The all-new Vantage GTE had particularly large boots to fill at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Aston Martin Racing arrived at the prestigious endurance event as reigning champions of GTE Pro — the pinnacle for racecars based on road cars. Just a month before, the outgoing V12 Vantage GT3 had secured fourth place at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, Aston Martin’s best-ever result.

We joined the team trackside as the Vantage GTE prepared to race for the first time at 24 Hours of Le Mans, only six weeks after making its competitive debut at Spa-Francorchamps. Car #95 would be driven by Nicki Thiim, Marco Sørensen and Darren Turner. On the other side of the garage, Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Jonny Adam would split stints in car #97.

On the evening before the race, British driver Turner was full of praise for his Vantage GTE’s composure and balance. “It really allows us to attack the kerbs,” he said. “That was something we always wanted to improve with the previous model.” The Vantage had also run trouble-free during practice and qualifying sessions held the week before the race, unusual for such a new design. Nonetheless, both cars endured a relatively disappointing qualifying session,
placing 16th and 17th in class. 

Drivers and crew prepare for the gruelling race

Drivers and crew prepare for the gruelling race

Part of the issue lay with the “Balance of Performance”, or how the sport’s governing body adjusts each car’s weight and power. The idea is to level the playing field for competitors, but the Vantage seemed handicapped, particularly on the flat-out Mulsanne Straight. Even so, Turner remained upbeat 18 hours before the start. “It’s an impressive car and a long race — let’s see how we do,” he said.

The following day, guests enjoying the VIP package gathered in Aston Martin Racing’s three-storey hospitality area for a chance to meet the drivers and enjoy the exquisite food and drink, race simulators, live entertainment and even masseurs. Two large balconies afforded a perfect view to watch the racecars emerging from the Corvette Curves, braking hard into the Ford Chicanes and accelerating past the pits.

After a morning of action that included the Aston Martin Festival Race, 60 Le Mans competitors strained at the leash, creeping fractiously ahead of the rolling start. When the green flag waved, the entire hospitality area seemed to tingle and fizz with vibrations before the cars and their noisy shockwaves vanished; the circuit weaves over 8.5 miles of racetrack and closed public roads, meaning there are surprisingly large chunks of silence in the race’s earliest stages.

#95 heads into the pitbox to switch drivers

#95 heads into the pitbox to switch drivers

The Aston Martins settled into an early rhythm and we listened to the zooming into the braking zone right before us, downshifts punching in hard, revs flicking up as the turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 whooshed and crackled evocatively.

One hour in, we joined some of Aston Martin’s guests on a garage tour. The back of the garage was neatly arranged with replacement body panels, while hot air and a rubbery aroma seeped from a row of black tents that keep tyres pre-heated at 80°C. We tried to keep out of the way as mechanics bustled around, carrying parts and checking tyre pressures.

We watched as the sun dropped at Tertre Rouge, the cars streaking by in a blur of lights

At the front of the garage, mechanics in fireproof overalls relaxed in fold-away deckchairs, the two in red (to clearly identify the refuelling crew) standing out among colleagues in black. Cars roared past outside below the spectators in the packed grandstands opposite, but there was a sense of calm until, suddenly, everyone snapped to attention. Chairs were folded away, fireproof gloves grabbed and Turner stood ready, holding the seat insert that allows him to get the perfect driving position after taller teammate Thiim exits the car.

At exactly 4.40pm, Thiim roared into the pitbox, #95 was raised on air jacks and the swarm of activity resembled a magician’s distraction tactics — I only realised Turner had climbed into the car because it was driving down the pitlane with a throbby V8 rumble. The choreography was repeated minutes later, as Lynn took over from Adam. After five hours, 95 and 97 moved to 14th and 15th while the pack circulated under the safety car. We watched as the sun dropped at Tertre Rouge, the cars streaking by in a blur of lights, running as much kerb as possible to gather top speed on the crucial Mulsanne Straight.

The cool night air seemed to bring out the best in the Vantage GTE and by the early hours of the morning, 95 had risen to ninth place and 97 to 14th. When we blearily retired to our tents, the noise was still swirling cacophonously around the campsite. It was like being repeatedly dive-bombed by a squadron of Spitfires and even earplugs provided little respite. I felt I was barely functioning as a human being, yet the drivers continued to perform faultlessly throughout.

#97 on the race track

The Aston Martins managed to carry their momentum through to daybreak, but at around 9.30am car #97 reported a loss of oil pressure. Forty-five minutes ticked frustratingly by in the pits, but it’s a credit to the team that they solved the problem and got the racer back on track. It continued to lap at a good pace and 24 hours after the race started, it clinched 14th in class; a penalty for a rival later upgraded them to 13th. Not the result they wanted, but just surviving here in such a new car is mightily impressive.

Turner and co, however, hauled themselves to ninth and the Aston Martin Racing team leaned over the pitwall and applauded as Sørensen took the chequered flag. The best-placed Vantage GTE also gained a place post-race, officially securing eighth. It’s a great result at such an early stage in the Vantage GTE’s life cycle. Turner says he’s “confident we can make good progress as we develop the car”. Meanwhile, Aston Martin Racing president David King pledged that the team won’t rest until it can fight again for victory in the most gruelling endurance race on Earth. 

But for this correspondent, a little rest seemed like a great idea.

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