All comes good (mainly) for Aston Martin Racing in WEC opener

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Last weekend saw the opening round of the 2016 World Endurance Championship at Silverstone with a reduced Aston Martin Racing entry this year with just two GTE Pro cars and a singular GTE Am car being entered.

This race also saw the introduction of the new aero regulations for the GTE Pro cars for the first time in a competitive environment following their first 'gathering' at the Prologue in France last month where the performance of the new Ferrari 488 and Ford GT didn't really become obvious! It also sees the reintroduction of the requirement to run a year old car platform within the GTE Am class but more importantly for the Aston Martin Racing, it saw the first competitive run out of their V8 Vantage GTE's on their new Dunlop tyres.

We understood that despite all the team's pre season test mileage very little was completed using the Dunlop wet or even the new for 2016 intermediate Dunlop tyres - there was apparently some wet running at Paul Ricard earlier in the year but conditions were such that aqua-planing was an issue. The wet Free practice sessions on Friday at least gave the three cars and drivers a chance to drive on both types of wet tyre even though the results weren't fantastic compared with their Michelin shod opponents - it was performance data if nothing else.

The final Free Practice session on Saturday morning was a 'wash out' with heavy rain cum snow falling onto an already wet track - the few cars that did go out quickly came back in after one of the Toyota LMP1's went off into the gravel bringing out a red flag. With track and air temperatures being in their low single figures the risk of damage was enormous and the session timed out with out any further running.

That meant that the next session was qualifying with the GTE cars being first out just after the completion of the ELMS qualifying sessions so with the rain then having at least stopped the track would begin to dry - a mixture of full wets and then intermediates would be the call.

At the end of the twenty minute qualifying session and with an combined lap time of two nominated drivers determining the starting order that would see Fernando Rees and Richie Stanaway claim the in-house honours over their #95 sister GTE Pro car of Nicki Thiim, Marco Sorensen and Darren Turner to start 5th and 6th respectively in class just ahead (on the grid) of the AMR #98 GTE Am car of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda.

A disappointing conclusion to their first qualifying of 2016 reflected in the comments from Paul Howarth Team Principal of Aston Martin Racing who said, “The unique and unseasonable conditions have certainly contributed to today’s performance. We’re confident that tomorrow’s race will be a very different story. We know what we need to do to improve”.

Come Sunday morning at least the skies were clearer and the circuit warmer and drier ready for the start of the six hour race from mid day. In keeping with all WEC/ACO rules race meetings there was the important formality of the pit walk and autograph session beforehand that once again was lapped up and appreciated by the many fans present.

It was somewhat uncharacteristic to see all three AMR cars towards the rear of the grid followed only by the two Rebellion LMP1 cars (who had had their own technical woes) as well as the #51 Bruni/Collado AF Corse Ferrari following its overnight engine change - a change that would also earn the car a three minute stop and hold penalty.

Running on a dry track for the first time over the weekend the 33 cars were waved off by American actor and racing driver Patrick Dempsey onto the first of two siting laps behind the Audi Safety Car before being 'released' at the stroke of noon. The LMP cars quickly separated themselves from the GTE categories behind them such is the power differential between the classes before beginning to lap them after only 3 or 4 laps.

The new of for 2016 Ferrari 488's and Ford GT's quickly put distance between themselves and the chasing Porsche's, Astons and Corvette. Now we would see just how quick these new iteration cars would be after their apparent sandbagging at the Prologue - they were fast - very fast.

By the end of the first hour racing patterns had settled down and the AMR Pro cars were lapping a consistent 2:00:00 or there abouts lap times in 5th and 6th places for the #95 and #97 cars respectively. The #98 Am car with Lamy at the wheel had picked off a couple of places to hold 4th in their class.

First to pit would be the #95 just before the hour mark quickly followed afterwards by the #97 and #98.

During his opening stint Rees would be pinged for exceeding track limits in his #97 but as he was then out of the car Stanaway would have to serve the stop and go penalty awarded to them - the penalty would also drop them down the order.

Further drama would again hit the #97 when Stanaway reported a vibration on the front of the Valero liveried car thus needing an earlier than expected stop. Such was the rush was that Rees had to hurry in getting his suit, helmet and gloves back on in time to accept the change over. Upon more detailed inspection it was determined to be just tyre pick up from the warming track and was released back into the race immediately prior to the first FCY for a hybrid incident with one of the Audi LMP1's.

It would have appeared that due to the improvement in track conditions the performance of the new for 2016 confidential Dunlop tyres aboard the AMR's were also improving as Turner was able to catch and then pass former driving partner and stable mate Stefan Mucke in one of the new Ford GT's before being promoted to second in class thanks to a puncture aboard the #77 Porsche.

A second FCY would again neutralise the race as the #1 Porsche LMP1 clattered into the side of #86 Gulf Racing Porsche taking them both out of the race in a sizeable way at the Village complex. The untimely removal of the #86 would also benefit the #98 AMR as it was running ahead of them at the time of the incident - fortunately for all nobody was hurt in the quite sizeable incident.

At the half way point of the race the #95 Dane Train was comfortably holding second in class behind the #71 Ferrari but importantly in front of both the Ford GT's that were then appearing to wane in performance whilst the #97 was still playing catch up with the #51 Ferrari. In GTE Am the #98 AMR was hot on the heels of the #88 Abu-Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche for third in class just eight seconds behind.

The GTE field would continue in this format over the next hour or so with only a brief Safety Car to recover debris on track from a blown Toyota LMP1 tyre coming in the way of uninterrupted running under what was now a near clear sky and balmy Spring temperatures. Coming into the final hour what was apparent was the form being found by the #51 Ferrari in reducing its deficit of over twenty seconds to the #95 AMR ahead of it.

With just half an hour remaining to the end and with Stanaway at the wheel, the #97 Vantage suffered from what looked to be component failure within its mighty V8 engine with white smoke seen billowing out of the off side bank exhaust. Stanaway managed to park the car without leaving too much  oil on the racing surface (only needing local yellows) before he calmly caught a spectator shuttle bus back to the paddock!

With the #51 having obviously flung some unwanted sandbags form the cockpit not only did the #51 catch and pass the #95 AMR it then went on to put a further 33 seconds on it by the time the chequered flag was shown. A matter for the Balance of Performance Committee at the FIA surely?

Despite having controlled second in class for some time the #95 team could rightly feel disappointed with this result but a solid third position at the end of the opening race whilst looking back at the teams 'struggle' in qualifying should be taken as the positive it is. Turner commented, “That was a huge change from yesterday and after starting the race in the #95 I had a good two hours in the car. The car ran perfectly and I’m both happy and encouraged by the performance of our new Dunlop tyres".

There was also joy on the GTE Am side of the AMR garage as the #98 Lamy/Dalla Lana/Lauda car come home P2 in class and a lap down to the winning Ferrari. Lauda commented, “I’m really happy with the end result. We had a tough qualifying but I knew that Pedro, Paul and I would be really strong as a team. Dunlop did a good job and the tyres were very consistent. It’s great to start the season like this and to bring two Aston Martin Racing entries on to the podium is fantastic”.

Speaking of the team’s performance at the season’s first event, Paul Howarth Aston Martin Racing Team Principal said, “With the team learning and continuing to develop the V8 Vantage GTE with new partners TOTAL and Dunlop, a third place in GTE Pro and second in Am constitutes a result that we’re happy with. There’s more progress to be made but we’re comfortable with our performance at this stage of the season”.

The next race in the 2016 FIA WEC calendar comes up in just under three weeks time at Spa Francorchamps, Belgium - a race that is typically seen as a precursor to the big event at Le Mans just a month later.

Photo credits - Richard Leach / AMR

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