Nearly seven years after we first told you about it, PH finally gets behind the wheel…
By Mike Duff / Monday, 6 March 2023 / Loading comments
Heathrow, Sparrow poot o’clock, and half a dozen long-haul flights have just disgorged so there is a sizeable queue at passport control. Made longer for me when the automatic e-gates reject me, sending me to the slow-moving line for an actual passport officer. The following snappy dialogue ensues: “Where have you been?” “Bahrain.” “What were you doing there?” “Um, driving the world’s fastest car.” Seeing a dishevelled, yawning hulk before him, the Border Force representative clearly doesn’t believe me. To be honest, I can’t quite believe it myself.
We’ve known about the existence of the Aston Martin Valkyrie since very shortly after the project began. Back in early 2016 Aston and Red Bull Racing jointly announced they were going to build a hypercar together, the project led by none other than Adrian Newey and under the working title AM-RB 001. Official images, and the promise it would be as quick as an LMP1 car, came shortly afterwards. Then the project acquired the Valkyrie name, and we got a deep dive into the tech of the naturally aspirated 6.5-litre Cosworth V12, followed by a turn in the development simulator. While this was going on Aston announced there would be a track-only AMR Pro variant, which later morphed into a revised version, and also told us about plans to take it racing (followed, sadly, by their later cancellation.)
Then there was the Valkyrie Spider, passenger rides in both the standard Valkyrie at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the AMR Pro on the Homestead-Miami Speedway and our confirmation that customer deliveries had begun in 2021. Oh, and there was also the legal dispute with a Swiss dealer group over deposits, and the ending of Aston and Red Bull’s plans for other joint models with RBR’s announcement that Newey is now working on an even more extreme RB17 in-house. Read that little lot and you’ll be bang up to date.
Bringing us to now and – with the majority of customer cars delivered – the chance to actually drive it in Bahrain on the International Circuit, just ahead of the track’s role as venue for the Formula 1 season’s curtain raiser.
Given the scale of our previous coverage, I won’t try to deliver an in-depth rundown of the Valkyrie’s many technical highlights. So consider this a summary: the naturally aspirated Cosworth V12 produces 1000hp and revs to a dizzying 11,200rpm, getting assistance from a 140hp axial flux electric motor that sits between it and the seven-speed sequential gearbox. It has active suspension, with both adaptive dampers and the ability to lower ride height to help boost aerodynamic performance in its Track mode. Airflow is further managed by active wing elements front and rear, plus two more inside the XXL diffuser. With everything turned up to max it is claimed to be able to deliver a peak 1,100kg of downforce. And that’s despite the fact it rides on road-legal tyres and wears numberplates.
Getting it homologated for road use wasn’t easy. Aston’s chief designer, Miles Nurberger – who had time to fit in an 18-month gap as Dacia’s head of design between his early work on the Valkyrie and its launch – proudly points to what Aston reckons is the smallest and lightest number plate light in the world, this sitting on the end of the rear gearbox casing. Hundreds of hours were expended on creating the mechanism for the single windscreen wiper, too, this having to angle its blade to keep it in contact with the heavily curved canopy windscreen. Although my experience will be limited to the track, Aston reckons that the majority of buyers will at least choose to sometimes experience their Valkyries on road.
The packaging issues were well covered in my story on the Goodwood passenger ride next to then-CEO Tobias Moers. That confirmed that although two blokes can squeeze into the tight-fitting cockpit, their relationship in there will necessarily be a close one. Fortunately, at Bahrain I’ve got it to myself, although with the need to have the minimal padding at the base of the driver’s seat removed to stop my helmeted head from banging against the roof. I’ll start off following Aston works driver Darren Turner, fresh from class victory at the Daytona 24 Hours, as he leads the way in a pace-setting fully liveried Vantage F1 safety car for a couple of laps. But after he peels off I’ll be on my own.
To no surprise, the engine dominates the experience. I spoke to Adrian Newey after my passenger ride at Goodwood in 2021 when he admitted that the refinement was “a bit marginal.” Which can politely be put down as a nice line in Formula 1 understatement. The reality is that it’s brutal, from the moment it fires into life – after the starter has turned it for several seconds to boost oil pressure – and increasingly so all the way to the stratospheric red line. The meshed gears that drive the valvetrain sit at the cockpit end of the engine, and are therefore rotating just inches from occupants’ heads. The V12 is also bolted directly to the carbon fibre tub. So it is hugely loud, but it also fills the cabin with buzzing, high frequency vibration, much of which is delivered by the base of the seat. To sample it without some form of ear protection in the cabin would quickly lead to the risk of hearing loss – when not wearing a helmet Aston has fitted a rally-style intercom headset with active noise cancellation. Sadly, while the Valkyrie sounds great from outside, it really doesn’t from within.
Getting rolling is easy. Although the Valkyrie isn’t capable of running as an EV with the engine off, it moves away at low speed under electrical power, the clutch then closing to link the engine to the wheels. (Don’t worry, there is also a full fang launch control mode that dumps the clutch, but I that didn’t seem like a good way to leave the pitlane.) Like the hybrid Ferraris and the McLaren Artura, the Valkyrie also lacks a mechanical reverse gear, with backing up always done electrically.
The view from the driver’s seat is pinch-yourself special. The canopy windscreen wraps around and is strongly reminiscent of a Group C race car. There two digital screens for the rear view cameras, one on each side, plus an e-mirror mounted high. There is also a touchscreen offset to the right of the dashboard for various lesser functions, the first fitted to an Aston, although I barely glanced at it. The important stuff is relayed by the small screen in the face of the steering wheel, this dominated by a huge rendered rev counter with numbers that go up to 12. There is also a scroll controller to cycle through the chassis and ESP modes – Urban, Sport and Track – with the last of these unlocking an additional variable traction control function.
Visibility is good around the straight ahead, but becomes progressively more restricted when looking sideways past the sizeable windscreen pillars of the ultra-strong carbon tub; Turner has already warned that the apex to the slow Turn 10 left-hander corner is pretty much invisible. Steering brings a keen turn-in and crisp feedback despite the road rubber – Aston having opted to send it out on the standard Michelin Pilot Sport Cups rather than the more aggressive Cup 2Rs – although the traction management is working hard even out of the tighter bends even on the sighting laps. But the obvious limiting factor is the hugely experienced sportscar veteran holding me up. Turner is a seriously talented racer, but even as he does his best Bernd Mayländer impression the safety car – the back squirming as he ups the pace – it feels like following a parade float.
As Turner peels back into the pits, the Valkyrie gets the chance to project itself into another dimension. I’ve been short-shifting on the sighting laps, but even with the full length of Bahrain’s kilometre-long start-finish straight ahead of me it’s still hard to keep my foot in beyond the point where the first change-up light comes on, well short of the limiter – such is the level of noise and fury.
Yes it is ferociously fast. High-end EVs have ably demonstrated the difficulty the human brain has in quantifying raw acceleration in the absence of other stimuli; YouTube is packed with evidence of hot Teslas wasting supercars in spooky silence. In terms of pure pace, the Valkyrie might even be slower than the Lotus Evija prototype in a straight line, the EV being probably the quickest thing I’ve driven given Lotus’s claim the finished car can get from rest to 186mph 4.6 seconds faster than that noted slouch, the Bugatti Chiron.
But objective numbers really don’t matter, because subjectively the Valkyrie feels about 1,000 per cent faster and more exciting – and that’s not just the Evija, but practically everything. I was once lucky enough to drive a Koenigsegg One:1 on a wet runway. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the Valkyrie on a wide, dry track was more viscerally thrilling, especially once confidence had built enough to take it to the altitudinous red line. But there are other elements to the sense of otherworldliness too: the speed at which the engine responds to accelerator pressure and what feels like an insatiable appetite to devour gears. Against all this, a brief test of the push-to-pass ERS system is a mild anti-climax, the button on the face of the steering wheel only giving a slight sense of extra thrust.
Okay, there were a couple of issues. In Bahrain Valkyrie’s brake pedal had a slight dead feeling at the top of its travel, which dinged confidence given the need to shed speed. I also felt the pedal softening slightly during longer applications, although the savage rate of retardation from the huge carbon-ceramic discs and pads didn’t seem to diminish – even in the huge sixth-to-first stop at the end of the start-finish straight. The demonstrator had already done multiple stints on track before I got to it, with none of its pilots taking it easy.
Towards the end of my first session, I suddenly felt the Valkyrie hitting a limiter well before I was expecting it, with a glance at the steering wheel showing that the red line had fallen significantly, dropping as low as 8,000rpm at one point. Returning to the pits confirmed that engine had been struggling with the high ambient temperatures, and that cruising in a higher gear for even half a lap would cool the coolant enough to restore the redline. But this was a car being driven as hard as I could in what is basically a desert. Silverstone in February should be no issue.
The Valkyrie is also impressively driveable for what it is. I hadn’t really been paying enough attention to this during most of my first stint – where Bahrain’s many corners just seemed to be getting in the way of the chance to floor it it on the straights. But my second turn on track gave the chance to explore the chassis’s margins and discover them to be very friendly for something so potent. Although impressive, the car’s ability to generate lateral G at lower speeds isn’t exceptional, certainly not compared to something wearing slicks. In tight bends something like a Radical SR10 would probably produce at least as much adhesion. But rising speeds bring a rapid and obvious increase in downforce, even as the active suspension works to maintain ride height. On Bahrain’s quicker corners it felt absolutely planted, with my inability to believe that higher speeds were possible the biggest limiting factor. Well, that and fading neck muscles.
Building faith to turn the ESP to its Track setting, and then to progressively turn down the variable traction control proved it is happy to move around, responding well to being turned into a corner under braking. Making early and provocative accelerator inputs soon proved that, although TC intervention is still obvious in the lowest settings, that when the Valkyrie does let go it doesn’t feel snappy or scary. Certainly not on a wide, dry and otherwise empty race track – although results on a greasy B-road might be different.
There was also the chance to experience the difference between the regular Valkyrie and its AMR Pro sister, with some passenger laps sitting next to Turner straight after driving the road car. Like the session with Andy Priaulx in Miami last year this had some of the feeling of a rollercoaster ride – trusting a hugely experienced driver to do something seemingly impossible. Barring Formula 1 tandems and three-seaters the Pro’s passenger seat is probably the quickest way to travel around a race track without driving – with 3.5G lateral peaks and up to 2,700kg of downforce. The highlight is Turner changing up into seventh for a second or so at the end of the start-finish straight, peaking at just over 200mph before braking what feels ridiculously late for Turn One.
Yet even a brief ride in the AMR Pro raises some fairly substantial questions as to just how many of the people rich enough to afford one could truly muster the skill or stamina to drive it in anger. Lacking road homologation has also made it – relatively – easier to engineer than the standard Valkyrie. Yes, the regular car is hugely compromised by its mission for ultimate street-legal performance, and isn’t as quick as its hardcore sister on a track. But it feels like the real star here – one that seems set to deliver on former Aston CEO Andy Palmer’s promise that it would be seen as a pinnacle of the combustion era.
It’s certainly sitting at the top of my list of career highlights.
SPECIFICATION | Aston Martin Valkyrie
Engine: 6,498cc, V12, hybridized
Transmission: 7-speed sequential, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 1140 @ 10,600rpm (system peak)
Torque (lb ft): 682 @ 7,000rpm (system peak)
Top speed: 220mph
Weight: 1270kg (‘dry’)
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