Nowhere on Earth does it feel better to win, or tougher to lose, than at the Circuit de la Sarthe. When the chequered flag falls on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, these two familiar imposters feel as exquisite as they do acute for those who compete in the world’s most famous endurance race.
People have ventured to the city in north-west France in June for 100 years now, risking it all for the chance to reach the finish line in this unfathomably challenging test of human and mechanical endeavour, and it’s been 95 years since Aston Martin first picked up the gauntlet. No competing sportscar manufacturer has a deeper pedigree at Le Mans. And, just as it was in the 1930s, when the AM415 ‘International’ was the toast of the 1.5-litre class (winning on five occasions), now it is Vantage that is a true measure by which others are tested.
The current Vantage GTE is presiding over perhaps the fourth great Aston Martin ‘Le Mans’ era. After the 30s when the race resumed post-war, came the glorious 50s when the British sportscar marque fielded the gracefully beautiful DB2s, DB3s and the great DBR1/300 which led Aston to overall victory in 1959. It wasn’t until the mighty V12-powered Aston Martin DBR9 GT1s recorded back-to-back victories in 07 and 08, as well as a fistful of podium finishes, that the Wings once again ruled supreme at la Sarthe.
In total, Aston Martin has won its class 19 times in 52 Le Mans 24 Hours, while more than 240 drivers have raced 27 different versions of the great British racing machine. Now it’s the time of Vantage GTE, which has finished no lower than second in class this decade, and recorded three LM GTE Class victories in total with a further three podium finishes. When the curtain falls on the GTE Class era at the end of 2023, Aston Martin’s Vantage GTE will be remembered as one of the great Le Mans racers.
Five Vantages started this sparkling centenary event in front of a crowd of more than 325,000; Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona winner the Heart of Racing made its debut and finished a creditable sixth in class, while European Le Mans Series champions GMB Motorsport fielded a car that featured world champion and AMR legend Marco Sørensen in the line-up.
But perhaps Vantage’s greatest champion at Le Mans is Aston Martin Racing’s partner team TF Sport, whose owner Tom Ferrier has led his squad to two victories and two second places in four consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“The Vantage GTE suits Le Mans better than any other circuit it races at,” says Ferrier. And given that Vantage is the reigning FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) LM GTE and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTD class champion, that is some statement. “All the super-fast corners play into the strong aerodynamics of the Aston, while the engine always has plenty of grunt at the end of the long straights. It all makes Vantage a formidable force at Le Mans.”
TF Sport ran three Vantages, all under different banners, its regular Japanese-entered D’station Racing entry, an all-French line-up in the #72 Projet 24 car and the bright orange ORT by TF Sport WEC title contender. And it was this car, raced by Ahmad Al Harthy, American Michael Dinan and two-times Le Mans class winner and works driver Charlie Eastwood, that shone brightest.
The #24 Vantage began the race from second in class but was faced with challenges almost immediately. Among the early hurdles were an early technical stop, torrential rain playing havoc with driver stint strategy, a mis-called penalty and then a spin into the barriers during the night preceding on-going bonnet repairs for the rest of the race. In spite all of this, the bright orange Vantage rose through the field inexorably.
With three hours to go, TF Sport charged Eastwood with chasing down the lead. But circumstances played against them and second place was their reward for an extraordinary performance. For Ferrier this was a satisfying end to perhaps one of the most famous races in all of motorsport history. “Whenever you stand on the podium at Le Mans, it feels like a victory,” says Ferrier. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s first or third, in a way, that feeling of satisfaction is just the same.”
The story of Vantage is still being written, but the Vantage GTE has completed its tour of duty at Le Mans and its list of honours is outstanding.