Aston Martin—Finally!—Has a New Test Center
We talk with the supercar maker’s chief engineer to get the skinny
When I arrived at Aston Martin in early 2015, I kept telling [CEO] Andy Palmer that, 'we need a track, we need a track, we need a track—we need a base to work from!' " So says Matt Becker, chief engineer of the British supercar maker, who had that handy luxury at his old employer, Lotus, and he's finally getting his wish with the new Aston Martin Test Center at Silverstone.
Aston initially gained access to the existing facility in October, but exclusive use of Silverstone's Stowe Circuit during the work week begins in January 2019. "Having a central area for development makes the cars better," said Becker. "This hub will be an incredibly useful tool. Currently, we constantly travel all over Europe and various areas of America testing cars. That takes up a lot of time and cost and efficiency." Aston will still use those current locations but to a lesser degree. "Obviously, Silverstone has a cost," noted Becker. "It's figuring out what can we do at Silverstone [in order to] reduce elsewhere. At the moment, we do the bulk of development at Nürburgring but sometimes that gives you a car that just suits the 'Ring. So we'll now flip it around—we'll do the bulk at Silverstone and a bit less at the 'Ring. Nardo in Italy will continue to be used for enthusiastic driver testing. It's 35 to 40 degrees Celsius [95 to 104 F] ambient and there's an 8000-km [5000-mile] test where cars are driven within 95 percent of the best lap time. But we might do 20 percent of that at Silverstone, as we can shakedown the cars at Silverstone. Any issues we find, we can handle locally. We then don't have to fly people in or fix things remotely over the phone."
Aston will use an existing circuit and building at Silverstone but it's still an expensive venture. "I can't tell you the numbers but it's not a small amount of money," noted Becker. "We'll kit out the Stowe complex building. There will be seven hoists, a geometry rig, shock-absorber room, tire-changing facilities, instrumentation facilities, etc. There will be full-time people working and based at Silverstone. I plan to be there at least two days a week."
You'd be forgiven if you questioned Aston's logic in their choice of tracks given the size of Stowe. "It's only just over a mile long. I was a bit unsure of the circuit at first," said Becker. "But there are some reasonably high-speed straights and corners, which is good for stability. The low-speed corners are pretty low speed, so we'll have to be cautious to not set the car up to just work there because you could make the car very pointy. Plus, we'll have an agreement with Silverstone so when they have slots on the main circuit we can use it. That could be the National, International, or Grand Prix configurations."
A key advantage of Silverstone is the central location to Aston's multiple locations around the U.K. From its headquarters in Gaydon to special operations and prototype construction in Wellesbourne to the historic world of Aston Martin Works in Newport Pagnell to the Red Bull projects in Milton Keynes, Silverstone is never more than 40 miles away. "Anyone within the Aston Martin family could use Silverstone," said Becker. "It's called the Test Center but it's there for everyone. Red Bull could use it with the Valkyrie. For sure, they'd need to use the full circuit given the level of performance but Stowe is good for getting the basics right. Any car that Aston Martin Works is building or restoring, they can shake them down here. It's for everybody."
One concern at Silverstone is privacy, especially for prototypes and other secret projects. "Yes, it's more of a challenge at Silverstone," noted Becker. "But, generally, all of our cars are camouflaged and driven on the road anyway. And if you take a confidential car to the Nürburgring then it's no longer a confidential car! So, we'll try to protect it as much as we can at Silverstone. And anything that's hyperconfidential won't go to Silverstone initially. We'll take it somewhere like Nardo or IDIADA (Spain), as [the public] can't get in there." Becker continued, "Plus, Aston—and certainly Andy—is quite transparent. We don't hide much of what we're doing. So I don't think it will be much of an issue for confidentiality."
What about Aston Martin eventually getting a proper, full-scale proving ground? "Given the cost and return relative to hiring from somewhere else, I'd say no," said Becker. "MIRA and Millbrook (in the U.K.) offer so much with surfaces, etc. To try to create that ourselves would just be masses and masses of money. Other small manufacturers don't have one either. So we'll likely never have our own—we'll never be big enough. We'd rather spend the money on something else. Plus, once you're at Silverstone, you're quite close to Millbrook and MIRA."