often used by race teams for “shaking down” their cars and the team spent two days there before heading down to the Goodwood Festival of Speed for the official unveiling. Turner says first impressions were very positive. “There were no little niggles, which is always a good sign. It felt right straight away,” he says.
“And, as you may have seen, I let rip from the off at Goodwood! The car really gave me confidence, so I flew up the hill. I went through at least two sets of tyres and made sure we got full use out of the engine.”
Turner says there are three key criteria to satisfy before the car can go to a customer: performance, balance and durability. “We’ve done thousands of kilometres to ensure these requirements have been met. We were looking for something that combines exhilarating performance and power with a user-friendly driver approach.”
To prove this, the next stage of the Aston Martin Vulcan story saw him lead a team of highly-skilled drivers and instructors in Abu Dhabi in February, where the first group of customers were put through their paces.
“We took them from 500 horsepower (bhp) through to 600bhp and up to more than 800hbp. As instructors, we were sitting next to the customers and if it wasn’t a good driving experience for them then it wouldn’t have been a very nice place for us to be, but as it turns out, I’m confident we could push the customers to drive this car very close to the limit.”
So how does the Aston Martin Vulcan differ from the cars we see Turner pushing to their limits in the colours of Aston Martin Racing?
“It’s a lot more refined than the Vantage GTEs and has a lot more horsepower, but the downforce is similar. The Aston Martin Vulcan is very competitive on lap time. After all, it’s a proper race car built to FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) specifications. It’s enough of a challenge that you do know you are driving a very high performance race car as hard as you can.”
Turner is currently focusing on his preparations for the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), which gets under way with the Six Hours of Silverstone on 17 April. The team will field three cars in this year’s campaign, as it looks to extend the brand’s 23 overall wins in FIA WEC — more than any other manufacturer. It’s going to be one of the most exciting years yet with big technical changes to the cars, including a greater freedom on aero-development, but Turner is confident Aston Martin Racing will rise to the challenge.
“The new Vantage GTE takes a big step up in aero-performance, which is the area we’ve concentrated on to find the extra speed and lap time we’re looking for. We stayed on at Bahrain after the last race of 2015’s competition for four days of initial testing and everything is looking very positive. We’ve always been competitive and there’s no doubt we’ll be competing for wins and podiums in 2016.”
Turner will again lead the #95 GTE Pro entry and will be joined by Danish drivers Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen. The second Pro entry #97 will be occupied by Richie Stanaway, Jonny Adam and Fernando Rees, while in GTE Am, the #98 will return with an unchanged line-up of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda. As ever, the centrepiece of the season will be the Le Mans 24 Hours in June — synonymous for Aston Martin with the famous win in 1959 — and Turner says that Aston Martin Racing has what he terms “unfinished business” at the iconic Circuit de la Sarthe.
“It’s a special race and a great experience, but there is lots of pressure with it counting for double points. It really does shape your championship,” he says. “We were very close to winning it in 2013 and 2014 — small problems cost us dear — so we need to go back this year, get the car over the finish line and we’ll have a real chance of a win.”
Before then, Aston Martin will once again return to the infamous Green Hell for the Nürburgring 24hrs in May, fielding two V12 Vantage GT3s in the top-tier SP9 class. All cars that will compete in the WEC, at Le Mans and the Nürburgring are derived from Aston Martin’s road-going Vantage range; V8 Vantage, V8 Vantage S, V12 Vantage S and the exclusive Vantage GT12, which demonstrates the clear and strong link between road car and race car.
Off the track, Turner, who has raced in every class that the team has developed cars for — GT4, GT3, GTE, GT1 and LMP1 — signed a new three-year contract with Aston Martin Racing last September and was delighted to commit his future to the team.
“I’ve been here a long time and feel very much part of the family. I wouldn’t want to leave until that job is done. I’ve got a good four or five seasons ahead of me but the next generation is coming through and they are keen, fast and hungry. It’s good for me to get that younger, fresh perspective as they do things a little differently, which keeps me on my toes,” he says.
As part of his new deal, Turner became a development driver and brand ambassador of the road car business, a step that further allows the racer’s knowledge and expertise to benefit the marque’s future sportscar development.
“It’s a real honour to be part of Aston Martin,” he says. “Having been part of the race team for more than 11 years, to be asked to take a closer role in Aston Martin was an opportunity I jumped at and I hope I can really add some value.
“I’ll be involved with the Aston Martin Vulcan for much of 2016, ensuring the customers are looked after, and we’ll be having events days with them during the season.”
It sounds as if Aston Martin is on track for even more success.