While you'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't think the previous Vantage was due a
, things were somewhat different for its track-based counterpart. That car was Aston's most successful ever racer, taking 36 of the marque's 50 international race wins to date, as well as multiple WEC titles. It also, of course, signed off in memorable fashion, claiming one of the most dramatic
in living memory, and ensuring it left a very large pair of racing boots for its successor to fill.
Despite going out on top, there was plenty that Aston Martin Racing and its partner Prodrive knew could be improved and, having raced at Le Mans since 2002, a new car was the perfect blank canvas on which to imprint its considerable experience.
For starters, the old Vantage GTE was inherently compromised by the road-going Vantage on which it was based - Prodrive's engineers having had no input in its design. Things were very different this time around, with the road and race cars designed and built in tandem, allowing for every last detail to be meticulously analysed.
One of the team's first challenges was adapting to the 4.0-litre turbocharged Mercedes-AMG V8 used in the 2018 car, a different proposition than the 4.5-litre naturally aspirated unit run previously. The new engine's 'hot V' layout meant heat management was key, with parts like the alternator and AC unit needing to be relocated to sit alongside the gearbox to protect them from the temperature.
Even when it came to the proportions of the car, nothing was off the table. While designing the intercooler housing, Prodrive's engineers realised that a little more length in the body would allow optimal placement. No problem, came the response from Gaydon, that facet of the road car's design not having yet been finalised; the adjustment wouldn't be an issue.
It isn't just the design of the car that's different this time around, though, many of AMR's technical partners are too. The GTE's 540hp and 520lb ft of torque are sent to the rear wheels via an Alcon multi-plate racing clutch (replacing the previous Sachs component) though the Xtrac six-speed sequential 'box remains. The 18-inch wheels are now sprung by custom Öhlins dampers (replacing Bilstein's four-way adjustable units), slowed by custom Alcon brakes (replacing the previous Brembo items, and allowing both pads and discs to be changed without removing the caliper) and wrapped in new Michelin tyres rather than the Dunlop rubber which carried its predecessor to glory.
When we sit down to discuss the new car, Prodrive's Head of Motorsport Operations, Paul Howarth, explains why. "Before we choose a technical partner we do a deep-dive into their abilities. We work for a long period of time identifying the best partner to give us the best performance, reliability, and the overall benefit to the team. Ohlins came to us with a technical package which really supports us, they really engaged in the development of the car and the chassis, they attend the tests, they're part of the team. Alcon do the same. Xtrack do the same. So they've got their skins' in the game as well. Have we have bad reliability in the past? Not really. But can they give us more performance? Yes."
Having taken over the running of AMR's team two years ago, Paul's experience lay mainly in rallying, having worked alongside the likes of Richard Burns and Petter Solberg. That background, he says, gave him a different approach when it came to GTE racing. "Attention to detail is key. Number one in any motorsport programme you have to look at every aspect and really focus on the detail. Whether it be reliability, design, car assembly, execution, those things were bigger disciplines in rallying than I found in GT racing. You don't get any second chances in the middle of Africa, and a mountain drop in Monte Carlo on sheet ice makes sure you get your tyre choice right."
Attention to detail during the race alone is not enough, though, Paul insists too that fastidious levels of preparation go into every facet of the team's performance. To the casual observer, Jonny Adam's penultimate lap heroics may have seemed like a combination of seat of the pants driving and good fortune, but to his team they were the culmination of months of analysis and preparation. "When you look at the errors that happen at Le Mans, they're all errors that can be predicted and thought about. You can think, 'what are all the errors over the past 20 years of this race', look at who makes the mistakes and why they make the mistakes, look at every other team and go 'what did they get wrong?' Then you condition your team to understand that they can be the gaps, and you have to close all those gaps."
"I always break Le Mans down into three sections, the start, the night, and the next day, and make a list for each. So whether it's a wet start or the pace is too fast or you're watching the lead cars and getting dragged into the wrong fights, making sure you're not hitting the kerbs, not causing damage, not going in the gravel traps, you can write a list and it goes on and on. So you condition the team.
"It's the same with the pit stops, settle in, be ready, rest when you can, hydrate, so you create a list there. Then there's the night, the guard can go down, the atmosphere changes, the emotion disappears which makes it tense, but you have to get through that night section with zero error. At Le Mans, the night, for me, is where the errors come. When there're incidents on the track, when there're slow sectors and all this, you have to be as switched on as possible, because every second counts. You have to be drilled in the team.
"Make sure your drivers are mentally rested enough to be ready for a dogfight, because it could come at any time in those 24 hours and the fight sometimes can be in the night or, like last year, in the last 20 minutes. But you want to take the team, the driver, and the car to a point where it's in the fight at the end and all that starts weeks and months before.
"Whether it's the conditioning of the pit crews, the conditioning of the drivers, working with the tyre company, are we going to change the engines after test week, what is our in-depth strategy going to be? Because then, going back to where I started, you've watched all the errors, you've considered them, and you've got a plan to minimise them. And if you can get all of those ingredients in the mix, it's like a perfect Gin & Tonic, if you can get it all like that, you'll get your outcome. Our cars were damaged and we repaired them, and we changed the brakes, and they still won. They still won."
Having already undergone 8,000 miles of testing, including two 30-hour sessions and endurance runs at Sebring, it's so far so good for the new car. It won't be until its rivals are unveiled, and the notorious Balance of Performance regulations are implemented that we'll know how it measures up to the competition.
Regardless, Paul and his team will be busy honing every aspect of their craft, giving themselves the best chance possible to take their opportunity when the moment arises. We'll be looking forward to seeing Darren Turner, Jonny Adam et al behind the wheel at Le Mans this summer, doing their best to make sure the Vantage is still in the fight come the end and maybe, just maybe, putting themselves on the top step of the podium once again.
Photos: Dafydd Wood