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The last time an Aston beat a Ferrari | Thank Frankel it's Friday

25th May 2023
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

By the time you read this, I shall be in France, about to climb aboard the new Aston Martin DB12, and what an interesting car it seems to be. With a massive power hike up to 680PS and what appears to be the best Aston Martin interior in decades, I shall relish the chance to hurl it up the famous Col de Vence and really get under its elegant new skin.

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But it will be with a certain sense of deja-vu, because exactly 20 years ago I did precisely the same thing with another Aston, the DB12’s grandfather no less, the DB9. It was a more than usually informative trip.

Why? Because Ferrari was launching its rival at the same time. And when I say that I don’t mean within a month or even a week or two: the British press were invited to drive the DB9 and 612 Scaglietti on precisely the same day, in France and Italy respectively. Someone was going to lose out big time and for us Brits it wasn’t hard to see who. The DB9 was not just an all-new Aston – a vanishingly rare event in itself – but one built in a brand new factory and by Aston Martin itself, unlike the TWR-engineered and built DB7. It really couldn’t be more important.

Faced with this, instead of flouncing off and saying ‘your loss’ Ferrari actually conceded that, for once, this was one it wasn’t going to win and issued a new set of invites for three days earlier. Which is how I got to drive the 612 on a Friday, fly home on Saturday, fly to France on Sunday and drive the DB9 on Monday with the sound of its most formidable rival’s V12 motor still ringing in my ears.

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It was interesting to note how conceptually similar were the engineering philosophies of these cars. Both manufacturers concluded that a large capacity, normally aspirated, front-mounted V12 engine driving the rear wheels through a six-speed transaxle was the way forward. Both had aluminium bodies and chassis, double wishbones at each corner and if either of their exhaust notes were to be the last thing I ever heard, I remember thinking I would die with a smile on my face.

And yet, it was the British car I preferred by far, and not just because it was £67,000 cheaper, even two decades ago. I’ll get to why in a minute, but I do remember sitting at the side of the road, listening to the Aston cool down and wondering if I’d ever driven an Aston Martin of any era that was better than a similar sort of Ferrari. And I concluded that not only was there not, it had never even been close.

To be fair, this was partly because the 612 was a sizeable disappointment, and I use the adjective advisedly. It was enormous, an astonishing 199mm longer, a not insignificant 81mm wider and 26mm taller than the Aston. It was also 130kgs heavier. I found it so wide and unwieldy that unless the road was really open and completely clear, trying to drive it fast was a highly frustrating experience. The Col de Vence is much narrower than the roads on which I drove the Ferrari, but I found myself flinging the Aston around without a care in the world.

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True, the DB9 was a little bit less powerful and not quite as fast despite the weight advantage, but in terms of sheer enjoyment it was in a different league to the Ferrari. To me the Italian’s only advantage – and it was real and important – was that it was spacious enough in the back and to make sense for even a small family, something you’d never say about the Aston with its useless rear seats and tiny trunk.

More than anything with that Aston, there was a sense of a new beginning for the company. Ford were committed to keeping the business and having built it an incredible new production facility, engineering expertise was brought back in-house, there was talk of restarting the works racing team and they had a brand new and massively flexible platform off which to spin an entire generation of new cars. The company seemed on the point of finally realising the true potential we all believed remained wrapped up inside the Aston wings.

As we know, it didn’t quite work out like that, and the recent past has been tough indeed for the company. The DB12 is not a brand-new car and it will be built in the same factory, as was the DB9; but I sense a spring in Aston’s step I’ve not detected in a while. On paper at least the DB12 appears to have what it takes to start getting really excited about the company’s future once more, especially if, like the DB9, it is a portent of what else is to come. But, as ever, the proof of the pudding will be in the driving. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.

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