We observe the first round of WEC action from deep in Aston's pit garage
11:00, Sunday 17th April 2016
It’s race day, and in exactly an hour’s time the new season of the World Endurance Championship will be getting underway at Silverstone. The series – comprised of two prototype and two GT classes – has been growing in popularity in recent years. While Formula One struggles to be a two-horse race these days, the WEC actively works to keep competitors close.
Today’s winning LMP1 car might travel four times the distance that Lewis or Nico manage on an average Sunday, but the lead is unlikely to be quite so commanding as theirs usually is. That’s what makes endurance racing so exciting.
Words: Joe Holding
Photography: Nick Dungan & Photo©AdrenalMedia.com
Months of painstaking work has been leading up to the looming six-hour marathon, and with only nine events on the calendar all the teams know how crucial it is to extract the maximum amount of performance out of their cars this afternoon.
Except, it seems, for Aston Martin Racing, who for some reason have thought it wise to invite TG along to watch the drama unfold from inside their garage. The garage where all the mechanics, engineers and strategists will be frantically running around in an effort to gain every possible second on their rivals between the start of the race and the chequered flag. Best not get in the way.
There’s no sugar-coating it: qualifying yesterday went badly. As rain fell on the chilly circuit, the two Pro cars (cutting edge stuff) and the single Am car (last year’s model) finished stone-dead last, save for Rebellion’s #12 LMP1 and AF Corse’s #51 GTE Pro, who both failed to set the required two-lap average.
But the team isn’t worried. Grid position might be key in F1, but here it’s less important. And as well as that, the cold, damp track is alien territory for Dunlop’s debutant tyre.
“We were caught out a little bit just with the really unique period of track condition and temperature,” explains Aston’s #97 driver Richie Stanaway. In the dry, there’s no way they’ll be 10 seconds down on their Michelin-running rivals…
11:30 – Green flag in half an hour
As the grid walk comes to an end, the fans down on the main straight are ushered off the circuit, and the final pre-race proceedings can begin. The national anthem is followed by a Tornado flypast, and the jet roars over the track as the mechanics jog back to the garage with all their kit loaded up on trollies.
With just minutes to go until the start, it’s around now that the drivers can really focus on the task ahead. At Aston, John Camilleri is the man in charge of looking after their physical condition. Are they in the zone? “Let’s hope so,” he replies. If not, there’s little he can do about it now…
12:00 – Go! Go! Go!
With the formation laps complete, the race can begin. As the LMP1 cars launch into the first corner, Darren Turner and Fernando Rees take the fight to the other GTE Pro cars at the back of the field.
That’s easier said than done, though: the GTE Am cars can be a nuisance at this stage of the race, something Turner discovers to his cost as he loses a place to team KCMG’s Porsche 911 RSR, piloted by Wolf Henzler. Fortunately for the 42-year-old, it isn’t long before he regains the position, but some valuable time has been lost to the two Ford GTs…
12:16 – Ferrari first and last
There are muted fist-pumps in the Aston garage as the Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni enters the pit lane for a three-minute stop-go penalty, earned yesterday as a result of their problems in qualifying.
Ferrari’s cars - competing with team AF Corse - look streets ahead of the rest of the field, a point proven as their other 488 (the one not stricken by penalty) stretches its lead at the front of the GT field. With its garage-mate playing catch-up for the rest of the afternoon, this might just open up the podium for everyone else.
12:55 – Disaster for Aston’s #97
He’s got us a 30 second penalty. It’s criminal. He knows not to come anywhere near me right now.
The first wave of pit stops arrive just shy of the hour mark, and after a solid opening stint Fernando Rees makes way for Richie Stanaway. But there’s a problem: Stanaway is forced to immediately return to the pits to serve a stop-go penalty which his teammate collected for exceeding track limits. That’s about 30 seconds lost; a lifetime in this sport.
John Gaw – AMR’s Managing Director – is livid. “It’s criminal,” he explains, adding that Rees “knows not to come anywhere near me right now.” The atmosphere in the garage has become very tense, very quickly.
13:05 – Better news for the team
John Gaw returns (presumably having given his driver a significant ticking-off) and gathers the mechanics together. They performed the quickest stops of anyone in their class a few minutes ago, taking eight, five and three seconds respectively out of the Fords, Ferraris and the lone Porsche.
During a stop, the car is fuelled as the drivers are changed, and only after the fuel nozzle is released can the tyres be switched as well. The entire process takes about 50 seconds, and one mechanic says they’re “pleased” to have an edge on their rivals. The twice-a-week practice sessions have paid off.
13:07 – Turner overtakes the Fords
As the mechanics pat themselves on the back, Darren Turner catches and dispatches the Ford GTs in quick succession. They were the big unknown coming into the season, and after qualifying yesterday, there was still no telling how quick they were going to be. As it turns out, its advantage to the Vantage in terms of pace.
As everyone retreats for lunch, one person is left cheering in front of the TV screen: Darren Turner’s wife. Her husband is having a blinder, and is now hunting down Dempsey-Proton’s Porsche. She’s enthralled, and food can wait.
13:43 – #95 climbs to P2
Ever wondered what racing drivers eat? A continental breakfast is followed by a lunch of mashed potato and Yorkshire puddings, after which Marco Sorensen is given his three-lap warning as his teammate’s double stint comes to an end. The main point of discussion between driver and engineer? How tight the seatbelt should be.
And then, drama! With Turner closing in on Michael Christensen’s #77 Porsche, a mistake in the last corner sees him slide off the track, losing valuable seconds in the process. The only blight on an otherwise fine day at the office.
And then, more drama! Just moments after the error, he coasts past the Porsche as it becomes clear that the Porsche has a problem. It’s a huge stroke of luck, but no one in the garage seems to care. Aston are into second place in class.
14:00 – Brendon Hartley crashes out of LMP1 lead
Normally this is the stage of the race where things begin to settle down, but the action continues to flow. Soon after Mathias Lauda replaces Paul Dalla Lana in Aston’s Am car (he arrives with a broken mirror, so the whole door is replaced), there’s a big collision out on track.
It’s Porsche’s Brendon Hartley, who had been leading the second placed LMP1 car by an enormous 46 seconds when he ran into Gulf Racing’s Michael Wainwright. The replays draw gasps from everyone in the garage: it might be a different race, but there’s still concern for fellow competitors. Luckily, both drivers climb out of their cars unharmed.
Full course yellow flags are waving, and as the wreckage is dealt with, it becomes clear that one of Audi’s cars has stopped right in the middle of the track. This is going to be a long delay…
14:29 – The race resumes
As green flags send the field on their way again, Team Principal Paul Howarth wanders over, unashamedly sporting an AMR bobble hat for the nippy pit lane conditions. No one dares criticise the boss…
While Aston’s #95 is running in P2, #97 is much worse off after the earlier penalty was followed by a suspected steering problem, which prompted a lengthy pit-stop with Richie Stanaway at the wheel.
Can Marco Sorensen at least put the #95 in a winning position before fellow Dane Nicki Thiim takes over? Not according to Howarth. “We’re pushing now, there’s not much left in reserve,” he says. “If we can get on the podium, we’ll be happy.” Despite their three-minute stop-go punishment, it sounds like the other Ferrari is the favourite for second place.
15:15 – Three down, three to go
Passing the halfway stage, the GT class sees Ferrari leading Aston Martin, the two Ford GTs, the other Ferrari and finally Aston’s other car. Dempsey-Proton’s Porsche lost several laps earlier on and look to be out of contention.
And then out of nowhere, the Safety Car is deployed. One of Toyota’s LMP1 cars is shedding badly at the right-rear, leaving all kinds of debris on the circuit. It comes at a bad time for Aston’s Am car, which is forced into the pits for a brief injection of fuel just so it can keep lapping under the safety car.
15:51 – Ferrari close the gap
Ford, however, aren’t proving to be as much of a threat as first feared this afternoon.
As Sam Bird and Davide Rigon lead the way in the GTE Pro category, the second Ferrari of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado is beginning to come into play. Their fastest lap time so far is a second and a half quicker than Aston’s, and over the duration of the race that raw speed is quickly making up for the three-minute deficit they started out with.
Ford, however, aren’t proving to be as much of a threat as first feared this afternoon. Andy Priaulx’s #67 Ford GT tags the remaining LMP1 Porsche, costing them more time. With Paul Dalla Lana climbing to P4 in the Am class, a podium in each category looks on for Aston.
16:31 – Nicki Thiim replaces Marco Sorensen
After a mammoth drive nearing two and a half hours, Marco Sorensen pits to make way for birthday boy Nicki Thiim. Considering the length of the stint in his first race of the season, Aston’s fitness man John Camilleri is immediately on the case to assess his driver.
He explains that hydration is the key to staving off fatigue, and that sometimes an energy gel is supplied during a pit-stop to keep a driver sharp. No doubt there will be plenty of those dished out during the Le Mans 24 Hours in June…
17:28 – Ferrari prevail
Nicki Thiim has held on to second place admirably, but in the last 20 minutes a 15-second gap to the AF Corse’s #51 Ferrari behind has closed to just a few tenths. It tries a move on the outside line, but Thiim is able to keep it at bay one last time before conceding defeat and heading to the pits for a final stop.
There are no groans of disappointment in the garage though. It has been coming for a while, and a third place finish would still exceed many people’s expectations within the team. Half an hour to go.
17:34 – Calamity for #97!
Scrap that! There are sighs of frustration everywhere now. AMR didn’t suffer a single retirement last year, but there’ll be no repeat of that in 2016 as Richie Stanaway’s engine fails on track.
It later transpires that Aston Martin were aware of the problem about half way through the race, and they’ll only find out what the issue was after they’ve stripped the car down to investigate. “For sure it was something mechanical,” admits John Gaw. It’s a day to forget for Stanaway and Rees.
18:00 – The chequered flag falls
With the Ferraris comfortably in P1 and P2, Nicki Thiim rounds the final bend to claim the final place on the GTE Pro podium. Aston’s team rushes out to the pit wall to greet their car, although the cheers are drowned out by the ear-splitting noise of the engine thundering past mere feet away. How anyone can tolerate being inside it for more than a few minutes is incredible.
In the Am class, AMR climbed up to second before the end, meaning the team has a place on both GTE podiums in the first event of the new season. Cue wild celebrations as Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda and Paul Dalla Lana mimic Darren Turner, Marco Sorensen and Nicki Thiim by spraying gallons of champagne on the garage personnel below.
18:53 – A good day’s work
Back at AMR’s hospitality centre, there’s a mixed atmosphere. The excitement of getting a car on the podium has been dampened somewhat by the misfortunes of the other GTE car, which retired so close to the finish.
And despite making good progress over the winter, the fact remains that the Ferraris are more than a second faster as things stand. “I’ve never seen such a big gap,” says John Gaw, shaking his head. “They’ve got to do something about that.” They (the FIA) will do something about it, with performance balances set to come in before the showpiece event at Le Mans in two months’ time.
“Especially after the last two days, it’s a victory I would say,” concludes Nicki Thiim, who can now enjoy his 27th birthday properly. “To be on the podium in the first WEC race of the year is a really good present. Really tremendous.”
Over on his teammates’ table, a generously iced birthday cake awaits him. Perhaps you can have your cake and eat it after all…