Still life in the old V8 Vantage GTE yet!

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Well, if there were any fears as to the quality of racing that the World Endurance Championship's transitional 'Super-season' would offer us, the opening round of the new season at Spa Francorchamps last weekend well and truly put those to bed!.

With all the arguments and discussions about the rights and wherefores behind them, Aston Martin Racing and Partner team TF Sport returned to the WEC with their 2016 specification V8 Vantage GTE's to compete in the highly competitive GTE Am class against some very competent teams running much newer machinery. It was only right to think that both the #98 and #90 cars would be 'up against it come last Saturday afternoons green light and indeed throughout the weekend's opening Free Practice and Qualifying sessions that looked exactly to be the case!

Reigning GTE AM Champions Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda of course looked the most stable package out of the two with only minimal changes arising over the winter break (mainly tyre related) to what they had till then been used to. TF Sport however were stepping up another level from their class runners up position in the European Le Mans Series last year, with a revised driver line up and new tyres and for times over Thursday and Friday that was all too evident for such a small squad.

Free Practice 1 was all about bedding in the cars, drivers and team into the methodology of racing once again with both cars posting mid table times nearly two seconds behind the more powerful and newer Porsche 911 RSR runners. Free Practice 2 was much the same, the #98 running slightly quicker as both AMR teams suffered with tyre pressure/set up issues with their new Michelin tyres that hindered their times. That was quite apparent upon the face of Salih Yoluc with his #90 car as he would continually 'wash out' coming out of Eau Rouge and up into Raidilion and having lap times deleted. From Euan Hankey's point of view, Yoluc simply wasn't turning the wheel enough to make the tyres work for him to hit the apexes!

Qualifying for the two teams came a stark reminder as to how fast the cars of their rivals were as even Pedro Lamy and Dalla Lana (best of the bunch last year) only qualified in P3 with TF Sport a disappointing (for them) P6 but like any other endurance race - qualifying is only the start of the story!

With Saturday's race again under a deep blue sky and bright sunshine the now 34 cars took the green flag that would start the 'Super-season' but the pack was soon hurdled back into a pack as the GTE Am Gulf Porsche suffered from an altercation with a barrier bringing out the first Safety Car. For the two AMR teams there was a clear difference in strategy as AMR elected to run Lauda (Silver) from the start whilst TF Sport opened with Yoluc (bronze) and that had the effect of Yoluc seemingly going backwards whereas in reality he had also moved forward to P5 in class before he handed over to WEC debutant Charlie Eastwood.

With the #98 car now running their Bronze driver, that allowed Eastwood to catch and pass them for the lead which was being earned on pure pace and race craft rather than accident and incident from the others and for the next couple of hours, the two Astons proved their worth against the more  powerful yet fragile and the differing driver ability line up of their advisories.

The main spectacle for the GTE Am class came in the final hour of the race with the #98 car just ahead of the #90 as another Safety Car required a quick decision from team boss Tom Ferrier as to whether to pit early or not. Quoting the rule book over the radio to Eastwood, and with Hankey towering over his shoulder suited and booted, it soon became abundantly clear to others standing nearby that you weren't allowed to pit within the first three laps of a Safety Car!! Once that point had been reached the #90 was quickly pitted for Hankey to chase Lamy to the flag.

Coming into the Bus stop for the penultimate time both the #98 and #90 were literally side by side but the canny driving experience of the Portuguese driver slowly (by fairly) pushed Hankey wide upon the exit forcing him to back out of the throttle - a move that ultimately won the #98 crew the race by just 0.221 seconds next time around.

For Aston Martin Racing, that was a much deserved win - but for TF Sport it was more than that as they proved (once again) that the 'little team' could compete with the bigger guns, a situation that they  had already proved in the first instance last year winning in ELMS at the opening round!

For both teams, they collectively proved that with the right package you could out do their rivals performance advantages on track as each Vantage finished one lap ahead of their nearest rival! Long live the V8 Vantage GTE!

Next time out is of course at Le Mans - lets see what happens there!

Photo credit (podium) - WEC

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