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Q & A with George Howard-Chappell

Having spent a year evaluating the LMP1 category with the Aston Martin Racing assisted Charouz Lola, ARM team principal George Howard-Chappell is better placed than anyone to talk about the potential of Aston Martin's new assault on Le Mans in 2009.

He spoke exclusively to autosport.com about the programme and explained why the team was cautiously optimistic about their prospects, and why Aston Martin is right to make another another attempt on La Sarthe 50 years after the marque's famous victory at Le Mans.

Q. From what you have learned from the Charouz Racing Lola, how much have you gained in terms of performance?

George Howard-ChappellGeorge Howard-Chappell: We have made some progress, but where we are I don't know yet because we are far from finished. We are still in January and we don't do our endurance testing until April, and we have still got several weeks left to work on it. So I don't know. I have some predictions for where we are going to be on the aerodynamics, I have a bit of an idea on where we are going to be on the engine and I think I understand where we are on centre of gravity, but I don't know yet. So I can't say exactly. It's a work in motion.

Q. The decision was taken late in the day, so how much information have you managed to push into this car given the timeframe?

GHC: We did quite a lot of work that wasn't too costly before we fully committed to the programme. So it wasn't like we didn't do anything last year, we did things that we could do that didn't involve huge investment.

Q. Quite a lot of last year's car was Aston Martin wasn't it?

GHC: From the cockpit bulkhead rearwards, all of the mechanical bits were designed by Aston Martin Racing. We integrated the X-Trac gearbox, we installed our engine, all of the rear suspension, the springs, dampers, driveshafts, all that stuff was ours.

Q. So have you built into the new car the ability to change things quickly?

GHC: Where we can, we have integrated that. But to be honest if you are in the garage changing things you are on to a loser. The trick is, which we have done for the last two years with the GT1 car, is to make sure the car has tyres, fuel and very occasionally, a litre of oil, and that's all. That's how you win. That's what we will be working towards.

Q. Presumably you are going to have to undertake an aggressive testing programme, if you are not going to Sebring?

GHC: Sebring is very, very useful and if you had the choice to go you would, particularly if you can stay on for the testing on Monday and Tuesday afterwards and put another 12 hours on the car. If you can do 24 hours around Sebring then you have got a really tough car.

Having said that, while it's very hard on the circuit from a mechanical point of view, the engine doesn't get the workout at Sebring that it does at Le Mans, and the speeds aren't there like you see at Le Mans. So, in an ideal world, you'd do Sebring and then stay on and do the endurance testing, and that tells you that the car is really tough. Then you then want to go somewhere where you load the engine in the same way you do at Le Mans, and then also run somewhere at Le Mans-type speeds. Then you've ticked all the boxes.

Q. Is that your plan this year?

GHC: Well we won't manage all of that, but we will manage some of it.

Q. What is a realistic target, what does success mean for you this year?

GHC: We'd obviously be delighted with a podium. If we can get the two cars to run through cleanly, that will be an achievement in itself. As I have said before, you don't know where people are, and you never know what is going to happen. It would have been possible to win in the last two, probably three years overall, with a car that was quite a bit slower than the car which won, if it had had no attention at all. It's finding that balance between your ultimate pace and something which is rock solid. And having drivers that make no mistakes of course.

Q. Do you intend to fill one of the cars up with quick drivers just to see what it can do?

GHC: Exactly who drives in which car is not decided yet, so the line-up is undecided. Obviously the third car is not confirmed.

Aston Martin's LMP1 carQ. What about David Brabham, is he 'cup-tied' with Acura or can he make it to Le Mans with Aston?

GHC: David is available, and obviously he is a fantastic guy. He is really on top of his game at the moment. He did incredibly well in the American Le Mans Series last year, and he won Le Mans with us in GT1. Whether or not he would be released to drive another LMP1 car, because Acura have gone to P1 this year, I don't know. But it would be useful to have him.

Q. If Peugeot don't do the whole of the LMS this year, you could potentially be champions couldn't you?

GHC: It's possible. I prefer to look at it like a true sporting occasion, where you can theorise as much as you like about who can do what and how well somebody is going to go and what the answers are going to be. But the whole joy of it is that you don't know, and it's the competition, and what's going to happen on the day. Let's see what happens. Who would have bet after the first race last year that Audi would triumph?

Q. Then again the Charouz Aston Martin Lola was surprising as well...

GHC: Well we didn't know we were going to be that quick until we arrived at Barcelona, and said, 'that's not bad is it?'

Q. Did the car's performance have an effect on your decision to green light a factory effort?

GHC: Obviously you do all your simulations, your maths and your numbers and you think you know where you are going to be. But you don't know until you turn up on the day. Yes sure, we thought we would be quite good, but we didn't know we were going to be as competitive as we were.

Q. Obviously Audi is going to bring a new car, which may be a little more fragile to begin with…

GHC: Yes and that may play into our hands, we will have to see. On the other hand Audi are an extremely experienced team, and I'm sure they will do heaps and heaps of testing, so it's unlikely that they will arrive at Le Mans unprepared. Who knows?

Q. One of last year's Le Mans winners has said on the record that a fully-funded works petrol-engined car could still be extremely competitive at La Sarthe, do you agree?

GHC: I think we would be close. I don't know enough about diesel technology and diesel racing engines in particular to give a really accurate answer. A few percent is all you need to be a second and a half quicker than your opposition at Le Mans and that's enough. So it's a fine game, and that's why the rules have been adjusted this year, because it was clear that it was wrong.

Q. Where would you say the advantage is in running a petrol engine?

GHC: I don't think it is an advantage. I think there is a different job to do. The technology is clearly more understood. There is a lot more people around with a strong knowledge of racing petrol engines. You don't have the complication, in our case, of turbo-charging. You don't have to deal with something that's chucking out smoke that you need to filter out.

So there are a number of advantages. Obviously with a production engine there are a number of disadvantages, hence the restrictor allowance that you get from running a production-based engine. The thing is very large, it has got a high centre of gravity and it's fundamental design is not that of a bespoke race engine. Having said that it is a very strong unit and it does make a good racing engine.

Q. How long do you think this programme is going to last?

GHC: Well, we did have the toe in the water last year, and this year's car is an evolution of that. Next year is also the last year of big capacity engines at Le Mans so we very much hope we'll be able to continue this on into next year, but we will have to wait and see.

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