A town in northern France will be one of the noisiest places on earth on Saturday as the fastest and sturdiest sports cars that modern technology has to offer compete in the Le Mans 24 Heures, writes Huw Williams.
The race remains one of motorsport’s great events, ranking alongside Indianapolis and Monte Carlo, elite challenges whose names resonate with history. Yet no other race demands that cars run at a pace both punishing and relentless for 24 hours from green light to chequered flag.
Stops for fuel and to swap a frazzled driver for a fresher one are all that is allowed. The modern Grand Touring race vehicle is sophisticated in design and engineered to last the course, but the strain is often too much.
Then there is the weather of northern France in June, which can run the gamut of the seasons in one day, turning Le Mans into an unpredictable spectacle.
This year, the great race welcomes back an old and illustrious friend – the Aston Martin. The last time the British sports car manufacturer won Le Mans was in the days before James Bond made the marque internationally synonymous with sophisticated speed freaks.
In 1959, an Aston DBR1 driven by Roy Salvadori and Carrol Shelby, the designer of the Shelby Cobra and other American racing cars of 1960s, won Le Mans outright. That was the last serious outing. Astons wearing the liveries of private owners have run around the famous circuit on a few occasions since, but never with a serious chance of building on the pedigree’s prestige.
Aston Martin has returned to GT racing this year because of its increased popularity in recent years. The GT race series, which is for cars based on standard two-seater and coupé road models, aims to develop into a world championship alongside Formula One and the World Rally Championship. As a result, many of the leading sports car manufacturers have returned to it, anxious to prove their machines’ worth to a discerning audience.
The cars that Aston Martin Racing are running at Le Mans this year are DBR9s, a beefed-up version of the road-going DB9. The new cars will be wearing the same evocative British Racing Green paintwork as their ancestors in 1959. There are other design aspects in the new car that evoke the past: the pouting oval grille, the sweeping body curves. Highlighting the genetic link is deliberate.
David Richards, former team boss of the BAR Formula One team and chairman of Prodrive, the company charged by Aston Martin with preparing the DBR9 for racing, wants the Aston Le Mans campaign to be seen as a very British affair. “The cars have a heritage and pedigree,” Richards says. “There’s an emotional attachment to them, a Britishness if you like, and if you go and sit in the grandstands and talk to people there is a passion about these cars. As a result there’s an enormous following from the crowds and it’s great for the team to have that sort of support.
“I’m looking forward to the whole idea of taking Aston Martin back to Le Mans, to see the Aston Martin flags flying. I’m a rather silly emotional, patriotic character and that means something to me personally.”
The DBR9s have been out on the track in anger only twice before lining up at Le Mans today. But they won both of those races earlier this year. British driver Darren Turner with David Brabham and Stephane Ortelli won the first, the 12-hour GT1 Sebring race in Germany. Then at Silverstone, Peter Kox and Pedro Lamy took possession of the historic RAC Tourist Trophy, with the other Aston driven by Turner and Brabham a close second.
These were speculative entries, test runs, but Aston Martin dominated the field for both races leaving the Masseratis and Corvettes to squabble over third place.
Turner has driven everything from carts to the current McLaren F1 car, but he is particularly happy with the way the DBR9 handles. “It’s a nice car to drive, it has the right ingredients,” Turner says. “It’s well balanced, it’s predictable, it’s rewarding. It makes you want to drive it harder. This is a really quick car that’s easy to understand what’s going on and it gives you a bit of tolerance, it doesn’t bite you, which for this sort of racing is ideal.”
When Turner climbs behind the wheel of the Aston Martin Racing DBR9 it will be his third outing at Le Mans, but not just another day in the office. This is a race that he and the other professional drivers on the grid hold in the highest regard.
“Every driver would like to do Le Mans because it is so special,” Turner explains. It’s still one of the hardest races. The nature of the circuit; some of it being road, some of it track, the speed. The different types of cars.
“It is a pressure cooker, you have to perform, if you make a mistake the repercussions go beyond you. You let the rest of the team down. It makes for a really interesting race. And the history – it’s unique.”
Aston Martin Racing is as well prepared as it can be for the 2005 Le Mans 24 Heures. It cannot repeat the outright success of the 1959 team, for one of the modern prototypes of the more powerful LMP1 class will take the overall win, an Audi R8 of Champion Racing being the most likely candidate. But Aston Martin does have a good chance of winning its GT1class, and Turner will be doing his best to make that happen. He says: “If you are happy to come second then you shouldn’t be doing any competitive sport. I want Le Mans.”