23/07/2004 Aston Martin CEO Dr Ulrich Bez and Peter Hardman at the Le Mans Classic 2004 Exclusive Interview for Classic Driver
On the eve of the running of the second Le Mans Classic, we were granted an exclusive interview with Dr Bez and historic-racing driver par excellence Peter Hardman, paired together again to drive the 1959 race-winning DBR1. Subjects discussed included the new DBR9 race car, and what it’s really like to drive at the celebrated French track.
Aston Martin are an official sponsor at this weekend’s race, having a DB9 on view in Paddock 3 (1957 - 1961), and of course their involvement could not come at a better time, hot on the heels as it is from last week’s announcement and photo of the 2005 race car, the DBR9.
Speaking, pre-event, to the drivers of perhaps the world’s most famous Aston Martin, we were able to discover more about the importance of the meeting to the company, the new race car programme, and the sensations of driving such a historic machine at its spiritual ‘home’-
Steve Wakefield (SW) -Aston Martin has a big presence at the Le Mans Classic this year. What does the heritage of the company mean to you and how do you think the company benefits from this exposure?
Dr Ulrich Bez (UB) - First the heritage. What we have created now with Aston Martin is a future for Aston Martin - so history becomes our heritage. The whole company is different to others in that we have a longer tradition than similar 40/50 year-old companies. It has become ‘Heritage’ instead of just ‘History’. Aston Martin has grown up with racing sports cars - the heritage of ‘Gentleman Racing’ in the past. We now have the opportunity of coming back to these roots and developing it further. We would not have done it if racing did not have a future with our recently published and confirmed co-operation with our racing partner Prodrive and the DBR9. That we are willing to return to endurance racing on a GT level means ‘Heritage Racing’ makes sense. Without it this would be just ‘Historic Racing’. A different thing. In the same way, the importance of the Le Mans Classic this year is that it will be a higher profile event than last time (which was really good), there will be more people, a higher interest worldwide. It’s Le Mans, and an event that comes maybe not close to the main 24 Hours - but is a significant place in this ‘Gentleman’s’ world.
SW -You now have a fabulous new factory with a totally new product line. Isn’t it difficult to reconcile the historical and heritage aspect with the bold new 21st century look of the company and its high-tech products - after all, the car you are racing is 45 years old, probably before your core buyers (nowadays) were born?
UB - Le Mans Classic is definitely not a spectacle for the mass market - we are not addressing this market anyway. So, one thing with the classic races is that because of the money involved and the time involved, you find more people with a higher physical age than average - because it’s very time-consuming. Firstly, because you have to afford to buy such a car (which is very expensive), then you have to develop it and go to a couple of races which always takes a week, or half a week, of your time. Very few people who are in the middle of their business-life can afford this sort of time. That’s why you will see at this Le Mans that the drivers are still young - but slightly older than in ‘modern’ categories. The other side is that there is a high interest in things that you can understand. You can look at the DBR1 and see what it is and how it works. If you look at today’s F1 car you don’t basically understand anything! [Laughing]. Even the visible aerodynamics; you can’t understand them. The charm of the old cars is that you can just understand them. You can see that you may have made a repair on the track for a couple of minutes and it’s now running again. This does still have a fascination for younger people.
SW - Looking at your background I can see you have been responsible for engineering some of Porsche’s most iconic driver’s cars in recent years (911 Turbo, the Carrera RS, the 968 and the 993). Porsche has an unrivalled - and I include Ferrari in this - reputation for linking motorsport, tradition and new-car development, resulting in a reputation for engineering excellence and quality. Will you be competing with the DBR9 in this market? Porsche have, after all, been supporting privateer racing for 50 odd years, but Aston Martin has a longer heritage than that, going back before the war.
UB - On a different level of volume and engagement it will be very similar. We want to have private customers owning or racing this car, (these are different possibilities I have to say). They will have the support of the company to do these races on a very achievable level. If you take it like this, it was always the strength of Porsche - a reliable car, a competitive car, a good service at the track and in this way a high satisfaction for people who are interested in this kind of sport.
SW -Changing the subject, how would you separate - as brands - Aston Martin from Ferrari and Porsche (and Lamborghini perhaps), with everything in place now at Aston?
UB - You’re not talking about racing now? Porsche have come from a personal, exclusive company and is now in the volume market with close to 100,000 units a year. Compared to the high mass-market [BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar etc] it’s exclusive, but in the purest meaning of the word it’s no longer exclusive. That’s the difference. You can also see this in the cars, because if you have 100,000 customers you have to make different products than if you only have 5,000.
With Ferrari it’s also very clear. These products are very influenced by culture and society, and characteristics within that society. With Ferrari, it comes out of an Italian environment. Tuscany is different from the British countryside, this is mirrored in the character of the cars and if there is a different demand from customers in different cultures - this is not competition. I would see Lamborghini in the same (Italian) way, but of course it lacks all the racing success (and non-success) of Ferrari - because Ferrari has not always been successful racing.
SW -And of course Ferrari, until recently, has not entered production cars in GT racing, just F1.
UB - Those cars did not come from the company, they were a private project. You can’t be active - and successful - in different kinds of sport.
SW - Regarding the DB9 racer, why not go down the Bentley route and go with a prototype for an overall win in a couple of years? Was that ever considered? Wouldn’t this be a cheaper and easier option?
UB - It’s not a Bentley route; it’s a route anyone can take who is prepared to spend $30 - 40,000,000 so you can put your badge on a prototype. This is not the kind of participation we were looking for. It was not an alternative.
SW -How do you intend to involve and motivate Aston Martin supporters in the new DBR9 racing project, by way of supporter’s clubs and marketing activities? There will be a lot of enthusiasts out there who will want to support the marque.
UB - We are not ready yet, but it’s an open field and anything can happen. Everything is possible; we are in no hurry whatsoever. We have nothing to prove, so we want to have fun with it, but go down a normal, logical, route.
SW -The ‘private-private’ cars [not the three, two-car, ‘Works’ teams], that were originally billed as ‘collector’s cars’. Could they be raced as well, or are they possible road cars?
UB - I don’t see a road car - the road car’s a DB9! The DBR9’s a racing car derived from the road car. We may have feedback to the DB9 in some way, but that’s what it is.
Let me make it very clear, it is the principle Porsche has applied in the past - but on a much smaller, lower, personal, private level.
SW -When I was here a couple of months ago I was talking to Jeremy Main [the company’s Director of Product Development & Motorsport] and we felt there was a possible blot on the horizon in the shape of the Maserati MC12. Will it be allowed?
UB - I am only very clear that if the regulations were to find in favour of ‘single concepts’ we would not do anything. We would just not do it.
SW -Are the regulations still being decided on this?
UB - The regulations will hopefully be decided in September/October this year. I still believe that Max Mosley’s concept is right and that he will succeed.
SW -Coming back to the DBR1 this weekend - give us an idea of what it’s like to drive the 1959-winning car at Le Mans?
UB - You can’t describe this in words. I first came to Le Mans as a student and when I joined Porsche I was there helping with the time-keeping in the pits, writing down the times of one or two competitors. Finally in my career at Porsche I was head of engineering and responsible for many of these racing projects. My connection with Le Mans is very long-lasting - but those cars are not driven by people like me. It was actually the first time I drove such a car. Such a car as the DBR1 is such a burden - to not damage it, and then to have a class win [motions to a wall-cabinet with trophies] - I can now say I am a winner at Le Mans!
SW -And for you Peter, describe the driving compared to the Silverstone GP Circuit for example?
Peter Hardman (PH) - Frightening. Le Mans is a great track but it is a bit worrying in the old cars, there’s not a lot of run-off if you make a mistake or someone drops some oil - and you are going quickly.
SW -And you don’t have any safety equipment?
PH - There is no safety equipment. And they’re not very strong either. You don’t want to hit the wall in an old car.
SW -Going back to 1959 I think the men who drove those must have been very brave, considering the speed and un-restricted straights.
UB - I personally think it’s no less dangerous now. In all parts of the circuit you achieve the maximum speed and then brake, achieve the maximum speed and then brake. In those days you could ‘relax’ on the long straight, but now you have no time. It’s even more challenging - more busy - no time to relax, but you are not driving over 24 hours continuously. Of course I admire what they have done because they did over 24 hours non-stop, what we do just three times in that period.
SW -Peter, compared to modern racing at the track, what’s the main problem driving the Classic race? Other - less experienced - drivers perhaps?
PH - There is a huge difference in speed but I thought the driving was quite good last time and people are good at looking in their mirrors and keeping position, being aware and stuff like that. Treat people like you would on the road. You’ve got to drive for them as well. At the Porsche curves there’s no room - just barriers. It’s only historic motor racing after all.
SW -Peter, you have been described as ‘Mr Sideways’, but you’re also very fast - is this always the quickest way? All the racing books say ‘smooth is best’.
PH - ‘Mr Drift’ I would say! If you look at my line - I’m on line. You can make it look spectacular but if you’re not on the right line round the track you can be as sideways as you look but you’ll be slow. Drift and slide in and sort it out on the apex, just slipping the tail slightly on exit out to shorten the next straight.
At Goodwood, where Tony Dron in the Dino 246 [another car in the owner’s stable] has beaten me for the last couple years it’s a case of that car having so much better handling to come out of the corners quicker. It’s got 60 bhp less than the Aston but better power-to-weight. He drove past me at the end of the Lavant straight. I won a couple of weekends ago in the Dino at Silverstone against cars with another 150bhp, purely on handling.
I’m on the limit at Goodwood. For every ten laps in the Aston you can do say two or three which are ‘right’, in the Dino it’s seven or eight that are right on the button.
SW -Do you feel as if you’ve gone back in a time-machine, and driving along do you imagine yourself as Salvadori or Shelby, particularly as you have several modern Le Mans under your belt?
PH - I don’t know. It’s all they knew at that time if you know what I mean. They didn’t want to wear belts for example. Would you want to get thrown out at 150mph? Or hit the screen and dash at a ‘low-speed’ crash. I also think you can drive faster if you are held in the car by the belts, without them you have to brace yourself on the steering wheel.
SW -Would you feel happy driving in those days with the inherent dangers?
PH - No!
SW -You know the sort of cars that will be there. Apart from the DBR1, what car would you most like to drive at Le Mans Classic, what would your second-favourite car be?
UB - A second favourite? Of course a Porsche!
SW -A ’74 Carrera or a 917?
UB - Not a 917. This is not a car for a non-professional. I once had an accident in a Porsche racing car and broke my spine. I was in hospital and received a note from Professor Porsche to say he’s not paying me for driving race cars! A nice Carrera could be good, RS of 1973, I could go quite fast with such a car.
SW -How about you Peter?
PH - I don’t really know. I wouldn’t want to drive one of the really quick ones; I suppose the Dino 246 would be a really nice little car, faster than the Aston. The Ferrari P3 would be nice, but we’re only taking two cars so it’s the Aston and then Dino.
SW -Dr Bez, how do you get on with Peter - this is the second time at Le Mans for you together, he is one of the world’s top sports car drivers. A fantastic professional driver. I know it’s sometimes difficult driving with people?
UB - No, no, we have a good relationship. He gives me all the right advice and he is in absolute control of this car. That’s great. Last time I was lucky, I was due to drive with Stirling Moss - who just in the last couple of days was not able to come. Driving with Stirling would have been fantastic - but it didn’t happen. Peter was due to drive another car and this had a problem in qualifying, so I was going to drive alone but we felt we had a very good chance with the two of us. I like him very much and I hope he likes me!
PH - He’s a nice guy, a really meticulous driver and he’s done a great job for Aston Martin. He’s an engineer and very thoughtful about the car. You know he’ll be driving along thinking about every sound it makes.
SW -Apart from Historics, what are you future plans for modern racing Peter?
PH - I’m open to offers…
SW -Dr Bez, is there anything you would like to say to the 1000s of Aston Martin enthusiasts out there who have supported the marque through thick and thin, are here at Le Mans cheering on your car and the other fabulous machinery?
UB - Go to Le Mans, see us race, then go back to your dealer and buy a DB9!
Dr Ulrich Bez joined Aston Martin in 2000 as Chief Executive Officer. Under his direction the company has successfully built a new factory at Gaydon, designed and manufactured the DB9 Coupé and Convertible (Volante), the DB7 Zagato Coupé and AR1 American Roadster, and most recently announced its return to International sports car racing. Next year will see the introduction of Aston’s ‘small’ car, the AMV8.
Peter Hardman is a full-time, professional racing driver, having won his first championship in 1983 (P&O Ferries Formula Ford). He is a full member of the British Racing Drivers Club and has driven single-seaters, and sports and GT cars throughout the world including several Le Mans 24 Hrs. He quotes his favourite race car as being the McLaren F1 GTR that he co-drove with Gregor Fisken at the 1998 British GP support race. Apart from modern racing, Peter currently drives for an historic-car collector whom he met while instructing at a track day some 10 years ago. Other historic cars raced in recent times include the Ferrari P3 and Ferrari 250LM.
For further details on Peter Hardman please visit his website.
Tim Samways prepares the DBR1, P3 and many other priceless historic racing cars - for further information please visit www.timsamways.co.uk