The Le Mans that never was for Aston Martin Racing

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

What a difference a day can make in the world of international motorsport after what should have been a position of opportunity for Aston Martin Racing after GTE Pro Qualifying on Thursday night left them with nothing come the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Saturday afternoon.

Another inter Qualifying- Race change in the GTE Pro cars balance of Performance saw the two lime coloured V8 Vantage GTE’s with less turbo boast, less fuel but also slightly less weight and on first appearances, this didn’t seem to be enough to make a dramatic impact as the governing ACO sought  to equalise Vantage’s with the Ford’s, Corvette’s, Ferrari’s and BMW’s in that class.

Not alone in these late adjustments, the first opportunity the teams had to experience and then deal with the changes was during the 45 minute morning warm up session on Saturday although neither of the two AMR Pro cars ran for long during this track availability.

After the pomp and pageantry of the starting procedure it was the duty of Nicki Thiim to control the start of the GTE field from his #95 car after Marco Sorensen placed her on pole position during the last Qulaifying session on Thursday night, which he did with seeming ease for the opening laps despite the close attention of Harry Tinknall’s Ford GT. Further back, Maxime Martin would be starting the #97 whilst the two GTE Am entered cars would be started by Paul Dalla Lana and Euan Hankey in the #98 and #90 TF Sport car respectively.

After surprisingly no incident or accident on the opening laps it soon became the case that whatever Tinknall couldn’t do the Corvette of Garcia could do better as the yellow American thunder bus swept past Thiim next time around for position. Equally struggling for race pace was the Belgium in the #97 who would end up making little to no progress in his opening stint. Even in these opening laps the performance differential between the AMR’s and the rest was strangely obvious with both the #95 and #97 dropping a second per lap.

Both Aston’s were running with new aero, the same that they ran with at the Official Test just two weeks before so data from these two cars should have come as no surprise to the race’s technical committee but then, all the other platforms had also ran 4-6 seconds per lap quicker during Qualifying than they had during Test Day so what was the difference?

Whilst all of this was going on at the front of the GTE field, the two Am class Aston’s were having to keep themselves busy at the rear of the pack, overtaking one another as the laps went by also seemingly unable to close the gap to pack ahead.

After about fifty minutes of running the four cars came in for their first round of stops which for all of them meant fuel only as the double stinting of their tyres would be mandatory throughout the race. The trouble is that after these stops problems began.

First the #98 car would be hobbled with a power steering issue that would see that car lose a significant early period of time in the garage as a repair was sought. Over twenty five minutes on the jacks inside the garage would 'kiss goodbye' to any hopes and aspirations that either Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy or Mathias Lauda had of standing on that immortal top step again this year.

Even in Pro, the prognosis wasn’t good as by the time the class had completed their opening stops with the #95 and #97 having dropped down to P13 and P16 respectively.  News would soon come from the team that the additional efforts needed to compensate for their loss of turbo boast was hurting their tyres - hurting them badly, especially on the second stint and that would be losing them over two seconds per lap. A puncture for the #98 right out at Maison Blanche rubbed salt into their wounds as a then Pedro Lamy eventually got the car back to pit lane.

As the first few drops of reported rain began to fall at the far side to the circuit, the Pro cars had fallen to the bottom of the Pro timing screen whilst Hankey had at least bucked that trend in elevating his TF sport car up to P2 in class as they chased a possible Class Championship should results go their way. Impatience and accidents along the intermittently damp track were bringing out countless Safety Cars and/or periods of Full Course Yellows as with the sun began to sink over the horizon.  As Jonny Adam reported back, tyre temperatures were becoming a problem for the cars during those caution periods as the track temperature dropped from the heat of the day.

Then, just before 22:00hrs, the #98 was back in the garage with more issues that would eventually see it stop out on track again and eventually be retired by the team.

Soon after came a period of near total disaster for the team as just after midnight, the #97 car with Alex Lynn found himself having a spin coming out of the Porsche Curves to end up making heavy rear ward contact with the tyre wall before, and just minutes later, and whilst the #97 was still in the garage bay being attended to, the #95 car with Marco Sorensen aboard had a terrifying high speed accident down towards Indianapolis. With the car snapping away from the Dane under braking for the sharp high hander, the car careered across the gravel trap at nearly full speed before striking the barrier heavily side on to drivers side - the worst possible scenario for the driver.

Mercifully, Sorensen was able to remove himself from the remnants of his car before being taken immediately to the medical centre for checks. That also meant for the immediate retirement of the #95 car from the race but more concern was rightly expressed towards the condition of driver rather than the car which looked pretty much destroyed.

Photo credit unknown

With still more than half the race length to go, the Aston Martin Racing stable was left with a much delayed #97 car and the #90 TF Sport car that was then still enjoying a top five in class run through much of the night. Then, almost following the pattern of the factory cars, an error from Hankey down at Mulsanne left the #90 high and dry in the gravel - thankfully without damage but languishing and awaiting rescue from those in orange suits.

That delay in rescue together with the visit after to the pit lane sadly confirmed the realisation that they would have absolutely no possibility of reaching out the GTE Am Drivers Championship in the final stages of the race on Sunday - especially with the leading Project 1 Porsche running strongly and  (by then) significantly in front of them.

At the fall of the chequered flag and of the 2018-19 Super-Season on Sunday afternoon, the results would paint a sad picture for us Aston Martin lovers with the #97 Pro car finished P44 out of the 47 confirmed finishes and the #90 TF Sport car an uncharacteristic P11 in class after the post race disqualification had been taken into account.

Whilst the two ageing normally aspirated V8 Vantage GTE Am Class cars saw out their final Le Mans and participation in the WEC at least their success was afflicted by either mechanical ailment or driver error but the same was certainly not the case for the two GTE Pro cars as they had their shot at the podium removed the moment the series imposed their post Qualifying BoP adjustment.

Whilst we have read many quotes from the six AMR Pro drivers about how 'disappointed' they were, the best response that we have seen has come from Dr Andy Palmer, CEO of Aston Martin Lagonda who posted these messages on Twitter little over twenty four hours after announcing his company's early participation with the ACO/WEC's new 'Hypercar' format.

"A torrid weekend on the racetrack for @astonmartin. Being beaten by the BoP decision rather than on the race track sits uneasily. I hope we can look forward to complete transparency of these adjustments in future for the sake of the fans and the credibility of the sport.

The power downgrade worked the tyres harder and we saw more degradation as our gladiator drivers pushed to the edge. The #95 crash was a big one but I’m pleased to say that @Marco_sorensen is ok. While on track didn’t go as we planned, the rest of the weekend has been wonderful

I’d like to thanks our customers for their support, especially those who took delivery of their DBS 59’s; to our fans, thank you for your support; to my staff for working above and beyond; and finally to @AMR_Official and @dking17 for never giving up - the spirit of @astonmartin"

As a consequence of the results from Le Mans, the #97 crew finish the World Endurance GTE Drivers Championship just ahead of the #95 crew in P8 and P9 respectively whilst in GTE Am, the TF Sport crew end up a remarkable P3 in their inaugeral WEC season with those in the #98 factory supported car down in P8.

All in all, it was obviously a disappointing end to the season for the new, turbo charged iteration of the Vantage GTE as well as the outgoing, extremely successful normally aspirated Vantage GTE but with the benefit of early announcements from the teams, look forward to next season with the prospect of at least four new 2019 Vantage GTE's being entered. Next season starts in little over 10 weeks time at Silverstone at the end of August.

To Aston Martin Racing, TF Sport and the WEC at large - thank you for another great season of highly competitive endurance racing. Whilst little snippets have been infuriating the vast majority of it has been a pleasure to watch and we look forward to doing it all over again next season!!

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