Taming the Dane Train

Aston Martin’s all-conquering GTE is a one-way ticket to exhilaration – just make sure you have your braking boots on

Chassis #004, or the ‘Dane Train’ as it’s known to the Aston Martin Racing team and loyal fans alike, is the most successful Aston race car of them all. With nine World Endurance Championship (WEC) GTE class wins, a Le Mans class victory in 2014 and two GTE world titles for drivers – the first as a GTE Am car in 2014, then having been uprated to GTE Pro spec for Danish duo Marco Sørensen and Nicky Thiim in 2016 – no other modern Aston GT racer comes close.

After repeated rebuilds and upgrades this potentially makes it the car equivalent of Trigger’s Broom (search it on YouTube if you’re none the wiser), but the car’s core has been in action throughout (even during a quick inversion at Spa last year, when Thiim was tagged mid-corner by an LMP2 car and sent spinning into – and tumbling out of – the tyre wall). Factor in the added emotional weight of racing in the memory of Allan Simonsen, Sørensen and Thiim’s compatriot who was tragically killed at Le Mans in 2013, and the Dane Train is a true warrior.

In recent WEC seasons the otherworldly LMP1 cars have hogged the limelight, but the road-based (albeit loosely) GTE category is hotly contested by sexy, highly evolved machines. GTE has also been embellished by the resumption of some classic rivalries, most notably that of Ford and Ferrari. Add the ever-potent Porsche threat and Aston’s long-running Le Mans foe Corvette and you have some sense of GTE’s calibre and intensity.  

Until last season the V8 GTE car looked very similar to the V12-powered GT3, but this outward resemblance belied myriad differences under the skin. In 2016 the GTE regs changed, allowing a major aerodynamic upgrade that left little if any commonality between the GTE and GT3 bodywork. Even bigger changes were made beneath, the GTE Vantage now generating much more of its downforce via the floor and a colossal rear diffuser. It might not look like an old-school ‘low-drag’ car designed for Le Mans, but compared to the GT3 car, which relies on a barn door-sized rear wing, that’s exactly what it is.

Of course all things are relative. Compared with the super-slippery mid-engined Ford GT and to a lesser extent the Ferrari 488 GTB, the front-engined Vantage remains something of a battleship, but it’s the diversity of cars that makes the GTE category so interesting to fans like us.

Which brings us neatly to the Balance of Performance, or ‘BoP’, which contrives to level the playing field between what are essentially disparate machines. It’s a much-maligned system in some quarters, but Aston is pragmatic and more than ready to accept it’s a necessary evil. As team manager Paul Diggins says with a wry smile: “When you’re winning BoP is just about spot on, but when you’re losing it’s the first thing you tend to moan about. It’s all part of the game, and on the whole you’d have to say it works pretty well.”

To try to avoid the situation where teams hold back in the early races, only to suddenly ‘find‘ a load of pace at Le Mans, for this year the Le Mans BoP has already been set. That should mean all the GTE teams run hot from the opening round of WEC at Silverstone in April, but with Porsche using its new mid-engined 911 in WEC for the first time there might still be some surprises. Like everything at world championship level, the trick (if you can call it such) is to play a smart hand of cards. With GTE homologation lasting two years it’s critical to have a car with latent potential; a car that can raise its game as rivals raise theirs. Rock-up to the WEC Prologue with a car that’s been completely optimised and the cupboard will be bare well before you get into the second season.

The two big changes for the 2017 campaign are a shift to what’s referred to as ‘automatic BoP’ and a reduction in tyre allocation from six sets of slicks to four across a race weekend. Speaking to AMR boss John Gaw it’s clear the changes in tyre allocation will place added pressure on drivers and team strategists alike, though exactly what the effect will be is at present the big unknown: “GTE has become a tyre war more than anything else. BoP restricts the advances and therefore the advantages you can gain through improving the hardware, so tyres are the biggest area of difference. We took the decision to switch from Michelin to Dunlop last year, which was a big step. That meant we had a tough couple of races at the start of the season (Silverstone and Spa), but Dunlop made good progress for Le Mans, and then some really big progress for the latter half of the season. They were vital in winning the title.”

To give you an idea of just how tight things are at the pointy end of GTE, and why each of WEC’s six-hour races are nothing less than flat-out sprints, if a driver drops just a few seconds in an entire stint it seriously compromises their race. And all this while dealing with LMP1s coming through and poorly driven LMP2 cars potentially getting in your way. That’s pressure with a capital P. 

Thankfully for me there’ll be none of that today, although there’s something extra special about being allowed to test a car with championship-winning provenance. Extra trust on the team’s part, extra weight on my shoulders. And then there’s the whole cult of the Dane Train. Like its drivers Thiim and Sørensen, it has a big personality. Even in a pit lane exclusively populated by Astons, from Vantage GT4s, assorted GT3s and GTEs, and a solitary and utterly spectacular Vulcan, it’s the star; the car you’re drawn to while maintaining a respectful distance. To drive it you either need to be worthy, or lucky. Right now I consider myself very, very lucky.

Portimão is a big, ballsy circuit. Packed with blind crests, plunging compressions, a long straight and some properly committed corners, it’s got a rare mix of character, flow and technical challenge. Bluntly, the pucker factor is high, which is rare for a 21st century facility.

Looking almost as wide as it is long, the Sterling Green Vantage is squat and beautifully bulked-up. Its lines are smoother, the aero more evolved, the detailing (particularly those yellow centrally mounted lights in the grille) eye-catching and evocative. The carbon door still swings up and out like that of the road car, but it’s a fraction of the weight and opens to reveal a less than plush interior. The cockpit looks dark and confined, but once you’ve slotted yourself through the aperture between the reassuringly sturdy roll cage and dropped into the seat it’s not as claustrophobic as it first looks.

You sit low, so much so that none of the nose is visible, but the door mirrors (now perched on sleek wing sections) give a better than expected view down each flank, with the conventional rear-view mirror supplemented by a LCD screen for the rear-facing camera. The steering wheel, or rather the steering rectangle, has a dozen or more buttons controlling radio, pit limiter, wipers, neutral selector, plus brightly coloured rotary controls for fuel mixture, engine maps, traction control and something mysteriously labelled ‘Pro’. I’m hoping this makes journalists drive like one, but disappointingly it’s actually another layer of the traction control system. The centre console houses secondary controls, such as the lights, air-conditioning, ignition toggle and starter button.

Once I’m strapped in, the AMR crew pushes the wheel-less Dane Train from the garage into the pit lane on its trolley before bringing out a pre-heated set of Dunlop slicks. The clonk of wheels on centre-lock splines and the clatter of wheel guns break the silence, followed by the sharp hissss-clonk-hissss-clonk as the front and rear air jacks are bled in turn and the car nods down onto the tarmac. 

It’s at this point things feel very serious and your mouth goes dry. All that remains is to reach across to the ignition toggle and flick it down to its lowest position, depress the clutch (it is team protocol for the car to be started in gear), press the small green starter button with no throttle applied, let the V8 thump into life, squeeze a few revs, feed in the surprisingly friendly ZF Sachs Racing clutch and pull away.

Trundling down Portimão’s long pit lane on the 60kph speed limiter you feel a powerful mix of elation and intimidation. The former because you’re out on your own in a factory Aston Martin WEC car; the latter because, erm, you’re out on your own in a factory Aston Martin WEC car. It really is a surreal calm before a once-in-a-lifetime storm.

I’ve got 10 precious laps in which to try to get a flavour of the car, explore its performance – or at least try to scratch the surface – and attempt to say something meaningful to the battery of GoPros mounted around the car for an upcoming video on the Motor Sport YouTube channel. It’s quite a lot for the Meaden CPU to deal with, so it’s a relief to find the GTE Vantage is a simple machine to operate, if not to exploit fully.

Apart from leaving and stopping in the pits you don’t touch the clutch. The gearbox (an Xtrac six-speed sequential) is operated by paddle shifters attached to the back of the wheel – left for downshifts, right for up in the usual manner. The steering is power-assisted; light, but with a useful sense of connection so you have some feel for the front end. Once you’ve inadvertently leant clumsily on the traction control out of one of the tighter corners in the early part of the lap, you can start to build a patchy, low-definition picture of the car’s balance and reactions.

Even with a crash helmet on the noise in the cockpit drenches you in decibels. The V8 engine is dry-sumped and mounted lower and further back in the chassis than the road car. GTE rules oblige it to share its basic architecture with the production engine, plus the basic block, cylinder heads and crankshaft, but that leaves AMR plenty to go at. 

This much is clear as soon as you hear and feel it in action. As you might expect AMR is cagey about precise power and torque outputs, but quotes ‘in excess’ of 480bhp and 500Nm (about 370lb ft) of torque. If the sound it makes is any gauge of performance it’s good for every last brake horsepower and lb ft: its war cry hammering from side-exit exhausts that pass through the left- and right-hand sills and exit just ahead of the rear wheels. 

Laid over this bassy soundtrack is the melancholy, serrated whine of the sequential transmission, the pitch of which increases relentlessly as the V8’s revs rise. Timing the upshifts perfectly relies on you just waiting for the final two shift lights to blink blue, each pull of the right-hand paddle delivering a whip crack gearchange. Downshifts are just as punchy, never more so than when you clack-clack-clack down into a low gear as you pile into one of Portimão’s numerous big braking areas. 

The brakes are the biggest departure from the GT3 Vantage, or indeed the Vantage road car. Not in terms of hardware – massive Brembo calipers grab colossal vented cast iron discs with Pagid RS pads – but because GTE cars don’t have ABS. This immediately sows seeds of doubt in your mind because you know there’s nothing to tidy-up your mistakes. It’s a bit daft, because as regular Dane Train driver Sørensen tells me later, it’s pretty much impossible to lock the brakes into the high-speed braking areas, as is often the case with high-downforce cars.

The difficulty, particularly when you’re coming cold to a car of the GTE Vantage’s stature, is the sheer physicality of the braking. You really do hit them hard. And I mean hard. Whether you use your right or left foot is down to you. Sørensen and Thiim are both southpaws, but Turner and Adam both use their right feet. Perversely I never normally use my left foot, but I actually find it easier to hit the pedal with the necessary 80 to 100lbs of pressure required to really work the vast discs and calipers to their optimum. After a full race stint I suspect I’d need both feet to muster the necessary poundage.

The first trio of laps goes in a bit of a blur, so it’s worth jumping out and letting my senses catch up. A look at my data trace overlaid with Thiim’s best from earlier that day is predictably humbling – the mountainous peaks and almost vertical descents of the former’s speed trace contrasting with my own tentative efforts.

I’m glad I took a time-out as the second out-flier-and-in laps feel better, especially through the quick corners, where I really begin to feel the Vantage come alive as it squeezes itself down into the track surface. Where the V12 GT3 feels nose-heavy and reluctant (relatively speaking) to change direction, the GTE feels much more agile and athletic, even though there’s very little between their dry weights. It’s an easier machine to place where you want it, but this precision puts more pressure on you to point it consistently in exactly the right direction in order to maximise its potential. If the V12 GT3 is a fine 12-gauge game gun, the V8 GTE is a hunting rifle.

Speaking to Sørensen about racing the V8 Vantage, he says its front-engined layout means it doesn’t quite have the traction of its mid-engined rivals out of the slow- and medium-speed corners. The art of making it go well is to use the traction control, but only just, so it never truly intervenes. This clearly requires commitment but also tremendous finesse, and is definitely not a case of planting your foot and letting the traction control juggle torque against available grip. Or rather it could do, but you’d be woefully off the pace.

By the time my final run of four laps begins I’ve started to get a sense of what I should be doing, even if I can’t quite summon the courage or skill to do so. The Vantage GTE doesn’t seem to mind. In fact it seems a very generous sort, trying to tell me what it needs without hanging me out to dry when I make a slightly ham-fisted effort. This is reassuring when you’ve been parachuted in for a brief yet vivid taster, but it also throws a spotlight on the stint-long pressure Gaw was describing. Like any precision instrument it will only deliver its absolute best when driven by someone who can operate at the same level. This clearly takes some doing.

Knowing that level is some way beyond mine I try to put my learning into practice, but also savour the experience. Perhaps because of this conscious decision to relax a little, my last laps feel the best. They’re the quickest, too. Still a mile off Thiim, but that was always going to be the case. What’s rewarding is I’ve begun to join the dots and at least feel like I’m stringing the beginnings of a lap together: braking deeper and harder (but still not deep or hard enough) into the corners, taking a squarer, more geometric line, then picking up the throttle earlier and more smoothly to avoid shoulder charging quite so hard into the traction control. It’s an absorbing and hugely enjoyable process. One that’s a bit like learning to drive again; the data-driven contemporary challenge of slicks, wings and absurdly effective brakes completely at odds with the more freeform, expressive techniques required when racing historics.

I won’t lie, bringing the Vantage GTE safely back to the pits is a mighty relief, but it’s also a brutal comedown. In the deafening silence that comes immediately after snuffing the fast-idling engine there’s just enough time to sit and savour the moment, gently perspiring and catching some breath as the significance and magic of the last 10 laps sinks in. Then the driver’s door is pulled open and fresh, cool air floods in. 

Test over. Spell broken.