In the first of three special Crash.net diary instalments over the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours weekend, Aston Martin Racing star Darren Turner discusses preparations in the build-up to the big race, the practice wash-out, likely rivals and his chances of making it three successive victories in the legendary round-the-clock La Sarthe classic...
In the initial test I had in Aston Martin Racing's new LMP1 car at Paul Ricard, I obviously found it quite a lot different from the GT1 I'd been used to in performance terms; I was surprised at the level of grip it had at high speed – that was very impressive – but now I've had the Spa and Barcelona Le Mans Series races to acclimatise to the car, it becomes more like home when I'm inside the cockpit. Saying that, I didn't do the Monza high-speed, low downforce test a couple of weeks ago and this weekend is the first experience I've had of low downforce, so I'm still trying to adjust to the car in that configuration.
I've done six years of GT1 at Le Mans, and thankfully I've had a couple of wins along the way as well; if we'd come back in GT1 I would have been just as happy, but to have the opportunity of driving the LMP1 is just a new experience for me. I'm more used to spending the majority of my time looking in my mirrors and watching for the LMPs coming up to overtake! It's the other way round now, and all about dealing with the traffic and trying to get through it as quickly as possible without affecting the lap time too badly.
Compared to the other petrol cars, I think we were reasonably strong in qualifying and in the races at both Barcelona and Spa. Obviously at Spa we had the diesel Peugeots there so we could gauge ourselves against them too, but I don't know how turned-up they were for that race weekend and we were still a second-and-a-half off those guys. Going from what I understand from last year, the best petrol was something like seven seconds off the best diesel in the race at Le Mans, or maybe even a bit more. Last night in practice it looked a little bit closer, with the few dry laps that we had available to us, so maybe the gap has closed down a bit, but it's still effectively two classes in LMP1.
To be honest, though, it's all a little bit of an unknown at the moment. With the test day being cancelled because of the credit crunch and everything else, everyone's kind of in the same boat and last night's practice session was going to be crucial to everyone finding a good race car for the weekend. With the very, very mixed weather that we had last night – we had a wet track to start off with that then dried out and then went completely wet again at the end of the session – I don't know how much anyone's really learned.
For us in the #008 car, it was important that Anthony Davidson got his ten laps under his belt for what they have to do for the rookie side, and all of us did our three laps in the dark too, so that's all been done and we had the opportunity to do a lot of practice pit-stop changes and generally see what the car balance is like at Le Mans with the low downforce. Thankfully we got all that done, and it was the best we could do with how the weather conditions were, but I think everyone is now looking forward to tonight's qualifying session with four hours of what's looking like being dry running. I think tonight is going to be very busy on the track with everyone trying to maximise the four hours that they've got available to them.
The aim for qualifying is always the same at AMR – we've got to maximise our race performance. If there's the opportunity to do a qualifying run then we'll take it, but if we're still trying to work on our race balance and understand the car and tyre options and so forth, then we will just focus on that and if we end up a few places behind on the grid compared to what our ultimate performance could be, then so be it. In qualifying, unless you've got a real chance of going for pole, then I think for the majority of people it's a case of 'okay, it's a nice thing, but realistically we need to focus on the race pace' – and I think that will be the case this evening. If last night had been dry throughout, then we might have had a little bit more time to explore qualifying, but I think again coming back to tonight, we need to maximise those four hours and just try and get the best race car performance we possibly can.
On the driver side, Anthony, Jos Verstappen and I are all working really well together so far. Obviously I've known Anthony for quite a few years now and I met Jos when I was down at Spa, and we're getting on famously at the moment; everyone's very relaxed and working very hard. With the pit-stop changes for instance, we're trying to reduce that time as much as possible; there's always a compromise with driving position and what one driver wants and another driver doesn't, but at the moment it's all going very well between us, and I can't imagine that changing too much throughout the race. It's just really good having two team-mates who are as hungry as I am to try and get a good result this weekend.
Pescarolo and Oreca are definitely our main competitors; we haven't really seen their speed yet because of the conditions last night, but ultimately they're the guys we need to beat because they're using the same type of engine power. I think an upset is always possible, though. The battle between Peugeot and Audi at the front is so intense that I think they're going to be pushing each other to breaking point, which is maybe what's going to play into our hands.
Also, looking at the reliability problems that cropped up last night for Peugeot, even with all their testing under their belt, it's still not black-and-white that they're going to get to the end of the race without any problems. We just need to have – like we had in GT1 – a completely clean race throughout, and then hopefully, while those cars are battling it out and giving themselves a headache, we can just sneak up and pick up the pieces. That's how we need to look at this weekend – we just need to keep out of trouble, push as hard as we can, make no mistakes and then see what happens at the end.
Having won in GT1 for the past two years, I'd be massively surprised if we managed to do so again in LMP1. It may happen, but I'm really just looking forward to the race because of the fact that it's our 50th anniversary year, we're in LMP1 and as a British driver in an Aston Martin with the Gulf sponsorship livery, I don't think anyone could ask for a better car to be driving. Realistically, the icing on the cake would be if we can get in the top six; if we made the podium it would be absolutely amazing. I think a win would be a fluke, but it would be amazing to have a hat-trick, that's for sure.
I'll catch you again after qualifying,