Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aston Martin debuts LMP1 cars: 50 years of aesthetic decline


Oh, this is going to be big. To commemorate the Aston Martin company’s only overall win at Le Mans in 1959 –- and to help sell a bunch of dirty-hot sports cars in the process -– the automaker will go for the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. Though this was an open secret in racing circles, this week the company released images of the Lola-chassis’ed LMP1 cars with traditional orange-and-blue Gulf Oil livery. Very shagadelic. The LMP1 cars –- P1 cars, for short -– will be powered by the same V12 engine that was under the hood of Aston’s GT1-winning cars for the last two years. To focus maximum “energy” (read: money) on the P1 effort, Aston will not field a works team to defend the GT1 title.

The P1 works program sets up a high-stakes showdown between the gasoline-powered Aston Martins and diesel-powered entries from Peugeot and Audi. For those just getting, shall we say, up to speed: The Audi R10 TDI diesels are undefeated in three years at Le Mans. In 2007 and 2008, Peugeot fielded smoking-hot diesel-powered P1 cars of its own, which were quicker per lap than the Audis, but ultimately met with bad luck. The success of diesel racing cars has been held up as an example of the performance possibilities of more environmentally friendly technology. However, the race organizers have been under pressure to minimize, by rule, the inherent mileage advantage of diesel engines. The new rules come into force this year.

And so the shootout with the gas-powered Aston Martins takes on symbolic, even political overtones, as the classic high-revving performance of gasoline competes against the long-legged endurance of diesel.

"Racing has been, and still is, at the heart of Aston Martin," said Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin's chief executive. "Our cars today are subtle, elegant and handcrafted, but they still have the genes for competition.... We will put all our heart and skill behind this project to demonstrate the essence of Aston Martin: power, beauty and soul."

Am_dbr1_le_mans_winning_carSpeaking of Bez, a few years ago I had the pleasure of being taken around a racetrack in the right seat of Aston Martin’s Le Mans-winning DBR1 (pictured) with Bez at the controls. Bez is a skilled driver and the DBR1 -– a race car of half-century vintage -– scared the hell out of me. It is also one of the most beautiful competition cars ever made, in the same class as the Ferrari 250 Testarossa, Jaguar D Type and first-generation Bentley Speed 8.

So, compare and discuss? If pretty were speed, the old car would leave the new car for dead.