Darren Turner’s 2005
A Year Of Highs & Lows

dailysportscar.comAs 2005 draws to a close, Aston Martin Racing’s Darren Turner looks back on his year’s work – with Fiona Miller. For a driver who was unsure at the beginning of the season as to how many races he would have in 2005, it’s turned out to be a pretty good year.

The Oxfordshire based man has covered around 10,000 miles in the Aston Martin DBR9, racing it eight times and winning twice. Additionally, he’s had an outing in a Ferrari 550; tested both the DBR9 and DBRS9 extensively; continued in his role as one of the McLaren F1 team’s test drivers and, along the way, achieved a long-held aim and gained his private pilot’s licence.

Q It sounds a fairly busy year. Did you know at the start the extent of the racing programme?

No, not really. From an Aston Martin Racing point of view we didn’t know what was going to happen for sure, even after Sebring. We knew our number one aim was Le Mans, and that we’d start at Sebring, but a lot of the rest was a bonus to be honest. The Spa 24 Hours and the two ALMS races were really good ones to be involved in, results notwithstanding, particularly the US ones which were both a first for me.

Being involved in the DBR9 project from the start, doing a lot of the development and the shake downs, was a really good experience and an education. Seeing it all from start to finish, from drawing board to the track, and then having a chance to race it made it a pretty amazing start to the 2005 season. The rewards to be had from racing were potentially greater after all the effort that had been put in by both me and Brabs.

Q So, your first race was Sebring. What were your expectations?

dailysportscar.comHaving tested there at the end of January, we knew we had a car that was strong, but we didn’t know what the competition was like. It was the first time I’d driven with Stephane Ortelli but Brabs and I knew each other well from Ferrari [550] days. It was a definite positive knowing we’d all been to the track before, we all knew the car from testing and, for me certainly, having the extra benefit of the Prodrive-run Aston Martin Racing team around us.

Come race week it became clear we weren’t as fast as the Corvette, but we just chipped away all week at making progress with the car, and finding a good set up for the race.

dailysportscar.comWe got better and better each day, and it really paid off. We had a good race pace, actually a lot quicker than I’d anticipated, and didn’t have any technical issues at all so just went on from there. I know Corvette had problems, but that’s the nature of sportscar racing, isn’t it? We were there to do 12 hours, we did that with no problems, and we took the chequered flag first. Job done.

The win took a while to sink in as none of us really expected it, this being the DBR9’s first race. To be the only British driver in such a British team was also quite a special feeling.

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Q Surely that must have pushed the door ajar for more races?

Yes, and expectations after Sebring were very high. It was decided that we’d make a guest appearance in the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone in May which, from the factory’s point of view was great - seeing the cars on home turf for the first time.

dailysportscar.comReally you’d have to say it was a mega result, though for me and Brabs it was ultimately disappointing. We were on pole – thanks to Brabs’ stunning efforts on Saturday; we led the race from the start to about 15 minutes before the end; I got fastest lap in the race. Everything but the big prize for our car, but a great outcome for the team.

The race was hard fought, especially between the two Aston Martins, the Vitaphone Maserati and Corvette C5-R. Our pit stops got us into 1-2 and gained us an extra 3 or 4 seconds, which definitely won the race for Aston Martin Racing.

As I said, for me and Brabs it was a bit disappointing to have been lined up for our second win in succession and then to finish 2nd. In the third and final hour of the race, and especially towards the end, the tyres weren’t working as well and I just couldn’t push as hard as necessary. The Maserati was closing on Pedro [Lamy], who was right behind me, so for the sake of the team 1-2 it was better to let Pedro through (Darren in the 'red' car, below). When we got the car back after the race, we found a massive blister on the left rear tyre…

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Q Next up was Le Mans. How well prepared were you?

We’d tested fairly extensively, including staying on after Sebring, a full 24 hour test in the UK and a number of other sessions. After all, Le Mans is the biggest prize of the lot and the stakes were high.

It’s always amazing going back to Le Mans, especially driving this time for Aston Martin. It’s such a huge event, with so much significance to sports car drivers and fans throughout the world.

I can’t say the pre-race hype between ourselves and Corvette worried me too much, but it certainly added to the excitement and anticipation. We knew we had the potential to win the race, but equally we knew that Corvette would provide us with some tough opposition. It wasn’t exactly a grudge match, but they wanted to prove that Sebring had been a one-off, and we obviously wanted to prove that it wasn’t.

All of us, including Stephane Sarrazin, had done Le Mans before so we knew what was needed in terms of preparation. In the end though, it was factors out of our hands which determined the result. I know I’m bound to say this, but the withering heat, penalties, punctures and radiator trouble didn’t exactly make for a trouble free 24 Hours!

We got a podium, but we should have won. The race between us and Corvette was going right down to the wire and, with only a couple of hours left to go, there was a pair from each team on the same lap and it looked as though it would be a fight right to the finish – with us in line for the top step. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

Like last year, I took the start – and in front of 230,000 spectators, that’s a great feeling – and managed to pull out a bit of a gap for us, including passing our sister car (about to take place, below).

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Unfortunately, the stewards judged me to have hit some bollards/marker cones at different points around the circuit and gave me not one, but two, penalties – one of which was a harsh 3 minute stop-and-go. I assured the team I hadn’t driven around the track any differently to how I’d been doing it for the last two years, but the damage was done and we dropped right back in the time sheets. George Howard-Chappell and David Richards came with me to see the Stewards to try and fight our cause, but there wasn’t much we could do. They supported me fully but I obviously felt really bad for Brabs, Stephane, our engineer Dave Wilcock and everyone on our car.

To make matters worse, I was later in the race given a further penalty for allegedly passing under a yellow flag. In fact, it was me who was passed by another car, but I was a marked man by then so I just had to bite my tongue and continue to drive very conservatively for the rest of the race.

dailysportscar.comThe DBR9 is an extremely fast sports car and we definitely had the edge on our rivals on speed. That helped us each time to claw back the time we’d lost and we managed to get back into contention for the class win, despite suffering (like almost every other team in the pit lane) two punctures. The radiator letting go with one and a half hours to go was the only real car problem we had, but it was too late by then to make up any more time.

Our biggest issue in the race though was probably the heat in the car – ironic given that we’d missed most of Wednesday’s running due to rain. At times the cockpit temperature was well over 60oC and my new cool suit didn’t seem to be effective at all after only a couple of laps. I also ended up with a massive blister on my left ankle and one the size of a golf ball on my braking foot due to the heat and vibration of the pedals. You always feel a bit wrecked at the end of a 24 hour race, but we definitely drained every last inch of our reserves on this one. It took a while to get over this one, the disappointment was huge.

Q So what did you do next? Another 24 hour race?

Right! We had to keep reminding ourselves that this whole year was supposed to be part of the test and development programme for the DBR9s being sold to customers. With the issues that had been brought up at Le Mans, it was decided that we should do the Spa 24 Hours to assure ourselves those had been sorted.

We were also anxious to make up for the so-near-and-yet-so-far result at Le Mans. Spa is one of my favourite circuits, as it is for almost everyone who’s driven it, and I rate Eau Rouge as one of THE best, and most challenging, corners in the world.

Rapidly changing track conditions due to heavy rain, sunshine and light showers – in no particular order and all in a short space of time – were key to the running order in the opening hours of the race. The right choice of tyres was critical and that, together with some great driving from everyone, saw us in the hunt for the lead for the first 9 hours of the race.

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The pace of our car during the night, on the soft Michelin tyres, was really good. We’d not had the best practice and qualifying sessions but, considering our FIA GT competitors had already done four more races than us, we knew we still had a lot to learn about getting the best out of the car. Despite losing some laps after contact with a back-marker, we made up the time very quickly, and were closing in on the leaders again when we had brake problems to do with the pedal box, which cost us a lot of time. It was something we’d never come across before and it occurred on both cars so was very disappointing. We think it was down to moving the brake bias around a lot due to the constantly changing conditions, but it was a big drama at the time.

dailysportscar.comEventually we finished 6th but even though the result wasn’t great and didn’t live up to our expectations, you never come away from Spa too disappointed as it’s such a fantastic track. Added to that, any time you come away from a 24 hour race with a finish, it’s an achievement for both man and machine. It wasn’t as hard as Le Mans because we didn’t have to battle with the heat, but they are never easy.

Q Did you think that was it for the season, after Spa?

Well, we hoped for more … but we didn’t really know. The team was working hard to get the budget together to do the last two rounds of the ALMS, but potentially I was going to have a pretty quiet couple of months.

Fortunately I had a call from Rob Schirle at Cirtek who’d just done a deal to run the first privateer DBR9 in the LMES. To be honest, I’d rather forget about Silverstone in August – the conditions were so awful. It really wasn’t a good advert for a British summer, and we didn’t even have a particularly good race to make up for it.

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I was wrongly judged to have overtaken under yellow flags and had to come in for a penalty, which unfortunately coincided with one of the many safety car periods and we lost a heap of time. Luckily for me, Stephane Ortelli (who was driving the other car in question) was a real mate and wrote to the ACO explaining the whole situation so at least it wasn’t hanging over me by the time we got to the Nurburgring in September. With that coming only a few months after Le Mans, I didn’t want the ACO to think that I’d turned into a serial offender!!

Q Nurburgring (LMES) must have more than made up for that surely?

Yes it did, though I only got the call on the Thursday before the race. It was very last minute. Rob had got single-seater driver Robert Bell lined up to drive. He was making his debut in a GT sportscar and had furthermore never been to the Nurburgring before, so I guess Rob was looking for an experienced hand to balance that out.

Unfortunately I was already committed to test the DBRS9 at Silverstone so it meant I didn’t get to do any of the official practice sessions on the Friday, as I didn’t arrive until midnight that day. Not the best way to go into a 6-hour endurance race! I got 5 timed laps in on the Saturday morning practice and then handed over to Rob to give him some more seat time. The car, however, didn’t feel good at all.

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As Cirtek hadn’t, at that time, got that much experience with the Aston, I spoke to my usual AMR race engineer, Wilks, on the phone and got some advice about how to improve the set up. We made a lot of changes but didn’t have time to put the car on a flat patch before qualifying so we were kind of ‘guestimating’ where we were with the set up. It handled much better and I then did about 5 laps in qualifying which put us on the second row of the GT1 grid and about nine tenths of a second off pole. We did a few more changes after that with a view to the race set up, and the car felt very good. I was much more confident about our chances then as it felt very ‘race-able’.

dailysportscar.comI started, and it was nose-to-tail in GT1 for the entire time, with the first four in class battling it out for the lead. You could only really challenge for a position when traffic played its part. We weren’t the quickest but we held onto the pace of the leaders so Rob Bell had all to play for. He did a really good job, was quick and consistent and kept his nose clean. Just what we needed. The only real panic we had in the race was, at our third pit stop, the car wouldn’t start again so we lost 30 seconds in pits. Luckily Rob did another good, solid stint, keeping us in contention, and then I got in for the final stint to the flag. We all had a bit of a heart-stopper about half an hour before the end of the race when the engine died momentarily, but it coughed back into life again. Because our average lap times were so good, we managed to eke out a 1m10s lead by the end and finished effectively a lap ahead of the competition.

It was very satisfying to be the first driver to win in both a ‘works’ and a ‘private’ car and, as the Cirtek car’s owner, Rik Bryan, was there to see it, it was even better.

Q Were the last two ALMS races a chance to get your own back on Corvette?

Well, that’s what the media would have liked to believe! As far as we were concerned, we go to every race to win but there was undoubtedly the extra challenge of trying to beat them in their own back yard.

I’d heard so much about both Road Atlanta and Laguna and had felt I was missing out on a vital part of my racing experience by not having been there. Brabs, thankfully, knew both like the back of his hand.

Road Atlanta is one of the hardest tracks I have had to learn. It’s fast, hilly and with several blind crests and corners and it took me about 10 laps to really get into it. Actually, it was really good to go to a circuit that makes you concentrate; you have to show this track respect, so it’s very rewarding when you get a lap right. We had good test days and were ready to see how we matched up to the opposition once the meeting officially started.

dailysportscar.comIt was unfortunate then on Wednesday when Jonny [Kane] came across another, slower car, unsighted, and had a big crash which did extensive damage to our car. It meant we lost a whole day’s running, including night practice, as we had to wait for new parts to be flown out from Banbury. The team did a fantastic job to get it back together in the time available and thankfully we were able to go out and qualify with everyone else on Friday. Brabs did a top job to qualify 3rd in class, behind the two Corvettes, considering how little time we’d had to set the car up against the opposition.

We knew quite soon though that we lacked a bit of pace, even compared to our sister car, and the changing weather and track conditions during the race didn’t help with grip issues. It got a lot hotter and a lot more slippery.

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We were able to run with the leading GT1 pack at the beginning, but unfortunately lost a lap to the leading two in class due to a safety car period. From then on we just had to fight all the way to try and gain back the time, but it was always going to be a big ask. All we could do was keep the pressure on and hope for some luck!

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Our sister car had a drive-shaft problem in the last third of the race which dropped them down the running order, and we managed to get past the second Corvette, but it became obvious as the race went on that we weren’t going to be able to catch Olly Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen. After nine and a quarter hours of hard, hot racing we came in 2nd in class and 4th overall. It was good to get the car to the end and even better to get a podium, though there was obviously some frustration not to have been on the top step. Maybe if we hadn’t missed Thursday, we’d have been in a stronger position for the race. Who knows?

There was a brief bit of time off between the races, and Pedro, Peter [Kox] and I managed to spend a day surfing in California, which was hilarious. Pedro’s really good but Peter and I were rubbish and that’s putting it politely!

Laguna Seca and Monterey lived up to every one of my expectations though it turned out to be another challenging weekend.

We knew from the start that we might struggle for grip at this track and that’s how it turned out to be. We weren’t nearly as competitive as we would have liked in the first few practice sessions, but then we made some big steps forward and improved to the stage where we were the quickest in class in warm up. I was down to qualify even though I hadn’t been to the track before. We felt that, with the expected performance of the DBR9 against the competition, we had nothing to lose by me qualifying, especially as I hadn’t had a chance to do so at any of our other races. Unfortunately, because of a lot of red flags during the practice sessions, I’d only done about 20 proper, timed laps before qualifying so, while I was disappointed not to have had more preparation time, I couldn’t be too disillusioned with our eventual 5th place – it was the best we could expect in the circumstances.

dailysportscar.comAs for the race itself, it was cool and very entertaining at the beginning. The pace was red hot at the beginning between the 7 cars in our class and, despite the many caution periods, we stayed on the lead lap (which didn’t happen at Atlanta) so we always had a chance to battle for position. Despite some rear grip problems and Brabs tangling with the Maserati, we were always there or thereabouts. It was unfortunate we then had to do a bit of a splash and dash at the end as we lost the chance of a podium, which went to our sister car. Third would have been the best we could have hoped for, but in the end we had to settle for 4th.

Those two races highlighted areas that we need to work on over the winter. We went to new tracks and were really quick, and then went there and weren’t. There’s still plenty to do.

Q With so much Aston Martin experience, why the Ferrari drive at the last LMES round in Istanbul?

Well, for two reasons really. Firstly, with the end of season FIA and LMES calendars being what they were, it wasn’t possible for the Aston to be on two continents at the same time. Rob had done a deal with Middle East Aston Martin so the car went there instead of to Istanbul.

Secondly, Rob wanted to strengthen the Ferrari line up in order to finish as high up in the Championship as possible, so I was down to drive with Christophe Bouchut and Alexey Vasiliev.

In the end the team came away from Turkey disappointed not to have taken victory and the series titles, but satisfied that they’d done enough to win an automatic place on the grid for the 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours. We’d struggled for grip as dreadful conditions hit the circuit on and off throughout the race – like almost everyone else. The Ferrari’s performance is still really impressive, as we saw from the fact that the top four cars challenging in GT1 were all 550s, but on this occasion it was BMS that beat Cirtek to the chequered flag.

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Q Highs and lows for the year?

Well, Sebring was the high for sure. To win first time out in a hard race like that was mega, and to follow it up with the win at Nurburgring was also good, for all the reasons I’ve already said.

The low was definitely Le Mans. Having had two 3rd places now, I’m more determined than ever to claim that top spot – it’ll have to be next year.

Q And next year? What are your plans?

I’m still waiting for confirmation from Aston Martin Racing of their 2006 plans but we hope to be back challenging for all the big ones again and, maybe even a whole series somewhere if the budget comes together for that.

In the meantime, I’m going to do as many hours of flying as the weather allows and get a bit more experience under my belt. I’ve always wanted to learn to fly since I was a kid but I haven’t done any studying at all since school. The bit I enjoyed the most about learning was the academic side of things, the challenge of passing all the exams. The physical part in the aircraft uses much of what we’re used to in racing, including hand to eye coordination and a sympathetic feeling for a piece of machinery.

Are there similarities to racing? Well, not really though it’s a good discipline which will surely help in become a better driver. The biggest difference between driving and flying is that in racing you’re always trying to push the limits. You know what the risks are but you accept them and are there to challenge the limits. With flying, you are always trying to be as safe as possible and stay within the limits all the time. It’s still early days in my flying career, but I aim to be as professional in that as I am in my driving.

 

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