Aston Martin chases Le Mans victory


It’s official: Aston Martin is heading back to Le Mans in an audacious attempt to take an overall win, exactly 50 years after its one and only victory in the 24-hour classic. In a low-key unveiling of the project in London on Monday night, Aston’s chief executive officer Dr Ulrich Bez and chairman David Richards revealed details of the LMP1 prototype which will carry the livery of arguably the most famous sponsor in motor racing history, Gulf Oil.

An ebullient Dr Bez did not shy away from the ambition to “win Le Mans” this year. “We are brave, we know our skills, we are a great team,” he said. “We have at least a chance to come out with something special.”

Richards was equally enthusiastic, but tempered his ambitions by admitting to the challenge they face. “How can we be so audacious to go to Le Mans and take on the benchmark teams with their turbo-diesels?” he asked. “Well, 50th anniversaries don’t come around very often, and we didn’t want to sit here after the event and say ‘why didn’t we have a go?’.”

Richards made it clear that the bid typifies the “British spirit”, but with only five months until the race he admitted the project is a “leap of faith”, that this is a “David versus Goliath” exercise. “We’re not being presumptuous about what we can achieve,” he added. “But we’ve got to give it a go.”

The team has lodged entries for three cars, although so far only the budget for two has been confirmed. The car will be an evolution of the Lola chassis that made its debut under the Charouz Racing banner at Le Mans last year, and will be powered once again by Aston’s emotive V12. Styling work has been key to the development of the prototype to ensure the coupe hints at Aston Martin’s road car range, while taking nothing away from the speed of the car.

Team manager George Howard-Chappell admitted that the 2008 race, in which the Aston-powered Charouz Lola proved the fastest petrol car at Le Mans, had been a “toe-in-the-water exercise”. He explained that successful lobbying of the ACO to adjust the technical regulations had pegged back the advantage of the turbo diesels.

“The diesels have been given a 10 per cent restriction on power output,” he said. “We have also been handicapped three per cent because of our speed last year, but that means we are seven per cent better off than last year in terms of our disadvantage. How that will pan out we don’t know.”

Along with Le Mans, Aston Martin will also run a full programme in the Le Mans Series, starting at Barcelona on April 5, and will have further opportunities to race at the Le Mans Bugatti circuit and Spa before the 24 Hours itself. But with the car only scheduled to run for the first time in early March at the pre-season Paul Ricard test, and with the traditional Le Mans test weekend being cancelled this year, the team is facing a tough challenge to be race-fit for the big enduro.

Aston’s GT1-winning ace Darren Turner (below) heads the driver line-up, joined by Prodrive favourite Tomas Enge. Jan Charouz and Stefan Mucke, who raced the Charouz Lola last year, have also been signed up, along with team newcomer Harold Primat. A sixth driver has yet to be confirmed, and if the team is successful in raising the budget for a third car three more seats will be up for grabs.

So what chance a repeat of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby’s 1959 victory in DBR1? Well, it’s a long shot to say the least. Audi’s new R15s and Peugeot’s 908s will have to hit trouble for the Astons to really stand a chance. As Richards said, “this is not something any sane group of people would do.” But you have to admire the ambition, and the ‘have a go’ spirit that surrounds Aston Martin in these difficult economic times. And it’s certainly given the 50,000 British Le Mans faithful something to cheer about come June 13-14 this year.

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