Scant reward for the efforts of Aston Martin Racing at Le Mans

Saturday, June 20, 2015

With both the literal and metaphorical dust now having settled after the end of this year's 24Hrs of Le Mans, Aston Martin Racing would have already reflected on what might have been and reapplied themselves into the preparation for the riggers of the next round of the WEC.

Being 'top of the pile' in both GTE Pro and GTE Am for most of the Free Practice and qualifying session on both the Wednesday and Thursday sessions things would have been looking good (subject to reliability) for Aston Martin Racing having convincingly claiming pole in both GTE Pro and Am.

With the cars having collected onto the starting grid for the revised 'traditional' starting format along the pit wall under clear blue skies the temperature of anticipation of what this years race would present was certainly rising. The red and yellow Hanergy sponsored #99 GTE Pro car of Richie Stanaway (starting), Fernado Rees and Alex MacDowall would start on pole just ahead of their main championship rivals in the #51 AF Corse but at least team support was literally just behind them with the #98, #97 and sandwiching the other #71 AF Corse and with the #95 Dane Train playing the role of 'tail end Charlie'. Unfortunately, due to continuing power and set up issues the #96 GTE Am car of Roald Goethe, Stuart Hall and Francesco Castellacci would be starting third from last.

With the race starting bang on 15:00Hrs local there were at least no significant incident over the first few laps but with the speed of the front runners it only took the LMP1's about twenty minutes before they started lapping the slower classes - that would be on the third lap!!. Stanaway was comfortably in control at the front but with a very competitive Stafan Mucke and Nikki Thiim in the #97 and #95 respectively jockeying for position just behind.

Just before the top of the first hour the leading AMR cars pitted for their first routine fuel and tyre stop of the race finally dispensing with the rubber upon which they qualified. Just as the exited back onto the circuit a fiery incident involving the #92 Porsche GTE Pro of Patrick Pilet brought the Porsche's race to an immediate end and instigated the first full Safety Car period as a significant amount of oil had been dropped on track. Due to the rules on pit lane release involving the three Safety Cars spaced around the circuit the #99 would ultimately loose out to its #95 Young Driver sister car dropping itself back to third.

Intentions were being made very clear between drivers as Darren Turner, now in the #97 went in to the Porsche Curves side by side with the #51 Ferrari who was challenging hard for third. Roald Goethe, now in the #96 GTE Am car was already having a torrid time behind the wheel and only two hours into the race an unidentifiable incident would cause a puncture and the resulting limp back to the pits would cause significant suspension damage. A repair time for this incident of nearly three hours would ruin any remote chance that the squad had of any decent class finishing position.

Further bad luck for Aston Martin Racing presented itself in the form of a small but significant power steering fluid leak on the charging #95 with Nikki Thiim still behind the wheel. Again, a significant period of time stuck in the garage bay would put the Pro line up on the back foot and in catch up mode for the rest of the race. Without the existence of another thirty minute safety car period for another, unrelated issue during these repairs the cars deficit would only have been worse. Ironically, it would be the involvement of the #99, amongst others that would cause this safety car that would in turn assist their stable mates.

Darren Turner was by now chasing the #64 Corvette for position, pushing himself hard enough to induce a self inflicted spin coming out of the second chiccane on the Mulsanne Straight. Dusting himself down from that a moment of understeer going into the first right hander of the Porsche Curves nearly put the #97 into the now extended gravel trap on the outside of track.

Coming up to midnight and still vying for track position with the Corvette and the sister #99 car, the #97 with Rob Bell now at the wheel suddenly changed course and slowed with obvious drive issues as it entered Mulsanne Corner. Due to great driver foresight Bell managed to remove himself and the car from imminent danger before the car ground to a halt at the side of the circuit. The car would not return to the track due to suspected gear box damage from a severed oil hose from a previous incident and would be retired at the scene.

An hour or so later the night bad luck would also befall the #99 car which had just come in for a full service plus brake changes. With Rees now at the wheel an over optimistic move up the inside on one of the Oreca 05 LMP2's saw both cars make contact with one another at the first Mulsanne Straight chiccane. With significant front end damage Rees was at least fortunate to be able to get the car back to the pits for what would become a prolonged period of repairs. The TDS Oreca itself, having spun out into the gravel trap as a result of this contact would ultimately retire due to the damage sustained.

That left just the #98 car in any position of significance with an under the weather Pedro Lamy being supported by an ever improving Mathias Lauda and one of the best gentleman drivers in the race, Paul Dalla Lana. Although without incident the #98 was at least more than in control of the GTE Am field.

Whilst the warming sun of Sunday morning cleared the gloom in the air, the circuit was gradually coming back to life in the spectator viewing areas and campsites with the waft of cooking and the sound frivolity becoming obvious. This is also the period of time when those of track are also at their most vulnerable and Roald Goethe in his #96 car would again become another victim. Coming out of the Porsche Curves Goethe appeared to be on that section of track by himself, holding a racing line appropriate to his car class and his driving ability, but as he came out of the very fast, sweeping left hander the #19 Porsche LMP1 swept past out of nowhere on the inside of the #96. For one reason or another that pushed the #96 wide onto the outside of the corner, onto the marbles and ultimately into loosing the rear into a spin from which he would not recover. The resulting front end collision with the concrete track wall violently propelled a disintegrating V8 Vantage back towards the outer limits of the track.

Prompt attention by the track marshalls and the the immediate introduction of a Safety Car neutralised the circuit so that the medical and extraction teams could attend the incident without delay. It was reported at the time that Roald Goethe was conscious and communicating with the team immediately after the incident but he was still transferred to the circuit medical centre for checks.

Subsequent to the race it was confirmed that Roald Goethe sustained two cracked lower vertebrae, a bruised sternum and significant bruising. He would later fly home and undergo surgery from which he is now recovering from at home with his family. We wish him a speedy recovery.

That now left just  three AMR cars in the race.

With the race now counting down into the final few hours the #99 car's midfield position would soon be compounded still further with an 85second 'stop and hold' penalty for a pit lane speed violation for MacDowall.

Finally, a chink of light came to the boys in blue (and red and yellow) when the GTE Pro class leading #51 Ferrari came unexpectedly into pit lane with rear end damage from an altercation with a barrier. On screen footage showed the mechanics working feverishly to get their car back out before the chasing pack, which included the #95 Young Driver car would be able to reduce their lap deficit (5 laps) to the now impaired Ferrari.

With just 90 minutes remaining in the race the #64 Corvette would reclaim the class lead but the #51 would return to the track in third position with the #95 now less than a lap in arrears to the #51. The chase to the flag in GTE Pro was well and truly on.

Now with just forty-five minutes of the race remaining the 'race demons' would deal their third and final blow to the Banbury team. Entering the Ford chiccane just like he had done many, many times before Paul Dalla Lana hit the apex on the first left hand element but as he went towards the upcoming right hander the car appeared to speed up, miss the corner completely and spear head first into the tyre wall that protect the outside corner concrete wall. The significant impact destroyed the front end of the #98 as well as spinning the car around.

The location of the crash just beyond the pit entry meant that it would have to complete an entire lap in order to get access to the pit lane again but the loss of function from both front wheels that would be impossible. Mercifully Dalla Lana exited the remnants of his car by himself and without apparent injury but the car was out of the race within 'sight' of the finish.

In the words of one commentator the phrase "what do Aston Martin Racing have to do to win at Le Mans?" echoed out across the airwaves leaving many fans and team members pondering for the answer. To have been so close but to then have it ripped away in that fashion was beyond cruel.

The last laps of the race after the incident with the #98 became a damage limitation exercise for the team, the remaining #95 and #99 cars were too far back to influence the cars that they were trying to catch and it was better to collect the points that the cars were due to collect in the present positions rather than push and risk more. With that the #95 would finish fourth in class with the #99 a distant fifth claiming 30 and 20 championship points respectively.

With the cars and team all now back at its new Banbury location emphasis now changes from what might have been in France to what could be at the next round of the 2015 FIA WEC Championship in Germany at the end of August. For some it will simply be picking up the pieces from where they left off and hoping for better fortune next time out but for others it will need a distinct change of tack.

The results of the race push the leading #99 GTE Pro car down to fourth behind the two AF Corse Ferrari's and #91 Porsche. Missing out on the double points that Le Mans would have given the #98 car also drops to fourth in class.

Onwards and upwards #TeamAMR !!

Photo Credits - Richard Leach

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