Plans of hope and glory

Aston Martin returns to Le Mans this year hoping for a victory against the odds. Much as it did in 1959…
By Rob Widdows

Only mad dogs, Englishmen and Aston Martin go out in the midst of a recession to try and win Le Mans. Is this audacious, or brave, or simply mad? Or perhaps a combination of all three? Whatever it is, we hereby applaud the spirit.

Aston Martin, that most British of cars (despite being owned by Kuwaitis), is going back to Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of its famous victory with Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby in the DBR1.

The new car will not be in the gorgeous green of the old DBR1. The 2009 edition will be decked out in the blue and orange colours of the Gulf oil company, surely one of the most evocative liveries in racing history. Maybe it’s a good omen.

Does Aston Martin Racing (aka Prodrive) really have a chance of victory? The answer, frankly, is no. But then the DBR1 was very much the underdog back in 1959, and everyone – especially us Brits – loves an underdog. You have to admire the pluck, the spirit and the ambition, but then you have to take the turbodiesel Audis and Peugeots into the equation. The new Aston Martin LMP1 will be racing with the Big Boys this summer. AMR will be punching above its weight.

The car is not absolutely Aston Martin. It is based on the 2008 Lola chassis campaigned by Charouz Racing System, and the new challenger was designed by Julian Sole at Lola. Importantly, it will use the Aston V12 engine which has proved so successful in the lesser categories at La Sarthe, but this year the works team will focus entirely on overall victory in LMP1.

That David Richards and his Prodrive empire are behind this project comes as no surprise. Richards has never shied away from a challenge, whatever the odds, even as the worst recession since the 1930s swirls around him.

“Yes, the world at large has major problems right now, and there’s no getting away from that,” says Richards. “Aston Martin is not unaffected by this, the factory is working a three-day week, but we take a positive view of what is ahead. We have had the investment from our new shareholders, some great results over the last 18 months, and we have new products on the horizon. So there are many reasons why we feel positive about the future. Le Mans is an indication of this optimism and confidence, and it’s highly appropriate that Aston Martin should go there this year.”

Understood. But how on earth are they going to resource such an ambitious challenge?

“Well, clearly Aston Martin the car company is not in a position to finance expensive motor racing programmes, and never has been for that matter,” he laughs. “But we set up Aston Martin Racing as an independent business and we manage our sponsorship, design costs and operational costs independently from the road car side of things. It’s not easy, but going motor racing is never easy.”

Assuming the finances are in place, they surely cannot expect to beat the Audis and Peugeots in a straight fight at La Sarthe.

“We do not underestimate the task,” says Richards, “but don’t forget, we have won the GT1 class for the last two years. Taking on the diesel-powered cars will, we know, be a massive challenge. Logically the odds are stacked against us, and if you look at the performance figures from Sebring there’s about a seven per cent differential between us and them. But I believe [organising body] the ACO when they say they’d like to achieve parity between the petrol and diesel cars, and certainly they’ve made a small step in the right direction this year. If we didn’t go to Le Mans then I suspect that commitment from the ACO would not be on the table. So perhaps this year has to be a slightly sacrificial year to hasten the parity between the diesels and the more traditional cars. It’s a case of ‘you come to the party and we’ll adjust things accordingly’, and that seems fair to me.”

However grim the odds may appear, it is undeniably a superb marketing opportunity for what is advertised as the ‘power, beauty and soul’ of Aston Martin.

“This is all about the passion and the emotion around the car – and going motor racing has to be one element of that,” says Richards. “We can’t ignore the chance of returning to Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of the DBR1’s victory. Looking back on life and saying ‘I wish we’d done that’ is not something I intend to do, and it’s not something Aston Martin enthusiasts intend to do either. And who knows? Anything can happen in a 24-hour race. I do see this as an opportunity for us to showcase the ingenuity of British engineering talent. Going racing is still at the heart of what we do. Anyway, Aston Martin has always punched above its weight.”

This being motor racing, the story is not without its controversy and feuding. This is down to the Lola connection. Is it an Aston Martin, or a Lola? Martin Birrane of Lola and Richards have, let’s say, differing views on the pure pedigree of this car. But the official line is that the LMP1 is homologated as a Lola-Aston Martin and will be entered as such at Le Mans in June.

“This is pure semantics,” says Richards, “and not really of any great interest to the world at large. The roots of the car are very clearly in the Lola, it is a Lola-homologated car, and has all the Lola crash structures and cockpit. But we have redesigned the car with Marek Reichman at [Aston Martin HQ] Gaydon using styling cues from the road cars.”

Designer Julian Sole and his team at Lola’s HQ at Huntingdon chose to produce a closed-cockpit car rather than an open sports car which has, in turn, underlined the Aston Martin image. “At the time the ACO decreed that from 2010 all LMP1 cars would be closed-cockpit,” says Sole. “So we thought we’d better get on and do one. In fact the two options are pretty close in performance and, with our wind tunnel and CFD facilities, we’ve been able to do a lot of development on the aerodynamics. The rules are a little more in our favour now but, while diesel is still very much in its early development, the petrol cars have reached something of a plateau. But we’re always learning and the car looks very promising.”

A statement from Lola Cars makes mention of ‘misrepresentation in the media’ so, to keep the balance, it should be made clear that Birrane feels Aston has tried to hijack the car for its own purposes. The man who rescued Lola also claims that Aston has done “some cosmetic work on the car”, while Prodrive counters that almost every body component has been changed. All is far from sweetness and light.

Following an Aston Martin DBS V12 up the M40 in my humble Renault Modus is a challenge, but one that has to be met in order to examine in more detail the design of this striking LMP1. Marek Reichman is director of design at Gaydon, where he has the enviable task of creating the next generation of road cars. In his ‘spare time’ he and his team were asked to draw the new racing car in just six weeks. They’re not used to those kind of deadlines at Gaydon.

“It’s been a challenge,” smiles Reichman, surrounded by gleaming new concepts including his breathtaking Project One-77. “Racing forces you to make decisions much faster than us designers are normally accustomed to. For a road car it’s about 18 months from the first sketch to selling the car. With the LMP1 car we had about six weeks. It was probably good for us and exciting to be involved in something like this. A very different kettle of fish.

“We had to create the feel of our road cars and that’s not easy within the regulations, but I think we’ve achieved that. We did a lot of work on the front end to give it that Aston Martin look. We’ve kept the famous copper-coated enamel badge, which is made for us by Thomas Fattorini and weighs 48 grams – so I guess they need to lose that weight from elsewhere…

“If you look at the LMP1 you can see the fluid lines of the road cars, and in the front and rear lights those are the design cues that come straight from the production cars. It’s a subliminal thing, but you can see the Aston Martin in there. There’s continuity between the surfaces, a natural flow, just as we try to achieve with the road cars. But of course time was tight so we made use of computer-generated models and computer graphics. You can’t let colour dictate the design of surfaces, but with the Gulf colours we had a great scheme to work with and it’s been exciting to create that Aston Martin look within the regulations. One of the best jobs in the world.”

There is a huge amount of work to be done before the cars line up at La Sarthe. Early testing at Paul Ricard went well until one of the new cars was written off by Tomáš Enge, who had a huge high-speed shunt. They could have done without that. But the LMP1 showed pace and reliability, and then enjoyed a winning debut in the Le Mans Series in Barcelona (see p46). It’s been a demanding schedule for team principal and technical director George Howard-Chappell, who joined Prodrive in 1998 as chief engineer on touring cars. His realistic aim is to be the first petrol car home at Le Mans.

“That is the target, but if you do the maths, you see the challenge,” he says. “Last year there was a 17 per cent theoretical difference between petrol and diesel, and now that’s down to seven per cent. Looking at the diesels (Audi, Peugeot) and the petrol (Acura) at Sebring, I’d say that was about right. The Audis and Peugeots in particular were very impressive, and of course these are full factory, well funded and well resourced programmes. It’s a David and Goliath situation, but anything can happen at Le Mans and we’re not deterred by the performance gap. We will need a clean run through the race – that’s vital – and that’s what we had when we won GT1. That’s the way to do well at Le Mans and then who knows what might happen by the end of the race.

“We’re a determined group, we’ve faced the odds before and we will come out fighting having done the best possible job with the resources we have. We know the car – the tub and a section of the front floor are from the Lola, but we’ve worked hard to make our own improvements elsewhere. I don’t want to go into any of the contentious stuff but, if you look at the new car alongside last year’s, you’ll see there are substantial differences, some of which are more obvious than others.”

Aston Martin will soon be running a further 30-hour test in a renewed effort to establish the durability of its 2009 challenger.

“The old days of building a car and nursing it through the last few hours are gone,” says Howard-Chappell. “These days we build them to be driven flat out for 24 hours. There’s none of this ‘use a few less revs’ or ‘keep it off the kerbs’ – the cars are prepared for racing at their maximum performance level for the whole distance. It’s a sprint. And this largely comes down to the testing process. Any weakness, wherever it may be, will be addressed. Every component – engine, transmission, suspension – will be tested so that when we get to the race we know we can run flat out. OK, we’re not on the scale of Audi who seem to do a 30-hour test every couple of weeks, but we will be thoroughly prepared. And this year, of course, not everything is new.

The engine and gearbox are an evolution of what we ran in 2008 [as Charouz], so we have a lot of knowledge, and it’s not like we’re going there with something we don’t understand.”

There is only one British driver on the squad for Le Mans. His name is Darren Turner and he is impatient to get his hands on an LMP1 car. Apart from blasting across aerodromes as a McLaren-Mercedes Formula 1 test driver, this will be the fastest he’s ever travelled in a racing car.

“I just can’t wait to get stuck in with the Audis and the Peugeots,” he says, looking pumped up for the fight already. “Alright, it’s a tall order, but if we get wet weather then maybe we can get close to them. The test at Ricard went well, the team has done a fantastic job in a short time and the car feels good. It’s a great opportunity for me – I’ve won [at Le Mans] in GT1, but the LMP1 car is something else again, a big step up from the DBR9.

“Le Mans is all about speed – 200mph plus – and I could only ever get the GT1 up to about 197mph. It always frustrated me! Now it’s going to be over 200 and if you’re not comfortable at those speeds you shouldn’t be doing it. But there are more g-forces, especially through the Porsche Curves, so I’ve stepped up the fitness, ticked that box in advance. Those corners are very quick, like threading cotton through the eye of a needle, and the barriers are pretty close. That’s the great thing about Le Mans: it’s a real road-racing circuit. That run down to Indianapolis, through the trees and on to Arnage is a fantastic experience for a driver.

“This year, going there with Aston Martin on the anniversary of the 1959 win and in the Gulf colours, that’s really special. I’m not totally comfortable in the car – we’ve had to compromise to make room for Harold Primat who’s over six feet tall – but as soon as you go racing you forget those little niggles. In sports cars you’re working with your team-mate, not trying to beat him.”

Turner is, I suspect, a racing driver with a sense of history. “I took the DBS V12 road car down to the New Forest for a romantic weekend – there’s something about Aston Martins, even cruising along on the road. It feels like a good year, I’m earning my living from the sport I love, and it’s been a challenge to get where I am. Now I’m in the LMP1 car for the season. OK, F1 is fantastic and I would’ve loved the lifestyle, but I’ve been paid to test Grand Prix cars and I never imagined that when I started karting as a teenager. I remember when I first tested the Jordan at Santa Pod, Eddie sent me a cheque for £500 – I thought about framing it, but I was skint at the time. Now, here I am, going to Le Mans with an LMP1 Aston Martin.”

Back in the summer of 1959 only 12 cars were classified at the end of the Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, with Aston Martin celebrating a remarkable one-two. The Ferraris were faster, but they flattered to deceive. Tactics and reliability won the day, Aston’s hare Stirling Moss having set off like a rocket at the start to lure the Ferraris into chasing too hard. Half a century later the race has changed beyond recognition and no such sacrifices are likely to break the Audis and the Peugeots. But this is Le Mans. Anything can happen.