Just days before the start of Secret Cinema’s immersive screenings of Casino Royale I was given the chance to test drive Aston Martin’s current models.
Ask anyone to tell you what comes to mind when you mention James Bond.
One of the top responses is sure to be Aston Martin. It’s easily the brand most closely associated with 007. After initially appearing in Goldfinger (1964), the luxury car maker has frequently been the choice of James Bond.
Casino Royale (2006) was no exception. After being sent to Montenegro to wipe out Le Chiffre in a high stakes game of poker, Q Branch provides Bond with a DBS.
When Vesper is snatched by Le Chiffre’s men Bond drives the car at high speed along winding roads. Seeing his love interest lying handcuffed on the road ahead, he swerves sharply.
The Casino Royale stunt
The car flips, then rolls seven times before coming to a stop. Unconscious, Bond is dragged from the car.
But while it’s a dramatic moment in the film and an incredible feat of stunt design and driving, the car simply doesn’t look like it could flip like that. The physics don’t make sense.
And in reality the car’s ability to grip the road caused the stunt team a real headache. Initially they tried to roll the Aston, driven by Adam Kirley, using a ramp. The car just wouldn’t obey.
So they gave up on that idea and installed an air cannon.
That did flip the car. In the process the stunt team set a new world record for the number of rolls. It’s one of those many things you see in films that couldn’t possibly happen in real life.
You just have to go with it.
Like many Bond fans my first encounter with Aston Martin was through Corgi’s DB5.
For most of us the option of actually owning one remains remote. So when I was offered the chance to actually drive some current models at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire I naturally jumped at the chance.
Not only is it the chance to drive the cars at extreme speed, but it’s also the chance to drive on the actual circuit where the Casino Royale stunt was filmed.
About Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale
Recruited as part of ‘Operation Wild Card’, attendees will join either Q or M Branch. All audience members will be given the opportunity to develop their own character, receiving a thorough MI6 brief containing an alias, dress code and training suggestions to help them prepare for a night of high stakes, sophistication and deception.
Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, Secret Cinema Presents Casino Royale will completely immerse audiences into the glamorous and action-packed world of the iconic and legendary British spy.
Arriving at Millbrook
I’d been to Millbrook a couple of times in the mid 1990s when it was owned by General Motors, so things have changed quite a bit since then. After leaving the car at the entrance car park we were bussed to Aston Martin’s visitor centre.
There we were greeted by the beautiful site of five Aston Martins in the car park and a display DB11 on the pavement. While waiting for the final arrivals we went to look at the cars, opening the doors to look inside. Imagine the thrill when we were told we could actually sit in them!
And then, after a short briefing, around 15 of us – competition winners and press – were taken driving.
There were six or seven Aston Martin pro drivers plus Ben Collins, who has worked on a number of Bond films. These include the chase at the start of Quantum of Solace (2008). He also appeared as The Stig on Top Gear.
Now I don’t think anyone who goes to an Aston Martin driving day feels neutral towards the brand. And as a Bond fan it’s something so linked to the film series that it’s simply thrilling to have the opportunity to drive their cars.
But everyone I spoke to completely fell in love with them. They are extraordinary to look at and sitting in one feels more like a spaceship than a car.
They really are quite astonishing to drive. Works of both art and engineering.
And when you’ve got a pro driver pushing you well out of your comfort you really benefit from the day. It’s adrenaline rush after adrenaline rush.
But at times it also turned out to be pretty frightening.
My first drive was the four door Rapide, which I took out on the hill circuit, including the section where the Casino Royale stunt was filmed.
Of all the cars we drove this was my least favourite. Who wants a four door Aston?
But then maybe I’d buy it as a second Aston Martin.
And let’s face it, a least favourite Aston is a little like a least favourite finger.
The circuit looks and feels exactly like a winding mountain road. It’s all sharp bends, steep inclines and sudden drops.
First I was driven around at a staggering speed. Although my heart was in my mouth for much of the circuit he calmly told me the landmarks to use to change road position and as braking and acceleration points.
As we hit the bottom of a decline and started to ascend again the G-force was incredible. I was holding a camera and just couldn’t keep it up. Later on we actually got airborne.
My driver also pointed out patches on the tarmac where the road was repaired after the Casino Royale stunt. These guys know the circuits inside out.
Then it was my turn. My first ever drive in an Aston Martin.
It was incredible to drive and huge fun, although unnerving to use the entire width of the road. It looks so much like a public road that my head keep telling me to be careful of traffic coming the other way.
When you put your foot down, boy does it go. And with a sound that just makes you want to laugh with enjoyment. Or cry.
And like all the Aston Martins I drove, it is completely stable. That’s despite the fact it must have a longer wheelbase because of those rear doors. No chance of flipping it on that Casino Royale bend.
Next was the DB11 Volante around Millbrook’s two mile banked bowl. We could take the cars up to 130 mph on the fifth lane but it’s also where, if you cruise at around 100 mph, you can let physics do its job and take your hands off the wheel.
While I trust the physics it’s still pretty unnerving to drive a car at that speed without at least some contact with the steering wheel. It’s also unnerving to be going in what is essentially a permanent left turn with an Armco barrier ahead of you. I’m used to left hand drive cars so it was doubly unnerving for me to be so close to the barrier.
Initially after dropping down to 100 mph I took a few seconds to build my courage. Then I let go… but with hands close by. That’s really a weird feeling.
But then I let go properly and kept it going for a bit longer before it was time to go back to base. It was only when we pulled in so my driving pro could take over that I remembered it was a convertible.
There was surprisingly little noise with the hood up. That’s down to the soft top being made of no less than eight layers. And so we drove back with the hood down and the sun shining down, a remarkably fine day at the start of June.
I love the look of the DBS. It’s both aggressive looking and graceful. How you combine the two I don’t know. And the engine noise is a joy to hear. My instructor, David, called it “the beast”.
He took me to a mile straight. It has a sharp right banked turn at the end.
The idea was to go as fast as possible within that mile. But we also had to get down to 40 mph for that turn at the end. As much a test of car’s brakes as it was acceleration and raw power.
When he asked my top speed to date, I told him 120 mph. He laughed.
“You’re going to go much faster than that”, he said.
First he showed me how it was done. Flooring the gas, the engine roared and we took off. Accelerating from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds, the half mile mark quickly flashed by.
We continued to accelerate.
That sharp banked turn was approaching impossible fast. My heart was racing, as I anxiously waited for him to brake.
But still we accelerated.
Finally he hit the brakes and the speed came down gently (for the speed) until we made the turn easily.
While the previous drives were pretty scary at times, this was seriously frightening. Adrenaline coarsed through my entire body as I wondered if I had the nerve to do it.
Next up it was my turn.
David explained that as soon as the car was moving I needed to floor the gas completely. But at the other end I should brake firmly but not too hard. If he wanted me to brake harder he’d let me know.
He jammed on the brakes to demonstrate how aggressively the DBS can slow. The seatbelt restrained me as the car stopped dead.
And when we approached the start of the mile straight my head buzzed with adrenaline, dopamine and whatever other chemicals my body was producing to deal with absolute terror.
I lined the car up then he told me to go. So I floored the car.
And it just flew. I have never driven a car like this before and at such speed. We quickly reached 60 mph, cruised through 100 mph and as the car showed 140 mph I thought that must be it.
But he still didn’t give me the instruction to brake.
Trusting my instructor rather than my own instincts, and hoping he was actually still conscious, I kept the gas pedal pressed the floor. My head screamed for me to lift off.
Just when it seemed far too late and my will was beginning to waver, he told me to brake. The car rapidly came down to a now slow 100 mph, and soon down to 40 for the turn.
Not bad, he told me. 173 mph. Let’s see if we can beat that!
And so I did it again. The speed is addictive and you start to get more confident.
This time 176 mph – I just beat my first run. That’s 283 km per hour in a production car. It’s insane!
But it’s incredible that the car is rock solid even at that extreme speed.
Stunt driving demo
Next up was a bit of a break from the driving as we all digested lunch. Instead we were bussed to a concrete circle where the day’s host, stunt driver Ben Collins, was to demonstrate his skills.
After the concrete was drenched in water he was off in a DBS Superleggera, which for much of the drive was going sideways.
He finished off his performance burning some serious rubber. The tyres were red hot and the gleaming white bodywork splattered by molten rubber as a cloud of smoke descended on us onlookers.
Ben Collins one on one
After the stunt driving demo we returned to Aston Martin’s visitor centre. And it was my turn for Collins to drive me around the technically difficult Outer Handling Circuit in the white DBS Superleggera.
We wore helmets for this circuit, but with Collins in a suit and with his easygoing, calm demeanour, he seemed every inch a double-O.
Flinging the car around impossible bends I soon stopped speaking. Would you want to put him off?
“Are you ok?” he asked and resumed the conversation.
After completing the circuit once, he announced “now this is how you do it properly”. He did it again… but even faster!
This was another seriously scary experience. And while I trusted his skills completely my lizard brain certainly didn’t!
And for my final drive of the day I had a beautiful Vantage to take on the hill circuit. The car is a stunning deep metallic red.
As I’d already done the hill circuit I didn’t have a demo lap. My instructor this time told me we’d do one full circuit then a partial circuit to finish.
During the first circuit he was giving references in order to get around as fast as possible.
The driving is aggressive and really active.
Right hand side, then middle now left, now right as you navigate the tight bends.
At the end of the lap we pulled over for a moment to engage sports mode.
Setting off again, the difference in performance is astonishing. Where the car was mild mannered on the first lap – for an Aston Martin anyway – the second was very different.
As I accelerated the automatic gearbox down shifted and the 503 BHP engine screamed. And when I braked the exhaust would sputter and pop. Such joy!
I can’t begin to tell you what a fantastic day out this was.
Thanks to Secret Cinema, Aston Martin, Ben Collins and all the drivers for putting on such a great day. It’s all very relaxed, the drivers really know what they’re doing and their passion for fast driving and Aston Martin shines through.
It’s every Bond fan’s dream to drive an Aston Martin. But this day was far better than you can imagine.
Secret Cinema Presents Casino Royale opens on 5th June and runs to 22nd September 2019. It’s the largest show that Secret Cinema has ever produced.
Tickets are available to buy now from www.secretcinema.org.