FINE DAY FOR ASTON MARTIN RACING
I flew to Le Mans fully convinced the Aston Martin Racing team had made a significant tactical mistake during the official pre-race test. The legendary marque had showed too much speed, I reckoned, by leading the GTE Pro and Am classes with its V8-powered Vantages, and were duly assessed weight penalties for the race. For the Pro cars, 10 kilos were added, while the Am entries received an additional 20kg of ballast, but by the end of Thursday night's qualifying session, the British cars had managed to overcome their leaden limitation, scoring pole in both classes.
Factory AMR driver Darren Turner, who qualified second in the Pro division, attributed the team's return to strong form – after the failed AMR-ONE LMP1 project brought the team to the brink of collapse in 2011 – to the thorough refocusing that's gone on since those troubled days.
“I think that Aston Martin Racing has always been good at punching above their weight with the funds that come in and how the program is financed is a lot different than other manufacturers,” he told RACER. “And they have to cut the cost to suit the job at hand, but they always do a very good job. I think there was a time where we tried to do very ambitious things recently, but now we've come back to a more prioritized approach to what the company is known for.”
AMR's wins at Le Mans with the glorious V12-powered DBR9 GT1s gave way to its Lola-based P1 program, a major diversion from its GT roots, and after the collapse of the AMR-ONE program, it put its full emphasis on developing the Vantage into a contender that's now hitting its stride.
“You look at the development of the GTE car in 2013, and the progress from what was the GT2 car to what we raced last year and to now is a big-step change," Turner explains. “The works team was involved with it, things got kicked around, redesigned and we went racing. And that was on the back of quite a few years of being out of the GT category with the LMP1 cars, so it was a learning curve for the team but a big transitional period for the team as well with different management, different designers, massive change between '11 and '12.”
Longtime AMR boss George Howard-Chappell departed after the AMR-ONE debacle, which paved the way for John Gow to take over the reins and spearhead the brand's customer and professional racing activities. According to Turner, who's been with the Prodrive-led operation since its first days in GT racing, AMR's new team principal deserves a lot of credit for the vitality found within the massive five-car team its fielding at Le Mans.
“It is clearly working,” he says. “I'd say it's a younger team now with the management changes and many of the other changes John has implemented. I'm an old person on the team now…I was there from 2003, 2004 when it was a Ferrari program, and then since '05 it's been Aston Martin Racing; I was under George for all those years. George has moved on, and in that period when George moved it was like, 'Where are we now? What's the mood? My new boss, John, what's his take on all the drivers and who's good on the team and what he needs to turn everything around?'
“He quite quickly worked out where the direction should be and he put it in that direction and there's already great success. And he's empowered the people who were down in the little folds of the team and given them free reign to go out there and do a good job, do the things they're best at. Instead of it being a technical leadership (with GH-C) he's put the structure in from a management point of view and got the financial side in a better position and allowed the people below to take more control of the technical side. For where we were a few years ago, it's a different structure and if you look at the results so far, it's working. ”
DALZIEL, SRT VIPER TEAM MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Given the brand's previous success at Le Mans, expecting factory-run SRT Vipers to rejoin the fray at the front of the GTE Pro field seems like a natural starting point, but a more realistic indicator of the year-old program was highlighted in qualifying.
With the No. 93 car placing 10th and the sister No. 53 13th in class, the Riley Technologies team did a commendable job on its first two days of proper running at La Sarthe, and as Ryan Dalziel tells RACER, what he and his co-drivers produced last night was more than acceptable.
“In all honesty, I think we're pretty close to where we thought we'd be,” says the 2012 P2 class winner at Le Mans. “We didn't even try to do a proper qualifying run, in qualifying trim, because we didn't think it was worth it. I don't know if we'd break into the (three minute and 54-second barrier) which is where the speeds are this year.
“It sounds cliché to say it, but we are really focusing on our race pace and it's there that we feel we'll be OK. I don't know if we'll have all the speed some others have right now, but we have to keep reminding ourselves this is our first time here. I think there's so much expectation that comes with anything the SRT Viper brand does, and at an iconic place like Le Mans. But you have to temper that, I think, with an understanding that today, as competitive as it is in GT, you don't show up your first year and dominate.”
Dalziel will have a harder time finding the podium at the end of the race on Sunday, but says his first taste of driving for an auto manufacturer has perks and possibilities he's never experienced – all things that make the marque's learning process worthwhile.
"Knowing how dominant we were last year, it's different for me coming in as a member of a factory team,” he continues. “It's my first time with a big team like this…a bit of culture shock for me having to bite my tongue at times after driving for privateers for so long! The reception we've had so far in Le Mans has been incredible and the team has really made me feel at home.
“It's a new sensation for me…I'm used to having to fight and scratch for everything, so I'm certainly enjoying stepping into a big program like this and seeing how all the other guys have lived for so many years. No complaints from this boy.”
Take a video tour of the SRT Viper garage with Tommy Kendall