By Jim Benning
BBC Autos, March 2016
I was behind the wheel of a £200,000 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, careening across a sheet of ice, when I realized my ice-driving instructor was out of his mind.
Moments before, I’d explained to Ramana Lagemann, a professional rally driver, that I had no business maneuvering a 568-horsepower sports car on asphalt, let alone slick ice. After all, at home in Los Angeles, I tool around town in a 2007 RAV4, my 9-year-old daughter buckled into the back seat, my foot hovering over the brake pedal. And that’s on a macadam road without so much as a puddle.
But as we fishtailed across the ice and our demise seemed all but certain, Lagemann peered at me through grey Ray-Bans and said, with eerie calm, “Pick up the speed”.
I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to scream, “For God’s sake, Mario Andretti, are you trying to get us both killed?” But I was driving an Aston Martin, one of James Bond’s go-to carmakers since the Goldfinger days. This was not the time to lose my cool. So I gave Lagemann a moment to reconsider. Surely, he’d come to his senses and tell me to slow down, right?
“Add throttle,” he said to my horror.
That’s when I lost it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’d come to the sleepy alpine hamlet of Crested Butte in the Colorado Rockies to see how the One Percent play. Each February since 2014, an exclusive cadre of luxury-car connoisseurs has decamped here for three days to live 007-style large — sleeping in palatial lodges, dining on quail and elk, and, most importantly, racing gleaming new Aston Martins on a manicured, mile-long ice track. The price tag for the ultimate package, which includes a doting personal concierge? About £7,000.
After spending the night in a ski-in, ski-out lodge, I was shuttled to the 10-acre ranch where Aston Martin operates its bespoke ice track. That’s when I saw 13 glistening Astons – from Vanquishes and Rapides to DB9s and V12 Vantages – lined up like a string of jewels on the ice. I still couldn’t believe I was going to drive those cars on that surface.
I was ushered into a heated yurt appointed with flickering candles and antler chandeliers. To calm my nerves, I began guzzling hot cocoa, an apparent intoxicant at high altitude. How else to explain that, moments later, I was happily signing a liability waiver, offering up an emergency contact and nodding in agreement as instructor Paul Gerrard held forth on the perfect sensibility of racing £200,000 rear-wheel-drive sports cars on ice?
But Gerrard made a convincing argument that Aston Martins handle much better on slippery surfaces than many rear-wheel-drive muscle cars because so much of the Astons’ weight is in the back. “The perception would be, you’ve got to park this thing in the wintertime and go drive your Land Rover,” he said. “And of course, the actual fact is that the cars…are a huge amount of fun to drive in winter conditions.”
And with that, I buckled myself into the back seat of a Rapide S with two other students and an instructor, and we motored to a skid pad on the ice. Our mission: to learn to control the Rapide as we skidded around a tight circle. In theory, this sounded great. I’d watch my fellow students go first, learn from their mistakes, then nail the exercise when my turn came. But as each student spun the car and the mountains whooshed past in a dizzying blur, I grew increasingly queasy. My stomach rumbled. My face, I’m certain, turned green.
Just before it was my turn to drive, I jumped out of the car and rushed to the edge of the ice. The James Bond theme that had been playing so triumphantly in my head came to a needle-scratching halt. Then I hurled — not once or twice, but three inglorious times.
At last, I thought, I had been revealed as an impostor, my RAV4 pedigree writ large on the snow.
“Don’t worry,” one of the instructors said. “You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think.”
Then something incredible happened. Unburdened of my breakfast, I felt like a new man. I took the Rapide through its paces on the skid pad, accelerating around the orange cones, nearly spinning out, then regaining control with slight steering adjustments and subtle braking. By the end of the exercise, I was actually starting to feel confident.
Over the next couple of hours, we returned to the yurt for short lectures, practiced braking and cornering, and then raced through a slalom course. “Push it,” one of the instructors urged. “Get comfortable sliding the car.”
At lunch, Gerrard discussed advanced driving techniques and offered words of inspiration. “We do just as much steering with the foot as we do with the steering wheel,” he said. And, “Better drivers steer less through the same given corner.” He explained that driving on ice is a lot like driving on the road, except that every adjustment the driver makes gets exaggerated, so that every twist of the wheel or touch of the brakes must be subtle and finessed.
All this was preparation for the afternoon, when we would graduate to the full track and strut our stuff. I hopped into a DB9 and took a few spins around, but I didn’t feel as though I was mastering the track. I had a thousand questions. Was I braking too soon? Was I turning too sharply or not sharply enough? I needed help.
Enter Lagemann, one of Aston Martin’s expert instructors. He has 15 years of professional rally-driving experience under his belt, so when he led me to a white Vanquish Volante convertible and buckled himself into the passenger seat, I figured I was in good hands.
We motored back onto the track and Lagemann counseled me through the first few turns. “Look for your apex,” he said. “Steer toward it.” Then, “Brake in a straight line. Look out the side window and start turning.” I braked hard — or so I thought.
“I need you to brake more aggressively next time,” he said.
We were on our third lap, racing toward a sharp turn with a snow bank rapidly closing in, when Lagemann urged me to “pick up the speed” and “add throttle.”
Once I realized he was serious, I considered the order. The rational part of my brain told me to slow down. Actually, it was screaming, Stop the car! But the elevation and hot cocoa and all those inspirational talks were getting to me. If I was meant to die crashing an Aston Martin on ice, I thought, then at least I’d go in style. In fact, my demise would be downright elegant. Friends would eulogize me as a refined daredevil. At my funeral, they might even play the theme to Skyfall — or better yet, Carly Simon crooning Nobody Does it Better.
So against my better judgment, I gunned it. The engine roared. The Vanquish zoomed, whooshing down the track. Then, just as I was taught to do, I braked hard before the turn. With my eyes focused on the corner ahead, I steered the Vantage around the bend, and before I knew it, I was drifting toward the next turn.
“A little rotation with the throttle!” Lagemann cheered. “Nice!”
That’s all I needed to hear. I rounded the next corner, shifting from second gear to third and back again. After the final bend, I punched the gas. With the wind in my face, the Vantage tore down the icy straightaway toward the finish line.
“Good work,” Lagemann said.
I took a deep breath and congratulated myself. Not only had I avoided crashing a breathtaking car, but like 007 cheating death, I, too, would live to die another day.