The Fortune Seekers

THIRTY years after Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby won the 24Hours of Le Mans for Aston Martin, the marque returned to France with a new challenger racing only for the second time. It was, of course, too soon to hope for a result but eleventh place overall was distinctly encouraging, and the team hopes to return to the Sarthe in June with a real chance of pulling off the surprise victory of the season.

Shock and dismay were the reactions to FISA's bombshell in December, team manager Richard Williams commenting that the team was formed with the principal aim of winning the classic 24-Hour race. The "open day" at Silverstone which provides material for this article had taken place, and there was optimism throughout the team that the AMR-2 would capitalise on last year's results. As this is written, everything rests on an agreement being reached between FISA and the ACO.

Victor Gauntlett and Peter Livanos, backers of the Proteus Technology (Protech) team bought the farmhouse and grounds at Tertre Rouge last year and intend to make it their base again on June 16-17, when the team's two or three cars should tackle the world's leading sports car race. "We expect to be very competitive at Le Mans, because it would be our best chance of winning a race in 1990," says manager Williams. Some major body changes which include relocation of the water radiator have already shown the way to raise the AMR-1's top speed, from the disappointing 212 mph last year to a probable 230-plus mph, and preliminary wind tunnel tests at the University of Southampton, and MIRA, have been encouraging.

It was a real coup for the team to attract Tony Southgate as the resident designer, although his contract remained unsigned over Christmas until the Le Mans politics were settled. In a freelance capacity Southgate designed all the Jaguar XJR models, up to and including the 10/11 turbocharged cars, but the arrival of Ross Brawn as chief designer at TWR has set the musical chairs in motion.

Southgate's first priority will be to complete the design of the AMR-2, the first and only development of last year's car, and his second will be to design a new 3½-litre AMR-3 for 1991 based, presumably, on Ford's V8 Grand Prix engine. Another part of the equation is the competitiveness of the production-based "Virage" V8 engine, redesigned by Callaway Engineering with four valves per cylinder. Reliability has been impressive and, to the surprise of many, it has been powerful enough to hold the turbo Mercedes, Jaguars and Porsches in a straight line.

In Mexico, the final race of the 1989 season, the capacity was increased from 6.0 to 6.3 litres, and "series two" modifications included improvements to the breathing, oil pump and scavenging. At high altitude the engine gave far less than its potential, but for "over 650 bhp" mentioned in the team's handouts, a figure nearer 730 bhp could be assumed at 7,750 rpm. The torque curve is quite exceptional, though, in being virtually flat from 4,500 rpm through to 7,000 rpm. There is a slight peak at 6,000, where the figure of 560 lb.ft is quoted, but in fact there is enough torque as low as 3,500 rpm to accelerate the car, though not strongly. Against these figures, the 7-litre Jaguar V12 engine has the highest claimed torque figure of 610 lb.ft at 5,500 rpm, and the Mercedes M.119 5-litre, 32-valve engine develops 597 lb.ft at a mere 3,500 rpm, a pulling power that should be expected of a larger capacity engine helped by two turbochargers.

An output of over 700 bhp should make the AMR-2 fully competitive in the coming season since even the World Champion team, Mercedes, claims no more than 720 bhp when running to the fuel allocation. Exotic outputs of 800 bhp or more are nice to claim for qualifying, when fuel consumption isn't important, but are fairly irrelevant in the heat of competition.

Could a normally aspirated engine be competitive in 1990? Tom Walkinshaw, for one, believed that the turbo teams held all the aces and took Jaguar down that road with determination. There is less choice for Aston Martin, the team that raced a turbocharged Nimrod once, at Silverstone in 1984, and vowed never to do that again.

Cold Comfort at Silverstone

It was an act of faith for Aston Martin to invite a number of journalists to Silverstone, to the new "south circuit" specifically, to drive the 6.3 litre AMR-1. Few are the journalists who can drive competitively, or drivers who can write good articles, and great is the gap between them!

There can't be many experiences more embarrassing than spinning a racing car, and there was time to remember some of the entries in the Tim Schenken book of excuses as I sat in the silent car, with a flat battery, facing the wrong way at the "new Abbey". The tyres were cold ("like lumps of wood" Michael Roe had said). I didn't know Silverstone's new South circuit well enough. The brake pedal was more spongey than I'd expected.

Who, though, is interested in excuses? I'd made the most elementary error in the book, taking Abbey with a little more speed than was prudent on the first lap and finding the marker cones much nearer than anticipated. Hard on the brakes, round with the steering wheel . . . and a short, sharp screech of tyres announced my indiscretion.

So much, then, for the theory that modern racing cars have almost limitless grip on slick racing tyres. In the cornering mode on a summer's day, a world championship car probably is proof against all but the bravest, but in the hands of an amateur, on a winter's morn, the Aston Martin showed a little impatience.

After that it was plain sailing. A 20-point pushed turn, then a boost with a slave battery, and the outing continued with a little more respect from the driver. From the outside the AMR-1 looks rather bulky (something that surprises engineering director Ray Mallock, who thinks it must be something to do with the colour scheme), but it's certainly a tight fit inside. As one driver replaces another in around 30 seconds, spectators aren't likely to appreciate the difficulties of climbing in and out of the cockpit and worse, doing up the four-point safety harness which is difficult to see, let alone to operate. "Now you know why we don't want faster pit stops in sports car racing," says team director Williams after supervising the business of fastening the belts and tightening them enough to bring tears to the eyes.

There's no difficulty in learning the cockpit. The one dial to watch is the rev-counter right in front of the driver, with a caution not to exceed 7,500 rpm. Away to the left is a computer screen conveying symbols and codes which are meaningless to the untrained eye, but tell the state of the engine and consumption. All of this is supervised by telemetry from the control vehicle in the paddock, and need not concern the driver. There are no boost gauges or knobs, of course, no gauges for cylinder head temperatures such as are found in Porsche, and it only takes a minute to absorb the minimum amount of information needed to drive the car safely. The big V8 engine rumbles into action, and as the car accelerates a certain amount of vibration is felt through the fixed seat. The engine is loud, certainly, but not penetrating and brain-numbing as a Cosworth V8 is, mainly on account of running in the 7,000-8,000 rpm range, not 10,000-11,000 rpm. ear plugs are useful but not absolutely necessary.

The right-hand gearchange is very precise, especially changing up, but the downshifts require a certain amount of concentration and experience in matching the revs. Based on the Hewland VgC, the special Aston Martin box designed by Max Boxstrom has a new casing which maximises the air flow venturi effect, an important feature of the overall aerodynamic package. The big radiator was, for the first season, placed across the rear of the car above the gearbox but will almost certainly be moved to the side, or front position in the coming year.

Driven at a fast touring speed, 12 seconds slower than Michael Roe, Tiff Needell and Bruno Giacomelli on the same day, the Aston Martin felt surprisingly civilised and not particularly tiring. Certainly, though, far greater physical effort would be needed to drive around the south circuit in 58-59 seconds, rather than in my best time of 71 seconds. At first the steering feels remarkably direct, the car darting like a kart in response to small inputs, and the slow lap speed failed to "load up" the steering, the suspension or the Goodyears, which remained almost stone cold at the end of nine laps. An overriding impression was of the Aston engine's amazing torque. Messing up the downshift for the "chicane" on the south circuit, and taking the right-left-right in third gear, at least enables the engine to show how willing it is to pull cleanly from 3,000 rpm. For real acceleration, of course, the rev counter has to be shown more than 5,000 rpm, and the use of second gear does change the car's demeanour altogether. Then, the front wheels "push" a bit in the middle of the chicane, tending to understeer for a moment, and the rear of the car begins to feel restless leaving the chicane which leads, uninterrupted, to Becketts.

The trouble with racing cars is that they become addictive. My lap time improved by about a second on each of nine laps, coming down from 79 sec to 71 sec, which may be consistent but is really too slow to gain any realistic impression of the car's race potential. Nagging away, all the time, was the feeling that the brake pedal had too long a travel and was too spongey, always allowing the impression that the front wheels might lock up. Michael Roe, who'd warmed the car up, confirmed that the car was set up for carbon brakes as raced in Mexico, and that it should have a larger master cylinder for the steel brakes fitted at Silverstone.

There was even the chance to get back into the car after lunch, for a second chance that might see faster times. That's always the theory, of course, but my fourth lap was spoiled by "losing" second gear, and taking the chicane in fourth, and my fifth by a squall of rain which produced a total "white out" against the low winter sun. A frantic grope for the wiper only proved that it wasn't anywhere obvious, so I drove from Becketts to Stowe watching the right-hand verge through the side window.

It's at times like that, of course, that one is glad not to be a racing driver. With the likes of Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jan Lammers on the same track, such a lack of experience and skill would be positively dangerous.

To judge the worth of a racing car is well-nigh impossible, except at full racing speed. The abiding impression, though, was that the production based V8 engine is well suited to the task of powering a racing car, tractable and flexible even when tuned to twice the standard output. Even now, with merely seven races to its credit, the Aston Martin Racing project has proved several points, the main one being the merit of the "Virage" 32-valve engine.

Larger volume manufacturers such as Mercedes, Porsche and Jaguar are in sports car racing purely for prestige, advertising potential, and to reduce the average age of their customers. A company like Aston Martin Lagonda, though, producing on average one car per working day and with order books filled for two or three years ahead, can be on the world's circuits only because the principals have a strong ambition to see their cars in the limelight, and it is impressive that Peter Livanos has underwritten the entire racing programme even though he and Victor Gauntlett own only 25 per cent of the shares while Ford, with 75 per cent, contributes nothing to racing.

At stake now is the answer to the following question: if Ford should take a closer interest in World Championship sports car racing, which of its daughter companies should represent it in the 3½-litre formula? Aston Martin, with its own "inhouse" racing operation prepared to design the AMR-3 around the Ford Fl engine ? Or Jaguar, with two world championships to its credit already, a Le Mans victory under its belt, but with racing contracted out to Tom Walkinshaw? Victor Gauntlett and Sir John Egan both have a strong cause to argue, but results on the circuits are the real aces. The 1990 season will make some fortunes, and break some hearts. MLC