Decades in the making: Darren Turner on Daytona 24 win with Aston Martin

Sports Car News

Aston Martin finally won at Daytona, 59 years after its first attempt, with veteran Darren Turner among the team. "It's something that I think nearly every driver dreams of," he tells Damien Smith

Darren Turner puts helmet on during 2023 Daytona 24 Hours

A three-time class winner at Le Mans, Darren Turner hadn't won the Daytona 24 Hours until this year

Aston Martin

So how’s that Rolex Daytona suiting you? “It’s a bit big!” chuckles Darren Turner as he drives home from the airport following a spectacular weekend at the Daytona 24 Hours. “I’ve got to get it adjusted, it’s hanging off my wrist. But it’s such an amazing watch.”

At 48, Turner’s had a long wait to earn himself the prize every sports car racer covets. In truth at this stage of his life, most of us thought a win in American’s biggest sports car race had probably passed him by. The long-time factory Aston Martin racer remains as infatuated with his sport as ever, but naturally at his age the top opportunities have begun to dry up. Which is why his part in Aston’s astonishing GTD victory in the Florida classic last weekend makes it all the sweeter. It’s always great when one of the good guys lands a ‘major’.

Make no mistake, this is a big one and not just for Turner. Aston Martin has been trying to land a win at Daytona since the marque first headed to the Florida tri-oval in 1964 with Roy Salvadori on the driving strength, and finally nearly 60 years later it has one, thanks to the efforts of the Heart of Racing team. Run by British expat Ian James, who Turner raced against nearly 30 years ago in UK Formula Renault, the team’s Vantage GT3 pulled off an astonishing feat: not only did it conquer the GTD class, it also beat all of the GTD Pro entries to be the first non-prototype across the line – with two of its four drivers officially graded as silvers, and one of whom is effectively operating as a bronze, according to Darren.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting us to be a frontrunner,” admits Turner. “Competitive, yes, but not a frontrunner. It was only when we got to the Roar [Before the 24, at which the grid was decided a week before the race] that we could start to see our pace and what other people were doing. You never know really who’s doing what because of the games everyone plays at that stage of the week. But it felt pretty good.”

Aston Martin Vantage on Daytona banking in 2023

GTD Aston Martin Vantage finished ahead of all GTD Pro entries

Aston Martin

The ex-McLaren Formula 1 test driver was delighted when James invited him back on board, especially so when he realised they’d be in the running. “I have to say the car has moved on a lot from last year in terms of balance and performance,” says Darren, for whom this was a fourth consecutive appearance at Daytona with the team. “That for me was the biggest change, just how much more confidence I had in the car into Turn 1 when you come off the banking, which is quite tricky. On the brakes last year it was a bit wild, but now everything had calmed down – a really big step forward in drivability. So we came away from the Roar thinking we’re actually looking quite strong. At least if people get things wrong and we get everything right we should have a chance. But you don’t really think much further ahead than that with 24-hour races because so much can happen.”

As it was, silver-graded Canadian Roman De Angelis qualified the car within the top 10 and the team settled nicely into the race, thanks largely to the team owner. Big respect to Ian James, says Darren.

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“The main priority for the first half of the race was to get all of Ian’s hours in the car done,” he explains. “Being the bronze driver – he’s officially a silver, but effectively a bronze these days – he had to do four and a half hours. So that was the main target. The way it played out, he ended up doing a really long couple of stints. Then from that moment on he was on the pit wall with the guys as team owner, and he never left. He was helping with strategy and managing everything. It’s quite amazing to see him flip the switch from being a driver to then taking on the responsibility of being the team owner.”

Turner, who qualifies as a gold these days, says platinum-graded Dane Marco Sørenson and De Angelis did “the lion’s share” of the work – a typically humble admission. But then he adds his own cockpit time added up to “around five and half, six hours” – which obviously equate to around a quarter of the 24 hours, so hardly insubstantial. “There was just one minor hiccup when Marco was in the car and it just shut down momentarily, so that caused a huge panic. But that was rectified and we lost about 40 seconds. I jumped in after him and we managed to claw a little bit back. That was the only real drama and strategy was as good as you could ever wish in a 24-hour race. The Heart of Racing guys always react correctly to every sort of curveball. It was really exciting.”

The Vantage finished a couple of seconds clear of the GTD Pro-winning Mercedes-AMG GT3 of Jules Gounon, Maro Engel, Daniel Juncadella – three platinums – and silver-graded Cooper MacNeil. “It was a really super achievement,” says Turner with pride. “The pros don’t have that compromise [of having a driver who must complete a certain number of hours]. They just rattle through the driver rotation. We had to play the game.”

So how does it feel, especially at his age? “I’m super-excited about the win and to walk away with a Rolex Daytona. It is something that I think nearly every driver dreams of, but now that I’ve got it and experienced winning it, it’s actually better than I ever thought it could be. I’m really delighted with the whole weekend.”

The victory is a landmark, in more ways than one. At six years old, the Vantage GT3 is knocking on for a contemporary racing car, yet thanks to the efforts of its customer teams around the world Aston boasts holding the World Endurance Championship, class victory at Le Mans, an IMSA title and now a Daytona crown all at the same time. “What it has achieved in the three categories  – GT3, GT4 and GTE – is quite staggering for a small manufacturer when it’s up against the sort of the might of Mercedes and Porsche,” says Turner. “Everyone at Prodrive and Aston Martin can be very proud. It’s a joint venture in terms of producing these cars, getting them out there and being competitive. This car has now been around for five years and it’s still able to produce the goods.”

Winning Aston Martin team in GT class at 2023 Daytona 24 Hours

From left Sørenson, James, De Angelis and Turner celebrate victory

Aston Martin

But what’s next for Turner? “After this weekend, I actually don’t know what other races I’ve got,” he admits. “I know I’ve got some historic stuff with the Goodwood Members’ Meeting and the Revival, and I’m racing a pre-war Aston at Le Mans Classic. But I don’t have anything in British GT this year. So if this is the only big race I get, then I’m super-happy.”

Modest to a fault, Turner has added a Daytona class win to his three GT victories at Le Mans. He’s also tasted class success at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, but plays those down – when others certainly wouldn’t! But he admits another tilt at the Spa 24 Hours is now back on his mind, in a bid to complete the set.

“I’ve got lots of friends of a similar age who have been racing at the same level as me and they make a clear decision: ‘I’m retiring.’” he reflects. “It’s a clear line. For me, I’m really involved with Aston Martin on the road car projects such as the Valkyrie, plus other specials. It keeps me extremely busy – I did over 100 days in the last year, just on road car stuff. But I enjoy racing. I haven’t lost the love for being in a race car, which is why I do some of the older stuff because there’s the enjoyment in driving something different.

“I can’t imagine actually ever saying I’m retiring from racing, I can’t see that on the horizon. And if that means I’m only doing one or two races a year, OK, that’s fantastic. If that is what the situation is, I’m not worried, I’ll go with the flow. That’s the nice thing, I’m not trying to climb up some ladder. I’m very happy with everything that I’ve done, the opportunities I’ve been given and all the cars I’ve had a chance to race.

“I’ve had a lot of luck and an amazing time – and I’m not drawing a line under it. I’m just happy now to go along with whatever crops up.”

He’s always been blessed with a healthy attitude to life. How great to hear Darren Turner is not yet done with racing – and to his delight, it’s clearly not yet done with him either.