Vitaphone Aston Martin sidelined...

By Propshaft Failure

The rare failure of a “bullet-proof” component ended hopes for a successful maiden appearance in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the Vitaphone sponsored Aston Martin DBR9 driven by Peter Hardman, Nick Leventis and Alexandre Negrao. With just over a quarter of the race completed the car coasted to a halt and was unable to return to the pits for repairs, signalling the end of a valiant but relatively short-lived debut in the world’s greatest endurance race.

The striking black and turquoise Aston Martin had started the race well, with Peter Hardman taking a strong challenge to the similar Team Modena DBR9 during the opening twenty minutes. Up against a proven race-winning package, with the Team Modena car a regular class victor in the Le Mans Series, Peter was able to exchange quick laps seemingly at will, culminating in a neat manoeuvre that saw the Vitaphone car through and into 8th position on lap five.

Once ahead, Peter began to ease out a modest advantage in what is a remarkably competitive category. Unfortunately, his good works were undone by a chance spin at the Ford Chicane half an hour into the race, but he swiftly recovered, and by the end of the first hour was back up to 8th once again, having passed the Team Modena Aston for a second time. An hour later, and he’d captured seventh.

This steady progress continued for the next three hours. Nick Leventis took second stint, and despite never having raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours previously, acquitted himself well amid vastly more experienced rivals, finding a personal improvement of five seconds over his pre-race best. He held on securely to seventh before handing over to regular Vitaphone driver Alexandre Negrao. More used to driving the Vitaphone Maserati MC12 in the FIA GT Championship, “Xandi” was rapidly getting to grips with the Aston Martin. Having stepped aboard at just gone five-thirty, he was up to sixth position within the hour, and then setting a succession of new fastest laps for the DBR9 before completing his first double-stint at 7:00pm. “I wasn’t pushing too hard. I was taking it easy on the brakes and throttle, and trying to conserve the tyres. I was also still learning the track!”

That brought Peter Hardman back into the car and the team’s progress looked assured until an electrical fault developed close to the end of the fifth hour. This was quickly traced to a failed alternator, but the replacement cost the team fifteen minutes in the pits, and with it all that hard-earned territory. Judging by Peter Hardman’s pace on his return to the track, there was no indication at this stage that a full recovery could not be achieved, and he completed his next double-stint before handing on to Nick Leventis.

At just after nine-fifteen Nick was heading down one of the fastest sections of the 13.6 kilometre circuit and preparing for his entry into the famous Indianapolis corner when, without warning, the car’s propshaft gave way. “I heard a loud bang from the back of the car, and thought at first that I’d had a puncture. Then the oil pressure started to fall, and I lost communication with the pits.” The flailing propshaft had taken out cables, hoses and other ancillaries, and it was impossible for Nick to re-start the car, although a marshal was generous enough to lend him a mobile phone.

Regrettably, the Vitaphone entry to the 76th Le Mans 24 Hours became the sixth official retirement, having covered 82 laps and set a best lap of 3:55.102. "It’s been a fantastic experience, and we’ve learned so much as a team” said Nick. “For me personally, it has been very special and a privilege to compete at Le Mans, and I hope to be racing here for many years to come.”

Peter Hardman had not been the only member of the team quietly anticipating a much better result. “At the start, everything was going so well. We’d not had any problems all week. The car ran exactly as we wanted it to and we showed we had the pace of the privateer teams. It is obviously very disappointing to have retired from the race, and at such an early stage, but it has been a very valuable experience for us as drivers, and I am sure we will both be back again next year”

Peter Hardman and Nick Leventis are in action again next weekend in the Spa 12 Hours, while Alexandre Negrao returns to his more usual environment of the Maserati MC12 for the next round in the FIA GT Championship in Adria.

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