Here’s food for thought: since its founding in 1913, Aston Martin has made only around 85,000 cars, which averages to about 800 a year. That this sounds like a suspiciously lower number is probably due to how pervasive the marque actually is. Apart from its obvious connection with James Bond – Aston Martins have appeared in 12 Bond movies, beginning with the DB5 in 1964’s Goldfinger – the brand also has a long and storied connection with motor racing that started with the French GP in 1923. Coupled with its commitment to flair and luxury, it is little wonder that Aston Martin is held in such reverence in the pinnacle of the global motoring industry.
It was, therefore, not surprising that I was giddy with excitement when we approached the gates to Aston Martin’s headquarters and main production site in Gaydon, Warwickshire, about two hours north-west of London. We’re here courtesy of TAG Heuer, the Official Partner, Official Watch Partner and Official Connected Watch Partner of Aston Martin and Aston Martin Racing. The partnership, which began in 2018, feels like a perfect fit, especially considering the deep roots the two brands share in the automotive and, especially, racing worlds.
While TAG Heuer is – among others – a founding partner and Official Timekeeper of the FIA Formula E Championship, Official Timekeeper of the legendary Carrera Panamericana, Official Partner and Official Watch of the Automobile Club de Monaco and the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500, Grand Turismo Sports and the Endurance World Championship, it is also indelibly linked to figures like the late racing great Ayrton Senna, three time Formula 1 World Champion, as well as the actor Steve McQueen, who memorably wore a TAG Heuer crest on his racing suit and a square-dial TAG Heuer Monaco on his wrist in the 1971 film, Le Mans.
There is, of course, more to it the relationship than just a shared history in racing. There are the equally important shared values that are embodied in both brands’ approach to its metiers. As JeanClaude Biver, CEO of TAG Heuer and President of the LVMH Group Watches Division, said at the announcement of the partnership: “Aston Martin has the same genetic make-up as TAG Heuer: luxury, quality, beautiful products, innovation, history, emotion and performance. We are therefore delighted to be able to work with such a prestigious brand that shares our passion for cars. This collaboration will bring forth a wealth of amazing synergies that will strengthen TAG Heuer’s position as an avant-garde luxury watch brand with a leading position in the automotive sector.”
It’s a good time to visit Aston Martin’s Gaydon site. The marque moved in back in 2003 and has produced some of its most iconic models here, including the DB11, Vanquish, Vantage and the limited edition hypercar, the Valkyrie. But it’s also from here that Aston Martin is moving into lots of different directions, not least of which will be it is in St Athan, Vale of Glamorgan, manufacturing facility in Wales, from where the DBX, the automaker’s first SUV, is slated to roll out later this year. The new, state-of-the-art facility will also be Aston Martin’s ‘Home of Electrification’, when the marque’s fully-EV models enter production in the near future.
Gaydon, though, remains integral to Aston Martin. It has presided over the brand’s unprecedented growth – 2018 saw an astonishing 25 per cent growth in sales, from 5,098 units the previous year to 6,441, with revenue climbing to a record high. More importantly, Gaydon, the first purpose-built factory in Aston Martin’s history, is the embodiment of Aston Martin and its cars. Here is the reflection of the romance that exemplifies the brand – James Bond, racing, luxury and all – and the artful melding of technology and craftsmanship handed down through generations. The car park alone is worthy of the price of admission: scattered throughout the space are more Aston Martins than many have seen in their lifetime. A moat surrounds the entrance, with a couple of DB11s floating over the shimmering water. Inside is all discrete luxury, dominated by a wide, open space where more Aston Martins are on display, including a fully restored 1969 DB6 Mk 1 Vantage in Bahama Yellow – yours for only GBP695,000, a snippet, really, considering the 4,500 hours spent on its restoration back to factory build specification.
Further in is the Aston Martin ‘hall of fame’, a still growing collection of all the cars the marque has built, including models from its first incarnation as Bamford & Martin. This trip down memory lane leads right into the assembly plant, where industry hums rather than roars. It is not a huge space compared with most other auto manufacturers’ – a leisurely hour’s stroll is enough to take in all the different stations. Automation is minimal rather than ubiquitous, with hand-craftsmanship and traditional techniques at the fore, all of which is carefully underpinned by cutting-edge technology: you’re as likely to see a hand-operated sewing machine as a computer. If there is one indication that Aston Martin does things different, it would be its factory’s takt time, the average time between the start of production of one unit and the start of the next: most car companies measure this in the seconds; at Aston Martin, takt time is nearly 30 minutes. Luxury, in Gaydon, is not a rushed affair.
Take the upholstery, for example. While the leather is shaped and cut with the aid of a computer, putting the different pieces together – an average of 78 pieces to a seat – is done entirely by hand, a process that takes up to three hours. All in, it takes around 200 man-hours, much of which involves handcraft, to put together each Aston Martin that rolls off the assembly line at Gaydon, continuously scrutinised at every stage until the final inspection, which, as in the case of the DBS Superleggera TAG Heuer Edition (see sidebar The Wheel of Time), is personally conducted by Andy Palmer, the President and CEO of Aston Martin himself.
It is here, perhaps, that the TAG Heuer and Aston Martin connection is at its deepest – a devotion to their respective crafts and a reverence for the heritage that both personify. In August 2017, a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1/1, previously driven by Carroll Shelby and Stirling Moss, was auctioned off at the Pebble Beach, California Concours d’Elegance for USD22,550,000, making it the most expensive British car ever sold at an auction. The American Shelby was both a racer and designer, best known for his work on the AC Cobra and Ford Mustang sports car, while Moss was one of the greatest racers of his time. It’s not too hard to see how this resonates with TAG Heuer’s Carrera and Monaco watches and their links with Senna and McQueen.
THE ART OF RACING
Not too far away from Aston Martin, less than an hour’s drive, in fact, from Gaydon, is the home of Red Bull Racing. The link between the two, however, is much closer: since the start of the 2018 Formula 1 season, Aston Martin has been the Title Partner of Red Bull Racing. TAG Heuer has an even longer relationship with Red Bull Racing, having been Official Timekeeper, Official Watch and Team Partner since 2015. In fact, back in 2016, Red Bull Racing used Renault engines branded as TAG Heuer, the first time a watch brand has had its name directly attached to the name of a Formula 1 constructor. The ‘Red Bull Racing – TAG Heuer RB13’ car name remained in use until 2018. In its current incarnation (the team started out as Stewart Racing and then Jaguar Racing), Red Bull Racing won four consecutive Formula 1 Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships from 2010 to 2013. The team’s success – 60 victories from 275 Formula 1 races thus far – is overseen from a scattering of five neighbouring buildings in Milton Keynes, an enterprise that involves nearly 800 people whose expertise are as wide as they are varied, from design and electronics to engineering and aerodynamics.
Unlike Aston Martin, there is little handcrafted at Red Bull Racing. Here, automation is essential for a sport where definitions of success and failure are often measured in the thousandths of a second. As on the racetrack, speed is of the essence as the race car design is constantly updated, with new components developed day-by-day, and even hour-by-hour. While a team of 60 personnel are present at the Formula 1 races, the cars are tracked through a data link at Milton Keynes, with engineers receiving real-time information in the state-of-the-art Operations Room, which is styled like a mission control centre you would typically associate with NASA. On race days, engineers are able to remotely support the race team in conditions that are far more comfortable than the ones on the race circuit.
The Operations Room is located in what has been designated Building One, which is the original home of both Stewart Racing and Jaguar Racing. As you enter the building, a ceiling-high vitrine is crammed with all the trophies Red Bull Racing has won since 2005, an impressive haul that stretches the eye. Upstairs are the technical offices, which oversees specialist teams looking after aero performance, vehicle dynamics, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and stress analysis. There is also the Drawing Office, which comprised of five distinct groups tasked to composites, suspension, hydraulics, transmission and systems design – everything, in short, you need to design an outstanding race car.
Putting one together, though, mostly takes place in the other buildings. While some initial manufacturing takes place in the workshops in Building One, there is a state-of-the-art machine shop and composites facility in Building Three, housed with autoclaves, machining centres and 3D printers, all constantly working to create new components that promise performance improvements measured in hundredths of a second. Building Three also houses the model shop, which melds together art and science, harnessing cutting edge rapid prototyping machinery alongside traditional model-making skills to create perfect 60 per cent replicas of everything from individual components up to whole cars, which are shipped off to the wind tunnel, complete with 60 per cent Pirelli model tyres, for testing.
Then there are the race bays in Building Two, where the race cars are built during off-season, before being housed, stripped and rebuilt continually when racing resumes. It’s also where the race team practices pitstops, using a replica of the pit box gantry and a purpose-built electric mule car to hone their skills. The newest addition to the Red Bull Racing facility in Milton Keynes is called, incongruously enough, MK-7. Here, a full set of the team’s race cars, from the RB1 used in its maiden 2005 season through to the RB14 that scored four Formula 1 wins in 2018, are on permanent display, a visual demonstration of how far Red Bull Racing has come in so short a time.
Indeed, the Formula 1 team has made great strides in just 15 years (its owner, Red Bull, which sold 6.8 billion cans of its ubiquitous energy drink in 2018, also owns another Formula 1 team, Scuderia Toro Rosso), forging its own path in sport’s most technologically advanced and competitively compelling arena. Such is the expertise it has acquired, it has become an invaluable partner in developing Aston Martin’s first hypercar, the Valkyrie (see sidebar The Ultimate Hypercar) though its subsidiary, Red Bull Advanced Technologies. And recognising kindred spirits, working together on creating something truly groundbreaking, TAG Heuer is also Official Watch of the Valkyrie. Some things just naturally belong together.