Drayson-Barwell's first two outings in the American Le Mans Series haven't exactly gone to plan. After crashing out at Sebring and not taking the green flag at St. Petersburg, the No. 007 Aston Martin has yet to put points on the board in the LM GT2 category. But the on-track disappointments haven't dampened the British-based team's learning process, as they move to a new and exciting phase of their program this weekend in Long Beach.
"We're settling in now," team director Mark Lemmer said at St. Petersburg. "We just wanted to come in quietly with the car and work away and learn the ropes."
Lemmer and his Barwell Motorsport team joined forces with former British government minister and businessman Paul Drayson this year to create Drayson-Barwell. The two-year joint venture program is focused at first tackling the ALMS, then moving to the European-based Le Mans Series in preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009.
A new stage in the team's program dawns this weekend, as they expect to debut their brand-new Aston Martin Vantage GT2. The Prodrive-built machine will be the second example in existence, as James Watt Automotive ran its V8-engined machine two weeks ago at Le Mans Series race in Barcelona.
After racing its GT3-spec Aston Martin DBRS9 for the first two ALMS events, Drayson-Barwell is pleased to be moving onto a more competitive car that's purposely built to GT2 regulations.
"What we have learned is the GT3 car, with its extra weight, is just too difficult in the longer races," Lemmer said. "It's hard on brakes. It's hard on tires. The car is quite high on downforce, but it's very good on slow corners. The technical grip is very heavy. It's very nose-heavy."
The DBRS9 is a winning car in Europe while competing in the GT3 category. Barwell claimed the 2007 British GT Championship teams' title, fielding three Aston Martins and facing competition from Dodge Viper Competition Coupes and GT3-spec Ferrari 430s and others. Drivers Paul Drayson and Jonny Cocker was a part of that effort, claiming two wins with its bio-fueled entry. Their success came in the same chassis used by Drayson-Barwell in these opening ALMS rounds.
"I love the GT3 car because I've done so much racing in it, so many great memories," Drayson said. "I've learned a lot of things for the first time in that car. But the GT2 car is going to be something else."
Long Beach will serve as the team's first shakedown of their Vantage GT2, as they will not get any time to test the car before unloading it for practice on Thursday. Nonetheless, Drayson is already looking forward to driving the new car.
"We know it's going to be a lot easier to drive, as well as being faster, lighter," he said. "The engine is lower down and more towards the center of the car, so it has a lower center of gravity. It's going to transform the experience for us. It's a lot of weight to muscle around these circuits, and I can't wait to get in the GT2 car."
While instant success is not expected, the team hopes to develop the new car throughout the season and hopefully being able to put a fight up to the other competitors in the second half.
"I think it's the car and the team to engineer the car to get faster," Cocker said. "For sure it's going to need a little bit of development. We're going to need to learn it as wellI It's a learning year, and we hope by the end of the year that we can maybe fight for some pole positions, which I think is a realistic goal for the year. And you never know what could happen in the races. It's close racing, so anything can happen."
Over the years, fewer European teams have committed to running in the ALMS full-time. It's a monumental task logistically, not to mention financially to bring an entire team across the Atlantic. Drayson-Barwell has taken a step towards adjusting to American racing by hiring Dale White as strategic consultant. White was one of the masterminds behind Petersen/White Lightning Racing's two ALMS GT2 titles and brings a wealth of knowledge to the British team.
"The fact that team got Dale White has been the masterstroke that's keeping us between us on both sides," Drayson said. "Dale's the guru. He's really helping us understand the series. Everyone in the American Le Mans Series has been friendly and welcoming to us with being a new team here. We have a lot to learn, but we're taking it very seriously. So far, it's been going really well."
The team has also enjoyed soaking in the American culture. Fans attending ALMS events are given unprecedented access to the competitors, a complete contrast to what's seen in Europe.
"For me, there's nothing better," Cocker said. "I've done FIA rounds, I've done Le Mans Series rounds, I've done national championships and one-make around the world as well. This is the most exciting. The crowds, the atmosphere and the enthusiasm for the whole sport over here is just different to Europe."
Another aspect of the racing in North America are the tracks themselves. Drayson was very impressed with Sebring, as the unique bumps and surface changes make the learning experience challenging, but also enjoyable at the same time. He said it was unlike any circuit he's ever driven before.
"[The circuits are] kind of old school in a way," Drayson said. "I absolutely love it. Doing a street race for the first time is another thing to learn. For me, that's turning out to be one of the real blasts of doing this. The quality of the circuits, some of the most iconic circuits in the world in these beautiful places."
Drayson got his first taste of a street circuit at St. Petersburg and found that to be an eye-opening experience as well.
"It was a bit of a 'oh my God' moment doing it for the first time," he said. "I was thinking 'wow, this is seriously scary', but [later], it really started to click. You just have to force yourself not to look at the walls and keep your head down, focusing where the track is, driving the car precisely as possible, and being safe."
Lemmer was equally enthused about the selection of tracks in America. He's most looking forward to traveling to Road America in August, as many consider it as the Spa Francorchamps or Nurburgring Nordschleife of America.
"I've raced in touring cars for many years, and I've driven many great circuits," Lemmer said. "One of the sad things in Europe now is the circuits are becoming very safe and sanitized. As a driver, we like fast corners. We like challenges. The bumps of Sebring are awesome. I've followed U.S. racing for many years and know that Road America, Road Atlanta - these are great circuits.
"They're more like our classic circuits, such as Spa, that's still great. Unfortunately, they've disappeared in Europe, but hopefully they'll be preserved over here. The circuits are great. We're really enjoying them."
But first, the Vantage GT2 will be seen blasting down Shoreline Drive in this weekend's Tequila Patron American Le Mans Series of Long Beach. The action kicks off Thursday, with two one-hour combined test sessions starting at 3:00 p.m. PST.