With the clock ticking to Aston Martin Racing’s departure for Le Mans, the team took the opportunity for a final shakedown test on British soil at Snetterton in Norfolk last week. The next time the cars run will be at Le Mans itself, so it was crucial to get everything right.
The objective at the Snetterton test was not to chase quick lap times – the ability to do that should be there already – but instead to check that everything on the DBR9 was working properly. It was also an invaluable opportunity for the three drivers in each crew to practise working together, and take part in several run-throughs of a typical pit stop.
This is one of the reasons why the cars don’t tend to cover many laps during a shakedown test, despite the fact that they are on track all day. Most of the work involved leaving the pits, heading out for just one or two laps, and then coming back into the pits to check systems and practice some high-speed driver changes. It may not be the most exciting work, but in motor sport practice makes perfect.
Presiding over everything, as usual, was Team Principal George Howard-Chappell. “It was a useful test day and we did everything we wanted to, but the real test will come much later,” he concluded. “I see Le Mans as unfinished business for us, but it’s always such an unpredictable event. If you succeed it’s not like just winning a race: it feels more like winning a championship.”
The Snetterton circuit, in the flat fenlands of Norfolk, is characterised by a couple of tight corners and some long straights: two of the key ingredients that make up the renowned Le Mans circuit. There are of course several crucial differences: the Le Mans circuit is much longer, faster and bumpier – because the Mulsanne Straight is also the N138, a busy public road that has been progressively damaged by lorries, as its day job. Trying to keep a racing car pointing straight at around 300 kph on it is bone-jarring work.
David Brabham, one of the drivers of the 009 car, points out: “There’s no point getting too hung up on set-up specifics during tests, as Le Mans is all about finding the best compromise. One of the things I was trying to find out, for example, is whether or not it is possible for me to drive using Darren Turner’s seat insert instead of my own: that could save us time at a pit stop.”
David is still not sure about that, but thankfully the Aston Martin engineers are confident that they have what appears to be a strong and reliable package. Most of them have worked on the car since its inception, but for the drivers who were new to the DBR9 – Johnny Herbert and Rickard Rydell – the Snetterton test was another opportunity to familiarise themselves with what will be their 24-hour office for one hectic weekend in June. Johnny has plenty of Le Mans experience but never in this class of car, so he took the opportunity to run through several practice pit stops. “It was good, but there were a few new things to get used to,” he said. “As a driver you’re never happy: whether it’s pit stops or lap times, you always think you can go quicker.”
Having got through this test with no problems, the next outing for the DBR9 will be at the official Le Mans test day on Sunday 3 June. For the first time since last year, the cars will run on the very same track that will be used for the 24 Hours just two weeks later. It’s a chance to carry out more detailed set-up work, but with all the competitors watching each other and trying to improve their pace, there is nowhere to hide.
Success at Le Mans may be all about practice and preparation, but it also depends on the progress that has been made by the opposition – as well as a slice of good luck. It’s all part of what makes the 24 Hours such an unpredictable challenge, recognised by the entire world. But if it were easy, then everybody would do it…