The DB12 is the backbone of Aston Martin; an elegant GT designed to extoll all of the brand’s core values, and the natural heir of other DBs, most notably the iconic DB5. The year 1963 was a big one for the marque. That’s when the DB5 tore onto the swinging scene, the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson swore the oath of allegiance on a flight back from Dallas. I mention that because I’ve been tossed the keys to the DB12 on the eve of the United States Grand Prix in Austin, and I’ve driven out to the Texas Hill Country to tackle the roads that surround Johnson’s ancestral ranch and the 36th president’s final resting place. If anything’s going to wake LBJ, it’ll be the tune of this car’s twin-turbo V8.
A couple of hours’ drive west of Austin, the state capital, this rugged terrain with its limestone knolls and cypress-lined creeks was claimed by German settlers and has led to its main conurbation, Fredericksburg, to be known by locals as Fritz-town. The Teutonic influence can be found in the food and drink. Most visitors come to Hill Country for the wine, with wineries now as ubiquitous here as ranch windmills. LBJ, it’s recorded, spent almost as much time in Hill Country as he did in Washington DC, making it the Much Further West Wing.
My accommodation is at one with nature. Bordering Johnson’s Stonewall ranch, Walden Retreats offers luxury glamping, with a dozen tented suites set over nearly 100 acres of scrubland. The site takes its name from a 19th-century memoir by the transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau – part personal declaration of independence, part survival guide for the wild; although he probably didn’t have an en-suite roll-top bath and a state-of-the-art kitchen under canvas like me. After a golden sunset and an evening roasting s’mores on the fire, I’m awoken by a low-flying private jet coming from the direction of Mexico, destined for the race no doubt. A breakfast hamper has been delivered to my patio for me to cook myself an omelette on the heavy-duty barbecue. After putting the finishing touches to my Johnny Cash playlist, I hit the road in my mean green machine. The Hill Country’s sweeping and largely empty tarmac provides the ideal canvas to appreciate the DB12’s dynamic abilities as well as the sublime cockpit comfort.
I skirt Lake Austin on the drive back towards the city, a 22-mile stretch of the Colorado River that’s been christened the Malibu of Texas; vast waterside pads owned by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock and Elon Musk. Tech companies such as Tesla, Dell, Apple and Samsung are big employers in Austin, creating a Silicon Valley of the south and causing a population and high-rise condo boom in the last decade or so. The city is a melting pot of those from the coasts lured here by business and Austin’s enviable lifestyle, University of Texas students, artists, musicians and cowboys. There are hipster dive bars and vintage stores, designer boutiques and high-end hotels and restaurants. There’s always been money here, but it’s becoming more noticeable.
I love the historic bungalows of Rainey Street which double as rustic cocktail bars; the eccentric Johnny Cash-themed Mean Eyed Cat Bar; the Broken Spoke, a throwback country bar that’s hosted live bluegrass and boot-scootin’ since 1964. Austin’s more urbane residents are likely to be found in the sleek bars and restaurants close to Congress Avenue. I dine at the moody Comedor, typical of modern metropolitan Austin, with its stark gallery-like interior and upscale Mexican haute cuisine.
I then stay at the city’s Soho House on the reinvigorated South Congress, which used to be all hippie boutiques and now boasts a Hermès store. On the night before the grand prix, the popular members’ club hosts a party on its rooftop with a rousing set by breakthrough Korean-American rapper Audrey Nuna. Dining in a low-lit corner of the club is the Duke of Sussex.
Mine and Prince Harry’s respective hosts have arranged helicopters to take us in and out of the circuit on race day, where I have a brief catch-up with Fernando Alonso. In Alonso, I posit that Aston Martin now has a company driver even more skilled than James Bond when it comes to assessing how to really get out of Dodge quickly (without grazing the beautiful bodywork). The double world champion, who has a Valkyrie on order, offers me his assessment of the DB12: “It’s extreme in its performance, but it’s also very comfortable. A lot of sports cars are uncomfortable and you end up not using them very often – only a few times a year because it’s just too impractical. What I really like about the DB12 is it’s a sports car you can use every day.” Then Alonso jumps in his emerald-coloured F1 car and hits the track, no doubt helping to sell more Aston Martin road cars in the process. Secret or not, he’s now the marque’s number-one agent. It’s no coincidence the most popular colour for Aston Martins is no longer silver, it’s British racing green.
For me, it’s back on the chopper after the race to escape the traffic. The Circuit of the America’s heliport is buzzing with touchdowns and take-offs as the Paddock Club shuttles decant their VIPs straight into the boarding zone. Holding onto my bag of swag – a generous assortment of Aston team caps and keepsakes – it’s like the last days of Saigon, but with more merch.