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5th November, gosh, was that another old banger?

Grand Touring is the future of endurance racing, and no doubt remains. At Sebring next March we will see the debut of the Aston Martin DBR9, the new Chevrolet Corvette C6-R, the truncated Maserati MC12 chopped at the front, back and sides to fit the ACO’s ‘box’ (5 metres long and two metres wide), and the usual supporting cast of Saleens, maybe a Ferrari Maranello and a Lamborghini Murcielago.

  The sight of all this fresh competition from Europe’s prestige manufacturers will give cheer to GM’s Doug Duchardt, who ordered a huge overhaul of the Corvette program for 2004 only to find that the opposition had ducked into the shadows.

  Don’t blame Frederic Dor for that, or Prodrive. The Swiss oil and sundry magnate paid for a massive development program for the Ferrari 550 out of his Care Racing pocket, beat the Corvettes at Le Mans and in a number of ALMS races in 2003, only to realise that he still couldn’t sell more than one of his nine 550s (in Italy) and could not continue to campaign as a private owner, a one-man band, against General Motors, the world’s largest motor manufacturer.

Place Your Bez
  November 4 was a very auspicious day at Gaydon, in Warwickshire, as Dr Ulrich Bez and Prodrive chairman David Richards unveiled the Aston Martin DBR9. It is a gorgeous machine; no other description will suffice, painted in Aston Martin Green, the familiar shade (I’ll call it moss green) of the Aston Martins throughout the 1950s.

  June 1959 is still the high point of Aston Martin’s racing history, when the DBR1/300 of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby won the 24-Hours of Le Mans, and it wasn’t too difficult to work out why the number 59 filled the roundels on the DBR9’s carbon fibre doors.

  "Aston Martin is the world’s most exclusive car company,” said Dr Bez, "but we need to make the cars more accessible. Motor sport will help Aston Martin to become better known around the world." To achieve that aim, Aston Martin and Prodrive have formed a new company, Aston Martin Racing, with a five-year rolling program to put the DBR9 on the international map, and to select fresh projects for the second decade of the 21st century.

  Richards, for his part, declares a "passion" for endurance racing. "It is no secret that I am a longtime devotee of Aston Martin and of endurance racing. I think that sports car racing is the purest form of motor racing, not the prototypes we have seen in recent years but production sports cars, and I am sure we are going to see a resurgence in the coming years."

  Prodrive will make a total of 32 cars, most of which will be sold. The first two DBR9s will make their debut at Sebring on March 19, and will then compete at Le Mans in June. After that, assuming that development work is satisfactory, a sequence of ‘works cars’ will be sold to ‘factory teams’ operating in America, in Europe and possibly in Japan, or Australasia.

  There will be three works teams, explains Richards, and each will be contracted to buy four cars over a period of three years. As works cars, he says, with chassis plates resembling those in the DB3S of the 1950s, their value will actually increase and make them "an addition to the value of the deal."  In other words, profitable. The ‘works cars’ will be numbered DBR9/1 to 12, and then a further 20 customer cars will be made, numbered DBR9/101 to 120.

  Each DBR9 will be priced at £475,000, or 665,000 Euro, and each customer team will be expected to buy two cars, that is, 10 teams from around the world. All of them, says Richards, will have identical equipment to the works cars. "We are in discussion with three teams in America, three in Europe…and Dr Goh is coming to our presentation this evening" said Richards. “There is phenomenal interest from all parts of the world, and at the moment it looks as though there is more demand than there will be cars available.

  One high profile team attended the launch, represented by former Formula One Brabham and Ligier team-mates Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, who are forming a three-way partnership with David Price. Brundle and Blundell expect to be racing Aston Martins together by the end of 2005 as one of the ‘factory teams’, Brundle planning a television programme which should be attractive to sponsors.

 An ‘extraordinary piece of engineering’
  In the words of David Richards, the Aston Martin DBR9 is ‘an extraordinary piece of engineering’ which should be able to compete with the GM Chevrolet Corvette team in its first year.

  The chassis is made of extruded aluminium components, which are manufactured and bonded together by Hydro Aluminium, also based in the Midlands. Unlike those supplied to Aston Martin at Gaydon, however, those prepared for Aston Martin Racing at Prodrive’s factory will have the full roll cage bonded into the main structure, making it far stiffer than that of any competitor.

  George Howard-Chappell, technical director of Prodrive’s race division and architect of the highly successful Care Racing Ferrari 550 Maranellos, takes up the story. "The Aston Martin has a rear sub-frame which means you can drop the gearbox and rear suspension in one unit, and at the front, the chassis actually unbolts from the engine bulkhead so that if you have an accident, or want to do a major service, you can simply unbolt the front end.

  "The biggest single advantage that we have is the close relationship with the manufacturer. It is difficult to put a value on that, but it is huge."

Thundering Herd
  The 6-litre V12 engine, originally designed by Cosworth, is now supplied from Ford’s plant in Cologne, and goes straight to Prodrive’s engine shop where it is stripped, uprated and rebuilt to produce a minimum of 600 horsepower. "It is at least as good as the Ferrari’s V12, if not better" says Howard-Chappell.

  "The engine position is better, because it is further back in the chassis. Taking all these factors, I believe that the Aston Martin will be a better car. We have four months to sort it out, get it ready for the Sebring 12 hours, and then Le Mans, and I think we are on track for that. We know already some of the numbers that will relate to lap times and these are encouraging."

  Other than the aluminium chassis and some of the double wishbone suspension components, the aluminium roof panel comes from Aston Martin, and virtually all the body panels are manufactured, by Prodrive, in carbon fibre. The DBR9 is built below the 1,100 kg minimum weight, needing ballast, and an Xtrac gearbox (familiar to Prodrive) replaces the ZF gearbox of the standard model. Suppliers include Michelin tyres, OZ wheels, Brembo brakes, Koni dampers and Hella lamps.

  Prodrive has now made its last Ferrari 550 Maranello GTS for Frederic Dor, and Care Racing, and has turned its attention to the Aston Martin Racing programme. However Dor has moved on as well, and is revealed as the owner of the first DBR9 on display, probably the second car too. "We have had a professional relationship with Freddie for the past 15 years" says Richards, "and before going to anyone else I offered him the opportunity of acquiring the first cars."

Rally Raider
  David Richards is highly astute, and although he has not been a familiar figure at endurance events he is absolutely right in predicting that there will be a resurgence in production sports car racing in the coming years. This was not a fanciful statement, supporting Prodrive’s new association with Aston Martin, but a ‘from the heart’ declaration.

  He went further: "I was asked yesterday, what would you do if you could only do one thing, and I replied that I would go sports car racing. Yes, really!  We have been toying around with this idea for a long time, and it’s great to see it come to fruition. It has always been one of my passions."

  Not bad for a man who was steeped in rallying, as a top-line co-driver rivalling Jean Todt, owns the television rights for the World Rally Championship, owns the company that represents Subaru in the WRC, and for an encore, runs the BAR Formula One team. Would he really and truly home in on sports car racing if he had to choose one regime above the others? He says so, and sounds as though he means it.

  Through Aston Martin, Richards forges a new link with Ford, which may be strapped for cash at the moment but will undoubtedly remain in motor sports for the foreseeable future: NASCAR, World Rally Championship (just confirmed for four more years), and now, sports car endurance racing for a minimum of five years. The Aston Martin V12 engines, designed by Cosworth and previously built in Northampton, are now built in a Ford factory in Cologne, and as they pull out of Cosworth, Ford’s engineers will take a keen interest in Prodrive’s development work.

I’m in with the In Crowd
  It’s not just Chevrolet, Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Saleen that compete in sports car endurance racing. More big names will soon surface.

  First, BMW. The American dealer network is clamouring for a new program, begging BMW to return to the ALMS. The Formula One show is of very limited interest; the World Touring Car Championship means nothing at all. ‘You mean, BMW races sedans with 250 horsepower? My new M5 has 500 horsepower, and my wife drove it to the mall this morning.’

  I reckon that BMW will homologate the M6 coupe with the 500 bhp V10 and tell the Schnitzer experts to turn it into a winner. "Don’t stop until you can beat the Corvettes and the Maseratis, right?" Considering the state Formula One is in right now, with Bernie and Max digging large holes to sink the whole ship, BMW could even decide to bale out while they’re winning, but I suspect that the WTCC program would get the chop at the end of the ‘05 season.

  What about Audi? Well, give Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen one good reason why they should develop the R9, if that is what the new LMP1 should be called. Who have Audi to beat? How many more times should they win Le Mans before throwing in the towel?

  This is not the situation Porsche was in between 1982 and 1985, when the 956 and 962C Group C cars could win unopposed. Lancia made a token effort, but was inadequate in competition with Porsche, but then Tom Walkinshaw and Peter Sauber saw how to challenge the Weissach gang and did so, very effectively, with Jaguar and Mercedes engines.

  Nissan, Toyota and Mazda joined the party, mostly coveting a prized Le Mans victory, and Group C racing became a genuine world contest between 1987 and 1990, when the aforementioned Bernie and Max decided that all these manufacturers ought to be in Formula One, so sod endurance racing (excuse my French).

   Where are all these great manufacturers now? Some of them are still in sports car endurance racing, that’s where, in the FIA GT Championship, and American and European Le Mans series, or in the Japan GT Championship. Significantly, though, in the Grand Touring class. For lack of competition, Audi have only themselves to beat in the Prototype division of the ALMS, the Le Mans Endurance Series, and at Le Mans.

  Even if the ACO tell the Audi teams to compete on three wheels in 2005, the R8s will still win because they’re the best cars, made by the only manufacturer with a serious involvement, and they’re bomb-proof. Four Le Mans victories, plus one for Bentley, should be sufficient for Dr Ullrich for now. He has written an important chapter in Audi’s history and it’s time to move on.

  You don’t have to look very far. The Audi Le Mans supercar has been given the green light, and is expected to go on sale in September 2006. It is based on the Lamborghini Gallardo’s aluminium space frame chassis, which Audi themselves developed for the Italians, will have new bodywork (of course), and could be powered by Audi’s own 5.2 litre V10, which is not related to Lamborghini’s 5.0 litre V10. Or, it could be powered by the omnipotent 3.5 litre twin-turbo V8, from the R8, or a large capacity, production based V8. The choices are almost unlimited.

  Could Porsche stay out of this heavyweight arena? Sooner or later Dr Wendelin Wiedeking will yield to persuasion that Porsche really needs to get in there and get going with a proper GTS car, and deal with the upstarts.

  LMP1 will, I guess, be left to the specialists. Lola and Courage will take up the running, until the manufacturers persuade the ACO that really, they ought to be in the limelight. At a rough guess, LMP1 will eventually be regulated out and all the prototypes will run in the LMP2 category, in the shadow of the manufacturers.

Looking at all the investment now pouring into GT1, that’s the way it ought to be.

 Michael Cotton
November 2004

Dr. Bez
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In Yer Face
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Never Raced or Rallied
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