You go to 7-Eleven to purchase a Big Gulp and come away with a winning lottery ticket worth hundreds of millions of dollars. What do you buy, beyond a lifetime supply of gummy bears?
A gingham sweater made from organic leprechaun beard, perhaps? The rarest Beanie Baby on Earth? Or hey, maybe an ancient battle-axe forged from the hands of a man that is not the messiah, just a very naughty boy?
If it were me with the wad of cash, I’d follow the wise words of Hemingway rather than the psalms of Brian: “Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports… all the others are games.” While I hear the Matterhorn is for sale, I'm not keen on cold weather. And I'm most certainly opposed to being kicked in the crown jewels by the Bushwhacker. So. Time to go racing.
Your options of cars are plentiful, but let’s be honest: it has to look good, it has to sound good, it must be fast, and if you aren’t a professional racer, it has to be benign at the limit. The machine I’d suggest? The $225,000 Aston Martin Vantage GT4 – the most popular of its kind in the world.
I drove the GT4 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Of the many race cars I’ve driven in my career, few are as friendly as the Aston, and for the rich gentleman driver – of which there are many – that right there is essential.
It’s basically a stock V-8 Vantage that’s lightened by 800 lbs., sports stiffer suspension and runs on slick racing tires. It can line up besides Porsche 911s or Ferraris in sports car championships around the world, or it can race itself in the Aston Martin GT4 Challenge. That last part is something any wealthy gentleman (or gentlelady) can do for $35,000 a weekend. The TRG-Aston Martin Racing team will provide you with a car, an instructor, a team of mechanics and engineers, and all the tacos you can eat.
You then do battle on some of the country’s fiercest racetracks, competing against fellow racers all yearning for the same thing – to go fast and have fun. It’s quite the crack if you have plenty of dispensable cash to blow, regardless of your ability.
But you don’t need to pony up the cost of ten Detroit houses for a single race weekend. You can, if you buy the car outright, do it for much less. One racer at Laguna Seca turned up with just his buddy, a trailer and a small pop-up tent. He used one set of tires for the weekend, and a few tanks of fuel. While he will save plenty of cash over the long-haul, the tremendous downfall to this approach is that he had to buy his own burrito.
The car itself uses the stock engine from the V-8 Vantage, with some simple tweaks to the mapping. The same production paddle-shift gearbox comes attached (you can option it with a manual if you so desire). And with the main components remaining so close to the production Vantage, the GT4 is bulletproof.
But saving money in replacement costs does come at a price. The gear changes in the automatic are pretty sluggish, and it has an annoying habit of preventing downshifts until it determines the revs have dropped sufficiently; maximizing engine braking therefore isn't possible, as that bar for shifting is set low. For the owner, however, this is a good thing, as it eliminates the possibility for costly over-revs. Had a race gearbox been employed, there’d be far more engine and transmission issues to deal with.
The substantial weight loss means the GT4’s 450 hp feels more like 600, and adjustable ABS and traction control settings can be varied while driving to discover the optimum level of assistance. The steel brake rotors are larger than stock, although the calipers remain the same, and three-inch cooling ducts help keep them from fading. A big rear wing and front splitter adds downforce, and the car has been stripped of its lush Aston interior appointments. A roll cage is fitted, but a passenger seat is utilized; the benefit for an amateur to throw his or her driver coach in the car for a few laps far outweighs any weight penalty this may cause.
Out on the track, I felt like I was up to speed in a mere few corners. The car is so forgiving, the brakes are great and the steering has just the right amount of boost. The front tires grip exceptionally, and even if they didn’t, you can dial the handling to your specific taste with your engineer. Even with mufflers on the exhaust to appease Monterey’s pensioners and mountain bobcats, the V-8 emits an intoxicating sound.
Like the series as a whole, the dominating sensation I had was how fun the car is to drive – and how I could try new things without it biting me. The many data channels displayed on the steering wheel are more intelligent than me, and being an Aston Martin, the whole machine feels special. Would I like a more purpose built racing gearbox? Absolutely, but then I’m not paying for the repairs.
I wouldn’t describe the Aston GT4 as a full-on race car. Sure, to the new driver, it would likely feel unlike anything they've ever driven, but to those who have experienced cars further up the performance ladder (like Aston's GT3), it remains more of a hybrid. That was the plan all along, of course, ensuring the car is quick enough to win races in race series throughout the world, and yet that performance is accessible (and enjoyable) for all levels of talent.
Mission accomplished. If I had the money, yes, I’d buy an Aston Martin Vantage GT4. But then again what do I know? I am not the messiah, after all.
Photos: TRG-Aston Martin Racing