My Millbrook Driving Experience

8 Apr

Thursday 29th March saw me venture out of the office, driving two hours north of London to visit the private grounds of the Millbrook testing facility. Millbrook is a 700-acre development with various testing facilities in the one place that will test any kind of road going vehicle through its paces before we (the public) know about it and see it on the showroom floors. Milbrook was constructed in the late 1960’s by General motors and is still today owned by them. Not only Vauxhall, GM’s British representative, use the testing facility. In fact you can see Ferrari, buses, campervans, army trucks, Nissan and of course Aston Martin using this facility to test their latest creations. Aston Martin however is the only manufacturer to have a private building on the testing grounds where guests attend private driving days, which I am attending today. Aston Martin is also the only manufacturer to allow customers to drive their vehicles on the facility, a very special experience indeed.

Milbrook Testing Facility from above

Arriving at the gates to the ‘proving ground’ I am directed to a designated Aston Martin parking zone and then asked to climb aboard the shuttle bus which escorts me to the private Aston Martin building. As I sit in the van looking out of the windows, I am struck by the feeling that I am an undercover photographer working for a magazine about to capture photos of the mini SUV’s driving around the grounds, all disguised in black and white wrap. I then remember that my camera is left in the car because cameras and camera phones are forbidden while in the grounds. In fact, my iPhone gets a little red sticker over the camera just in case I get the urge to take a pic (this is all so top secret, I LOVE IT).

As I and the other eleven guests sit down to lunch we chat about where we are and what we are all about to witness this afternoon. Afterwards, we listen to introductory messages from our hosts as they explain the proceedings of the afternoon and introduce us to the professional drivers who will be accompanying us on the courses.

First course up for me is the ‘Outer Handling’ course where I will be a passenger in the new V8 Vantage S. This course is made up of fast-flowing rises followed by 90 degree corners all driven on undulating concrete road surfaces to test the overall handling of the vehicle. Hard braking and accelerating into and out of these corners and riding the bumpy surfaces are a great way to test the overall handling package. As I slide around on the leather seats, listening to the screeching tyres on the road surface, the late braking into the apexes and fast acceleration is the cause for the huge smile on my face. This was a perfect course to begin my afternoon as I now have a better understanding for how these cars handle and how hard they can be pushed.

The second course I was to try was the ‘Hill Route’ (Alpine Circuit) in which I would get to drive the four-door Rapide. Driving this car around the city, it feels big and heavy, but here on the hilly terrain with ever changing gradients and tight corners, it handles just like the other two-door coupes. I was instructed when to brake and when to accelerate hard and when to turn into the apexes, even when you could not see them over a rise, all to get the better line and performance from the car. This is truly an amazing four-person sports car that handles and drives just like its two-door brothers.

The third course to drive was the ‘City Course’ in the new V8 Vantage. This course is designed for the little cars of the world where they can really shine and prove superior to the big powerful sport cars. In the past Aston Martin use this course for their luxury city car the ‘Cygnet’ but this time around I drove the 420bhp V8 Vantage as quick as I could and keep it between the lines of a single lane.  The conception is that big powerful engine cars are difficult to steer as the steering becomes heavy with ever changing directions due to the weight and power up-front used to drive the car. This course proves this to be incorrect as the steering in the V8 is a constant weight felt through the wheel, making opposite lock turning fast and responsive whichever way and at whatever speed you are driving.

The fourth course I was to attack was the ‘High Speed Bowl’ in the new 490bhp Virage Coupe. This two-mile (3km) circular banked circuit used for high speed testing consisted of five lanes, each at different degrees of banking. Each lane had a set speed to drive at in order to get the best feedback from the testing. I began in the bottom lane at 40mph and then made my way to the top lane in which I was instructed to hold the speed at 100mph / 160kph (no such thing as cruise control in these cars). Once at this cruising speed, I was asked to take my hands of the wheel, in which I did. At first it seemed daunting but after about 10 seconds, I could feel that this car was extraordinarily comfortable at this speed and proved very safe. After about one minute I was asked to return my hands to the wheel and increase the speed to what I felt was comfortable. At this time I increased my speed to 140mph / 225kph to feel how stable the car is at this top speed. The self-levelling adaptive suspension in this car constantly reads the road to adjust the stiffness of the suspension to make it comfortable and controlled at these top speeds. At the speeds travelled I gained further confidence and knowledge of how safe and capable these sports cars really are, and equally, how much I really want one.

The fifth course I attacked is the ‘Alpine Circuit’ and this time in the epitome of Aston Martin, the DBS coupe. To attack this circuit in this car feels twice as exciting for the following reasons:

  1. This car is the model used by James Bond in Casino Royale
  2. The scene in Casino Royale where the car rolls, just missing the person laying on the road, was filmed at this location and I get to drive the same circuit in the DBS. Look out James Bond!

As mentioned above the Alpine circuit is made up of rises, valleys, blind corners at the top of rises, bumpy tarmac and undulating road surfaces, but what better car to do it in than the DBS. I drive one lap of the circuit reaching fast speeds and hitting as many apexes as possible. The handling of this car in sport mode is unbelievable and not once did I feel unstable when pushing it as hard as my nerves let me. Once I completed my lap I swapped over to be a passenger as my professional driver took me for a ‘flying’ lap as it seemed compared to mine. The adrenaline rushing through my braced body in the leather seats, as he attacked each corner with fierce braking and sharp cornering, meant that when the lap was over, it left me wanting more chances to attack the circuit again with me behind the wheel. But as they say, all good things must come to an end.

The final course I was to attack was the mile long straight in the V12 Vantage. The idea of this course was to reach my top speed in the 510bhp sports car and then apply fierce braking to stop before the banked curve at the end of the mile straight. The first run I was the passenger as the professional driver showed me how to attack the straight and when to brake. After his run we swapped over to allow the carbon ceramic brakes to cool. Next up it was my turn. I drove the car back to the starting line where I would turn the car onto the straight in second gear, and with a rolling start, I flattened the throttled to the floor. As the engine revved out to 6,500rpm I quickly changed the gears manually (this car is only available as a manual). As I change into sixth gear and the final few seconds of acceleration, I glimpse at the digital read out of my speed and realise I am doing 162mph / 260kph. At that split second my instructor says ‘BRAKE’. I quickly move my right foot to the brake pedal and apply pressure. These carbon ceramic brakes are amazing and the speed in which I slow is mind blowing and I feel this through my neck. I cannot explain the pressure that my body felt when braking the car from that speed, but my whole body moved forward from the back rest of the seat and I had to make every effort to push it back. My adrenaline was now well and truly flowing through my body and asking for more. Thankfully I was able to have another go. I drove the car to back to the beginning of the straight at 50mph allowing the brakes to cool before I went for it again. My instructor was very happy with my gear changes but asked that I change it just a little bit before 6,500 as it will get me faster to the top speed. Setting off down the straight I quickly change up through the six gears in which I see the white broken line on the middle of the road turn into what appears as a solid white line. Again my instructor asks me to brake but this time I also use the gear changes to slow the car. I stop in what feels like a shorter time and with the amazing sound of the V12 roaring on each down shift. Again I hit 162mph and now swap back to the professional for him to kindly do one more run for me. He checks to make sure we have enough fuel left and away we go down the straight again. On this run he hits his best top speed which is 164mph before also using the brake and gear down changes to slow the car. On our way back to the others, we talk about how the car handles and how amazing these sports cars really are.

When I return to the building I sit with fellow quests and we reminisce what we have just witnessed and what it feels like to be able to drive such amazing automobiles. All of us could not wipe the smiles off our faces and couldn’t stop talking about the things we felt when driving the cars through each course. Once everyone was completed their courses we all climbed into the shuttle bus to be taken back to our road cars for the journey home. For some it was not far but for me, a two-hour long trip in a Toyota IQ was certainly an interesting comparison to what I have driven that afternoon and gave me plenty of time to reminisce.

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4 Responses to “My Millbrook Driving Experience”

  1. jane cook April 9, 2012 at 12:22 AM #

    Well Matt what an experience. All I can say is “My poor little Golf: X Jane

    • mmeblog April 10, 2012 at 2:37 PM #

      Don’t worry Mum, I won’t let him do anything like that in the Golf!

  2. BevanEdwards April 9, 2012 at 5:37 AM #

    Son

    What a wonderful experience you have had.

    I am extremely jealous but very proud you were able to add this to your list of experiences.

    I guess this out does our V8 experience.

    Love, Dad

    • mmeblog April 10, 2012 at 2:37 PM #

      Bev, I’m sure Matt would have loved you to be there to experience it with him as well!

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