If the AM-RB 001 concept is a contemporary thing, and it is, a real car they’re building by the end of the year, then all these Vantages, DB9s, Vanquishes and Lagondas flanking it in Dubai’s Aston Martin centre look like relics. Without any reference, no rival, and no historical context, this car is difficult to understand and harder to believe.
In the face of cynicism Aston Martin’s head of design Marek Reichman doesn’t blink: “It’s as fast as a race-trim F1 car…”
No matter how many times the Gaydonians repeat that, a road-legal vehicle with license plates that laps a circuit as quickly as Nico Rosberg’s W07 put in the hands of mere filthy rich mortals that can afford the Dh13 million price, sounds impossible. Think of ground-breaking machines like the Veyron, P1, LaFerrari, and 918 Spyder and the bar they've raised, the hypercars, and it just seems way too soon relegating them to insignificance. The hypercar’s just been born and now the AM-RB 001’s killing it.
Concept cars never truly grip you because no matter how fantastic they are to look at you know they’re rooted in fantasy, just passing tokens of some designer’s current fad. But this, is real, and it’s coming, and that’s just crazy.
A collaborative effort between Aston Martin and Red Bull scheduled for production in 2019 (prototypes will start running later this year), the limited AM-RB 001 project of 150 planned road-going examples is an idea borne of common ground between creators Marek and Adrian Newey.
Put simply Marek did the top, and Adrian, whose F1 cars gave six different drivers their world titles and won 10 constructors’ championships in over 150 Grands Prix victories, did the bottom. Being somewhat disillusioned with today’s sportscar landscape, they united for a simple goal.
“A car,” says Marek, “which is groundbreaking in its philosophy of simplicity, purity, and light weight.
“What is currently happening in the world, is about horsepower, and weight doesn’t really matter. There’s so much technology to the point where the driver is muted. The 001 is about the driver being exposed to the very fundamental feeling of the car and its balance and its weight, and the feeling of a naturally aspirated V12 engine.”
This model on a visit in Dubai is very much a concept, but it’s 80 per cent the finished thing which first customers will get to feel and experience by the end of the year. The top looks lithe and suspended like it’s a shell hoisted over the drivetrain. Instead of sheet metal there are holes, and it looks unlike anything else, which should make it perfect for a job unlike any other.
In the world of supercars and lap records where we talk about tenths of seconds, this AM-RB 001 will lap a conventional circuit like Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps over 30 seconds faster than the best Koenigsegg’s factory test driver Robert Serwanski could manage in a 1,341bhp One:1, if it’s to get in under two minutes and closer to Le Mans Prototype and F1 lap times.
It’s as wide as a LaFerrari, but much lower, lower even than the iconic Sixties’ Ford GT40 and its eponymous 40-inches, and only about the length of a Mazda MX-5. It’s a tiny thing that seems more negative space than automobile, and you wonder where a V12 engine and radiators and a transmission could possibly go.
“Two people sitting next to each other determine a big part of the interior and a big part of the exterior.” says Marek. “Literally what you sit on is a piece of carbon fibre, and then 4.5mm later it’s the outside.”
The fact six-foot-four Marek can fit in the car with Aston CEO Andy Palmer alongside is possible because of the reclined race-car-like seating position with feet up at hip-point. A quest for the perfect driving position makes packaging even harder but Marek, a designer always searching for the golden ratio, and Adrian, a scientist with a career dedicated to the thousandth of a second, find their differences complement the project.
“Yes, there are points where Adrian will be pushing for a squarer section and I want a rounder section,” Marek says, “but at the end of the day we have an ultimate goal and more often than not there is always the… compromise is the wrong word… there is always a perfect solution. You find the balance, but sometimes not accepting the first answer, the second, or the third. Sometimes at the seventh time of looking we define that perfect balance.”
The perfect balance in the form of AM-RB 001 is about a thousand horsepower, a thousand kilos, over twice that in downforce, and more than 4G in cornering forces. And a plate recess.
Advancements in simulators mean engineers can try all sorts of variations in terms of powertrains and active suspensions and transmissions, many parameters which are still undecided on, relatively quickly and before the first driving prototypes even get on the road. This makes such low-volume halo cars more feasible as virtual design develops, because for Aston Martin the AM-RB 001 is no marketing sign-off.
“We’re an independent company, and we can’t afford to lose money,” Marek says. “We don’t have big brother sitting there saying, ‘Ok you can have a cash cow, you can have a halo car’. That’s part of someone’s fixed marketing expenditure, but not for us.”
Gaydon has plenty of limited-edition sold-out successes to learn from like the Vulcan cars, all 24 sold at 1.8 million pounds each, and the 99 Zagato Coupés, half a million each, the 150 GT12s, and of course the 77 One-77s netting 77 million pounds. Now development for the AM-RB 001 is effectively funded by the deposits put down for the 150 cars.
“Really,” continues Marek, “from the One-77 on, we’ve gained the knowledge of how to do this. And you would be surprised at the investment needed. We never talk about it, but it’s not the same as investing in a car that will give birth to 30,000 units.
“Part of the reason we do special projects is to gain knowledge, whether it’s knowledge on composite materials, engines, power per litre in terms of capacity, internal workings of a combustion engine in terms of efficiency… These are all things that we’re learning with the AM-RB 001 too because we’re working with one of the best engine builders in the industry. I’ m not going to tell you who it is, but… they’re very, very good.”
As a ground-up, clean-sheet design the engine is designed to fit into the 001’s aerodynamic constraints and unlike other recent hypercars what singles this one out is that no part is taken off the shelf. “If it doesn’t exist, we make it,” Marek adds.
“What we bring to the 001 is the knowledge of repeated extreme conditions. Our skill at racing is endurance racing. Our skill is developing sportscars for the road.”
And what Red Bull brings to the 001 is Adrian Newey, widely regarded as one of the best engineers to have ever worked in Formula 1. Marek’s seen his genius at work.
“One of the huge benefits of working with Red Bull is they can determine through simulated analysis to within a fraction of a millimeter of something. That’s how they develop the F1 car, it all starts in CAD.
“Well, it all starts in Adrian’s brain. I mean, he still draws. He draws on tracing paper, with french curves, and I’ve seen him do this where he had a square section under the tub, and I wanted a more accelerated curve with beauty in the shape. So he drew out a section from his head on the drawing board. Sent me the section rolled up in a tube, and I put it in CAD and created the surface. And they then did simulation work with this CAD data, and it was within half a millimeter of where the surface needed to be to have perfect air flow. From his head.
“He has that understanding of ‘Package can’t change’, and how we need to get airflow to cool something in extreme conditions, because F1 racing is such an extreme condition. His boss, his theoretical boss in all these years, is the stopwatch.”
The cynicism wanes and Marek goes as far as suggesting that unheard of performance isn’t the biggest challenge facing 001’s development.
The car is basically an inverted wing and has a ground effect underbelly, so it needs to have a relatively constant relationship to the ground which is all the more difficult for a road vehicle that should negotiate bumps and potholes and driveways. Then there’s pedestrian impact ratings and crash testing and legislation to go through. In the US for example the 001 isn’t homologated for the road and may only be bought as show-and-display. But for both Marek’s aesthetics and Adrian’s aero obsession it was the license plate that caused problems.
“In some countries you can avoid the front license plate,” explains Marek, “but even the rear number plate, you’d think is easy. The exiting air from the rear of the car has to be faster than the air that’s coming in the front, hence the diffuser so it has ground effect, so the pressures are different so you don’t get lift, and the big number plate blocking air flow is a huge problem. And the fact there is a centrally mounted exhaust that reaches about 800 degrees Celsius, and in some countries the number plate has to be plastic…
“We have to think very cleverly about material choices, positioning, cooling, because cooling when you're moving is easy. A race car is moving. You’re stationary on the grid for maybe four minutes, and it comes into the pits, it’s all very fast. In road situations you could be stuck in a traffic jam for two hours, and the car has to be running.”
Right now there is no competitor to the 001. Like the Jeep did for SUVs and the GTI for hot hatchbacks and Miura for supercars (and Dodge Caravan for minivans), Aston Martin is creating a new segment and hypercar is already taken. We’ll see what comes of it when rivals respond. AMG is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a 1,000bhp four-wheel drive hybrid and McLaren is cooking something up.
“There isn’t anything out there at the moment that has a 1;1 power to weight ratio that’s naturally aspirated and looks at lightness as one of its main reasons for being,” argues Marek.
“I have no doubt that our competitors are rewriting their programs to create something, and we saw a plethora of announcements after we showed our car last July. ‘Now we’re going to do this and now we’re going to do that,’ and that’s obvious and it’s great, because what that does in the industry is generates passion and a movement for 1:1 power to weight, which means lighter weight structures, which is better all the way down the line for everyone.”
Marek has a point because even this halo megacar will directly influence upcoming mid-engined Astons selling at price points closer to 911s than 001s.
The knowledge of the 001, some of the feeling from that will really give us the inspiration for our more volume-production mid-engined car. What Andy talks about is seven cars every seven years, so DB11, new Vantage, new Vanquish, DBX, the Lagondas is two cars… And outside of that the next one is a mid-engined car, which is really the spiritual result of 001, in the volumes of probably McLaren and Lamborghini rather than Ferrari, 3,500 units a year.
Right now they have all eyes on AM-RB 001 which goes beyond where McLaren, Lamborghini or Ferrari or anyone is today, and Marek is happy to lead.
“I’m sure they're watching,” he says.
That we can believe.