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209

Aston Martin is gearing up for a fresh assault on Le Mans with its all-new Vantage GTE

It may seem strange to suggest that a marque basking in the glory of a class victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours last June is stepping up its assault on the World Endurance Championship for the coming season. But that’s what Aston Martin Racing is doing as it prepares to defend its Le Mans GTE Pro crown and attempts to regain the WEC GT drivers’ and teams’ titles it last won in 2016.

Prodrive-run AMR has a renewed — and bigger — commitment from Aston Martin Limited and, most importantly, a new weapon with which to take the fight to Ferrari, Ford, Porsche and WEC newcomer BMW, not to mention the Corvette Racing squad when it crosses the Atlantic to race at Le Mans. It’s still called a Vantage GTE, but almost nothing is shared between the new contender and its predecessor bar the name. Ben Sayers, AMR’s technical director, isn’t even sure how many components have been carried across from the 2017 GTE Pro Le Mans winner.

“Maybe the seat and the driver display,” he says. “That’s all. This car is completely new.”

The new racer has been developed out of latest Vantage unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show last September. AMR has taken a no-holds-barred approach to development of the car, which stands in stark contrast to the way its predecessor first emerged back in 2008. The first-generation Vantage was conceived as a budget contender, aimed at privateers at a time when AMR was still racing the DBR9 that completed a Le Mans double in the old GT1 class in 2007-08 and just beginning its brief dalliance in the LMP prototype ranks.

The outgoing Vantage has undergone near constant development over 10 seasons of racing, including major upgrades for 2013 and, when new rules came into force, 2016, the season in which Danish duo Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen claimed the World Endurance Cup for GT drivers. So much so that the current car is described as “an evolution of an evolution of an evolution” by Prodrive Motorsport managing director John Gaw.

Everything has been taken to the limit with a clean-sheet-of-paper brief for the new GTE contender since the project began in February 2016. And the starting point of the new Vantage road car offers key advantages over the base for the previous racer.

“The bodyshell improvements are significant on the road car in terms of a 60 per cent increase in torsional rigidity,” explains Sayers of the bonded-aluminium structure. “We benefit directly from that on the race car. With improvements on the rollcage, we have close to double the torsional rigidity of before. That’s a great starting point.”

The new Vantage is a wider than its predecessor. It hits the 2050mm maximum width prescribed by the rules, whereas the old car was under the 2000mm allowed when it was conceived. That has allowed the AMR design team more scope aerodynamically. There has been a conscious effort to give the car more downforce than the old Vantage to create a more ‘raceable’ machine.

Sayers: “We have identified the weaknesses of the current car. If you look at sector two at Spa for example, the twisty bits with the corners requiring high downforce, that’s where we currently lose out to our rivals. We’ve taken all those lessons on board with the new car.”

The multi-link rear suspension of the new Vantage road car has given more freedom.

“There was always a slight negative with the previous car because we had relatively short wishbones at the top, so the geometry was not ideal,” says Sayers. “The move from the trailing link to double wishbones on the race car means we are not governed by the production mounting points and that means we can have longer wishbones.”

Big benefits are also derived from the new powerplant at the heart of the latest Aston. Race car, like road car, is powered by the AMG-Mercedes four-litre twin-turbo V8, the result of a tie-up in which the German maker has taken a five per cent stake in AML.

“The old normally aspirated V8 was running on the limit,” says Sayers. “We had to do a lot of work to keep it competitive and it was difficult to ensure that it remained as durable as some of the more modern engines. We have already put more miles on this engine in testing than the current engine can do. That’s going to be a big benefit to the programme.”

Build of the first new Vantage racer started in May 2017. Because development of road and race car look place side by side, AMR was able to go to Aston Martin’s production facility in Gaydon, Warwickshire and construct the first tub exactly to its specifications on the prototyping line.

“We have been able to get involved in the production of our own bodyshells,” explains Sayers. “We could have the first tub manufactured exactly to our specifications.”

The gearbox is still made by Xtrac and still has six speeds, but is wholly new and crucially much lighter. “We’ve taken 15 per cent of the mass out of it and taken everything to the limit by mounting it right on the floor,” says Sayers.

The new Vantage GTE turned a wheel for the first time on August 18 at the Turweston airfield close to AMR’s Banbury HQ. It wasn’t quite the completed car, however. “Some of the bodywork was missing,” adds Sayers. “Actually quite a lot…

“It was quite ‘Mad Max’-looking. It turned out to be more worthwhile than we imagined. We spent a week dialling out issues with the gearshift control, calibration and driveability just running on the runway. We found some niggly little issues that we were able to sort out before we went to the first track test.”

Sayers didn’t want to postpone the roll-out because he knew what lay ahead. AMR is already a long way down the road with an intensive test programme in the lead up to the 2018/19 WEC ‘superseason’.

The test programme continued with runs at Pembrey, Rockingham and Snetterton in September before AMR headed south in search of good weather. The first extended run was at the obscure Circuit do Andalucia in Spain, before a switch to Navarra for the first 30-hour endurance simulation.

Sayers describes undertaking endurance run so early in the development as a “leap of faith”. The test at Andalucia had proved a major success, but two days of running prior to the start of the 30-hour test at Navarra proved troublesome. AMR had to have some new lock-nuts for the suspension manufactured locally before it could begin.

“It defeats the object of an endurance test if you have to keep stopping to check things aren’t coming loose,” says Sayer. “The test was a massive success – we had only an hour and a half down time. It was great for the car.”

And the drivers: they are raving about the new Vantage GTE.

“The new car gave an incredibly positive feeling straight away,” says Aston stalwart Darren Turner, who added a third Le Mans class victory with the marque to his CV in 2017. “A lot of thought has gone into the car and the way it is bolted together. It didn’t feel like a new car on my first day behind the wheel. It was strong from the word go.”

The factory Vantages will switch back to Michelin tyres in 2018 after two years running on Dunlops. The driving force for the shift has been a commercial tie-up with the French rubber supplier encompassing the forthcoming Valkyrie hypercar and the range of AMR specials, but Sayers points out that one of the key reasons for swapping to Dunlop in the first place has been removed.

“We had an ageing car at a time when other manufacturers were bringing out new cars,” says Sayers in reference to the Ford GT and the Ferrari 488 GTE. “We thought it would be good to have a differentiator in the tyre and it worked brilliantly. Dunlop did a great job.”

Aspirations for the new Vantage are high, but Sayers offers a note of caution. The new Balance of Performance system introduced for the 2017 season is based on an algorithm that can result in changes to car weights and engine power outputs on a race-by-race basis. It was devised by rule makers and manufacturers to end the bickering, lobbying and sand-bagging that had been long been part of GTE. But the data still has to be interpreted by humans rather than computers when a new car arrives.

“That’s the potential snag,” says Sayers. “We will have to rely on the starting BoP being correct, because there isn’t the scope in the regulations to make big adjustments during the season. It’s the big unknown right now.”

John Gaw, AMR’s racing boss, is more bullish.

“With the BoP system you are not going to win every race and you are probably not going to win the championship every year,” he says. “But at some point soon we are aiming to win Le Mans again and win the world championship again. That’s our goal and we will be disappointed if we don’t achieve it.”

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