Aston Martin returns to La SarthePost-war sports car racing was all about Le Mans. The races that made up the championship calendar were important and national pride was on display. However, an outright and overall victory in Les 24 Heures was for life. The '50s were an almost mystical time at La Sarthe. Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes, even Talbot Lago got the main honors. Aston Martin closed out the decade with a stunning victory 50 years ago with a DBR1 driven by Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori. The legendary John Wyer, who was later to lead the Gulf-livered Ford GT-40 and Porsche 917 efforts, managed the David Brown team. Now, under the guidance of David Richards and Prodrive, Aston Martin Racing, along with the sponsorship of Gulf, will run in the top LMP1 class with hopes of winning it all. Again.
David Richards C.B.E.: A Sporting Manner
What happens when you major in accountancy and want to go rallying? Being David Richards would be one way to pull it off. After sharing the World Rally Championship title in 1981, Richards embarked on a mission that resulted in the formation of Prodrive, with numerous successes leading up to the chairmanship of Aston Martin. Even with the huge amount of employees and projects throughout the world, it all starts with David Richards.
EC: Given the state of the world economy, this is a brave move for a small firm. So we have to ask, how much of this is emotion-driven given the significance of Aston Martin's win at Le Mans 50 years ago?
DR: There is no question that the 50th anniversary of Aston Martin's win at LeMans was an influencing factor in us going ahead with an LMP1 entry this year.However, our plans for racing have always had to be carefully balanced against the funds available as the program is financed by Aston Martin Racing.
EC: When did you first consider to taking Aston Martin into LMP1? Were there any plans on running the American Le Mans Series or shaking the car down at the 12 Hours of Sebring?
DR: Last year's LMP1 entry by Charouz Racing was a precursor to our plans for this year.We had alwaysconsidered that if last year's program ran smoothly we would try and raise thefunds toparticipate with a full Aston Martin team this year. It was originally hoped that the program would be signed off in good time so as to enter Sebring, but unfortunately this was not possible.There is, however, a hope that we will race in America later in the year.
EC: Given the disparity of the ACO rules since the diesel brigade debuted versus the gas boys, how has the lobbying been going to make a more even playing field for Le Mans?
DR: There is, in our view, still a significant performance advantage for the diesel engine cars. However, the ACO has been slowly adjusting the regulationsso as to reduce this advantage and the hope is that we will arrive at an even playing field in the near future.
EC: Was the choice of using an existing platform for the LMP1 simply one of financial constraints? It's not like you don't have the talent at Prodrive. If you are successful this year, could there be a full in-house car in the future?
DR: The decision to use the Lola chassis was based on our experience from last year coupled with both financial and time constraints in manufacturing a completely new car.We have carried out substantial modifications to the Lola chassis to accommodate the new technical regulations and a body shape that reflects Aston Martin styling.
EC: No doubt you hear this a lot; the Gulf colors are well known, especially through the John Wyer years with Ford and Porsche, so there is a tradition with British motorsport, but an Aston Martin effort that isn't in the traditional green?
DR: There are a fewiconic color schemes one associates with motorsport, but few will disagree that the Gulf colors, and especially their association with LeMans, are one of those that come to mind.I'm sure people will look back on the association of Aston Martin and Gulf as being one of the iconic images of 2009.
EC: GT1 is virtually non-existent except for Corvette, and fans all over the world miss the past battles between AM and GM. By running in the smaller categories such as GT2, GT3, and so on, doesn't this give the perception of not being able to run up front?
DR: It's easy to forget that Aston Martin is represented in all GT classes--GT1, 2, 3 and 4--unlike any other car manufacturer.We have chosen this year to focus our attention on the LMP1 program and leave GT2 participation to our customers.We have also been concentratinga lot of our development time on the new GT2 category, which is likely to be the dominant GT formula in the future.
EC: I want to mention Formula One. Aston Martin, unlike Jaguar, actually had an F1 car. From a branding point, many felt that Ford should have gone with AM instead of Jaguar; would you consider a possible AM-badged Prodrive effort?
DR: Our immediate priority for Aston Martin is, of course, the 24 hours of Le Mans, but there is no getting away from the fact that Formula One does dominate the world stage as far as motor racing is concerned.If the cost of participation were to reduce to an affordable level, then it is clearly something that neither Aston Martin nor Prodrive could ignore.
George Howard Chappell: A commitment to concentration
Aside from being a team principal, George Howard Chappell is the hugely creative technical director to which Aston Martin Racing owes a great deal of its success. GHC is always in motion.
EC: Given the longevity of your involvement, what makes for a successful racing team?
GHC: An intelligent, experienced, highly skilled group that is able to operate as a team, through the good and bad, and as a team we have experienced both. The win at Le Mans in 2007 was sweet after the bad luck of the two previous attempts.
EC: So much of motorsport is logistics and support, from processing data to gauging the weather. How will the LMP1 effort differ from the GT1 DBR9 with regards to preparation? Running up front with Audi and Peugeot has to be a major change.
GHC: The major difference is the technicallevel of the car. We already operated as a very professional team in GT1. Ofcourse, ultimately the level at which a team operates is hugely influenced by the available budget.
EC: It's one thing being a manufacturer with a huge budget, something else for a smaller firm. How difficult is it to maintain such a high standard?
GHC: Yes, it's always a challenge, but we have a very high standard at Aston Martin Racing and Prodrive and we maintain this standard through all our projects.You have to if you want to succeed.
EC: Has the increase in technology helped or hindered the basic premise of motorsport overall?Would you support a more simplified version for GT--is that the idea behind the GT4 Vantage as opposed to a DBR9?
GHC: In the case of Formula One I believe it is a little out of control.Simplification is a good thing depending on the budget and the level of competition. However, the technology should not be dumbed down to a level where manufacturers cannot use motorsport to showcase new technologies and demonstrate their effectiveness.
EC: Will you try to pace your drivers for Le Mans or will you give Tomas Enge the green light to go after the diesels? I can hear the laughter from Enge now.
GHC: We will run the race in our normal manner. We'll race hard but at a pace we believe we can maintain; to keep a car at ten-tenthsis difficult over 24 hours. It's almost like running a full season as a single race. To win Le Mans is a great achievement.
EC: I asked David Richards if there could be a possible Aston Martin-badged Formula One effort. Would you personally like to be back in F1 after having had great success in GT, or is LMP1 the mountain you still need to climb?
GHC: I spent time in F1 in the early '90s with Team Lotus soI have been there before. Of course, if a good opportunity arose I would be a fool not to be interested... but maybe after we have won in LMP1 at Le Mans.
EC: Testing at Paul Ricard is one thing, but with the loss of the official Le Mans test usually held weeks before the race, is it a particular hardship for you and the team?
GHC: It's the same for everybody [at Le Mans] and we're confident that we'll be ready come the middle of June.There is still much work to be done.
Tomas Enge: Ascending For Aston
Not many drivers get their start in pro racing in a Ford Fiesta. It's not what comes to mind when watching Tomas Enge aboard an Aston Martin DBR9. The popular Czech driver has broadened his resume from the Indianapolis 500 to the A1GP Series to winning GT1 at Le Mans, but Prodive is where he calls home. Now comes a new car for all the roses at La Sarthe.
EC: You are well known to fans of the ALMS as a fast and calculating driver. Aggressive but clean. A few years ago you had a bad accident and were sidelined for a number of races. On your return you had a series of incidents; in retrospect, do you feel that perhaps you pushed to return too quickly?
TE: Maybe I should have waited a little longer. I was so hungry to get back behind the wheel that I probably over-drove in some situations.
EC: How does the new LMP1 feel to you in racing conditions compared to your experience in A1GP, F3000, or Indy? Open-wheel compared to a pure prototype?
TE: The open-wheel cars are around 300 kilos lighter than the prototypes and the weight makes the biggest difference in handling, acceleration, and braking. The roof on the LMP1 car makes the driving experience more comfortable. The new Aston Martin is a step forward from last year's Charouz LMP1 that the team ran. It feels faster and easier to drive. I have a very good feeling with the new car.
EC: Prodrive has been almost a second home for you. Money isn't everything, so there has to be a good understanding between the engineers, mechanics and managers. How has this worked out for you?
TE: Prodrive is like family, George is like my second father. I've known most of the people on the team since 2002. I like all of the guys on the team, they work hard but they have fun and I really feel a part of the team.
EC: As you have already stood on the top step of the podium at Le Mans in the GT class, what would an overall win in the "big car" class mean for you personally?
TE: After my GT1 win at Le Mans and my fifth GT1 pole position, I said to myself the next goal is to fight for an overall win at Le Mans in LMP1. Thanks to Aston Martin I have the privilege to fight for this. Obviously I know it can take a long time before a new manufacturer/team can reach an outright victory. The competition is very tough in LMP1 but everyone here is doing the maximum to achieve this as soon as possible.
EC: Every driver has a routine preparing for a big race. How does Le Mans compare with, say, a round of the FIA GT or the ALMS? What do you do to be ready physically and mentally and will the move up to LMP1 require anything additional?
TE: For me there's no difference in preparation whether you're in LMP1 or GT1. [The objective] is to win the race in your class. Every battle at Le Mans is hard. Because there's only one Le Mans 24-hour race each year it is very special, and the driver and team are usually preparing for a long time technically, physically, and mentally for this specific race. My personal preparation includes trying to get enough rest and to be physically prepared, especially for the longer races.
Darren Turner: Going for gold at the '09 LMP1 Games
Darren Turner could very well be the poster boy for anyone aspiring to make a career as a racing driver. The school time spit and polish through the ranks of F1 testing with McLaren, the frequent flyer miles rolled up here and there, winning Sebring and of course, GT1 at La Sarthe. Turner has arrived and is ready for the big challenge of taking on the pride of the French and German manufacturers at Le Mans, Peugeot and Audi.
EC: It's a long way from 1992 and the Jim Russell School to LMP1 at La Sarthe. Many go through the process, few make it to the real world of motorsport. Any reflections on the journey?
DT: It's been an amazing adventure and I'm proud to have been able to turn a dream into a reality. There have been plenty of highs and lows along the way. I look back and think of it all as good experience. For me, winning the McLaren BRDC Autosport Young Driver of the Year in 1996 was the turning point as it introduced me to McLaren, and from there I turned professional.
EC: Most of your on-track battles have been in GT variants or touring cars, aside from the limited Daytona DP runs in Grand Am. The Aston LMP1 will be a departure as it is a true prototype. How much of an adjustment is this in real time, sharing the track with the types of cars you were previously driving? Now there will be traffic.
DT: All my sports car running has been in the GT classes and you do spend a large amount of time looking in your mirror, especially in GT2. Now that I've got a few laps under my belt in the LMP1 I've been really surprised how quickly you come upon the slower cars. I think my experience from the GT2 and GT1 classes has really helped me to better understand that the GT drivers are just as on the limit as the LMP1 drivers.
EC: Guy Smith spoke of the emotions of being a Brit in the winning Bentley at Le Mans. Do you share similar sentiments about being part of a British effort to win on the 50th anniversary of something that meant so much to David Brown and Aston Martin ?
DT: The main thing for me is being a British driver in an Aston Martin. It's a privilege to be a part of the team. I guess if you are an Italian driver you grow up wanting to drive for Ferrari. For a British driver the same can be said about Aston Martin. To be honest I'm not really thinking about the 50th anniversary right now; I'm just getting used to the new car and looking forward to the whole season--the highlight of which will be Le Mans.
EC: Describe a lap around Paul Ricard at speed in the LMP1 compared to a flyer of a lap in the DBR9. What are the major differences?
DT: The DBR9 has been my home for the last five years. Every time I strap myself in it feels right, completely natural. I don't feel at one with the new car just yet but I'm working on it. I need to improve the seating position, especially because of the increased g-forces I'm experiencing in the LMP1 car, it is much more important to be completely comfortable in the seat. Visibility is also completely different; you can see less in the LMP1 and you feel enclosed by the wheel arches. Acceleration is marginally better than the DBR9 but you get used to it very quickly. The biggest differences are the medium- and high-speed cornering abilities. The LMP1 feels incredible. The most impressive corner is at the end of the back straight; in the GT1 it's brake and shift down one gear, in the LMP1 it's sixth gear, a small throttle lift, and then back on the power.
EC: What has been the program for you to maintain your physical fitness? Audi sends its squad to camp for a workout and the budget for that would run a small team for a season. Does GHC have a structure in place for the drivers?
DT: I've been waiting for George to send us somewhere expensive for fitness training for the past five years! We've all had a fitness assessment this year by the fitness training people who are based at AMR Banbury. It is in our own interest to keep ourselves fit, but this year I have definitely stepped it up a gear and have employed a personal trainer to help get me in peak physical shape. I'm also [training to run] the London Marathon in April this year for MND (Motor Neuron Disease), which is also helping with my general fitness.