Imthishan’s Tour of Aston Martin Racing

Learning to how do things the Aston way
By Imthishan Giado

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain 

It would be fair to say that I know very little about motorsport. I’ve never raced a car on track, never watched a race other than F1 live and in my long and illustrious career, never once thought about joining a race team. Seems like an awful lot of work, and journalists are more suited to the rigours of the buffet.

Handily, the folks from Gulf Oil – who sponsor Aston Martin Racing – called up and asked me if I’d like to shadow the team as they work on the big finale of the World Endurance Championship at Sakhir International Circuit. Being right in the pit garage but without any actual responsibility? Now that’s my bag!

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Compared to the vastness of Yas Marina, Sakhir is a more intimate venue, free of unnecessary frippery and it’s easy to locate the Aston Martin pit garage. Aston are in a particularly important position with this race – they’re leading the eight-instance series in contention for four separate championships, including the LMGTE Manufacturer’s World Cup, not to mention the Driver’s Championships in both Professional and Amateur categories.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Pit garages are where all the action happens – the teams work on the cars, prep spare parts and tyres and follow the action through the course of the race weekend. Each section is visually quite different: the race engineers stand watch behind an enormous bank of monitors showing the progress of the car alongside impenetrable readouts blasting live telemetry from the car.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Then there are the backroom boys who work on cleaning and prepping the incredibly expensive carbonfibre bodywork on spindly trestles. They’re separated by a wall of storage boxes from the men who work on consumables like the brakes and brake pads – they can also take apart the complicated sequential Xtrac gearboxes in a matter of minutes.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

And finally, out in the back is the entirely unglamorous world of tyres. Rubber and the use of it is key to winning a race: the four Works cars go through 200 tyres over the typical course of a race weekend and they’re not cheap! Each Michelin tyre costs close AED5000; and that’s the softer compounds. Grooved wet tyres cost nearer AED6000.  Each weekend costs Aston nearly AED1million in tyres which is slightly ironic because they don’t actually own them! Owing to the secretive nature of the compounds being used, Michelin takes the tyres back at the conclusion at each week. So think of the 1 million as a kind of rental charge…

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

With that kind of money at play, it’s no wonder that the team does everything it possibly can to make sure it gets the most out of each tyre through an entirely unsexy process called ‘tyre scraping’. Lapping the circuit, each tyre eventually picks up a hard shell of old rubber from other competitor cars on top of the existing surface. In much the same way you don’t change a $1000 pair of loafers because you stepped on a piece of gum, tyres need to get this gunk scraped off.  Manually. As in, by hand.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

I had a go and it’s bloody hard work, if strangely therapeutic. You have to melt the accumulated rubber using a heat gun and then slowly scrape it off in parallel strokes until the surface is perfectly smooth again. The trick is not to get excited and do it too quickly but keep it slow and steady; all the rubber will yield eventually. In the hands of a beefy Aston mechanic the job takes ten minutes per tyre, after which the tyre is washed (by hand) again and then put into an ‘incubator’ which keeps it ready to be deployed at a temperature of 90°C. The wheels used on the road car are magnesium items manufactured by TWS. You’d think they use someone more well-known like BBS – and in fact they did, for a number of years. Eventually, someone at Aston wised up and realised that BBS were simply buying their wheels from TWS!

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Next, we take a long look at gearboxes. Exciting, isn’t it? Well actually it is! This is where having a sponsor like Gulf comes into play: they supply specially formulated oils for use in the race Vantage V8 that isn’t a million miles from a regular road car. In a road car, oil can last up to 25,000km before needing to be changed; in a hard-charging Aston the oil is changed before each and every race.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Pay attention Giado!

The gearbox itself is an interesting item. Costing in excess of AED250,000, it’s remarkably durable considering how much abuse it takes over the course of a event. Each 80kg box does about 6000km before going in a full rebuild and a new set of Sachs clutches, each of which costing AED25,000.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

This long tube is actually one of the most important bits of the car – it’s a carbon fibre propshaft that transmits power from the gearbox to the axle. Most modern automobiles use a steel propshaft which is considerably cheaper but quite heavy. How heavy? As much as 10kg more than the carbonfibre item which rings the bell at a featherweight 2.1kg. Apart from being immensely strong, carbonfibre also had the advantage of failing in a very friendly way. Steel shatters, softer aluminium bends but carbonfibre – being a woven product – merely uncurls gently so it doesn’t damage any of the surrounding parts. Of course, at AED15,000 you’d expect it to behave in an elegant fashion…

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Our final task to was to strip down the damaged bumpers from the previous day’s racing and replace them with new items, applying decals along the way. The old bumpers made from – you guessed it, carbonfibre – cost AED20,000 each so you’d better believe a mere crack isn’t going to put them out of commission. Each bumper is shipped back to the UK where they are bonded with fibreglass and repainted.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

A moment to admire those classic Gulf racing colours: power blue and orange and absolute iconic, dating all the way back to the late ‘60s when they graced the bodies of Porsche 917s. On this car the base coat is that beautiful blue, the orange is a sticker that goes around the edges and on top of all that is a clear film that is an absolute bastard to remove. After 45 minutes of sweaty pulling all the film is finally off, the fenders and wings are put on their trolleys and we can apply Gulf  logos onto the replacements.

Aston Martin Racing Bahrain

Maybe I’m getting sentimental. A small part of me is quite happy that I built part – a tiny, tiny part, but a part nonetheless – of an actual racecar that will compete in an actual proper FIA race alongside thundering LMP1 Audis and Ferrari 458s. And I also got to see a tiny part of the dedication, hard work and camaraderie that make up a race-winning team. The Aston boys were always ready with a smile and a helpful hand but come race day they were hard-nosed professionals, working as one precision unit and when not working, always, always glued to the position monitors. For the rest of us, racing is something we watch on TV.

For them, it’s life.

Many thanks to Gulf Oil for providing us the opportunity to check out the team up close – next time you change oil why not give them a try?

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