Aston Martin Racing team principal Paul Howarth says winter testing of the new Vantage GTE has indicated it will be on the pace for its FIA World Endurance Championship debut.
The British manufacturer has conducted extensive running of its new car, which replaces the old-gen Vantage that won last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in GTE-Pro.
Since October, two Vantage chassis have collectively amassed more than 12,000 miles at multiple venues including Sebring, Navarra, Motorland Aragon and Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
Howarth is confident that the reliability shown during those sessions will bring the marque into contention right from the 2018-19 ‘Super Season’ opener at Spa in May.
“Testing has given the technical team an awful lot of confidence, because we’re always looking for an Achilles heel before the season starts,” Howarth told Sportscar365.
“No matter how well a car has been designed, there will always be something waiting to catch you out, but we’re confident that we have a reliable package.
“Eighteen months of design have gone into every component of the car and each part has undergone a very rigid test process, whether that’s [AMR’s November test at] Sebring or the 30-hour endurance runs.
“We will continue in the build up to the first race, and beyond that right up to Le Mans.”
The Vantage GTE, which is powered by a twin-turbo four-liter V8 engine developed at Prodrive’s Oxfordshire headquarters, will run on Michelin tires this season.
Having spent the last two years with Dunlop, the team opted to revert to the rubber on which it contested the first four seasons of the WEC.
Since making that move, Howarth has been impressed with the joint approach taken by Michelin and AMR to develop a tailored setup.
“Everything has been very good with Michelin,” he said. “There has been lots of dialogue in testing and a huge degree of technical support.
“We’ve also had a massive amount of in-depth feedback with a very analytical approach – everything has been incredibly detailed.”
Aston Martin’s switch back to Michelin has brought it in line with the four other GTE-Pro manufacturers, which share the same supplier.
That, combined with the most intensive testing program for any new AMR car, has instilled confidence in the Vantage’s ability to challenge the more established offerings from Porsche, Ferrari and Ford.
Results-wise, Howarth is playing his cards close to his chest, but has suggested a top four finish at Spa – historically a tough circuit for the old Vantage in its latter years – would be a good start.
The introductions of the new BMW M8 GTE and the Evo version of the Ferrari 488 GTE mean the pecking order in GTE-Pro is difficult to call before the first race.
But Howarth believes the WEC’s use of auto Balance of Performance, which first appeared in 2017, will continue to make the top GT category closer and more exciting.
“The auto BoP made things a lot more interesting last year, because everything came down to strategy and execution,” he said.
“It means there will be more driver errors because there’s more pressure on them, and often that’s what is going to change the outcome of races.
“I’ve also seen it push the engineers more. Before, with non-auto BoP, they weren’t focusing on the things that added real performance, but now they’ve got a car that they’ve got to extract everything from in every area.
“It comes back to the human elements – driving, tyre management, setup etc.”
Consequently, Howarth reckons all five GTE-Pro manufacturers will be in the hunt this season.
“I don’t think you can call a winner at any of the races this year,” he said. “It would be great to see all manufacturers in contention with 20 minutes left at each race.
“If it comes down to that – and it started to happen that way last year – it will be very good for the championship.”
The auto BoP system means Howarth’s thoughts heading into the new Vantage program are similar to when Prodrive introduced the old Vantage ten years ago.
“My feelings are about the same, because they’re in a controlled formula,” he said. “For instance, I still believe with last year’s car we could win this year.
“But will the competition be closer this season? Yes, I think so.”
AMR to Treat Prologue as “Full Event”
Howarth says Aston Martin will go into next month’s pre-season test at Paul Ricard with the intention of racking up more endurance mileage ahead of the Spa opener in May.
The new calendar, featuring only one round before Le Mans, has prompted the manufacturer to approach official testing like a race weekend.
AMR will run a car in the full 30-hour endurance test, along with BMW and Porsche.
“It’s sometimes nice from a team conditioning point of view to have done more races because you’re more switched on,” said Howarth, “but we’ll run the Prologue as a full event weekend to compensate.
“We’ll work on our pit strategy. For example, we don’t want to be a second a pit stop out on each sequence, so that’s what we’ll focus on.
“We had the fastest pit stops over 24 hours at Le Mans last year, factoring in other variables like brake changes.
“That sort of level is what we’re conditioning the team to reach with the new car.”
Howarth also wants to use the Prologue as an opportunity to test his own team, and to send an early message out to the competition.
“I really want to pressure test the drivers and the team, by doing things like calling pit stops at different times,” he said.
“It’s important to keep our own team and the other teams guessing, because that’s the best way to stay sharp and apply pressure.
“Ultimately, we want to be strong and reliable. We want everyone to look at us and think ‘those boys are on it’, before we head to Spa, which is where the real mind games start.”