Writing to you from the Eurosport commentary booth here at a very hot Le Mans, and still in awe of the spellbinding lap we saw last night from Toyota driver, Kamui Kobayashi, to seal pole position for tomorrow's race and smash the all time lap record here at this most daunting of circuits. In an evening which saw countless records smashed across the classes, Kamui's lap was far from the only one worth celebrating, but the sheer pace of it will leave it etched in the minds of all who witnessed it. My hat is firmly tipped - 'chapeau' Kamui!
The Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 racer is a car I lusted after driving throughout my sportscar racing career, but never quite managed. Don't feel too sorry for me though, I drove for the factory team in LMP1 (the gorgeous Gulf-liveried, Lola derived prototype) and for Jota Sport in a GTE spec V8 Vantage, so I understand if the violin remains a string short.
It's just that the DBR9 always seemed that little bit more special - a little more pure in it's lineage, and a little more breathtaking in its design. That something so beautiful could roll up at Sebring in 2005 and win one of the toughest endurance races on the calendar straight out of the box says everything about the calibre of this machine.
Based on the Aston Martin DB9 road car, the DBR9 retains the chassis, engine block, and cylinder heads of the road car's six litre, normally aspirated, V12 engine. The rest of the car is re-engineered for high performance competition use. The DBR9's bodywork is a blend of optimum aerodynamic performance and the styling of the DB9 road car. All the body panels are constructed from carbon fibre composite (except the roof) to minimize the weight of the car. To complete the aerodynamic body, the bottom of the car is flat all the way from the front to the rear diffuser. To optimise rear downforce a carbon fibre wing has been added. The car officially goes from 0-60 mph 3.4 seconds, but that depends on a myriad of factors.
Here courtesy of the Global Endurance Legends organisation which is building a grid of iconic racers from the 1990's and early 'noughties into a racing series, I was grateful to receive a dream invite to test the car from owner, Gregor Fisken.
With 600bhp under my right foot I was sure to be entertained, but like all of the best endurance racers, it felt eminently manageable, as though the car was quite happy to to the bulk of the work, only requiring the occasional hint from me as to where I'd like it to head.
Inputs were met with an instant and proportional response, such that I felt right at home within a lap or two. Only over bumps did I find the handling a bit nervous, the suspension just a little too stiff for the circuit and cold conditions. Really the only negative was that the brakes were slightly underwhelming, but I put that down to aging ceramics and a brutally heavy 'lump' upfront.
Best of all though, was the noise. You'll hear it for yourself in this video but what amazed the most was that the noise from within the cockpit was the same as outside. That never happens! So often the greatest noises in motorsport come courtesy of an exhaust system mated to a rear mounted engine, leaving the driver up front with little but the mechanical grind. When the engine lies ahead of your feet however, and the exhaust winds its way alongside your bum, forcing its symphonic roar into the ether just inches away from your lugholes, you get to share in the whole orchestral experience. And what an experience it is...
For more information:
Short wheelbase, cheeky timeless looks, a stance that is always poised for action, the little 1600cc Alfa GTA is deserving of its iconic status. With historied, original cars now changing hands in excess of £250k, there is clearly no shortage of die hard fans. And I can understand why.
With every passing lap today in this terrier of a car, I found just a little more lap time. And then a little more... and a little more again. The point is that just when you think you've got a grasp of how to take a racing car to its adhesive limit, the GTA thumbs its nose and asks you to think again. So capable is the pert chassis, that if you get the car balanced right - and I mean just right - into the turns, you're rewarded with a monumental amount of grip. But it's so hard to ride that tightrope - trail brake a little too long and you'll scrub all speed off with arm fulls of opposite lock. Don't trail long enough and the resulting understeer will force a little lift later in the turn, ruining exit momentum. But get it 'just so' and you barely have to steer at all... and it feels fantastic.
All sounds pretty intense right? Well the irony - and the beauty - is that this isn't actually a hard car to drive at all! Any entry level track day driver would have a wail of a time flinging a GTA around, not be at all intimidated and, if anything, be slightly underwhelmed at the level of grunt. But as your driving progresses, so too does the Alfa's apparent abilities. It's an outstanding entry level machine for aspiring historic racers, but one that also keeps the most experienced hands on their toes... and that's some combination. The car featured here, a true original prepared by Formula GT of Munich, Germany, is an example of the very best, the little 1600cc engine happily revving to an astonishing 8,400rpm.
This video contains a full speed lap, followed by a repeat in slow motion. Both contain added commentary explaining the techniques required for each corner in great detail. I'm not too sure about lap time because traffic mean having to stitch a clean lap together in editing. But a later lap I drove, unfortunately unrecorded on camera, was clocked at 2m06.9secs, which by all accounts is a highly competetive pace for a little GTA (on Avon tyres) and provides for a good benchmark. This video is essential viewing for anyone racing at Hockenheim in need of a little professional guidance - or indeed, for anyone who simply enjoys watching a special little historic race car being pushed to its limits. Enjoy!
Testing a beautifully prepared competition 289 AC Cobra at Silverstone today, everything was running fine until the throttle jammed wide open on entry to the famously quick Copse corner. Second only to brake failure, this is one of the scariest things that can happen in a race car.
But it needn't be so dramatic. Luckily, little or no harm came to me or the car thanks to a routine I adopted long ago and now feel compelled to share...
First thing I always do when strapping into a car - even one I've driven many times before - is to remind myself of the following:
- where is the kill switch? (Master switch or ignition key etc)
- how do I activate the extinguisher?
- where is the door handle and can I release it ok?
From a safety point of view, these are the priorities but it's also good to remind yourself of things like: the whereabouts of the oil pressure gauge and warning light, the water temp gauge, how to access reverse and what are the max recommended revs. Taking a quick moment to learn these could well save your bacon (and the car) in the event of sudden failure on track.
When the throttle suck open on the Cobra today, I was able to switch the car off almost instantaneously, which killed the drive to the wheels and rapidly aided my deceleration. Staying on the brake pedal (not too hard, you don't want to spin or lock up if you don't have to), I was still able to scrappily navigate my way around the corner, using only a little of the run-off area as I gathered it all up.
Getting the car switched off was the key 'save'. I didn't have to think about it too much, I 'just did it' and I'm convinced that such a spontaneous reaction is because:
a) I'd reminded myself of the position of the kill switch just minutes before
b) I'd also practiced the required hand movement from steering wheel to switch a couple of times with my eyes closed before leaving the pit box.
It takes ten seconds to do this, but helps deeply embed it into your subconscious. As I said, I do this in EVERY car I get into and over the years it's saved all sorts of exotica from ending up in a heap, including: an Aston Martin GT2 Le Mans racer (multiple times), a historic F1, Lister Jaguar, a GT40, a very special E Type, and probably several more that I don't remember. As I write, I realise that it's a freak situation that is freakishly common.
Back in the old days, competeing at Le Mans in the 24 hours, I'd often visit the pit garage late at night, long after everyone else had gone home, just to sit in the car and learn the position of all the switches. I wouldn't allow myself to leave until I could find them all correctly with my eyes closed. It could take forever, but it it wasn't uncommon to loose dashboard illumination during the race and I figured I didn't fancy fumbling for a switch in the dead of night at 200mph in the rain.
So in summary, here's what to do if your throttle sticks open:
1. Hit the kill switch
IMPORTANT: On a competition car you'll usually do this with a Master Switch, but they're not always accessible and sometimes you'll be using the ignition key. You NEED TO KNOW if turning your ignition key also locks the steering! If so, you'll have to train yourself not to turn it all the way off... easier said than done in the heat of the moment. Ideally ask the preparer to move the master switch to a place that more easily reached.
SIDE NOTE: before this step you could also dip the clutch, which will obviously kill drive to the wheels - but this is also how you buzz the engine, so I try not to. To be honest though, my first instinct is always to kill the speed in every way possible, so inevitably I've usually dipped the clutch just before I get to the ignition switch. Not ideal for the engine as the revs rocket, but better than ending up in the wall. Usually it's fine because the engine is unloaded as it over-revs, but today we weren't so lucky and we tapped a valve. A shame but could have been SO much worse. Mental note to train myself out of this instinct.
2. Hit the brakes (same time as step 1!)
Given that you tend not to realise the throttle is jammed until you lift to brake for a corner anyway, this step usually takes care of itself! Stay on the brakes firmly, but not so hard as to lock up. You need to retain control.
3. Turn normally though the corner
After steps 1 and 2, you'll often find the car will steer through the bend just fine - maybe a little wide, but it'll turn. The big mistake is to freeze up in a panic, lock the brakes and head dead straight to the wall. Instead, try to stay cool, moderate your brake pressure so as to decelerate as fast as possible without locking up. Don't turn in too aggressively as you might inadvertently pitch the car into a spin. Which is bad. Unless...
If it's all happened too late, too fast, with too little room to gather it all up and you're simply gonna hit the wall, then - and only then - turn in aggressively to chuck the car into a spin. STAY HARD ON THE BRAKES. The tyre scrub will help you decelerate, and if you're gonna hit, it's generally better to hit rearward than head on!
Drive fast and stay safe out there.
Freshly restored by Tim Samways' Sporting & Historic Cars equipe, I have the huge honour of testing and developing this stunning and iconic 1974 Alfa Romeo TT12 on behalf of its owner. Think Targa Florio, Daytona, Nurburgring... Merzario, Brambilla, Mass and Bell. Legendary races, legendary pilots. I deliberately use the word 'pilots' rather than 'drivers' because the TT12 looks, feels and sounds far more like something about to take flight, than something designed explicitly to stick to the road. I know of no other car - and I mean literally, not one - that sounds so ear-splittingly orgasmic from the driver's seat. The first time I drove it, I forgot to wear my ear plugs and I could barely complete the lap back to pits for fear of permanently damaging my hearing. The sheer volume of that normally-aspiratied, 3.0 litre flat-12 is extraordinary. The induction noise is symphonic, and the burbly overrun spine-tingling. So turn your speaker up FULL, because they simply don't make 'em like this anymore. Enjoy...