Silverstone WEC Tourist Trophy Race & Prodrive visit

Silverstone 6 Hour WEC Tourist Trophy

 
Adventures in dreamland…
 
Words by James Edmonds. Photographs by Thomas Murray and James Edmonds

(This story appeared in edited form on www.fourtitude.com)

 

 
 
Having won a work trip with Audi which would take my wife and me to London and Paris was almost excitement enough. If I flew in a few days ahead of the rest of the winners, it would also afford a rare chance to see some old friends and family at the same time.


 
So imagine my tormented dilemma when I found out that the WEC season-opening Tourist Trophy race was on the weekend I would be there and of all places, at Silverstone…literally a stone’s throw from my cousin’s house where we would be staying!

A quick call to my good friend Tom didn’t help matters: “Tom! What do I do? Ditch my own mum for the race or do the right thing?”  Mother had already let it be known that she would be none too pleased if I followed my heart, but without pausing for breath Tom knew in an instant, “Go to the race man!”
As luck (?) would have it, my wife had finals the week of the trip and the kids were in the midst of school tests too which led to another call. “Tom…err…do you wanna go to Europe for an all expenses paid trip with Audi?”  Stupid question really.

Tom at work

The Easter bank holidays actually played into our hands and I was able to reshuffle some plans which allowed us to take in Friday and Saturday at the track, while on Sunday Tom would attend the race (a literal washout as it turned out) whilst I placated mum and had a lovely lunch at an olde worlde pub with the family.

Fairly impressive ‘Wing’

Photographer Tom and I arrived at Silverstone in time for Friday practice and were immediately taken aback by the sheer scope of the track and its facilities. I had been here many times before – last time for a Group C race back when Martini liveried Lancias were battling thundering Aston Nimrods and Porsche were debuting the seminal 956! The cars were spectacular but the circuit was more like Sebring than the glamorous place that it is today.  Some naysayers still call it a dusty old airfield, but I have to say that I was well impressed with the old girl’s new ball gown and would say that it is one of the best presented, best run and cleanest tracks I have yet visited. The ‘Wing’ complex has to be seen to be believed!  The racing fraternity glitterati on hand in the vast media centre made it better than Ocsar night for the two of us!

Seeing the new Audi R18 e-tron quattros in action during Friday practice gave little hint as to what can be expected in this year’s top P1 class as the WEC looks to be one of the most hotly contested championships since the classic Audi/Peugeot battles of a few years ago. Seeing Toyota back with a very quick TS040 and Porsche entering the fray with the menacing 919, Audi will have to have their wits about them this year if they are to repeat as world champions once again.

New rule changes and cars so complex that the drivers are said to be at their mental capacitive limit means that we may see racing of a different flavor. The now obligatory penalties for technical infringements as have lately been seen in F1  being difficult to escape means that the drivers will need more than ever before to be able to walk and chew gum – or in this case drive at the limit whilst obeying a plethora of commands from their engineers. Let’s hope that the fuel usage rules don’t impinge on the quality of the show from the fan perspective.

With  Ulrich Baretzky

One person who has relished the new challenge is of course head of engine development at Audi Sport, Ulrich Baretzky. Not one to neither rest on his laurels nor revel in the past (Never Follow) the charismatic designer of sexy diesel engines told us about the new power trains. “After all these years just chasing power which is nice for drivers – but not for our environment – from this year on we are searching for efficiency. It’s a completely different approach but the right one and a very challenging one for engineers. From this point of view I am very happy about…not about details…but the general direction is absolutely the way to go.”


Coming from a racer’s racer this might sound like a corporate sound bite but when challenged he defends his stance, “No, it’s completely different because the more efficient you make an engine the more powerful it becomes. All of this technology that we are developing is for the sake of our road cars at the end of the day. The new European CO2 fleet average standard makes this a huge challenge. This goes in hand with consumption and so we are absolutely working in the right direction.


“The cars on track have to work to maximum fuel flow and an average consumption that you have to fulfill with a plus/minus margin of two percent per lap. If you exceed that you have another two laps to get it down to the average.” says Baretzky. Is this year’s engine in any way similar to last year’s and what is the gestation period? “The engine is completely new. We need about 20 months. OK…the orientation is to get as efficient as possible. This is a clear direction but you don’t know where you will end up. You try to see if you are good enough and efficient enough and you go down this road, then you add up at the end and say, ‘This is where I am'”

Although he describes his V12 diesel as a ‘monument that you make once in your life’ he is quick to concede that although it was efficient for its time when compared to the petrol engines that came before, it is now old technology. He also quipped about the pressure to deliver a successful power train after so many previous winners. I wouldn’t bet against him though!

Darren Turner

Darren Turner who was in charge of the #97 Aston Martin Vantage GTE and celebrating his and AMR’s 10 year anniversary won’t have to worry about the complexities of the P1 cars though and he seemed quite happy about that fact at the press conference. “It sounds fairly complicated inside the (P1) cars. At least for us GT drivers it’s very easy: Just flat out from the word go. As you can see from last year the competition was very close between all the manufacturers and there’s no reason why it won’t be the same this year,” Darren said.  “Some teams have made a bit more progress over the winter and after free practice we’ve got some time to find but I’m sure the team will get it back.”

I am The Stig

Also alongside DT at the interview session was Ben Collins, better known to most as ‘The Stig’ from that most notorious of shows, ‘Top Gear’. What made the moment even more unusual was the fact that sitting right there were (reportedly) two ‘Stigs’. As legend has it DT was the faceless driver on the record-lap setting DBR9 episode. Rumor denied of course, but after getting goose bumps from seeing the actual Tourist Trophy, replete with names such as Nuvolari, Caracciola, Brooks, Moss, Hill, Bell and McNish, I was granted a ‘Stig’ pose for the camera from Mr. Collins!

 

With Aston Martin Racing headquartered at Prodrive just up the road, the Aston factory not much further and Darren himself living on the doorstep, this was really a true home-event and Aston was eager to put on a good show. Despite poor pace in practice, the team was confident of a good wet weather package, which is what they would need come race day! Winning the GTE Am championship last year, but narrowly missing out on the Pro honors means that AMR will be looking again to fight from the front and have an even more ambitious lineup this year than last.


During free practice the LMP1 Porsches were very quick with their low-drag package, but were obviously running more power than allowed under race conditions when they were forced to show their true speed during qualifying. Although Tom Kristensen secured the fastest qualifying lap, the car started in P2 behind the Toyota by a mere .005 seconds as a result of the driver team average-lap-time rule now in place, whereby the aggregate time of all drivers is used and not the fastest lap as was the case up until 2012.

Anthony Davidson

Ex- F1 Englishman Anthony Davidson driving for Toyota was grappling like all the P1 pilots to get to grips with all the new technology and information that has to be processed. “It’s similar to the Formula One drivers and the need for increased driver capacity to get the cars around the track. You’re still fighting every lap and still pushing as hard as ever before but you’re always having to adjust settings and keep an eye on the fuel meter as well. It’s interesting. It’s definitely challenging and I’m sure some people will struggle to understand it, but it’s just another skill in another era of motor racing.”

 
Mark Webber offers thoughts

Mark Webber seemed pleased to be here and looked very much in charge and focused on the task at hand, giving some firm direction to his team mates when in the garage on pit lane.I asked him how much fun he was having being back in the more relaxed atmosphere of endurance racing after his long career in Formula 1 but it seems that modern endurance racing is anything but. Mark explains, “I just wanna go racing! I haven’t done any racing yet so I’m looking forward to seeing how that will unfold. In testing it’s been rewarding but not as rewarding as racing, whether it’s in Formula 1, sports cars, rally cars, whatever…it’s all about racing so I’m looking forward to it.

 
“For me, I’ve always tried to enjoy my racing – Formula 1 obviously is pretty intense and it was a busy weekend. We were scrutinized with every single application of the steering wheel or brakes and throttle in every session and it’s not too dissimilar here in some ways but there’s more of a team aspect to it because you share the car with other drivers. The endurance element is something very different from the aggressive format of F1 racing, so the detail it affects breeds a little less…not effort…but it’s just more rounded, so mentally I’m enjoying it a little more. I enjoyed my (F1) career, but it’s important for me to keep racing and this is the next best thing – to drive an LMP1 Porsche. There’s not many drivers who wouldn’t want to have this seat, so I’m very lucky.”
 
Nine-time Le Mans winning legend Tom Kristensen was also not shy about voicing his opinions about the new car and the changes to ‘his’ driver team after he had qualified. “It’s very challenging and at times it can be quite stressful as there’s a different systematic you go through when you leave the pit lane; when you’re going on the out lap and also when you’re coming into the pits and different information you have to take and give. At the same time you have to watch different parameters when you’re driving – trying to hit targets. We are very targeted for every lap. Particularly now at qualifying we have no tolerance for the fuel flow. Coming into the last chicane it becomes very difficult to get it right.

TK. Mr Le Mans to you and me
“What can I say? It’s challenging. The cars are incredibly agile driving and now with the hybrid we can boost from zero. In a way you can say last year was a handicap from the regulations as we were only allowed to boost the front of the car after 120 kph and now from zero it makes the car very agile. With the narrow tires we have this year it gives better aerodynamics but also a little less grip. So at low speeds you feel the slip angle – you have a little more agility in the car, more feedback, but a little less grip. But then when you’re coming out of corners or getting out of some trouble, it’s easier. The car is agile.  And look – we are faster than last year’s qualifying with a lot less energy, so it says for sure the engineers have done a good job. It’s supposed to be slower, but we’re not slower!”
 
As a driver with more decorations than many others put together, Tom is now staring down at the wrong end of his career, but he is not deterred. I asked him if he preferred the older style of race car where he was allowed to just go hell-for-leather to the ultra high tech cars that have now emerged. “I play my own bingo – the bingo is that I try to put things away which I can’t influence anyway, but there’s things I have to know, so the older you get you try to be calm about the right things, but for sure even at my age I can still be stressed at times and that is what I try to work against.” 
 
Breakfast of champions

Tom continues with a quip that might have come out when he was driving single seaters, “The most issue I have to think about is my weight because everyone walking around – there’s not much flesh on them and that is a very important parameter in this new category.” (I was glad not to be a driver at that point as TK had only that morning made fun of my breakfast – coffee, Red Bull and a big waffle, but in my defense, I had literally just arrived after an overnight flight!) 

 
Last year TK had to deal with the breaking up of his long standing team when Dindo Capello decided to unlace his shoes and then this year came the surprise retirement of his other friend and team mate Allan McNish. Has this been a tough adjustment? “Not really. Audi is always good at picking good drivers. Luca’s coming in who is already doing a very sterling job. He was the first to drive the new car so from that side it’s always an advantage. But of course great people like Dindo and Allan – it’s big shoes but they have small feet! So in that sense they will always be missed, but as you see they are still around but they are not in the cars and who knows? One day it might happen to me that I also have to step out of the car.”
 
Next question then: If he wins number 10 this year, will that be it? “As far as I know, we are in April and April is not the time where you speak of this! It’s whether cherry blossoms have just finished; you look at the flowers…so you might ask me in November or December, but not before!”
 
Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen

I suppose on one hand we can all wish that Tom does not win number 10 this year, so that we may have a better chance of seeing him again next year, but no one would be happier than me to see him reach that seemingly unassailable pinnacle . We will know more in a few weeks……

 
Whilst doing the rounds and trying to get as much insight on the new cars from the perspective of those actually operating , designing and driving them, I had several long chats with the  multiple Le Mans winning veteran Audi crew chief Brad Kettler. He talked about how the car’s mapping tells it where it is on track assuming that it left the pit box and went straight out on track. During qualifying, the cars had lost a bit of pace and this was due to the fact that they had been made to stop at the end of the pit lane before being released. The careful programming of the application of the hybrid system is based on the car’s ‘brain’ knowing where it is in relation to its beacon. The short stop in the pit lane causes the system to miss a beat – Brad likened it to starting a song from the middle of a verse – whereby everything falls back in line once the chorus is over and the next verse is started.
 
Brad Kettler

Always non-plussed, he shows little concern for the new car’s apparent lack of pace when compared to the rival teams: Audi always has a game plan. And a plan B. And a plan C.

 
As it transpired, these plans were no match on this occasion for the monsoon-like rain which contributed to both cars’ premature departure from the race on Sunday. But Spa this weekend will see them back at it once again. From what I can tell, this will be a close season, but I’m still singing the Audi song.
 
 
We bumped into Darren Turner again after qualifying and despite being pretty beat, he invited us in to AMR hospitality to chat some more. Having qualified fifth, I wondered if the car had gone out on full wet setup in anticipation for the race. “Not really. We‘ve got or have had some issues with the car since the beginning of free practice and in fact we’ve only just really found them after qualifying. We’ve found the situation – just a

technical problem – but that means that some of the running we have done has been not so relevant, so we’re going into the race with a few unknowns so we’ll have to see what happens.” With a GTE rules freeze, are there any changes allowed to the car besides setup? “Well, Porsche at the end of last year came with an upgraded car at the last race and that’s what they’re starting with this year. You can see that it’s a very…strong package and Ferrari look strong too. We’ve not had a massive upgrade on the car this winter – we’re trying to maximize what we had last year. Our full potential is near where we are right now…we might find a little bit more, but the ride height’s changed from last year so we need to understand  exactly what that’s done to our car and hopefully we can get some more out of the car once we know what that five mil’s has done.”

 
It seems like yesterday that the gorgeous Racing Green DBR9’s burst onto the racing scene, but it has been 10 short years and DT has been there for every one of them. “Having won the first race in the car, the story of Aston Martin Racing has been success from the word go. There’s been a few blips along the way but not many. As a very small team and we’re not the biggest budgeted team in the pit lane by a long way, we’ve always punched way above our weight, given whoever our competition is.
 
“I look back and those years have gone massively quickly, but we’ve done a great job and we still are. I’ve been lucky to have some fantastic team mates over the years. Now there’s another younger generation coming through and all the help that Brabs gave me when I started out with the squad, it’s my job now to try and help those guys and also to keep competitive myself. There’s still a long way to go and we’re only 10 years young. Hopefully there’s another 10, 20 or 30 years of Aston Martin Racing!”
 
Given the chance to reflect for a moment during his busy race weekend, I ask about his favorite moments from the past decade. “From that first drive at Donnington in 2004 when you realize that you’re going to be on a roller coaster and it’s about to get going! 2007 Le Mans was probably the biggest highlight – finally getting the win. There was massive pressure that year and the conditions weren’t that great at certain times in the race. The crew did the best job of anyone in the pit lane – we were the fastest of anyone. It all came good at the right time and being on the podium at Le Mans is magical: being on the top step…I’ve never had anything like it and probably won’t ever experience anything like it again.  It was a great period…GT1 was probably the pinnacle of GT racing.”
 
The AMR GTE Pro cars qualified 5th and 7th while the GTE Am cars managed 2nd and 4th. On race day Darren and his long time team-mate Stefan Mucke managed to find that pace and finished on the podium in 3rd with the other car equaling its 7th place starting position. The Am cars (last year’s Pro spec) finished where they left off with a spectacular 1-2.
 
In P2 the stellar team of Olivier Pla and Julien Canal took the Morgan to another win and made up the only other British (well sort of) team in the field.
 
Overall honors went to Toyota (1-2) who drew first blood against Porsche (3-24) and Audi (DNF-DNF) Certainly running with a new Flybrid system in the monsoon-like conditions which brought out the red flag 30 minutes from the end didn’t help Audi’s plight. 

Great roast beef!

Having missed the race day, I actually felt a little sorry for Tom, because he had been in the rain all day while I had a spectacular roast beef lunch with a dozen or so family members. The following day was more running around and after a quick stop to say goodbye to my family’s just-sold home in Newport Pagnell, we took a quick look at Aston Martin ‘Works’. The new showroom stands in marked contrast to the now disused but protected buildings on the other side of the road.

‘Sunnyside’

Ex-AML headquarters, ‘Sunnyside’ looks much the same as in 1960 and the Salmons building looks much as it did when making carriages at the turn on the 20th century.


Tom’s photo could be from 1900

We wound up at my oldest friend’s home for the night – a converted Victorian train station. This is not the forum for me to effuse about what a wonderful place it is, but interested parties can look up Great Alne station for a history lesson!


Prodrive
 

Despite having to meet up with the Audi group at Heathrow by noon onTuesday, I thought we could still squeeze in a visit to Prodrive on the way before returning the rental! A tall order, but we hadn’t slept yet, so why start now? Leaving early and being somewhat foggy (me – not the weather) I managed to nearly off the two of us when I startled the hell out of an unsuspecting motorist on that tiny country lane.  I could have sworn that it was he who was on the wrong side! Still, with our hearts now pumping adrenaline at record levels, we duly made our date ahead of schedule with the lovely and incredibly knowledgeable Jackie Irwin.

 
Arriving early we were offered a fresh cup of coffee which gave Jackie a chance to turn the lights on. We were then escorted from the reception through a non-descript door and into Aladdin’s cave for a chance to drool. Literally.
 

Going from the fairly bland white and grey foyer this was a bit of a surprise to put it mildly.  The WRC cars of McRae and Burns are right there on the floor. And not just replicas…the real McCoy.  The 2003 Le Mans GTS winning Ferrari 550 is there too. Interestingly, whereas most cars are run by Prodrive on behalf of a manufacturer, the Ferrari program had no ties to Maranello having been the idea of a private individual.  The base cars were not even purchased from Ferrari rather being essentially ‘used cars’ race-prepped and rebuilt with 700 hp motors!

 
Adding to the eye candy on display are several fully built engines including a DBR9 V12 with stunning carbon fiber trumpets visible through the ‘windows’  very thoughtfully let  into the air box.  If F1 is your thing, there is Jensen Button’s 2004 BAR Honda which carried him to 3rd in that year’s championship. Touring cars? There are a few of those here too. Most people wouldn’t know it, but besides the Ford Mondeo and BMW M3 on display, Prodrive also prepared the Volvo sedan and famous estate Touring cars as well as the Alfa Romeos of the same era.

Of course, the car that holds my attention the longest is the 2007 Le Mans GT1 winning DBR9 driven that year by Rickard Rydell, David Brabham and our friend Darren Turner.  Other notable machines are the Rothmans Porsche 911 and the maniacal Metro 6R4 Group B rally car.
 
You can almost feel the energy coming off the Metro and it’s easy to see why Group B cars became known as the ‘Killer Bees’ after the class’ demise. The name may contain some morbid humor, but there was nothing funny about the way these rallying weapons attacked the stages, nor the reason why they were stopped at the zenith of their development.
 
To round out the stars, a fairly current Gulf-liveried Vantage GTE takes pride of place centre stage.
 
As well as the cars, the walls are adorned with pictures of victorious drivers as well as suits and other memorabilia. I think there was a big screen showing footage, but who cares when the machines are right there in the flesh!? A whole day could have been spent there, and I was fighting the urge to ask Tom if he wanted to say, “London can wait” but like all good things….
 
As it turned out we were some of the last to get this tour as Prodrive is expanding into new and larger premises soon, although this was totally not in evidence – it looked like business as usual. Don’t worry…they will still be in the same locale.
 

Prodrive is now a very diverse and progressive company making bespoke items for many manufacturers although totally devoid of any Prodrive branding. Did you know that the Mars Rover has Prodrive go-faster bits on it? When we were escorted to the first of several production areas, Jackie pointed out some very complex looking hydraulic rear wings being made for a certain not-to-be-named British supercar. Our guesses were neither confirmed nor denied as they say.  No photo’s here please.

 

Eyeing my watch, we had to make hasty progress, but Jackie is obviously used to much greater pressure as she also wears many hats at the races, and with aplomb she moves us along mindful of our tight timetable.  Next along the way we witness the bespoke wiring looms taking shape. This is a long process as each one is unique and is made with aerospace grade materials. Cost is not mentioned, but with production time counted in weeks you wouldn’t want your neighbor using butt connectors to make hasty repairs!

Although clean by any standards, the place is obviously a working environment and not a show place. The technicians and machinists are smart, friendly and willing to answer questions or take time for a chat about current crankshaft upgrades for the Vantage GTE.  The level of detail and cost-no-object work on all levels and in all departments is quite awe inspiring.
 

The chassis shop is where the cars arrive and are stripped in preparation for their metamorphosis into racing cars. In various states of production are Mini WRC shells, and of course Astons being transformed into GT3 or GT4 spec. The chassis arrive as road going production examples and are pared all the way back to the bulkhead, body panels off,  before being strengthened, lowered, reinforced and lightened to match the appropriate rulebook.  Oh good! Cameras back out!

 
We move through the engine shop where one is on
the dyno. Except for the engine tweaking under torque load and the flickering gauges monitoring performance, you would never know that a race motor was running such is the sound proofing.  Although I know that there are places we are not privy to – where super-secret s#%t goes on, the last place we get to see is my Mecca: Aston Martin Racing.
 

My heart skips a beat and my eyes well up with pride when I walk into this mythical area. Although the David Brown Racing Department at Feltham may have been the ultimate spine-tingler, you can feel the ghosts of DB’s cars within these walls. I had assumed (wrongly as usual) that having just raced all weekend and with the Easter Monday bank holiday just behind us, that the crew would have arrived at the shop after a day off to start taking the cars apart for the rebuilds.

 

I expected to see the bug splattered cars fresh from the race and just off the transporters surrounded by engineers, mugs of tea in hand, contemplating their collective next move.  Wrong again.

What we saw was really what impressed me the most about the whole tour: the cars had been long ago unloaded and undressed and were already dismantled with engines out, well into the rebuild phase. Don’t forget, the cars had just finished a rain soaked Easter Sunday race that had lasted until dusk. Four cars then had to be loaded while the huge amount of pit equipment, tools and boxes, wheels and tires, spare body parts and miscellany had to be broken down and loaded into the trucks for transport and then unloading back at home base before the team packed up some GT4 cars and moved on to Oulton Park to do it all again. In just two more days!

 
Remember, that we were there very early on Tuesday morning!
 
Jackie Irwin has to force us out!

With the clock ticking and with reluctance, we wrestled ourselves away from the place and offered our profound thanks to Jackie for being so understanding and so wonderful, then literally jumped into our Audi A3 rental and took off for Heathrow still reeling in our dream-like state.

 
Having jammed so much into our first few days, and certain that we’d miss our pick-up, it should come as no surprise to you that we were the first to be greeted by our hosts for our limo ride into the West end.
 

Did we take a nap on the way in? C’mon now. Don’t be silly – we had to be ready for afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason! But that my friends starts a whole new adventure… 


Caption contest?

 

 
 
 
 
Photo Gallery
 
All images © Thomas Murray/thomasmurrayimages.com 
and James Edmonds/themotorsportdiaries.com 2014
 



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