Exclusive Interview with Aston Martin DB11 Development Boss Ian Minards
We talk engines, car development, and culture
Ian Minards began his career at Aston Martin in 1997 after stints at both Jaguar and working as an engineering consultant. He now serves as Aston Martin's vice president and chief technical officer. We caught up with him to talk DB11, the marque's new V-12 flagship.
Automobile: What's the timeline for the development and production of the DB11?
Ian Minards: On the engine, we began in 2012. The development of the actual car began around the middle of 2013. We are coming towards the end of the pre-production build phase now. We'll be starting up production after the summer shutdown, [in September 2016].
AM: What were the challenges with DB11?
IM: The biggest challenge is that DB11 is an all-new car. So the glib answer is, everything! We started with a clean sheet of paper. There's nothing carried over from DB9. The DB11 has been the biggest challenge for the company in over a decade and, arguably, the biggest challenge ever. Technology, legislative requirements, and customer requirements all move on. From the body structure through to the engine to the electrical architecture to occupant protection—everything had to be developed using a new set of components.
AM: Talk about the DB11's chassis and its development.
IM: What the new chassis has in common with VH [the outgoing Aston Martin architecture] is the bill of process—how we assemble the car. It's still a bonded, all-aluminum monocoque. We still use the same adhesive but every single casting, extrusion, and sheet of aluminum is brand new. The chassis is stiffer, lighter and it meets all current and future known vehicle crash-worthiness regulations.
The other trick of the DB11's body structure is that it has some quite new innovations as far as the look of the car. We have this full, single-piece aluminum clamshell bonnet. There's also the aero blade feature on the rear of the car. The DB11 features the longest aluminum door we've ever put on a car. So, as well as being stiff and lighter, it's also incorporated all the design aesthetics that Marek [Reichman] and his team wanted to put on the car.
AM: Does the new chassis have a name?
IM: No. We deliberately haven't [named it], actually. It is what it is. It's just, new. VH was VH. VH is still great. We still make VH cars.
AM: Turbocharging is new for Aston Martin. How do you keep the Aston Martin engine character with a turbo engine?
IM: This is something we were very aware of. Maybe we're blowing our own trumpet here but our current V-12 is fantastic in the way that it responds. We downsized the engine from 5.9 to 5.2 liters. We've kept the basic architectural layout of the engine the same—it's still a 60-degree V-12. We were very careful choosing our turbochargers. They are twin-scroll turbos, which gives us the ability to spool the turbos quickly at low rpm and maintain their speed and pressure-charging capability at high rpm. They are also correctly sized for the engine—not too small and not too big.
One of our key targets was what we call, time to torque—the rate at which the turbochargers spool up and give us the forced induction. That was an important target for us on the dyno. Throttle progression and the way the throttle pedal is mapped was important. We have water-to-air charge coolers (intercoolers) with a very, very short intake path. The air comes out of the turbos, straight through the charge coolers and then straight into the intake manifold. There are no long, convoluted air intakes which would have been the case with air-to-air charge cooling.
AM: Is the switch to turbocharging a direct result of the need to meet emissions and fuel economy standards?
IM: It's not so much about emissions but, yes, it is about fuel economy. We also wanted to boost power. To really unleash the greater potential of a V-12 engine, pressure charging is what's going to take it forward. And, yes, for sure downsizing and down-speeding is going to help our fuel economy. The fact that we're pressure charging means we're getting a lot more torque at lower engine rpm—we can down speed the whole engine drivetrain. We can run at lower engine speed in high gears because we have more torque. That basically is putting us at a place on the fuel economy map where we're improving our fuel economy overall. More power with improved fuel economy is a win-win.
AM: Thinking about the DB9, what did you want to change or improve upon with the DB11?
IM: The first thing that we didn't want to throw away was the fact that DB11 is a GT—it's a true grand tourer. There are lots of great things about the DB9 that we didn't want to lose—it's effortless in its performance and has a great cruising ability. What we wanted to do with DB11 is dial some of those things up and have a broader breadth of character—to be even more comfortable as far as ride quality in the GT mode but it needs to be more sporting, too. We now have three modes in both the powertrain and the chassis—we have GT, Sport, and Sport +. The technology now enables us to give a broader character. So, the DB11 can be more comfortable than DB9 or sportier than DB9, depending on which mode you select. But we didn't want DB11 to lose that GT refinement.
AM: What is Mercedes' involvement with the DB11?
IM: The partnership with Mercedes on DB11 is purely around the electrical architecture. The engine in DB11 is pure Aston V-12. The electrical architecture that we've been able to take from Mercedes has been integrated into our car. We've taken the best of their architecture—their infotainment system, their security and locking system, etc. The basic core architecture was put in DB11 and we've given the customer state-of-the-art infotainment but we've customized the front end of things that you can see in the car. Yes, you'll be able to associate the rotary controller with Mercedes. That's great as it's a world-class system but we've added unique Aston Martin details like our new instrument cluster and switchgear. So, we get the best of the basic capabilities of the electrical architecture and then we use our skillset to integrate add-ons to that like audio systems. We're able to leverage [the Mercedes] test regime but we can customize it to the needs of our car.
AM: What cars did you benchmark with the DB11?
IM: The whole range, to be honest. The DB11 has such a broad character that one day we might drive a turbo Porsche to understand what their turbocharging feels like. Same with a Ferrari California T and a Bentley Continental GT. We'll look at a variety of cars. Sometimes it's a more mundane car because there's a particular feature that we want to look at on, say, the engine management system. So, there are the competitive benchmarks but there are also cars that wouldn't be in the competitive bracket but we might pick something about that car that we like—a switch feel, a rear-view mirror technology.
AM: What are the key test and development facilities for the DB11?
IM: The one that really helps us out is MIRA in the U.K. We built a brand-new prototype workshop there where we've been able to build prototypes. MIRA is also useful as a test base. We can do things like high-speed durability up to a certain speed limit. Another key site is our Nurburgring test center. We are also using Nardo [in Italy] more and more. They have a mini ride and handling track that is well correlated to the Nordschleife. It works well when it's a bit rainy and snowy in Germany. We still use Sweden for stability-control testing. We do cold environmental testing in Finland. We flew a car to Australia in early 2016 for some air-conditioning work. Death Valley is another favorite haunt of ours. There is also IDIADA in Spain for stability-control work and hot environmental testing calibration.
AM: What has Andy Palmer's coming on board as CEO at Aston Martin done in relation to your development team?
IM: Andy is a car guy, amongst many of his talents. He likes to drive the cars. We've had him in the cars and he tells us what he likes and doesn't like. He's very hands on. That's a great strength for a CEO. He gets involved. I really value that. Plus, there are other new members of the team like [vehicle attribute engineering boss] Matt Becker. Matt and Andy have a great relationship. If Andy says to Matt that he wants this and that, then Matt can understand and translate it. There is only a small group of people at Aston who effectively control the attribute balance of the car. We don't have to have endless meetings on what we want the car to be. We can just sit down over a coffee, drive the cars for an afternoon, and then say how we want to take it in a certain direction. That's another beauty of working at Aston Martin.