Win on Sunday, sell on Monday – that’s the rationale behind many car manufacturers’ involvement in motorsport. They hope success on the track will drive sales in the showroom, as the brand’s models are shown in a positive light in front of fans.
Back in the fifties and sixties, converting a road car for racing often required little more than fitting a roll cage and covering the lights with tape. But today’s strict safety rules have made the process a lot more complex, and British outfit Prodrive is an expert at making race-winning versions of roadgoing models. We headed to its factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire, to see just what goes into creating a modern Aston Martin Vantage GT racer, before joining the team’s pit crew at the Silverstone World Endurance Championship (WEC) round.
Each racer starts life as a standard Vantage body plucked unpainted from the rows of shells on the assembly line at Gaydon, Warks. The bonded and riveted construction makes Astons well suited to motorsport, because they don’t suffer from the heat distortion caused by welding.
The most important aspect of a race car build is the roll cage. It must be extremely strong and rigid to protect drivers from high-speed impacts on track. Cages are fitted before painting begins, and the body is fixed to the floor of the workshop for installation.
For the world championship GTE-class cars, Prodrive adds bespoke parts from suppliers such as Xtrac (gearbox) and Koni (dampers), as well as building a complete wiring loom for each car from scratch. The team's long-time lubricants partner, Gulf, also develops specific oils for use with the car. The racer’s V8 engine block looks familiar – but internal components like pistons are all upgraded from what you’ll find under the road car’s bonnet.
The less extreme GT4-class cars remain closer to roadgoing spec, but still feature changes to their brakes, suspension and tyres, plus added safety gear. The cars take around four weeks in total to go from a bare shell to race-ready finished product.
Having seen how the GTs come together at the factory, we then headed to Silverstone to see them in action – and join the pit crew that keeps the cars running smoothly. We’ve all seen these teams rushing to change tyres and refuel the cars during races, but they have plenty to do between sessions, too. With sponsors to please, presentation is crucial, so lots of time is spent cleaning and polishing the cars. As truckie and tyre technician Dave tells me: “We try to make the cars quick, but if we can’t do that, we at least get them clean.”
With the cars shining, we hop on to a golf buggy-style paddock truck and head for the Michelin tyre compound. Tyres are hugely influential on performance, so they’re closely controlled to stop cheating. Michelin technicians fit tyres to wheels, using barcode scanners to keep tabs and ensure no team exceeds its allocation.
The crew is also charged with keeping the used tyres in top condition – a minor off by the driver into grass or gravel can leave their sticky surface coated in debris. When this happens, a heat gun is used to carefully and precisely strip the dirty top layer of rubber off the tyre, leaving a fresh, smooth surface behind. The heat is welcome on a chilly April day at Silverstone – but Dave tells us the same job is less enjoyable in the desert heat of Bahrain, where they also race.
With the tyres fitted, we take a seat in the back of the garage to listen in on the team’s radio conversations in qualifying. Talk is short and to the point – the engineer reminds Danish driver Christopher Nygaard “don’t overdo it” and recommends what b ake bias setting to use in the damp. There’s silence during the hot lap, and afterwards Nygaard reports oversteer in tight corners. The team has done its job, though – the Astons qualify first and second in their class.