Starter for 10

For the past decade, Aston Martin Racing has been a fan favourite at Le Mans. As founder David Richards and driver Darren Turner tell us, those 10 years are just the beginning
Writer Damien Smith

Ten years and more than 200 racing cars. Perhaps that’s the most significant statistic of Aston Martin Racing’s first decade. The big wins, most notably the back-to-back GT class successes at Le Mans, inevitably stand out in the minds of sports car fans. But it’s the sale of racers to customers around the world that has made the British manufacturer so prolific in modern motor racing. That in itself is remarkable given the sporadic and patchy record of Aston’s racing activity since its 1950s heyday under David Brown.

Aston Martin’s growing buoyancy as a car manufacturer has been led by German CEO Ulrich Bez, since a consortium buy-out finally freed the company from the stifling control of Ford in 2007. But a patriotic British racing entrepreneur is the true foundation upon which modern-day Aston Martin is built.

It was David Richards who gathered that consortium to return Aston to independent ownership. And it was Richards who, in 2004, convinced Ford to allow Aston to come back to competition. He did so with the brave guarantee that his own Prodrive concern would carry all the risk of a racing programme that would be based from the start on customer car sales. The racing division’s 10th birthday is a direct testament to Richards’ vision and faith in his own workforce.

Darren Turner was at the wheel when AMR took its first steps in the autumn of 2004, and this June he will lead the team back to Le Mans for what will be his 12th 24 Hours. Motor Sport brought team boss and driver together to reflect on a colourful first 10 years of competition.

“It started from my enthusiasm for Aston Martin,” Richards says. “I owned a DB3S and had been to the factory trying to persuade them to go motor racing, knocking on the door every year. At Prodrive we’d done the Ferrari 550 Maranello programme [which scored a Le Mans class win in 2003], but Aston would say ‘there’s no budget, Ford won’t let us spend any money’. Then along came the DB9.

“The way we funded the Ferrari programme was novel. So I said. ‘Let’s put together a proposal on that basis, where we take all the risk at Prodrive’. All they had to do was basically agree to license Aston Martin Racing to us, and we’d sell the cars, sort the entries, run the merchandise, everything. Much to our surprise Ford accepted the idea. We had a very simple two-page contract that outlined the obligations, and away we went with the first of the DBR9s, based on the new generation of road cars. Out of the box it was a great car, as Darren will tell you because he drove it first.”

“I think it was November, a nice day at Donington,” Turner says. “It was supposed to be a shakedown, with no expectations. But within 10 laps we were doing stuff with a race car that’s usually 2000kms old. That was a really special day, that roll-out, and it was the start of what has led us here 10 years later.”

“We knew we had a good platform,” Richards says. “Yes, the DB9 was front-engined and rear-wheel drive, but the engine was pretty well behind the axle, certainly on the race car. And the weight balance was about 52-48 by the time we’d finished with it, which is perfect.”

Aston Martin returned to racing at the Sebring 12 Hours in March 2005 – and won first time out, on one of the world’s roughest, toughest tracks. “Testing started on the Tuesday and we were initially two or three seconds off the pace,” says Turner, who shared the winning car with David Brabham and Stéphane Ortelli. “But the temperature over the week went up and the car started to dial in as rubber went down. When it came to race day we were bang on the pace. Expectations had been simply to get the car to the finish. But to have barely any problems and win was amazing.”

“It was our first major set-to with Corvette, too, which has become like the home derby for us at Le Mans each year,” Richards says.

“It’s like having an older brother who you can wrestle with and have a bit of banter,” adds Turner about his American rivals. “The sportsmanship between us and Corvette has always been so good. You have to be strong to beat them, so to do it first time out – and on their home territory, too – was extra special.”

Since 2008 AMR has become synonymous with the iconic blue and orange livery of Gulf Oils, but of course at the start the factory DBR9s ran in colours that offered a direct nod to the David Brown era.

“We started with ‘Aston Martin Racing Green’ and felt it was important to establish the team’s identity from the word go,” Richards says. “It’s a problem for a racing team when your identity is captured by a sponsor. So for the first few years we ran in green and the first win at Le Mans [in 2007] was in those colours. But then we looked around to see what iconic brands were out there, and in my view only three were appropriate. The long-term agreement with Gulf has served us both well.”

The partnership got off to a perfect start with class victory at Le Mans in ’08, to complete back-to-back successes at the big one. But both Turner and Richards recall the first with most fondness. “That was the hardest-fought, I would say,” David recalls. “In the last stint the heavens opened and they put the safety car out. David Brabham was on the radio, saying ‘I can hardly drive it’.”

Turner adds: “Certain problems had come our way in previous Le Mans campaigns – some of them driver inflicted!” He was mortified by the damage he incurred in ’06, when striking marker cones at the Sarthe circuit. “In ’07 we really had to deliver,” Turner says. “In that race our car spent the least amount of time in the pits, not only in our class but in the entire field.”

By conquering Le Mans twice, in successive years, Richards now made a big decision. Fifty years on from Roy Salvadori, Carroll Shelby, DBR1 and all that, Aston would battle for overall honours at the greatest race of them all. An Aston-engined Lola had dipped a toe in the water at Le Mans ’08. For ’09, the commitment was total.

“Once you’ve won everything in GT, you think surely it’s about time to have a go for an outright win,” he says. “The V12 was very strong, so there was a lot of carryover from that. We just had to put it into a prototype chassis, which we managed to acquire [courtesy of Lola]. Of course, they [Le Mans organiser the ACO] needed to get the balance of performance right and still to this day I think if they had done that between the diesels and ourselves we would have had a good battle. As it was, it never happened. Audi always had a lap or more in hand. Every time we went out there we were the best of the petrol class and in 2009 we were fourth overall, so we never quite made the podium. I don’t think that reflects well enough on the effort and performance, which was pretty sensational. And it was the crowd’s favourite too, with the sound of that V12 and the look of the car in the Gulf colours.”

Undaunted, Richards was encouraged by new prototype rules for 2011 that convinced him to take the campaign to the next level: an ambitious, all-new, bespoke design with which to take on the might of Audi and Peugeot. But the AMR-One mid-engined spyder would prove to be the team’s bête noire.

“We looked at the new regulations carefully and the guys persuaded me that we should be adventurous with a small-capacity 2-litre turbo, and a chassis featuring innovative aerodynamics,” Richards says. “We committed to the programme too late without enough resources. Occasionally you have to hold your hand up and say ‘we screwed up’.”

The immediate canning of the project and a refocus on the GT market was a fresh beginning, as the Vantage replaced the venerable DBR9. It also marked the departure of long-time team manager George Howard-Chappell. “The return to GTs gave us a clear focus, coinciding with John Gaw’s arrival to run the operation,” Richards says. “We reorganised the team and now our customer base is building all around the world. Every weekend an engineer flies off somewhere to service, look after and support a customer.

“We’ve got three products now. Along with the top-class GTE, we’ve produced more than 100 GT4 cars, expanding into America with a one-make series this year. The GT3 car was a real ground-up design and it was a bit of a spin-off from an experience I had a few years ago. I had the opportunity, thanks to Anthony Bamford, to drive a Ferrari 250GTO. I found out what an easy car it was to drive and realised that was the GT3 we had to build. We’re making them for non-professional drivers, not Darren Turners.

“The previous customer car, the DBRS9, was difficult to drive. I remember a customer saying ‘I get into it with some trepidation. I do frighten myself’. Well, that’s not the purpose. So as a result we sat down to look at it again.”

Turner carried out much of the early testing with the Vantage GT3. “As David says, it’s not going to bite you. The DBRS9 was difficult, even for the pro driver. GT3 has grown and is a great format for GT racing around the world right now. The fact the Aston is one of the more competitive cars and the fact it’s easy to drive means a pro can get in and enjoy it – I’ve done the Nürburgring 24 Hours in one which was amazing – and it’s equally good for an amateur driver in a national championship.”

So 200 racing cars and counting. What’s next for AMR? “Well, we’re marking the first 10 years, but I still think there is a lot more to come,” Richards says. “We have stability now in the GT regulations, so I don’t see us making any radical changes for a couple of years. But we’re going through this transformation process as they amalgamate GTE with GT3, which should be beneficial for everyone. Then we’ll have to think about what our next product is going to look like.”

“I didn’t realise Aston had sold 200 cars in that 10-year period,” Turner says. “That’s impressive. If you think about us compared with some of our rivals we’re quite a new entity, so there’s plenty still to learn. And in those 10 years generally we’ve been successful. There have been a few little blips, but nothing more.

“I’m not sure I’ll still be here to celebrate 20 years, but it’s been a privilege to drive through the first 10.”

Le Mans 2014
Aston vs Ferrari vs Porsche vs Corvette

Does Darren Turner share the love/hate feelings that so many of his colleagues express about the Le Mans 24 Hours? “Nah, it’s all just love!” he says, grinning. “It’s the biggest race of our year, there’s a lot of pressure, you are under the spotlight – but that makes it even more of a joy to go and race there.”

Whether Aston Martin Racing, with three entries each in GTE Pro and Am, has any hope of adding to its tally of class victories remains to be seen. In the World Endurance Championship season-opener at Silverstone Aston scored a 1-2 in the amateur class, but in the primary Pro category was soundly outpaced by Porsche and Ferrari. The ‘Balance of Performance’ formula dictated by race organiser the ACO will be all important.

“This is the dilemma the sport faces: the rules are structured around the balance of performance,” David Richards says. “As time goes on it is refined to make for better racing. When you introduce new cars it can upset the situation, which is what happened with the Porsche last year. Then this year we have the new Corvette, which we won’t have raced until we get to Le Mans. But there should be enough data for the ACO to get it right.”

Turner adds, “Early indications show that there has been a change. Towards the end of last year it was fairly level between all the manufacturers, so hopefully after Silverstone there’s enough data to go away and look at it before Le Mans. That is part of GT racing. Some people might say that balance of performance shouldn’t be a part of racing, but it wouldn’t work without it.”

Richards warms to the theme. “Take the example of the three makes competing in the WEC. They are fundamentally different. We have a front-engined Aston Martin with a rear transaxle, a mid-engined Ferrari and a rear-engined Porsche. You couldn’t get more disparate cars and yet we all compete in the same market place on the high street, so it’s quite right they should be balanced in the racing environment.”

A year on from the death of Allan Simonsen, killed on the third lap of what would turn into AMR’s most emotionally draining race, nothing would honour his memory more than victory. But will the ‘BoP’ help or hinder the quest to honour AMR’s fallen comrade? We’ll find out come June.