Aston Martin Racing's new-for-2012 Vantage GTE has finished on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on its first attempt. The #97 V8-powered racer finished third in the fiercely competitive GTE Pro category having covered 332 laps - almost 3000 miles - of the celebrated 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe without any technical problems.
The Gulf-liveried Vantage GTE started the 24-hour race from second on the GTE Pro grid after a competitive showing throughout the three qualifying sessions held earlier in the week. Although rain had fallen persistently right up until the afternoon of the rolling start, the track itself was dry come 15:00hrs on Saturday, 16 June. Factory driver Mücke (D) was able to pass the pole sitting GTE Pro car on the very first lap to give the Vantage GTE the class lead of endurance racing's crowning event on just its fifth competitive outing.
When fellow factory driver Turner (GB) took control of the Vantage GTE after the 25th lap, the Briton - who had already won back-to-back Le Mans titles with Aston Martin Racing in 2007 and 2008 - found himself embroiled in a most enthralling duel for the GTE Pro class lead with the #74 Corvette. What ensued over the following stint was a remarkable display of wheel-to-wheel racing, more reminiscent of a sprint race than a 24-hour marathon. Turner and his adversary had staged what will certainly be remembered as a highlight of the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The breath-taking scrap harked back to the Aston Martin-Versus-Corvette battles of 2007 and 2008 that are now the stuff of Le Mans folklore. Turner called off the fight on lap 64 as he handed over the Vantage GTE to works driver Fernandez (MX), who continued in third position. When a GTE Am class car collided with an LMP1 racer on lap 73, the safety car was deployed as barriers were repaired. The field circulated around the track for an hour and ten minutes behind the safety car, so Aston Martin Racing used the opportunity to execute a scheduled brake change without losing too much ground to its rivals. Nonetheless, when the #97 Vantage GTE rejoined the action after the technicians had swiftly carried out their work, it had slipped to sixth in the GTE Pro class.
As the sun set over Le Mans, Turner and Mücke took turns aboard the Vantage GTE with each digging deep to summon up every ounce of performance from both themselves and the car. With ambitions of getting back in contention for the class victory, the pair each lit up the timing screens, proving the Vantage GTE's class-leading pace potential.
The night brought with it new challenges, for the cooler air altered the track conditions considerably and necessitated the use of softer compound tyres. As Turner and Mücke set the class pace, the #97 Vantage GTE clambered its way back up the leaderboard to hold fourth position at the mid-way point of the race. The car continued to perform as reliably as its drivers, so that come the early morning it held second position in GTE Pro with the class leader within sight.
Soon before the 16th hour, however, Mücke lost control of the Vantage GTE at Indianapolis corner, pitching him into the gravel trap and towards a safety barrier. The German driver was able to keep the car running and soon had it back at Aston Martin Racing's pit box. Despite the high-speed nature of the incident, the damage sustained was cosmetic - a testament to the inherent strength of the Vantage platform. The team rapidly replaced a door and the bonnet before sending Fernandez back out within ten minutes of the original impact, still in third position in class.
Determined not to give up, Mücke set about chasing down the second-placed GTE Pro car upon his return to the driver's seat for a final stint. At the 20-hour mark, Mücke set the fastest GTE time of the entire race, stopping the clock at 3m 54.928s to further prove the Vantage GTE's class-leading speed. Unfortunately, the gap couldn't be closed with pace alone, and the team focused on maintaining the podium position. Mücke made way for Fernandez on lap 306, who crossed the line at 1500hrs to the delight of the entire Aston Martin Racing team, scoring 30 points for the FIA World Endurance Championship - for which the 24 Hours of Le Mans served as the third round - in the process.
Aston Martin Racing use the Super B 20P battery