Another busy year draws (almost) to a close for Darren Turner
One of Britain's busiest and most versatile racing drivers is just about to draw breath for the first time in many months. Darren Turner has always been self-motivated and highly active, and this attitude has led to him being much in demand in many different areas of motorsport.
In 2006 he combined a full season of sportscar racing in North America for Aston Martin Racing with an impressive debut in the British Touring Car Championship for SEAT Sport UK.
Add in test days, a house move, sponsor and pr commitments, and fidelity to his much-loved 5-a-side football team, and it leaves little room for lying around or even flying around. Since gaining his private pilot's licence last year there has been precious little time to log as many hours as Darren would have liked. But being busy is how the Oxfordshire-based driver likes it, and he hopes that 2007 will be even more eventful.
"I've had a lovely year, and many more races than I was expecting which is always a bonus for a driver. At the beginning of the year I knew for certain that I would be doing four races with SEAT, standing in for James Thompson when the BTCC races clashed with the WTCC. On top of that, Aston Martin had committed to the Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours but that was all they were in a position to promise at the outset.
"In the end I did five race weekends with SEAT (15 races) and the whole American Le Mans Series season (minus Mosport which clashed with the BTCC) with Aston Martin."
A look back over the season reveals ups and downs in both racing series, though few can be wholly attributed to the driver. Turner is the first to admit when he makes mistakes but
"The highlight was, without doubt, winning Petit Le Mans - more so as it was just the two of us [Tomas Enge being DT's regular 2006 ALMS partner] and not with a third driver. We'd not had a great build up to the race but the event itself was amazing and we were everywhere, from fourth to third to first in class. This was partly due to a stop/go penalty for avoidable contact with one of the Corvettes. You could say we benefited from other people's misfortune to win but I say you have to be there and running in the right position no matter what happens. We looked after our car through to the end and were in the right place at the right time which was hugely satisfying.
"I'd say the lowest point has got to be Le Mans. Going six laps down within first half an hour of a big event like that was difficult to say the least. As with nearly all the sportscar races I've done this year, I took the start but soon had radio problems. There was an early safety car period and lots of radio chat but I only heard a very little of what was being said to me by the team, including an instruction to pit. It came through just after I'd passed the pit lane entrance and I had to make a split decision whether to come in or go round again and risk losing a lap to the safety car. I crossed the kerbs to get into the pit lane, which turned out to be higher than I'd imagined and that damaged an oil line to the sump. The team and the 007 drivers did a great job to claw it back to second place which was a great achievement. A win at Le Mans is still the one thing I'm missing in sports cars though so I'm hoping to be back there next year for another go."
Darren's 2006 ALMS career record shows that of the nine races entered, he won two and finished on the podium in six further races. He claimed his first ever series GT1 pole position at Lime Rock, a 1.54 mile circuit which was somewhat different to the Le Mans track the team had just travelled from.
"The track is not only small but it's very challenging. If you want easy, go to Istanbul, but if you want challenging go to Lime Rock. On the Friday morning, after doing about 12 laps, I said to my crew 'Are you as scared as I am?' This was different to anything I'd driven before - nowhere seemed safe and there were lots of different cambers and tarmac changes. The boys said I'd like how bumpy and tight it is but . after a couple of laps I got out and told Tomas he could run the race and I was going home. We flipped a coin and I won the choice of who qualified. Normally I don't qualify but I felt good about it and was really pleased with the pole."
Strong qualifying performances and race stints belied the fact that Darren had not previously visited most of the tracks on the 2006 schedule and had to miss some test sessions due to BTCC commitments. There were a few minor misdemeanours, in common with all his GT1 competitors, but no major accidents or incidents - Le Mans apart. The very high temperatures of Salt Lake City and Portland seemed to suit the Aston Martin DBR9, even if it did make the going hard for the drivers, and the new Miller Motorsports Park was the scene of Darren's first ALMS victory since Sebring in 2005.
The new Utah track provided a unique challenge for all the drivers present, and Darren explains why. "The track drops away and merges into the sand, so you can't see where the edges are which makes it hard to commit to the corner. We also raced late into the day because of the very high daytime temperatures, and the low sun didn't help. I'm sure the circuit is going to be a lot of fun in the future, but most drivers struggled with the fact that there are no reference points around the track. It's complex and difficult, and it needs to mature and develop a bit more character, which is all part of the track owner's plan, as at the moment it's just a strip of tarmac through the desert. Good fun though."
The victory was followed by some mountain biking - with disastrous results in the form of a broken wrist for Enge - and white water rafting with sponsor Pirelli. Stuck in a boat with, amongst others, the Pirelli girls, and having fun in the sun proved to be a novel way to go training and one that was much envied by others!
Ironically it was at the track at which he struggled most in relation to his team mates that he and Enge got their second victory of the year. Road Atlanta. Darren's Czech team mate was suffering from flu so was running on only half tanks up to race day, and the Briton was playing catch up after missing the last ALMS round and three days of tyre testing because of BTCC commitments.
"It took me a little while to get back into the groove with the rear-wheel drive car, which is a long time to get up to speed at Road Atlanta. The track is very challenging and technical and you have to be brave around there to do well. If you lack commitment you lose speed, simple as that. By Saturday's race I was ready for anything and, after starting the race, I really enjoyed the first 30 minutes as we were all racing flat out and were nose-to-tail all the way. Once we got into the traffic it split us up massively and the race then was down to strategy. A 1-2 finish for Aston Martin was a great result for everyone in the team, especially at such a prestigious race and helped make up for the disappointment of Le Mans."
And so to Darren's 'other' main job this year with SEAT Sport UK and the British Touring Car Championship.
As was so neatly summed up by one magazine's BTCC season review, Turner was desperately unlucky on many occasions - if anything could go wrong, it usually did. Despite this, he claimed a podium finish in his first ever race and was never more than fractions of a second away from his very experienced team mate, Jason Plato, in qualifying and race pace.
"I didn't have luck running with me in the BTCC, and the end results didn't reflect either my performance or pace. I started the year with only two days of testing. I'd been hoping to get plenty of testing pre-season to get myself accustomed to the intricacies of front-wheel drive touring cars but, late delivery of the car and logistics meant I only got two days in March, so I was worried about how things would go in June when I got to my first race weekend at Thruxton.
"There were a few technical issues in the practice sessions so I only had a minimal amount of running before qualifying. I was therefore really pleased to be only a few thousandths of a second away from Jason and that gave me the confidence that I had the pace to run with the guys at the front.
"Touring Cars was a whole different mentality to sportscars and the biggest issue has been re-learning to do standing starts which, in a front-wheel drive car, was quite difficult. Thruxton was a cool weekend and I was delighted with a podium in my first ever race. I could have had another third in the second race too but I got too excited, wanted second and ended up with fifth! In the third race of that weekend I had my first proper lesson about touring cars - the hard, metal-crunching way, and didn't make the end of the first lap."
Looking back on his 15 races for SEAT this year, Darren acknowledges that he probably gave too much respect to his rivals and "that's not how you're going to get along in this Championship." He doesn't mean that he deferred to his competitors on the track, but that maybe he didn't play hard ball enough. "Perhaps I sometimes left the possibility for someone to open a door rather than leaving the door open."
"The highlight of the year, first podium apart, was Knockhill, despite what the statistic books will show. I got two second places - both subsequently taken away for reasons not of my own making - and a pretty good fourth place finish from the back of the grid in the third and final race. Our general performance at Donington was a disappointment for the team as the circuit didn't suit the SEAT Leon, but the lowest point for me personally was Brands Hatch where - out of the three races - I only got seven laps of racing.
"I'm delighted that SEAT won the Manufacturers' Championship and that I was able to help towards that, even on a part-time basis! I'd really like to do a full season in the BTCC but we'll have to see how things pan out as right now there's more drivers than seats. I proved I can mix it at the front; I have the pace and can win races if given the chance.
"It's been a busy, and sometimes hectic, schedule and I couldn't have done it without the support of a lot of people. In particular I want to thank Key Equipment Finance, New Edge Investments, Amazon Filters and Aerospace Fasteners for their continued and valued support over many years."
With racing for the year now over, there's still testing to be done. This month Darren will be testing with Aston Martin Racing, including some aero work in the US. Between these trips his phone will be red hot trying to get deals for 2007 done as soon as possible. He's a racing man in demand..who will claim him first?
-credit: fiona miller