I have a love-hate relationship with Le Mans,” says the affable Dan Sayers, Technical Director of Aston Martin Racing. He sighs, but he’s smiling, too, and the toll that the 24-hour endurance race takes on participating teams is clear. “It is quite often the worst week of the year,” he continues. “It is the biggest test you can have: you are up against all the GT manufacturers that do endurance racing and it’s just brutal. These days, it’s no longer an endurance race: it is a 24-hour sprint race. It used to be that you could slow the pace down… now you’ve just got to sprint the whole thing: literally seconds make the difference over 24 hours. Absolutely unbelievable. It’s a very high-duty circuit for the engines so everything gets a thorough pounding.”
Last year, Aston Martin finally came away with class honours, after trying since 2012. Yet that glorious victory came in the last year of racing a five-year-old race car — rather than in the brand new 2018 Vantage GTE — proving beyond any doubt the unrivalled expertise of the drivers and engineers at Aston Martin Racing (AMR).
“Aston Martin always has raced; it always will race,” declared Andy Palmer, CEO of Aston Martin, in case anyone was in any doubt. “Someone needs to carry that torch,” he said at the time, “and we use the Vantage to do that.”
The brand new 2018 Vantage road car was launched to the public at the end of 2017 to critical acclaim for its bold, clean design. Vitally, the Vantage GTE race car was unveiled alongside it, sending out a very clear message that road and track will forever be intimate bedfellows at Aston Martin, a heritage that stretches all the way back to Lionel Martin’s conquering run up the Aston Hill Climb in 1914.
And so the new Vantage GTE heads into the 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) — of which Le Mans is perhaps the most famous race — with high hopes. “Everyone is very excited about this year,” says Sayers. “The old car did a great job, but it was on the limit for power and weight. Ferrari, Ford and Porsche all had new cars, but we had a car that was fundamentally five years old. So to have a brand-new car from the ground up has been a real buzz for everyone in the team. To go out having won Le Mans, the intention is to go back and win the championship. We honestly believe we can do it with the car. It’s shown promise in testing. Racing is obviously very different — you are sure to find issues you did not find in testing, but we’re as confident as we can be at this point.”
This is great news for all Aston fans. The Vantage GTE has been developed alongside the road car, with track informing road and road informing track. “It’s really important that we design simultaneously both road car and track car,” explains Andy Palmer. “One gives to the other and takes from the other.” That’s intriguing; we all know about race technology filtering down to road cars — look at Ferrari or McLaren in Formula One — but rarely does a manufacturer talk about the road car informing the track car.
Dan Sayers explains: “Any improvements Aston Martin makes on the production car generally are an improvement to us [Aston Martin Racing] on the race car”, he says.“A good example is that the production car has a new body shell — the manufacturing method is different, which increases the stiffness of the body shell (the aluminium body shell used to be predominantly extrusions and now it’s more pressings, but that’s made massive differences to its stiffness)
and that’s carried straight across to the race car, so the improvements they make, we benefit from.
“And likewise, things that we find — any durability issues, the technology that goes into our cars — we can feed back to Aston. And that’s probably been the nicest thing in this project — the collaboration between Aston Martin and ourselves has been much greater than it has before. They’re just up the road. You end up with a better product — we can make a fast car and they’re very good at making them look nice. So they had a lot of input into the bodywork, where they will breathe on something we’ve done for a day or two and it will come back looking stunning. [Chief designer] Marek Reichman’s team work across both. It helps us all buy into the product.”
How, though, does AMR take the road car and manage to build an entire race car essentially on a computer, then send it out on to the track just for testing? The new Vantage GTE has spent even more time in CAD form than its predecessor. “We extended the design period so that we could design a better car. The success of the car is made in the design phase,” explains Sayers. “You design a bad car and it’s very hard to bring it back, so we extended the design period and we condensed the testing period, the theory being that we’d have a more reliable car and fewer issues with it if we spent longer designing it. But the downsides were that if there were any issues, the test programme would have been very compromised. It paid dividends, though, and we didn’t have any huge issues — obviously you’ll always get small issues, but nothing major. We’ve already racked up 13,500 test kilometres on it. That’s like over a season’s worth of racing already, so that’s really good.”
One limitation set by the road car, surely, has been the ultra-simple surfaces of the new Vantage, with no slats, vents, grilles, spoilers or frippery in sight. The engine is a hot vee, so you wouldn’t want air escaping through bonnet slats, but what about heat management for the Vantage GTE during a race?
“Primarily, the cooling is one of the first things we set out the parameters for because if you don’t have enough cooling you’re in trouble,” says Sayers. “We knew that the way the turbos are positioned directly in front of the bulkhead and driver could have caused some heat issues under the bonnet, with melting wiring looms or the heat going directly into the cockpit and the driver getting too hot and exhausted.
That's what's good about this - the base chassis is the same, the base engine is the same
“So we took precautions. We didn’t want to upset the airflow, so didn’t want to introduce air cooling. We wrapped the turbine of the turbos, wrapped the exhaust with a heat shield, making sure that any heat went out through the exhausts or was encapsulated in that part. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of managing that. We haven’t got any forced airflow on any of the parts and we seem to have it contained.
“That’s what’s good about the partnership between road and race cars — the base chassis is the same, the base engine is the same.”
And that’s why the public keep returning year after year to Le Mans and to endurance racing: to see the cars they buy race at full throttle round a track. Only the brave would bet against Sayers and his team lifting that trophy again this year.
Aston Martin Racing is proud to announce its latest signing, 31-year-old GT and DTM ace Maxime Martin. He has been in AMR’s sights since 2010, when he provided strong competition for AMR behind the wheel of a Ford GT in the FIA GT1 World Championship.
Racing runs in his family — his father Jean-Michel Martin is a four-time Spa 24 Hours winner. Maxime’s own career began in the Mini Cooper Challenge, which he won in 2005 before successfully racing single seaters and in the Megane Trophy and the Clio Cup France. He made his Le Mans debut in 2011, finishing seventh overall in the Marc VDS Lola Aston Martin DBR1-2.
From 2013, Maxime was a BMW factory driver and a familiar face around the world in GT series races and in the German DTM Championship. “We are delighted to welcome Maxime to the team,” says Paul Howarth, AMR Team Principal. “He is an exceptionally talented GT driver and he is the perfect addition to our high-calibre driver line-up.”
“I am honoured to take the next step with this great manufacturer,” Maxime says. “It’s a new challenge for me, especially with the race debut of the new Vantage GTE. I have competed at Le Mans three times before, but to come back again next year as an official Aston Martin Racing driver is an amazing feeling.”