Prime Minister Gordon Brown held the first meeting of his new cabinet in London this morning. His Minister of Science, Paul Drayson, was in Le Mans, though, going through scrutineering with his team's Aston Martin Vantage GT2 for his first...
Prime Minister Gordon Brown held the first meeting of his new cabinet in London this morning. His Minister of Science, Paul Drayson, was in Le Mans, though, going through scrutineering with his team's Aston Martin Vantage GT2 for his first career 24 Hours of Le Mans.
"It tells you how important this is to me," Drayson smiled. "Of course I take politics very seriously, and I put full effort into everything I do, but this is a dream come true for me. It has taken a lot of work for me and I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"I'm delighted to remain in the British government, but the feeling I had when I arrived this morning ... I can honestly say it's one of the best things in my life," he continued. "At the moment it feels a little bit like when you're ten years old and it's Christmas!"
Drayson Racing's entry in this year's 24H is also Aston Martin's first foray into the GT2 category at Le Mans, and the factory is taking the initiative very seriously. Drayson Racing took the program to the American Le Mans Series in 2008, teaming up with Barwell Racing and ALMS veteran manager Dale White, and gained a dozen races' worth of critical experience with the new GT2 Vantage.
"The opportunity to do ALMS came up, and the fact that the ALMS had decided to 'go green' was what really sealed the decision," Drayson explained. "I decided that if I was going to fulfill my dream of getting to Le Mans, I had to concentrate 100% on my motor racing, so I took a leave of absence from the government."
Building on the base of the development year in the ALMS, the team relocated to the site of the Aston Martin headquarters in Banbury, a mere fifty yards' walk from the Aston Martin Racing main shop. And the combination of the team's development efforts and the factory's engineering support has produced results.
"The car is transformed from last year, the handling problems -- we had really bad understeer -- is gone now, the engine reliability problems are gone now," Drayson explained. "The car is competitive now, and we believe we have a great chance here."
This year, the team has signed up for the full Le Mans Series in both Europe and Asia, and three races (Sebring, Petit Le Mans and Laguna Seca) in the ALMS. While the Sebring 12H ended early for the team after a loss of oil pressure, two months later in the LMS event on the fast and flowing Spa-Francorchamps track in the Ardennes forest, the team qualified within 1.9 seconds of GT2 pole, and finished sixth in class.
Preparing for the June endurance classic, the team ran a test on the Le Mans 'Bugatti' circuit, and more importantly, a 24-hour private test at the Autodromo do Algarve, gaining valuable experience in keeping the car running and on the track around the clock.
"It's really important to build the team , and to understand how we work together," explained Marino Franchitti, who is joining the team for Le Mans. "Without test days this year, it's even more important. We feel we are ahead of many of the other teams; crews are just coming together, while we have been working as a team for four days already."
Franchitti has driven a broad range of sports cars, including the Dyson Porsche RS Spyders and Lola-Mazdas in the ALMS. Back in 2005, he drove in the Le Mans 24H in the Panoz Esperante, also a front-engined V8 GT2 car.
"The Aston Martin is much more refined and highly developed car," Franchitti reflected on his drive in the Esperante. "It's no slight on the Panoz car, but more a reflection of how far the development of this car is. But probably the advent of AC is the biggest thing, We had 72C in the car for the entire 24 hours -- I lost about 7 kg (15 lbs) during the race!"
Jonny Cocker, the team's other regular driver (next to Drayson), agrees, and notes that the GT2 Vantage had the same kind of heat problems in the cockpit.
"We were experiencing very similar temperatures (last year)," he recalled "With a front engine and an aluminum chassis, it didn't really matter what the weather was outside, it was baking inside. But we have now sorted that out. And we now have more aerodynamic and mechanical grip."
While each of the GT2 cars at the 24H has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, Cocker feels that the Vantage is well suited to the high-speed Le Mans circuit.
"We are strong in the high-speed corners, and we have good straight-line speed," he explained. "But then the Ferraris, for example, are very, very strong on the brakes and more nimble than our car. This is not a stop-start track at all, and we should be able to use the car to its full advantage here."
And while there were no test days this year, the team's extensive preparation -- including the entire 2008 ALMS season -- has positioned them well to mount a serious challenge to the established GT2 players, Porsche and Ferrari.
"We are coming into this race with an open mind, still learning, but we feel that there is really nothing more that we could have done to prepare for it, and that's a good feeling," Cocker summed up the team's feelings.
And then there is that small thing about destiny. 50 years ago, in 1959, Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori drove a DBR1/300, Aston Martin's racing version of the DB4, to overall victory.
"The DB4 GT, was the first serious car I bought, once I made some money," Drayson said, proud of the DB4 GT, parked outside the team's trailer in the 24H paddock. And the DBR1, took Aston Martin's last Le Mans victory, in 1959."
With the DB4 GT present to witness the team's efforts, 'destiny' is surely the right word.