I don’t know about you, but I am absolutely gutted that there will not be another instalment in the Audi versus Peugeot battle at Le Mans this year.
Their intense rivalry produced some amazing racing that will be remembered for years to come. So it was a great shame that the French manufacturer succumbed to financial difficulties and recently pulled the plug on their endurance racing programme.
Thankfully, Toyota has filled the void left by Peugeot, and in doing so, has gone someway in saving this year’s event from becoming a bit of a borefest, even if they are unlikely to challenge Audi over the full distance of the race.
But of course, Le Mans isn’t just about manufacturers battling for overall supremacy. While it is certainly true that there are few – if any – that can mount a serious challenge to Audi, actually finishing the race is a massive achievement in itself. Just ask Aston Martin.
Their (over) ambitious AMR-One LMP1 prototype was an unmitigated disaster last year, with both cars only managing a total of six laps thanks to engine issues, before being consigned to the dustbin of racing history.
It was painfully slow, unreliable and, most important of all, it was humiliating for such a prestigious brand whose reputation for quality and performance took a sizeable beating following its lacklustre showing at the Circuit de la Sarthe last year.
But that was twelve months ago, and Aston Martin are returning to the French classic once again, albeit with far more realistic ambitions as they step down to what is undoubtedly its natural home in the GT categories, fielding a pair of Vantage GTEs that have the potential to challenge for class honours.
A reworked version of the V8-powered car that made its racing debut in 2008, the Vantage GTE has proved competitive in the first two rounds of the FIA World Championship this year, having led at both Sebring and Spa before a loose wheel and gearbox issue hindered their progress at each respective event.
On the basis of these showings, the Prodrive-run Vantage – in the hands of long-time works drivers Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke and relative newbie, Adrian Fernandez – has proved to be a very fast package. But as everyone knows, the less time a car spends in the pits, the less time competitors have to catch up – reliability and consistency are crucial for a good result at Le Mans.
It was encouraging, therefore, to see both Aston Martins performing competitively and reliably during the Le Mans Test Day last week, with 115 laps completed between the two Vantages without any technical mishaps and both setting the pace in their respective classes for much of the day.
With a lap time of 4:01.128, Messrs Turner, Mucke and Fernandez were the fifth quickest in the GTE Pro category, having focused their efforts on dialling the car into the circuit and making it as competitive as possible within a range of conditions, rather than going for outright pace.
The opposite could be said of their GTE Am counterparts who dominated the amateur class in both sessions of the day and ultimately set the quickest time across both GT categories with a blistering time of 3:58.938 – 1.2 seconds ahead of reigning Le Mans GTE Am champions, Larbre Corvette.
Pedalled by Allan Simonsen and ADAC GT Masters competitors Christoffer Nygaard and Kristian Poulsen, this all-Danish driver line-up looks particularly potent in a car that is being run by the experienced Young Driver outfit. The early signs are that not only are they a good bet for pole, but they are also favourites for Am silverware as well.
But how will their GTE Pro colleagues fair?
Well that is difficult to predict as each entry – of which there are only nine this year – has a shot of glory, which should make the category one of the most interesting to follow at Le Mans this weekend.
Aston Martin Racing’s managing director John Gaw suggests they will be happy with a top-five finish; a classic case of downplaying their chances following the humiliation of aiming for the stars and missing by an astronomical unit with the AMR-One last year.
But there is every possibility that if they can reach a level of reliability similar to that which guided them to back-to-back class victories in 2007 and 2008 – when they were the least frequent visitors to the pits – then they could well achieve a podium finish on their return to GT racing at Le Mans – right where they belong.