Another dip into the DSC archive finds this 2013 Michael Cotton interview with George Howard-Chappell, a man whose experience of motor-racing engineering is perhaps greater and deeper than most people realise.
George Howard-Chappell, the man who engineered two of the most successful, and most evocative Grand Touring racers of the 21st century, was absent from the paddocks in 2012, but certainly not forgotten. “What’s George up to now?” was a question frequently asked, and few knew the answer. After resigning from his post as Team Principal and Technical Director of Aston Martin Racing in October 2011, George enjoyed some ‘me-time’ early last year, and got close to a new appointment running a Formula One team (“out of the frying pan”, but the man who was going to leave, didn’t!). He is now a sought-after consultant, is unready to tell all, but discloses that he is busy developing race projects for Multimatic, the Canadian engineering company that is mostly under the radar, but extremely competent technically. It is not clear whether Huntingdon, home of Lola Cars, one of Multimatic’s recent acquisitions, is on George’s beat.
When you think about it, George Howard-Chappell has been a constant figure in endurance racing for the best part of a quarter of a century. Tall, authoritative, a gifted engineer to his fingertips, he was a leading figure at Lotus; first at Lotus Engineering where he worked on active suspensions, among other things, then in Formula One (engineering Johnny Herbert’s F1 cars in 1992-93), and then formed a subsidiary company, GTI Lotus Racing Limited, with Ian Foley, to develop the Lotus Esprit GT2 in 1995. “When the F1 racing stopped Ian and I looked at each other and asked ‘what do we do now?’, recalls George, who had Formula Ford experience himself and was racing a Lotus Esprit Turbo in the 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports Championship.
The answer, obviously, was to move into Ketteringham Hall, former headquarters of Tony Rudd, and further develop the Esprit S300. Many will remember the debut of the car entered by the Lotus GT Team for Alessandro (Alex) Zanardi and Alex Portman in the BPR Endurance GT Championship race at Donington Park in 1995. It had no more than 400 horsepower from the four-cylinder turbo engine but it was light and had an excellent chassis. “We had all new carbon bodywork and when the car was weighed at Donington the scrutineers almost fell over because it weighed 914 kg, and they had never seen a car under 1,000 kg in the class before.”
The Lotus was running fourth in excellent company, behind McLarens and Porsches, leading the GT2 class by miles until the gearbox broke 15 minutes from the end, a disappointment for the crowd that hugely admired the plucky team from Wymondham. A win at Silverstone later in the season for the Alex duo was a just reward.
Chassis development was George’s speciality throughout his career. He gained a Master of Science Degree in Automotive Product Engineering at the Cranfield University in 1984, then worked for the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) as a vehicle dynamics engineer for the next three years, conducting development work and measurement projects for a variety of client manufacturers. All this stood him in good stead while he furthered his career in motor racing, a self-confessed “car nut”.
A move up to GT1 was on the agenda for 1996, adopting the Esprit V8 turbo engine, but this needed additional funding that Lotus was unable to provide. Up stepped the entrepreneurial Dutchman, Toine Hezemans, who nominated his son, Mike, to drive one car with Alex Portman; and Jan Lammers drove the other with Perry McCarthy. Now the Lotuses had enough power, were still light and extremely nimble, but were prone to problems as varied as oil pump failures, overheating engines and brakes. A pole position at the Nürburgring against top opposition was a real positive, a Lotus led at Jarama, and the high point of the season was, again, at Silverstone where Lammers and McCarthy finished second overall.
A new car, the Lotus GT1, based on the Elise which was developed for the 1997 season, and was the first to used extruded aluminium beam chassis members manufactured by the Swedish company, Hydro Aluminium. Unfortunately, reacting to Porsche’s introduction of the 911 GT1-96 model, the FIA reduced the size of inlet restrictors on all turbocharged engines, probably costing Lotus fifty horsepower. “We realised that we would not be competitive so we made a very late switch, in February 1997, to the V8 engine that Tony Rudd had developed for the Corvette. It had four valves per cylinder and gave nearly 600 horsepower but unfortunately, there were engine problems”. Alternators and transmissions were the principal causes for disappointment, and all three cars retired from the opening round of the FIA GT Championship at Hockenheim in 1997 with alternator failures (the Italian GBF Benetton team had bought two Lotuses, one of which scored the only points for the marque when Mauro Martini and Andrea Boldini finished fifth in the Helsinki round).
This was an unsatisfactory season, a good car let down by mechanical failures, mainly due to the late engine switch which, with the benefit of hindsight, George admits was a mistake. At the end Toine Hezemans bought the remaining hardware and installed a Chrysler Viper V10 engine for the 1998 season, a fraught venture with the cars renamed Bitter. It was time for George Howard-Chappell to move on, and he accepted an invitation from David Richards to join the Prodrive organisation in Banbury as chief engineer, to look after Honda, Volvo and Ford interests in touring car racing. The relationship between Richards and Howard-Chappell would last 14 rewarding years.
George engineered the Hondas contesting the BTCC in 1998, then the Ford Mondeos in 1999 and 2000. “Prodrive established an in-house composite, machining and fabricating facility, and started a graduate training scheme. Cosworth were preparing the [V6] engines for the Mondeos but we were getting a bit frustrated with them – they had bigger fish to fry in F1, Indycars and WRC – so we set up our own engine department.” George was in charge of all aspects of the preparation of the Mondeos and in 2000 the Fords established a complete superiority: drivers Alain Menu, Anthony Reid and Rickard Rydell taking the top three championship positions; and giving Ford their first driver championship since 1990, as well as the manufacturers’ and teams’ championships.
Ford decided to quit the BTCC late in 2000 and George, now Prodrive’s technical director of racing, started a feasibility study for Volvo to compete in the European Touring Car Championship, and ran a side project to get a production car 24-hour speed record with the Volvo S60 Turbo.
Meanwhile, Frédéric Dor, the French oil-shipping magnate who drove a Prodrive prepared Subaru in world rallies, was in conversation with Richards about a Ferrari 550 Maranello which he had bought, and had race-prepared by Italtechnica. It was nothing but trouble, so could Prodrive take a look at it? “We took it all apart and measured it to see if we could make improvements and make it reliable, and we decided that it was not suitable for improvement and we couldn’t put the Prodrive name to it,” says George. “We told Freddy that if he wanted us to do it from scratch we’d take it on, and he agreed to that.
“We had little cooperation from Ferrari, so Freddy had to buy secondhand cars from dealers and we had to reverse engineer them, taking the first one to pieces and making drawings. We got Martin Ogilvie to design the car and it was very good, the 550 Maranello proved to be a good donor car to make a race vehicle.”
Dor set up Care Racing and eventually he owned 10 Ferraris, and of course it didn’t matter that they were all second-hand because little of the original materials remained. The FIA’s technical regulations allowed Prodrive to make big changes to the car, and the governing body was being very supportive of the Ferrari programme, which would be the making of Stephane Ratel’s FIA GT Championship. Any series with Ferraris running at the front is a sure bet to wow the crowds, and no-one was disappointed.
The first road car was turned into a race car in the space of 16 weeks, with little time for testing, and it wasn’t really ready when it was taken to Hungary for the first race. “We’d had about one day off in all that time, so we took a couple of months off from racing and did some proper testing, went to the A1-Ring, put it on pole position and won the race!” Peter Kox and Alain Menu did Prodrive and Ferrari proud in Austria, beating Mike Hezemans’ Viper by 48 seconds. “Everyone worked hard, and this just shows what Prodrive is capable of” said Kox.
Rydell claimed pole position at the Nürburgring, in heavy rain, and finished third, then Menu and Rydell won the Jarama 3-hours, demonstrating that the 550 Maranello was the fastest car in a straight line. Prodrive prepared a second Ferrari to IMSA specification and ran it in the Petit Le Mans. Rydell, Kox and Marc Duez qualified fifth in the GTS category, raced well but retired with an oil leak.
After negotiations that went on all winter, BMS Scuderia Italia reached an agreement with Care Racing to run two cars in the FIA GT Championship. Augusto Mensi’s team had already won the FIA Sportscar Championship with a Ferrari 333 SP so it was a natural progression that left Prodrive free to contest selected rounds of the American Le Mans Series, and Le Mans. For BMS, Jean-Denis Deletraz and Andrea Piccini drove one car, Enzo Calderari and Lilian Bryner the other. The Italians didn’t get into their stride until the fourth round, at Jarama, where Piccini started from pole position and won the race decisively. Two more victories, at Anderstorp and Oschersleben, followed in quick succession, leaving no doubts that the Prodrive Ferrari was the best car in the championship.
Failure to finish at Spa, the 24-hour race awarding double points, robbed BMS Scuderia Italia of the chance to lift the FIA GT Championship in their first season, but there was another big win at Estoril, again with Piccini starting from pole position. Calderari put his Ferrari on the front row, too, but dropped back to fifth. Their best result of the season was at Donington Park where, joined by Jean-Marc Gounon, they started from pole position, got the fastest lap and finished second to the Hezemans/Kumpen Chrysler Viper.
Prodrive’s Ferraris were in with a chance at Le Mans, their first appearance, and the omens were good: fastest in the trials, pole position in GTS, and Menu and Rydell, with Tomas Enge, built up a massive lead of two laps over the Corvettes at half distance, only to have an oil line breakage and an underfloor fire stop their charge. In America, Enge joined Menu and Rydell at Sebring, a disappointing outing with electrical problems which dropped them to sixth. After taking a long break for Le Mans Prodrive returned to the ALMS at Laguna Seca where the Ferrari started on pole position and won GTS, turning the tables on the Corvettes. It was, said Enge, “unfinished business. The car was very, very good.” The final outing of the 2002 season was at the Petit Le Mans where Enge, Kox and Menu scrapped with the Corvettes all the way. Enge was three seconds up in the last hour when he was crossed by a BMW back-marker, collected a flat tyre and had to settle for second place, splitting the Corvettes.
BMS Scuderia Italia truly dominated the FIA GT Championship in 2003, Thomas Biagi and Matteo Bobbi winning the first five races in succession, also the eighth to share the driver title and manufacturers and teams for Ferrari and the Scuderia. And in 2004, BMS’ driver pairing Fabrizio Gollin and Luca Cappellari won three rounds, Bobbi and Gardel another, and crucially, the Prodrive-built Ferrari 550 Maranello won the Spa 24-hours, when Gollin and Cappellari were joined by the ‘Enzo and Lilian’ team, as the Swiss partners were always called.
As before, Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series were Prodrive’s priorities. They started with two cars at Sebring, running the same crews as would be at Le Mans: Enge/Kox/Jamie Davies and Anthony Davidson/Kelvin Burt/Darren Turner. Then, after Le Mans, they competed at Road Atlanta and were rewarded with second place in GTS for Enge and Kox and fourth place, three laps down, for Jerome Policand and Danica Patrick. “We took a bit of a risk and to be fair Danica was pretty handy considering she hadn’t done much racing in GT cars, but we realised it was going to take her two or three races to get up to speed. With our eye on the championship, of course, we decided to go to Sonoma with David Brabham and Jan Magnussen to get the job done.
Ah yes, Brabs and Mags, that famous duo, did indeed get the job done, winning two rounds of the ALMS and giving the Corvettes a real bloody nose. Brabham and Magnussen won at Road America and Laguna Seca, then Darren Turner joined Brabs to win at Miami, and the Ferrari team ended the season with a hard-fought, thrilling victory over the Corvettes at the Petit Le Mans, this time the laurels going to Menu, Kox and Enge. Winning the last four rounds straight off enabled Prodrive to finish a close second in the teams and manufacturers championship, 167 points to Corvette, 163 to Prodrive Ferrari. “With the benefit of hindsight, if we had run Brabham and Magnussen at Road Atlanta we’d have won the championship, no question” George reflects.
Le Mans 2003 was the culmination of the hopes of the Prodrive team, and those of Frédéric Dor whose victorious 550 Maranello takes pride of place in his collection. With backing this time from Sam Li’s Veloqx team, Enge, Kox and Jamie Davies fairly dominated the 24-hour race, eventually winning by 10 laps, leaving both Corvettes in their dust. Prodrive’s weekend was marred by a heavy crash experienced by Anthony Davidson, whose debut in the second Ferrari was ended at half distance by a seized rear wheel hub bearing.
Prodrive planned a quiet year in 2004 while preparing their next big venture, with Aston Martin, but they had a guaranteed entry to Le Mans and Dor definitely wanted to see his cars run again. Former World Rally Champion Colin McRae joined the team, and his attitude and willingness to learn impressed George a lot. “He was a great guy, a real professional. To be quite honest he found it quite hard to adjust from rally driving to racing but he was super professional, not at all ‘I am…’. He wanted to learn all he could, he listened to everyone and he took a lot of advice from Darren and Rickard, his team-mates. By the time we got into the race he was ready to do a really good job, and the car was going well until it was hampered by a slipping clutch.” Even so, McRae, Turner and Rydell finished third in GTS, this time behind the two Corvettes, with Kox, Enge and Menu placed fourth in class.
The Prodrive-engineered Ferrari 550 Maranello can be regarded as one of the classic Grand Touring cars of all time having won more than 50 international GTS/GT1 races in Europe and in America, plus the 24-hour races of Le Mans in 2003 and Spa in 2004.
Taking Aston Martin to the fore
Prodrive started the concept work on the 12-cylinder Aston Martin DBR9 early in 2004, “but we didn’t really switch it on until after Le Mans.” David Richards was still principally concerned with the Subaru World Rally Championship programme, still with Frédéric Dor as a customer, and the programme was the result of three-way conversations between Dor, Aston Martin’s chief executive Dr Ulrich Bez, and Richards. “Aston Martin wanted to do something, Frédéric was involved and Prodrive was the sporting organisation that could get things done” says George. Dor committed to invest in the project and buy the first two chassis, a race car that was named DBR9.
There were several advantages to working with Aston Martin. They were reasonably local, at Gaydon, they wanted to be involved and they would go to great lengths to see that Prodrive had all the assistance they needed. Former Spice designer Graham Humphrys was employed by Aston Martin and was the link man with a good understanding of what was needed. The chassis was formed by extruded aluminium beams, supplied by Norsk Hydro, who had been suppliers to the Lotus GT1 project 10 years before, so George was in a win-win situation. “Generally it was an excellent starting point. The chassis was excellent; although I think that if we could have had the Aston Martin chassis and the Ferrari’s bodywork, which had excellent aero, we would have been unbeatable.” Not that there was anything wrong with the DBR9’s bodywork, which would have won any beauty contest, except that it perhaps conceded a point or two in the wind tunnel.
Aston Martin Racing was formed in November 2004, with George Howard-Chappell as team principal and technical director, and the DBR9 ran for the first time in that month. Its first race was at Sebring in March 2005 and it immediately made history, winning on its debut! David Brabham, Darren Turner and Stéphane Ortelli actually finished in fourth place overall behind two Champion Racing Audi R8s and the Dyson Racing MG-Lola, so trouncing their old adversaries, Corvette Racing. From there, the Aston Martin Racing DBR9s went to Silverstone for the third round of the FIA GT Championship and another triumph as they finished first and second, nose-to-tail after three hours, with Kox and Pedro Lamy ahead of Brabham and Turner.
The racing world needed no convincing. Aston Martin Racing was at the top of its game, but there would be disappointment at Le Mans. “We were very competitive there, we were leading after 20 hours, if I remember correctly, but then it all went wrong! It was little niggles that spoiled our day. We had done three 24-hour runs prior to Le Mans but there were still little things that needed attending to, as you needed a perfect car to win.” In fact, AMR did not win at Le Mans until their third attempt…and again at their fourth. “Our philosophy was to make the car as perfect as possible because if you need to go into the garage you’re not going to win, so the cars were not super-serviceable but very reliable. In 2007 and again in 2008 the Astons were the cars that spent the least time of all in the pits.”
Darren Turner and Rob Bell won the GT1 class at the Nürburgring, a round of the European Le Mans Series, with the customer Team Modena, and at the end of the season Aston Martin Racing achieved another great result at the Petit Le Mans, where Brabham, Turner and Johnny Kane won GT1 in fourth place overall, book-ending two big appearances in America.
Aston Martin Racing achieved five wins in the 2006 American Le Mans Series at Lime Rock, Miller Motorsports Park, Mosport, the Petit Le Mans and Laguna Seca, running on Pirelli tyres, but still failed to clinch the championship titles. It was desperately close, again, with Corvette Racing on 189 points, AMR on 186, with Stéphane Sarrazin and Darren Turner third and fourth on driver points.
By any measure, sixth overall at Le Mans is a fine result for a GT car, achieved by Turner, Enge and Andrea Piccini, but still, they were five laps behind the Corvette in fourth position. Turner had unfortunately scraped over a high kerb entering the pit-lane and cut an oil line, which cost the team a possible victory. It was, inevitably, the Corvettes against which Prodrive measured their success, the Americans unfailingly presenting cars prepared to the highest professional standards Team Modena’s DBR9 was ninth overall (Brabham, Antonio Garcia and Nelson Piquet Jr), AMR’s second DBR9 tenth with a slipping clutch (Lamy, Ortelli and Sarrazin) – so, three Astons in the top 10 – while for BMS Scuderia Italia, the usually reliable Fabio Babini hit oil at the Porsche Curves and crashed as early as the third lap.
Jack Leconte’s Larbre Competition team represented Aston Martin Racing in the FIA GT Championship (AMR’s name was incorporated in the team’s title), and won the championship with victories in Istanbul and at the Nürburgring, Pedro Lamy, Vincent Vosse and Gabriele Gardel sharing the driver championship title.
At last, Aston Martin Racing gained the top step of the podium at Le Mans in 2007 after a great contest with the Corvettes. David Brabham, Darren Turner and Rickard Rydell had a text-book run to fifth place overall in the Bond-themed 009 entry, finishing a good five laps ahead of the better Corvette. Christophe Bouchut, Fabrizio Gollin and Casper Elgaard placed seventh overall in 008 and Kox, Enge and Johnny Herbert ninth in 007. Completing the Aston Martin sweep, titled “Greenwash” in Autosport, Fabio Babini, Jamie Davies and Matteo Malucelli placed 11th. So, going one better, there were four Aston Martins in the top 11.
Team Modena, preparing for the European Le Mans Series, opened with a Sebring entry for Turner, Garcia and Liz Halliday, taking a very creditable 11th place overall, third in GT1. They then returned to Europe leaving Corvette Racing with a rather unsatisfactory clean sweep of the championship, with 10 straight wins that started their conversion to the GT2 class, where they would meet proper opposition.
Gulf Oil came on board with Aston Martin Racing in 2008, and there is something about those blue and orange colours that excite race fans around the world. Iconic is an over-used word, but it’s fitting. And Gulf Oil was properly rewarded with Aston Martin Racing’s second GT1 victory at Le Mans, again with David Brabham leading the driver team with Darren Turner and Antonio Garcia, in their lucky 009. They had three laps in hand over the two Corvettes, with the 007 AMR entry placed fourth in GT1.
In America, Bell Motorsport ran an Aston Martin DBR1 for Chapman Ducote and Terry Borcheller, and at Sebring, they were helped to third in GT1 by Antonio Garcia. Team Modena finished second in the European Le Mans Series with a DBR9 campaigned by Enge and Garcia, but it was Luc Alphand’s Corvettes which claimed the European title.
Aston Martin Racing moves up to LMP1
Where should Aston Martin Racing go next? George Howard-Chappell and his team had developed the DBR9 as far as it would go over a four-year cycle, taken two victories at Le Mans, and had 60 people working on the racing side at David Richards’ Banbury headquarters. “At the end of 2007 we got chatting to Tony Charouz, about what he would be doing, and we talked about the possibility of putting our V12 engine into a prototype. We talked to Lola about what we could do, and what we would have to change, and went ahead albeit with quite a late decision.”
Aston Martin’s finely tuned 6-litre V12, developing well over 600 horsepower, powered a Lola B08/90 which was entered for the 2008 European Le Mans Series, and Le Mans, by the Charouz Racing System team with Aston Martin Racing, for Jan Charouz and Stefan Mücke, with some excellent results. Up against Peugeot and Audi diesels, the blue and white Charouz Lola finished third in Barcelona, fifth at the Nürburgring and second at Silverstone. It showed well at Le Mans, too, qualifying sixth – ahead one of the Audis! – and finishing ninth, after an early race ‘off’, with Tomas Enge joining the driver line-up.
The Lola Aston Martin, known as the Aston Martin DBR1-2, became the weapon of choice for Aston Martin Racing in 2009. Two new Lola B09/80s were bought and heavily modified. All of the back-end was Prodrive, says George, including the suspension, driveshafts and the Xtrac gearbox, and of course Aston Martin’s distinctive nose styling and aero package. “The only bits that were Lola were the tub, bits of the front suspension and, er, the splitter, and pretty much all the rest was Aston Martin.” It was designed for Le Mans, as fresh projects tend to be, and the team cars looked a million dollars wearing Gulf Oil’s livery. For the Le Mans Series races, the production-based engine was something of a disadvantage. “You can’t get away from the fact that we were lugging around a 200 kg engine that messes up your weight distribution and centre of gravity,” he told Gary Watkins.
Aston Martin’s lead car was driven a perfect race, as was now customary, to finish in fourth place overall, and the first petrol engine car to the flag. Charouz, Mücke and Enge drove 007 entered by Aston Martin Racing Eastern Europe, and the team cheered David Brabham who was the outright winner in a Peugeot, his third consecutive victory at Le Mans. AMR also claimed 12th place with Anthony Davidson, Darren Turner and Jos Verstappen in 008 after a delay due to gearbox problems.
Aston Martin Racing cleaned up in the 2009 Le Mans Series, too, not by being the fastest car in the series but by obtaining consistently good results. The Czechs were on the podium in all five races, winning in Barcelona and the Nürburgring – where Turner and Harold Primat finished second – second and fifth at the Algarve and third and fourth at Silverstone. “The real highlight of the season as at the Nürburgring where Aston Martin Racing ran three cars and claimed the entire podium” George recalls with pride.
Something unusual happened at Le Mans in 2010. The Aston Martin V12 failed in 009 just 50 minutes from the finish, forfeiting a certain fourth place for Turner, Sam Hancock and Juan Barazi. It was left to 007 to finish sixth overall, credit to Harold Primat, Mücke and Adrian Fernandez, and 008 was also unclassified in the hands of the French Team Signature Plus.
Aston Martin Racing put 008 into the hands of Team Signature Plus for the Le Mans Series, for Pierre Ragues, Vanina Ickx and Franck Mailleux, and their best result of the season was third place overall at the Algarve. AMR’s season was limited, 009 taking second place in the 8 hours of Le Castellet (Fernandez, Primat and Mücke) behind Allan McNish’s winning Audi R15, and fourth at Silverstone (Mücke, Sam Hancock and Juan Barazi).
What now? A ground-up LMP1!
“We were on the crest of a wave” George Howard-Chappell reckoned. “We had a car that was snapping at the heels of the diesels but we wanted something new, a car that could get among them and perhaps win races.” Aston Martin Racing made drawings and plans through 2010 and the AMR-One, details of which were announced at Silverstone in September 2010, made a dramatic impact. An open car, not long after Audi decided (against their better wishes) that the R18 would have to be closed; a 2-litre, single turbo straight-six engine? Well, they are clever people in Banbury and there must be compelling logic, but the question remained: why?
Aston Martin Racing had worked closely with longtime partners Totalsim on CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) in Brackley to develop the aerodynamics, and figured out that an in-line engine would allow better air flow through the floor and engine room. “It was a real risk on the aero, the whole car was very bold using a very different aero concept” says George. Of the engine, he says “it was a pure racing design, limited to 2-litre capacity [with turbocharger] by regulation. We took some risks with it, because it would have been much more straightforward to say ‘we’re going to do a nice little V8’ and I’m sure it would have been ok, we would have been competitive with a Judd or another customer V8, and with the whole car we could have beaten the Pescarolo and the Zytek, but we would not have beaten the diesels. If we were conventional we wouldn’t have been able to get among the diesels. If we took some risks, if we were brave, we may have been able to do that.”
The timeframe was very tight. “We didn’t decide to make the car until September  so from then until February the whole car was made, including the engine. It was quite outstanding, what we managed to do in the time.” Aston Martin Racing had a number of backers and sponsors, “a bit of a jigsaw puzzle of funding” and managed to sell five AMR-Ones even before they were built, so there were pressures from all directions to get the job done. A budget of £15 million was rumoured, but George refuses to be drawn on the matter.
Of course, there would be teething troubles, even Audi and Peugeot experience them, but they had big budgets and almost unlimited resource and testing to resolve them. AMR simply did not have the time and resource to resolve significant problems quickly, the most worrying of which was the failure of the plasma cylinder liners, which failed disastrously at the Le Mans test day, when the two cars achieved a total of 22 laps. Nikasil was specified for the cylinder liners and testing continued at Ricard and at Monza, but entries were scratched for Spa.
“When we went to Le Mans [in June] we had tested at Monza, done several hours with the car and found some things that could have been improved for later in the year.” But the worst was yet to come. The Aston Martins handled well, braked well, but the engines were not delivering enough power. 007, in the hands of Mücke, Turner and Christian Klien qualified 22nd on 3m 45.918s, while 009, in the hands of Primat, Fernandez and Andy Meyrick qualified 25th on 3m 48.355s. They were a full 20 seconds off the pace of the front row, even off the pace of the quickest LMP2s, losing most of the time on the straights.
“When we looked at the engines after practice we found a fault on the aluminium pulley wheels for the auxiliary drives.” Circumferential cracking was found, caused by torsional loads, “and on Friday we thought that if we changed them about four times in the race we would just about get through, but we’d rather remake them in steel and hopefully not have the problem. That was a mistake, changing something between practice and the race without testing and analysis.” New gear wheels were made in steel in Banbury and flown out on Saturday morning, installed after the morning warm-up. It was fingers crossed time for the afternoon start.
One of the most embarrassing disasters of all time hit Aston Martin Racing at the start of the race. “The torsional problem was still there and it upset the whole drive at the front of the engine.” Adrian Fernandez’s 009 ground to a stop at the side of the track on its third lap, while Darren Turner got the car back to the pits completing his third lap. The pulley wheel was replaced and Mücke rejoined a couple of hours later, but the engine had been damaged and 007 was credited with four laps completed. There was an awful lot of explaining to be done, to sundry interested parties.
Two separate engineering consultancies were commissioned by Richards to evaluate the engine and chassis, much against George’s wishes as he says he knew exactly what he was doing and just needed sensible timescales, and budget! Richards claimed in July that they had found “nothing fundamentally wrong with either the engine or chassis, nothing that can’t be put right with a bit of time and money.” AMR-One would compete at Silverstone in September, he said, and then that it would race in 2012, but in fact, it never raced again. Aston Martin Racing reverted to the Lola Aston Martins for the remainder of the season: with success. Fernandez, Primat and Klien drove 007 to ninth place at Silverstone, then scored a big victory at Laguna Seca (with Klien replaced by Mücke) and placed third in the Petit Le Mans. Some honour was satisfied.
AMR-One never raced again. “From a personal point of view I think that was a great shame” reflects George Howard-Chappell. “It was not abandoned for technical reasons, to put it politely, that was not the key problem.” He handed in six months’ notice in October, worked until Christmas and then took gardening leave until the Spring. “I gave my notice for several reasons, but AMR-One was only one of them. I wasn’t particularly happy about being backed into a corner, trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat for the umpteenth time, and when it failed, when I did not deliver against the odds for the first time in many years, I thought that should be the time when you get the most support. That wasn’t the key reason, though. The funding was a jigsaw puzzle, it was funded by a mixture of Aston Martin, partly by Prodrive, partly by customers, so all put together the loss was shared.”
He adds: “I have huge respect for David Richards, he tried to persuade me to stay, but I had been there for 14 years with some great success. But the decision was made to go back to GT racing on a fairly limited basis, there were a number of other changes coming, there were a whole bunch of things. I have never been afraid to take a risk, and it seemed time for me to move on and see what the world has to offer.”
So if you want to know what George is doing now, he is enjoying life to the full, working hard for Larry Holt at Multimatic for whom he has great things to say, and by the sound of it, we will see him soon at the race tracks with another exciting project*.
Meanwhile, in a barn beside his period house in the countryside are two dust sheets, one covering a Ferrari 355 which he drives in the summertime, the other an Aston Martin Vantage V8 which is assembled from components previously used for testing, and since bought from Prodrive. Painted an unusual shade of metallic green (Jaguar’s F1 colour!) it is somewhere between a GT4 and a GT3 with a 4.7-litre engine developing 470 horsepower, and a Hollinger gearbox. He has given it a run at a BRDC test day and plans to do some events in the summer. He might also give his old Lotus Esprit turbo a run, having bought it back from Nick Olson where hardly any mileage has accrued in the last 12 years.
* That project was, of course, the Ford GT programme which Multimatic’s UK-based team took to the FIA WEC from 2016-2019.