Aston's brave bid for glory

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Three cheers for Aston Martin Racing! In the same month that Mitsubishi pulled the plug on its long-running, fantastically successful Dakar rally raid programme because of economic hardship, Dr Ulrich Bez and David Richards have pushed the button on an audacious campaign to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, 50 years after Aston’s one and only overall victory in the great enduro. They are quite possibly raving mad.

Richards admitted as much at the informal, low-key project launch in late January. “This is not something any sane group of people would do,” he said with a grin. Everything is against Aston Martin: it is battling the recession, time – the car, described on p24, is only due to run for the first time at the beginning of March – and of course the technical regulations.
To be fair, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest has strived for parity between the turbo diesels, petrol race engines and production-based powerplants such as Aston’s 6-litre V12, and after some hard lobbying the race organiser has pegged back Audi and Peugeot this year. But whether true equality has been achieved is hard to call, especially in a year of new aero rules that will slow all prototypes. As Aston Martin team principal George Howard-Chappell admits, he will have no idea exactly how close his cars will get to the whispering turbo diesels until they all run together during practice at Le Mans in June.

So can Dr Bez really expect his Gulf racers to deliver a glorious win? Well, back in 1959 the DBR1 was the underdog too, against the mighty Ferrari 250 TR. Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby only triumphed because they lasted. But today Le Mans is more competitive than ever thanks to the benchmark of reliability set by Audi. The LMP1 Aston must run faultlessly as well as being quick out of the box. Victory? Even a podium will be a tall order against three Audis and three Peugeots.

But focusing on the result is missing the point of Aston’s campaign. The fact it is taking the race on at all is a victory of sorts in these depressing times, and Richards is right to play up the ‘British spirit’ angle. This is a valiant assault on the great race that will appeal to British fans, especially in those Gulf colours. What a way to celebrate the anniversary – David Brown and John Wyer would surely approve. We wish the team the best of luck.

In early February I was invited to a media dinner that simply couldn’t have happened a year ago. The hosts were McLaren… and Ferrari, united in glorious harmony in the name of the Formula One Teams Association. The British media are a cynical lot and there were plenty of questions about the strength of FOTA’s alliance. What happens if (when?) the two teams fall out during the course of the season? The response was a good one: even last year’s Spa penalty debacle didn’t derail FOTA discussions, which were already well under way – proof that this new cordiality will not be broken by predictable team bickering.

Let’s hope they are right. FOTA is the best thing to happen in F1’s business arena for years. Neither McLaren nor Ferrari would ever dream of admitting it, but the organisation is the biggest challenge to Max and Bernie’s authority yet seen. Despite a few prods on the night, the teams were determined to ignore this truth. Understandably diplomatic. Nevertheless, the elephant was most certainly in the room – and we could all definitely see it.

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