This week is going to be a big one for Aston Martin, which is debuting its current-spec Vantage GT3 cars in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship this week in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
There are two in the 18-car GTD field. The first is the full-season example fielded by The Heart of Racing; the second is the No. 98 Aston Martin Racing factory effort.
The No. 98’s participation was confirmed late for the race after the marque decided to draft in Andrew Watson to replace the injured Paul Dalla Lana. So for the Aston Martin Racing crew it’s all hands on deck to ensure that the No. 98 is competitive despite being behind the curve.
“Honestly, it was all very last minute,” Watson, who is an Aston Martin Racing Junior Driver, told RACER. “It was a fun call to get. This is a big thing for me. I’ve never raced in America, so to get the call for Daytona as my first one is amazing. I just want to focus on doing a solid job, you know, not trying to be a hero and prove anything.”
Once he found out he’d be racing last Thursday, Watson went for a seat fit and visited (Aston Martin factory driver) Darren Turner’s sim company Base Performance to get a feel for the circuit. But he told RACER that he doesn’t like to spend too much time on a simulator ahead of trying out a new track. “It’s never the same as the real thing — there’s always a lot you need to un-learn if you do too much sim work, I find.”
As for the run plan, the priority will be to get as many laps as possible for both Watson and Ross Gunn, as Watson is new to Daytona and Gunn hadn’t driven a GTD car at the speedway before the Roar. Thankfully, Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy, who complete the quartet of drivers in the No. 98, have plenty of experience to draw from. Lamy has six starts to his name in the GT ranks of the Rolex 24, while Lauda has five.
“We’re not gonna get that many laps (before the race),” Watson continued. “But, you know, it’s part of being GT driver these days. You’ve got to adapt quickly, but we don’t really care about being the fastest car; we just have to have a solid setup and feel fairly comfortable.”
The team’s expectations are not too high. The No. 98 missed out on lots of running time at the Roar due to the uncertainty surrounding the entry. In the end the car managed over 70 laps of the circuit, but didn’t take part in garage qualifying.
This is early days though and in a wider sense, it may well be just the beginning for Aston Martin in its return to the top IMSA series. It has been working towards a sustainable IMSA presence for a number of years, searching for a North American partner. With The Heart Of Racing entry coming to the fore this year, John Gaw, the managing director of Prodrive, feels that his is the turning point.
“America is really starting to happen (for Aston Martin),” Gaw told RACER. “I mean, there’s going to be more than 10 GT4 cars racing in America next year. We will have some in (Michelin) Pilot Challenge but also quite a few and World Challenge, which is encouraging.
“We’ve been looking to get a car in GTD at Daytona for a long time. But as you know, it’s basically factory racing and very expensive. With The Heart of Racing and Ian James, they have put together a great program. I think Ian has done a really, really good job commercially off the track. The team is coming together nicely and we’ll give them as much support as we can.
“You see how long it’s taken (to get a car in GTD), and that will tell you how tough it is. It’s world class racing at the highest level in IMSA. You got to have absolutely everything in place or you will not be competitive at the track.
“The last thing you want to do is turn up with effort that’s not fully thought through and done properly. But it’s the racing everyone wants to do. The USA is a very important market for Aston Martin and the Vantage road car too. It’s important from a brand perspective.”
Aston Martin continues to look at a GTLM entry, too — something it hasn’t had since 2015, when it had a Vantage GTE race at Daytona and Sebring.
“We never stop looking — we’d love to be back,” Gaw added. I tried to convince Paul (Dalla Lana) to do both GTD and GTLM this year but that’s a big figure! It’s as expensive as GTE Pro in the WEC to do GTLM. We never stop trying to open that door to make that happen.”