Andrew Frankel drives the car which Aston hopes will finally bring it class victory at the 24 Heures Du Mans
It seems strange to say it now, but I thought I would somehow be able to relate the experience of driving an Aston Martin DBR9 to that of driving an Aston Martin DB9. They looked similar, use the same basic engine and chassis… How much difference could one little letter make, anyway?
I learned the answer as I stood next to it in the pit garage at Paul Ricard when one of Aston Martin Racing’s engineers decided to fire it up. The starter motor sounds very DB9, that lovely whirring noise of a 12-cylinder engine spinning without sparks, but the second it fired marked the instant in which all thoughts of this being a race-prepped DB9 fled my head for good.
Like a firestorm sucking all the oxygen out of the air, so the unsilenced 6-litre V12 blasted all thought from my head, replacing it by a raging, momentarily indecipherable torrent of sound. This was going to be fun.
In racing, Aston Martin has a long history of failing to live up to expectations. Indeed, the bald facts are that despite the fact that Astons have been competing around the world for more than 80 years, only one of them really gave results worthy of a marque that, in so many other ways, was and remains a proud rival to Ferrari. That was 1959, when the DBR1 won the World Sportscar Championship and, of course, the Le Mans 24 Hours. But that win came at the fourth attempt for the DBR1 and masked the fact that Aston Martin had had works entries at Le Mans ever since racing resumed after the war in 1949. And despite coming third once and second three times, no Aston driver had ever ascended the last step of the podium. In the same period, Jaguars won five.
There were further attempts in the early 1960s with the beautiful Projects DP212, 214 and 215 but none even finished Le Mans, much less looked like winning it, while the works-supported Nimrod project 20 years later yielded just one seventh place. And, of course, many of us still remember the thunder of the AMR1 in 1989, but even that got swamped by the combined might of Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar teams right at the top of their games. A distant 11th place, 49 laps off the pace, was all that could be salvaged.
But now Aston Martin is back at Le Mans and with good reason, on paper at least, to think this time will be different. The team that builds, tests and races the cars is called Aston Martin Racing in public but in private is better known as Prodrive, serial winner of sports car races and World Rally Championships and which has its own F1 entry in 2008. Better still, Aston Martin, after decades in the financial doldrums, appears in fine fettle. Its cars have never been more popular, the new factory at Gaydon is making more than 4000 of them every year and under the new owners, a syndicate led by David Richards, and with the mercurial Dr Ulrich Bez at its helm, its future looks bright.
At its very first outing in 2005, the DBR9 won its class at the Sebring 12 hours, victory here being widely regarded as a more severe test of man and machine than Le Mans. Since then it has won in Europe, America and in the Middle East but, infuriatingly for Aston Martin, not at the one that really matters: Le Mans. Last year the DBR9 held the GT1 class lead for most of the race and was comfortably out front in its class when the clutch went in the 21st hour.
So, this year, Aston Martin Racing has ditched all other activities on both sides of the Atlantic to concentrate all its efforts on winning the GT category at Le Mans. No, it won’t be an outright win, but seeing as the ultimate victor seems almost certain to be silent, diesel-powered, and French or German, there’s no doubting for whom the vast British contingent will be rooting.
The DBR9 is the antithesis of the inaudible metronome that appears to be what’s required to win Le Mans these days. Not only is it deafening, it sounds fabulous in the way that only a large-capacity, naturally-aspirated, unsilenced V12 can.
It is also utterly beautiful, even when wearing its slatted, carbon, bewinged and bespoilered race suit. Aston Martin may not thank me for the reference, but it is the spiritual successor to the aluminium-bodied Ferrari 365 GTB/4s that were first home behind the prototypes in both 1971 and 1972.
The rules under which the DBR9 races require that it retains the same block and cylinder head castings as the road car but the moving parts are very different and, if they did not have to breathe through 32mm restrictors, would have no problem liberating more than 800bhp. Even as it is, Aston owns up to 600bhp but is understandably cagey on the subject: people from deadly GT-class rival Corvette will read every word that is published about it.
Even sitting behind the wheel and through Arai helmet, balaclava and earplugs, it still shouts at you. The interior bears no relation whatever to a DB9 and could, in fact, come from any sports or touring car. There are the obligatory blinking lights, LCD readouts, suede-rimmed helm and massive sequential gearshift. A blip of the throttle suggests a flywheel about the size and weight of a Polo mint but the clutch is kind, enabling me to pull out of the pit garage and emerge into the Paul Ricard sunshine without bunny-hopping embarrassment.
At once the problem became clear. Cold slicks and a cold track coupled with carbon brakes, notoriously lacking in bite until seriously hot, meant that I’d be most at risk if I didn’t drive it fast and get some heat into the damn thing. But pushing on straight from the pit box in someone else’s half-a-million-pound car is not something that comes naturally to me. Moreover, I wasn’t meant to use the clutch once underway, but the gearbox software would not allow clutchless upshifts at less than maximum revs.
Fortunately experience in Aston’s other racers meant that at least I knew my way around the formidable long circuit at Ricard, using all its legendary Mistral straight and the iris-dilating Signes curve at its end. But what had really reassured me were the calming words of regular driver Darren Turner. He has been a star in the DBR9 since it was launched and he reassured me that it was beautifully balanced and free from unpleasant character traits. His last words to me had been, “Just go and enjoy yourself.” As the door slammed shut and the DBR9 was mine at last, that seemed like the best bit of advice I’d had all day.
Even in the first corner you can feel how very different the DBR9 is, not only to any Aston Martin road car, but even to a serious racer such as the DBRS9. Its turn-in is so sharp that you can scarcely believe that there’s six litres of V12 sitting in the nose. The engine has been dropped and shoved as far towards the middle of the car as possible and you can feel immediately the way the car’s mass has been centralised. The car seems to pivot around your backside.
It also feels ridiculously light. It sits right on the 1100kg weight limit for its class, making it lighter than a Ford Fiesta. For comparison’s sake, a DB9 road car weighs more than half as much again.
I’m still processing the flood of information my first few yards in the DBR9 has provided when the Mistral opens up in front of me, over a mile in length and very similar to the longest flat-out section of Le Mans, leading away from Tertre Rouge. Except at its end is not a harmless chicane, but Signes, a curve you probably take at more than 150mph if your name is Darren Turner.
The DBR9’s acceleration is dramatic but not unfathomable. There’s no road car made today, not even a Bugatti Veyron, with a power to weight ratio like this, but it’s still nowhere near as accelerative as, say, a decent 1960s 3-litre F1 car. And while it reaches 160mph in a blur of change-up lights and snatched shifts, from there to the 180mph or so it will reach on the Mistral takes dramatically longer, as the drag from the rear wing starts to tell. At Le Mans it will nudge 200mph, but only because of the considerably faster entry speed onto the straight.
So for a while you get to sit there, watching the world flash by at three miles a minute, V12 howling at you, scarcely believing the luck that’s brought you here. I turn into Signes as fast as I dare and the way the car ambles casually onto the line suggests something close to contempt for my lack of ambition. I leave my braking for the slow right-hand curve that follows to the last possible instant, and the Aston’s carbon discs simply shrug off the speed as you might a coat.
In fact if your usual racing activities require detailed knowledge of little more than the rather leisurely breakaway characteristics of an L-section Dunlop fitted to a 40-year-old historic racer, the DBR9, with its vast slicks and mighty downforce, takes a lot of learning.
But Aston Martin is being generous with its laps and, slowly, confidence builds. You have to be brutal with the gear lever before it will give you a clean change. Your right foot stays nailed to the throttle for upshifts and you don’t need your left foot, even when changing down, though I found it smoother if I did.
Even in the slower corners there’s negligible understeer but neither is there anything to fear from stabbing gently at the throttle, testing traction to the limit. It’s a light car with a long wheelbase and is childishly simple to correct – easier by far, for instance, than the slower, heavier and less well balanced DBRS9.
Only in Signes did my nerve continue to desert me. The problem was that the faster I went, the better it felt – and this is not what I’m used to. As the aerodynamics really started to earn their living, the DBR9 turned from blunt weapon to precision instrument and I found myself forced
to override my own bellowing sense of survival in order to shed less speed and turn in faster with each consecutive lap. It was continuing to goad me to go faster still when, 10 or more laps later, the radio crackled into life, summoning me back to the pits.
I felt aghast. It was over before I’d even got going. I needed a day with this thing before I would understand it enough to have a real go. And then I remembered what I was here for, and nibbling away at my personal best was not it. It was to gain the briefest insight into Aston’s latest racer and the one which, given only the luck that has deserted it in the last two years, will see Aston Martin once more come out on top at Le Mans.
With two other teams running the cars as well as Prodrive, there’s every chance of being third time lucky. If I were a betting man, I’d say this year was theirs.
Just by looking at the DBRS9, it’s hard to see why, at £175,000 ex-VAT, it should cost fully £300,000 less than a DBR9. After all, both have a 6-litre V12, a six-speed sequential gearbox and carbon-fibre bodywork. But look at the details and differences, too numerous to mention here, abound. In a nutshell, where the DBRS9 is a DB9 road car adapted to GT3 regulations, the DBR9 is a pure race car adapted to incorporate just enough of the DB9 to keep within the rules.
So while the DBR9 has carbon brakes, a dry sump, 600bhp motor and weighs 1100kg, the DBRS9 has iron brakes, 500bhp from its wet sump engine and tips the scales at 1280kg.
And it’s much more difficult to drive than the Le Mans car. It lacks the DBR9’s delicacy, balance and poise. While you know that the right way to drive the DBR9 is to work with it always, the temptation with the GT3 car is to fight it around the track. And it fights back. You don’t need the throttle to send the tail sliding: weight transference through a left-right flick will do it just as well, and if you’re not very precise with your heel and toe downshifts, you run a very good risk of locking the rear wheels.
It’s great fun in a savage kind of way, but easy it ain’t. So if you ever see someone racing a DBRS9 and feel inclined to think it’s merely a diluted, namby-pamby version of the real thing, think again. This is a car for hard nuts only; softies need not apply.
For less than half the price of a DBRS9, you can buy the Vantage N24, a car conceived for those who want to go endurance racing on a sensible budget in a production category with a car as near as dammit guaranteed to get sensible drivers through one 24-hour race after another without going wrong.
This yellow car has already been twice around the clock at both the Nürburgring and in Bahrain, as well as completing hundreds of laps elsewhere in testing, and its engine and gearbox felt nicely run in. And if you whip the slicks off, it’s also entirely road legal.
After the DB9s, it feels like a toy, so it’s easy to forget its power output is still on the interesting side of 400bhp and, with its short wheelbase and light V8 engine, it’s immensely chuckable. I drove it both before and after the DBRs and instead of seeming slow and rather boring after the 12-cylinder cars, it felt as much fun as the first time. Its handling is viceless, its road car brakes strong and, thanks to race pads, fade-free.
The sound of the V8 motor is relentlessly invigorating and its through-the-gears thrust entirely convincing. And it’s not slow: thanks to a complete absence of aerodynamic aids, the N24 was actually pulling a slightly higher speed at the end of the Mistral straight than the DBRS9.
For a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs looking to do a 24-hour race in something less predictable than a Porsche 911, I can think of nothing better. And it’s an Aston Martin.
Old Astons together
This is not the first time Motor Sport has put three quite different racing Astons on the same track together. A decade ago we did the same, but with the actual Le Mans-winning DBR1, the DB3S that came second in 1958 and Roy Salvadori’s famed Zagato, 1VEV. Willie Green was our guest driver for the day and Silverstone the venue.
Ten years on, my strongest recollections of the day were the shocking speed of the DBR1, which was and still is kept in tip-top racing condition, how little different to a road Aston the Zagato felt, and how utterly at home I felt in the DB3S.
The DBR1 was intimidating, thanks to its tricky gearbox, raw power, unthinkable value and
no-nonsense handling. It was a car that would take a great deal of time to become accustomed to, time we did not have. By contrast, I felt happy to drive the DB3S hard almost from the first lap. Everything about the car felt easier and more intuitive than the DBR1 and, while clearly slower over a lap, it still felt explosively quick in a straight line.
By contrast the Zagato felt out of its depth on the track and it was not difficult so see why it provided so little opposition to the Ferrari 250GTOs in particular. It was the kind of car you’d want to drive quickly down a decent country road, not hammer as hard as possible around a race track. Beautiful, characterful and great to listen to though it was, the feeling it gave was of a road car that had been mildly modified for track use. By contrast, the DBR1 and DB3S were racers through and through. Of them all, it was the DB3S I fell in love with that day and though that love remains unrequited, a decade down the line my memory of it remains undimmed.