Though I've had the opportunity to test drive several Aston Martins over the last few years, I always left feeling unsatisfied. I wanted to go to fast, to push the car its limits. An occasional burst of speed passing a car on a city highway or suburban lane felt like a tease with concerns of traffic, speed limits and safety always trumping the thrill. That desire was met head on when Aston Martin invited us to spend a day at their Performance Driving Course, a day-long, one-on-one tutorial taught by one of their experienced performance driving instructors in your Aston Martin of choice. Best of all, while owning an Aston is a stretch for most of us, a day on the track is a fantasy that's both educational and a lot more accessible.
The Course is currently offered in the U.S. at Ford's 3,800-plus acre Michigan Proving Ground and in the U.K. at Millbrook Proving Ground, one of the largest facilities in Europe. Accompanied by CH editor-in-chief Josh Rubin, we arrived in Michigan first thing in the morning where we were met by our instructors Kevin Markham and Sal Gusmano.
Though Josh and I both consider ourselves fairly accomplished drivers, it's humbling to spend a day with professional drivers who have over 50 combined years of test and performance driving under their belts. After an introduction to the PDC, going over the plan for the day and signing some waivers, we were eagerly escorted to our requested rides for the course, a 2011 V12 Vantage coupe with a six-speed manual transmission and a 2011 four-door Rapide sedan. Starting in the passenger seat of our respective cars while Kevin and Sal took the wheel, we headed out to our first stop.
Our instructors explained the goal of each of the six tracks as they drove the first lap of all six, giving detailed advice as they pointed out the details of the track and the car that would be put to test. The first lesson was to get a feel for the cars (we both drove both throughout the day) by accelerating as quickly as possible down the 2.5-mile straightaway, safely coming to a stop, turning around and doing it again. This in itself was about the most fun I've had in a long time. After a few laps, the instructors introduced an "emergency stop." Once we were cruising at 100 mph, they called out "STOP!" and we slammed on the brakes, holding the pedal down as hard as possible to come to an incredibly quick and controlled stop.
Once we had a first-hand understanding of the term "assometer" (a word coined by Kevin meaning "your interaction with the car, the way you sit in it"), we were instructed to change lanes as we braked, simulating a real-life emergency braking and avoidance situation. The cars performed admirably (as did we) and with that experience under our belts, we headed to the Lommel track, modeled after a section of Belgian highway with rolling hills and sharp turns.
Lommel gave us the opportunity to test our skills and the car in a more common road setting. Kevin and Sal provided a better understanding of how to take turns properly—when to use the brakes and when to accelerate. Basically, this meant braking in a straight line before the turn, looking as far outside the turn as we could, and accelerating as we eased out of it. Each lap saw an increase in our skill and speed. Both Josh and I felt we took away valuable information that applies to day-to-day driving as well as track driving.
Next we headed off to the traction control (aka skid) pad, a wet track where we got to experience driving the cars with their multiple modes (On, Off or Track). Assometer ratings on high, this is the part of the day when you make funny faces and say "Wow! Awesome; let's do that again!" over and over again as you spin the car into oversteer. It's also the equally important moment when you understand the engineering involved in the cars and how to leverage it—whether you want the car controlled and tamed, loosened up, or completely left to your skill to master.