The three drivers in the Vitaphone Aston Martin DBR9 faced challenging conditions around the Le Mans circuit during Sunday’s official test for this year’s 24 Hours. Peter Hardman and Nick Leventis – team-mates with Strakka Racing – were joined by regular Vitaphone driver Brazilian Alexandre Negrao for the eight hour run, all but an hour of which was hampered by torrential rain and atrocious conditions.
As Le Mans “rookies”, the priority for all three drivers had been to complete their minimum run of ten laps of the 13.6 kilometre track, although in the case of both Peter Hardman and Nick Leventis, this was more of a familiarisation exercise. Hardman last raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours for Chamberlain in 1994, but has competed at the circuit almost every year since then in the Classic and Legends events. Leventis is also a regular competitor in the historic races, but had not previously raced a contemporary racecar around the full circuit. For Alexandre Negrao, better known as Xandi, the Circuit de la Sarthe was a completely new experience. Although a pace-setter in the FIA GT Championship, Xandi had never been to Le Mans before. “During the last few days we have been around the track on scooters, and using a road car, and I have been able to talk him through the corners,” said Peter Hardman. “He took everything on board very quickly.”
Sunday’s test started damp, and grew progressively wetter as the morning’s four-hour session developed. Peter Hardman fulfilled his mandatory ten lap requirement in less than ideal conditions, and by lunchtime both Leventis and Negrao were near to completing their runs despite the near-constant rain. During the lunch beak the skies cleared, and for the first half-hour of the afternoon period Xandi enjoyed the best of the day's conditions. “I only managed a few laps in the dry, but I was getting quicker and quicker each lap,” he said. His best, at 4:01.065, narrowly missed breaking the four-minute barrier, but was a promising beginning. “I still have a lot of improvement to make,” he added. “I know I’m a long way from my limit, but that will come with time.” Nick Leventis managed one out-lap and was starting his first flyer when a serious accident for one of the LMP1 Peugeots brought out the red flags, and by the time the session resumed, the rain had returned.
“All three drivers have completed their ten laps, and that’s the most important thing,” said Peter Hardman. “The conditions could not have been worse. You know, at all costs, that you mustn’t make a mistake. There’s no point in putting the car at risk, and a trip into the gravel can cost you two hours clearing out the undertray, but it was vital we got the laps in. I’m pleased that we completed our schedule and everything went to plan.”
Nick Leventis relished the experience. “For me personally, it’s great to be here and learning so much. The Aston is a lot quicker than anything I’ve ever driven round here before, but I’m only sorry I never managed a full dry lap. The good thing is, today has given me a fair idea of what we might face if it rains during the race. The car also feels very good, and we’re all working well together as a team,” he said. Peter Hardman agreed. “The communication is coming, and the team is starting to gel together nicely. It’s great to be working with such an experienced outfit.”
Negrao’s time - the only one set by the Vitaphone drivers on a dry track - positioned the Aston Martin eighth in GT1. “It’s OK, and we’re not far away from the pace, so I’m very happy with our performance for this first day,” he said afterwards. The team now has eight days before they return for official scrutineering on June 10th and the start of the Le Mans week.