Aston Martin Racing’s new-for-2012 Vantage GTE has finished on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on its first attempt. The #97 V8-powered racer finished third in the fiercely competitive GTE Pro category having covered 332 laps – almost 3000 miles – of the celebrated 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe without any technical problems.
David Richards, Chairman of Aston Martin, commented: “Le Mans is always one of the most special events of the year and probably the world’s greatest motor race. To come here with a new GTE car and finish on the podium is a great accolade not just for the team, but also for the Aston Martin product and everybody that has supported us.
“Two of our drivers, Stefan Mücke and Adrian Fernandez, had never before competed in a GTE car here, although Darren Turner’s a Le Mans stalwart and has been with us since the beginning of the Aston Martin Racing programme. The team worked brilliantly together to help get Stefan and Adrian onto the pace. Adrian, in particular, acquitted himself very well given that this is his first season in a production-based racing car, so it was fitting that he should have the honour of driving the Vantage GTE over the finishing line.
“We only had one car competing in GTE Pro this weekend and that’s always an unnerving feeling because we know how easily the slightest mistake can trip you up – that makes for a very long 24-hour race! The Aston Martin Vantage GTE set the fastest GTE lap of the race and didn’t have any technical issues at all. We didn’t have quite the fuel economy of the winning car, but we know what we have to do to correct that for next year. Everyone in the team should be very proud of themselves.”
The Gulf-liveried Vantage GTE started the 24-hour race from second on the GTE Pro grid after a competitive showing throughout the three qualifying sessions held earlier in the week. Although rain had fallen persistently right up until the afternoon of the rolling start, the track itself was dry come 1500hrs on Saturday, 16 June. Factory driver Mücke (D) was able to pass the pole sitting GTE Pro car on the very first lap to give the Vantage GTE the class lead of endurance racing’s crowning event on just its fifth competitive outing.
When fellow factory driver Turner (GB) took control of the Vantage GTE after the 25th lap, the Briton – who had already won back-to-back Le Mans titles with Aston Martin Racing in 2007 and 2008 – found himself embroiled in a most enthralling duel for the GTE Pro class lead with the #74 Corvette. What ensued over the following stint was a remarkable display of wheel-to-wheel racing, more reminiscent of a sprint race than a 24-hour marathon. Turner and his adversary had staged what will certainly be remembered as a highlight of the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The breath-taking scrap harked back to the Aston Martin-Versus-Corvette battles of 2007 and 2008 that are now the stuff of Le Mans folklore. Turner called off the fight on lap 64 as he handed over the Vantage GTE to works driver Fernandez (MX), who continued in third position.
When a GTE Am class car collided with an LMP1 racer on lap 73, the safety car was deployed as barriers were repaired. The field circulated around the track for an hour and ten minutes behind the safety car, so Aston Martin Racing used the opportunity to execute a scheduled brake change without losing too much ground to its rivals. Nonetheless, when the #97 Vantage GTE rejoined the action after the technicians had swiftly carried out their work, it had slipped to sixth in the GTE Pro class.
As the sun set over Le Mans, Turner and Mücke took turns aboard the Vantage GTE with each digging deep to summon up every ounce of performance from both themselves and the car. With ambitions of getting back in contention for the class victory, the pair each lit up the timing screens, proving the Vantage GTE’s class-leading pace potential.
The night brought with it new challenges, for the cooler air altered the track conditions considerably and necessitated the use of softer compound tyres. As Turner and Mücke set the class pace, the #97 Vantage GTE clambered its way back up the leaderboard to hold fourth position at the mid-way point of the race. The car continued to perform as reliably as its drivers, so that come the early morning it held second position in GTE Pro with the class leader within sight.
Soon before the 16th hour, however, Mücke lost control of the Vantage GTE at Indianapolis corner, pitching him into the gravel trap and towards a safety barrier. The German driver was able to keep the car running and soon had it back at Aston Martin Racing’s pit box. Despite the high-speed nature of the incident, the damage sustained was cosmetic – a testament to the inherent strength of the Vantage platform. The team rapidly replaced a door and the bonnet before sending Fernandez back out within ten minutes of the original impact, still in third position in class.
Determined not to give up, Mücke set about chasing down the second-placed GTE Pro car upon his return to the driver’s seat for a final stint. At the 20-hour mark, Mücke set the fastest GTE time of the entire race, stopping the clock at 3m 54.928s to further prove the Vantage GTE’s class-leading speed. Unfortunately, the gap couldn’t be closed with pace alone, and the team focused on maintaining the podium position. Mücke made way for Fernandez on lap 306, who crossed the line at 1500hrs to the delight of the entire Aston Martin Racing team, scoring 30 points for the FIA World Endurance Championship – for which the 24 Hours of Le Mans served as the third round – in the process.
Fresh from the podium celebrations, Turner said: “I’m really proud of the whole team. To get a new car to the end of a 24-hour race is a big achievement, but to get it on the podium is fantastic. Hopefully we can build on this and come back next year and show how strong the car is.
“There are many similarities between this new programme and the DBR9 GT1 programme [which netted back-to-back Le Mans wins in 2007 and 2008]. That programme was all about the competition with one manufacturer, but the Vantage GTE programme is about competition with many manufacturers. To have Aston Martin right up there straight away is really encouraging.
“We had a small brake issue early on, but apart from that there were no problems with the Vantage GTE at all and it has proven to be on the pace of the fastest GTE cars, which bodes very well for the future.”
Team-mate Mücke added: “This is the first time I’ve been on the podium at Le Mans and it feels amazing. It’s also the first time I’ve competed here in a GTE car, so I’m very proud to have finished where we did. I must thank the team for repairing the car so quickly after my mistake early in the morning – to fix it within ten minutes was really impressive. I was able to set the fastest GTE lap time which shows that everything is going in the right direction with the car.”
Fernandez concluded: “Finishing a 24-hour race is never easy so to come third with a new car is quite remarkable. The pace of the Vantage GTE was always strong and we fought hard for the whole race. I’m very pleased with my pace in the car; all of my experience is in single-seaters and prototypes, so to be able to perform as well as I did without making any mistakes was, for me, very special.”
Aston Martin Racing’s second entry – run in partnership with Young Driver AMR in the GTE Am category – showed similar signs of class-leading pace throughout the week. It qualified in third position and fought its way into the class lead in the early phase of the race in the hands of all-Danish driver line-up Allan Simonsen, Kristian Poulsen and Christoffer Nygaard. Accident damage sustained after the three-hour mark would eventually herald its retirement, however.
Aston Martin CEO Dr Ulrich Bez congratulated the team on its strong result: “I’m delighted that the team has shown the speed and reliability of the Vantage GTE on its first outing at Le Mans. I would like to extend my congratulations to the team for its encouraging performance and I’m sure we will see the new competition car challenging for race wins soon.”
As well as the 24-hour race itself, Aston Martin also hosted an exclusive single marque support race in the hours leading up to the main event. The Aston Martin Festival of Le Mans witnessed 31 Aston Martin-built racing cars competing in a 45-minute race on the Circuit de la Sarthe; the Vantage GT2 of Villois Racing triumphed in the unique event.
A highlight of the Festival was the return of the legendary 1959 Le Mans-winning DBR1 to the scene of its greatest victory. The DBR1 participated in the pre-race parade lap, with Dr Bez at the wheel, in a moving tribute to the men who drove it to victory – Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori – and its designer Ted Cutting, all of whom passed away in recent weeks.
Aston Martin Racing competed in the GTE category at Le Mans in line with its return to production-based motorsport for the 2012 season. The marque is competing in the inaugural FIA World Endurance Championship and achieved a strong third-placed finish at the opening round of the series, the 12 Hours of Sebring, Florida. The V8-powered Vantage GTE is based upon Aston Martin’s sportiest road-going model, the Vantage coupé. It shares that car’s bonded aluminium structure and fundamental engine and suspension designs, emphasising the base car’s inherent sporting nature.
Aston Martin Racing will next be in competitive action at Silverstone, Great Britain, for the fourth round of the FIA World Endurance Championship on Sunday, 26 August.