As if the Valkyrie hypercar wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Aston Martin has revealed concepts of its next two mid-engined models in the form of the AM-RB 003 and the Vanquish Vision Concept\\
ay I sit in it, please?’ It’s a question I seem to have been asking for most of my life. Although it might seem like a small favour to the car’s custodian, it generally means a huge amount to the person allowed to swing the door open and perch behind the wheel, because you can learn so much just from looking through a windscreen.
Take the Aston Martin AM-RB 003 concept for example. I can only guess at the strength of the sensations that might be conveyed in corners by the huge aerodynamic downforce this hypercar will generate – the squeezing of a ribcage into a seat bolster, the slight or perhaps huge heaviness in the limbs. Similarly, I can only try to imagine what the sound of its all-new turbocharged V6 will be like as it exhausts through the two top-exit pipes. Angry? Muffled? Something like the weekend cars of Verstappen and Gasly? And I can only surmise that acceleration for the 003, aided by a P4 electric motor driving the front wheels, might be in the low two-second region.
The name may be tantalising, too: RB referring to the involvement of Red Bull Advanced Technologies, who are also playing a major role in the development of Aston’s 865kW V12-hybrid Valkyrie hypercar. (The ‘003’, meanwhile, denotes that this is Aston’s third mid-engined model, after the Valkyrie and the Valkyrie AMR Pro.) But it all means very little until someone can drive it – something that won’t happen until 2021. Only then will you know if it feels dramatic or uneventful, fast or slow, fun or frightening.
However, if you can just sit in a car… Well now, that really can bring it alive. Bending down, sliding over the small sill and sitting in the lightly padded fixed driver’s seat of the 003 is an experience. For a start you’re not really sitting, because you’re so reclined that your weight is supported by your back almost as much as your bum. Aston has designed the cockpit around what it is calling Apex Ergonomics so that your spine, the steering wheel and the pedals are all in perfect alignment. Your feet aren’t the lowest part of your body when you’re in the 003 either. It’s not quite as extreme as sitting in the bath with your feet on the taps, but it still feels like a comfortably alien position in a car.
The materials around you are a mixture of 3D-printed carbonfibre, ‘normal’ carbon, a few dashes of leather and, covering the seat pads, some ballistic nylon. If it sounds cluttered or messy then rest assured it’s not. In fact the overarching ambiance of the cabin is one of light and space. It feels remarkably roomy. All the speakers and air vents (fed by the NACA duct on the nose; the small nostrils either side run all the way back through the car to feed the engine) are hidden in the single horseshoe-shaped band running around under the windscreen, while buttons are almost entirely restricted to the steering wheel, keeping your peripheral vision clear of distractions.
There are four screens: a small instrument display behind the steering wheel, a digital rear-view mirror, a thin bar on the steering wheel that looks like the touch bar on the latest MacBook Pro and may well show biometric information about the driver, and, finally, a mobile phone. This last item is in place of any fixed in-car infotainment or satnav and Aston is keen to gauge reaction. In some ways (or should that be Waze?) it seems entirely sensible and, like many of the other features, could well be the future of Aston interiors.
However, the most striking thing about sitting in the 003 is the view out. The A-pillars initially appear to be positioned quite a long way forward but, as Miles Nurnberger, Aston Martin’s director of design, explains, while you would normally bring the A-pillars back and out to maximise vision, this also increases frontal area. In the 003 the A-pillar nearest to you perfectly bisects the front wheelarch. This might sound distracting, but it isn’t, and the end result is not only improved aerodynamics but a truly widescreen feeling for the driver, with a sense that you will be able to place the front of the car with amazing accuracy.
And what of the rest of the package? Well, details of the engine are light, to say the least, but the twin-turbocharged V6 will be designed entirely in-house by Aston Martin.
This is the first time this will have happened with an Aston engine since the Tadek Marek era back in the ’50s and ’60s. There will also be a significant hybrid element to the powertrain, including an electric motor driving the front wheels. It will be interesting to eventually compare this turbocharged V6 hybrid system with the one in Mercedes-AMG’s Project One.
The huge tunnels at the rear of the car show that, as with the Valkyrie, the majority of the downforce will be generated by the air passing under the car. I also notice a few vortex generators (seen most clearly on the outer edges of the front splitter and on the floor just in front of the rear wheels) that are clearly an Adrian Newey influence, pushing the air out around the wheels. Also like the Valkyrie, the 003 will get active suspension, but something the Valkyrie doesn’t have is the 003’s deformable surfaces (see right), which are claimed to be a first in the automotive industry.
Lightness is a key element of the 003 and this is exemplified in the methods of illumination. Calling them light lights could get confusing, but that’s what they are. Again using learning, if not all the materials, from the Valkyrie (you can see why 003 is known internally as Son of Valkyrie) all the lamps, front and rear combined, weigh less than one DBS headlamp.
One number we do have is 500. That’s the number of coupes Nurnberger says will be made, costing around £1million each (circa $1.9 million). Coupes. I wonder what an open-top version would be like…?
And so to the other car you can see on these pages: the Vanquish Vision Concept. This one is another year further away from production reality, so details are even more scant. (There’s not even an interior to sit in.) It’s a supercar rather than a hypercar, though, so best to look at the gorgeous photos and imagine how it might stack up against whatever developments of the Ferrari F8 Tributo, McLaren 720S and Lamborghini Huracán Evo have been cooked up in three years’ time.
When its pronounced arches do roll out onto the roads around Gaydon, this Vanquish will have a version of the 003’s turbo V6, but with much milder hybrid elements and rear drive only. The chassis will be a mixture of aluminium and carbonfibre, as opposed to the 003 and Valkyrie’s sole use of the woven black fabric. Usability will be a higher priority and performance more accessible. The handling will perhaps focus a little more on fun rather than an outright, aero-augmented lap time, although the Vanquish will no doubt still be impressive against the clock.
And that is really all that we know. At the moment this is more a statement of intent. A beautiful design study to get everyone excited. And it really is very pretty – more so than the Valkyrie or 003, because it isn’t beholden to the demands of a wind tunnel in quite the same way. The new family face is still there, but at the back there is a hint of 720S, albeit with a recognisably Aston shape to the flicked-up tail’s trailing edge.
This more pronounced Aston design language perhaps reflects that while the 003, and to a lesser extent the Vanquish, will feature extensive input from Red Bull Advanced Technologies, both of these cars have sprung from Aston Martin, unlike the Valkyrie which came initially entirely from Newey. However, Nurnberger says that since working with the Formula 1 design genius, he and plenty of others within Aston have found themselves constantly questioning and pushing their designs to a much greater extent. Valkyrie has changed them.
Before seeing it, I thought there was a danger that in Aston Martin’s new brood of mid-engined models, the AM-RB 003 would suffer from Middle Child Syndrome. The first to arrive – the eldest, the Valkyrie – is clearly the privileged high-achiever. Meanwhile the youngster – the more approachable new Vanquish – will be the one that everyone can realistically dream of owning or at least seeing one day. However, endowed with all-wheel drive, the sci-fi FlexFoil technology and one of the most extraordinary cockpits I have ever sat in, the 003 feels like it has managed to be very much its own person.
It could yet even prove to be the most interesting member of the family.
Aston Martin test driver Chris Goodwin reveals what it takes to set up a new car such as the 003
“There is a set of faces that I have in the back of my mind,” says Chris Goodwin. This might sound like day one, session one on a psychiatrist’s couch, but Aston Martin’s expert high-performance test driver is actually talking about how he crafts a car. He has been with the company just over a year now (he was previously at McLaren – his final cars there were the Senna and the 600LT) working flat-out on the Valkyrie, embedded within Red Bull in Milton Keynes, spending long days in the simulator.
But today we’re chatting about the 003 and I’m keen to know how he goes about setting up a new car, or in Aston’s case a whole new range of cars. With so many dynamic directions he could take, surely it would be easy to let personal preference take over? That’s where the faces come in. “I’ve got a lot of experience in this area now and I’ve become personally very familiar with the customer base,” explains Goodwin. “I can recall the conversations about cars where people have said, ‘It was amazing when you did this,’ or ‘If only you could have done that.’”
The fizzogs that he has in mind, then, are real people with real preferences and, presumably, wide-ranging levels of ability behind the wheel. And this is what helps him to frame some of the development. The logical next line of questioning then is to wonder if it ever feels like he’s trying to please too many people, but as he points out, while there is an older generation of cars where a Sport button really doesn’t make much difference, “you can create two or three cars in one with the current tech”, thereby catering for a much broader clientele.
Goodwin also points out that he has confidence in not just what the customers will want but what Aston is trying to achieve. Through spending a lot of time in Aston’s core cars (Vantage, DB11, DBS, etc), working with Aston Martin Racing and having “lots of cups of coffee with Matt Becker” (Aston’s chief engineer) over the last 12 months he has got “a good feel for the company”. And when you feel comfortable with the broader elements of what a company is trying to achieve then you can be much more confident in the direction you are developing a car.
Of course, with so much of the technology being new to cars, let alone Aston Martin, it must be tricky to develop. I’m intrigued, for example, how he will approach the new FlexFoil aerodynamics. But Goodwin seems unfazed, drawing comparisons with the cutting-edge active suspension on the Valkyrie. Put simply, “you apply basic physics principles and simulate it,” he says. “Yes, you might have to invent something rather than just fettle existing off-the-shelf tech, but that’s what drives me. I like that it’s taxing on the brain.” And of course, as Goodwin is quick to say, he works with the sort of incredibly clever people at Red Bull Advanced Technologies that would tax almost anyone.
As with the Valkyrie, the simulator will clearly play an incredibly important role in developing the 003, but one of the trickiest parts will be when they translate the car across from the virtual to the real world. Goodwin explains that somewhere such as Millbrook was built in the ’60s. It wasn’t designed with something as fast as the 003 in mind. Even using the bigger European proving grounds such as Nardò in Italy (opened in ’75) and Idiada in Spain (ribbon cut in ’71) you have to be quite specific about where you go for certain bits of testing.
But again this is where Goodwin’s experience pays dividends. Just as he has a set of faces, so he seems to have a mental scrapbook of the places where he wants to put the 003 through its paces. He knows exactly the uphill hairpin, the specific motorway expansion joints, the perfect fifth-gear sweeper, the ideal jumps, lumps and compressions that will test the 003. After he’s finished with Aston Martin’s mid-engined supercars, perhaps he should craft a new proving ground…
By Henry Catchpole
Photography by Matt Howell