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Friday favourite: The stalwart Aston that almost cooked its drivers

The Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 became one of Prodrive’s most decorated machines across its seven-year lifespan, and is highly regarded by those who raced it in frenetic GT1 battles against Corvette at Le Mans. Despite suffering in it amid extreme heat at Le Mans in 2005, Tomas Enge nominates the V12 machine as his favourite car

Peter Kox/Pedro Lamy/Tomas Enge Aston Martin DBR9

Tomas Enge’s long stint as part of Prodrive’s sportscar operation yielded great success. He won the GTS class at the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Ferrari 550 Maranello in 2003 and claimed the Le Mans Series LMP1 crown in 2009 aboard the Lola-Aston Martin. But despite not managing to add to his Le Mans win tally with it, he holds the Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 in even higher esteem and selects it as his favourite car.

The first Czech to race in Formula 1 when he joined Prost for the final three grands prix of 2001, Enge describes the Aston as “a step higher than the Ferrari” in terms of refinement. That’s unsurprising given the DBR9 made its debut four years later than the similarly V12-motivated Ferrari, which Enge took to class pole position at Le Mans every year from 2002 to 2004.

PLUS: Was this the most remarkable Le Mans qualifying lap?

“The 550 was fast, clearly, but the Aston was much easier to drive - the centre of gravity, the stiffness of the chassis was better,” he says of the car with which he scooped the GT1 class at Petit Le Mans in 2006 and twice finished fourth in the FIA GT1 world championship.

“Obviously, the car wasn’t faster than the Ferrari because every year we got a smaller and smaller air restrictor. Every year we got more and more downforce that [meant] we couldn’t go faster on the straight in Le Mans.

“But the handling of the car, the seat position, the comfort around [was better], except we didn’t have any airflow in 2005!”

Conditions for the DBR9 GT1’s Le Mans bow were “massively hot”, Enge recalls, which is an understatement. The drivers almost cooked inside the cockpit, and the components couldn’t take the heat either.

“After the first stint our car didn’t have a radio because it was so hot that the radio failed,” says Enge, who spent 2005 racing full-time in Indycar on the Indy Racing League side of the split. Afterwards, Prodrive technical director George Howard-Chappell was forced to rethink its ergonomics.

Driver ergonomics was never a priority for Howard-Chappell, but the extreme cockpit temps at Le Mans in 2005 forced a rethink

Driver ergonomics was never a priority for Howard-Chappell, but the extreme cockpit temps at Le Mans in 2005 forced a rethink

Photo by: Peter Spinney / Motorsport Images

“Driver comfort was the last point of the list, first is the car performance and the drivers have to get along,” says Enge. “But after what happened in Le Mans that year he realised, ‘Okay, we need to get a bit more cooling in the car and we need to make it more comfortable for the drivers otherwise they will die’.”

The race ended in disappointment, the car he shared with Peter Kox and Pedro Lamy sidelined by fuel system problems while in contention to beat Corvette’s new C6.R. But Enge had continued his qualifying streak – Corvette opting not to put up a real challenge. And in 2006 he made it a remarkable five in a row. But damage to an oil sump when Darren Turner got a late call to pit set their #007 car back, although Enge, Turner and Andrea Piccini were boosted to second late on by a clutch failure for the sister car.

In addition to Le Mans, Enge contested the full 2006 American Le Mans Series in the works-run DBR9 alongside Turner. Running on Pirellis against the Michelins of the Corvette, they won at the new Miller Motorsports Park circuit in Utah and again at Petit Le Mans – profiting from a late puncture for team-mates Lamy and Stephane Sarrazin, as well as both Chevys needing to change their front brakes.

While the ALMS programme was discontinued, Enge continued to race works DBR9 at Le Mans in 2007. It was the only occasion that he missed out on pole in his four Le Mans outings with the car, as rain on Thursday helped Christophe Bouchut snare qualifying honours in Larbre’s Aston.

A fuel pickup problem that forced their retirement from Barcelona, combined with a perfect finishing record for Luc Alphand Corvette rivals Guillaume Moreau and Patrice Goueslard, meant they came up six points short of the crown in 2008

“We always concentrated on Wednesday on our long runs and tried qualifying on Thursday,” he explains. “Unfortunately it was raining on Thursday and we didn’t have a good lap time on Wednesday.”

And while Aston finally took glory at the third attempt, it was with the sister #009 car of Turner, David Brabham and Rickard Rydell. Enge’s mount shared with Kox and Johnny Herbert lost eight minutes in the pits after a Sunday morning off from Herbert caused splitter damage before a mistake from Enge resulted in a litany of issues that limited them to fourth.

Enge continued to drive the DBR9 GT1 in private hands in 2008, winning three LMS races with Antonio Garcia for the Team Modena operation. Success at Monza, Nurburgring and Silverstone should have been enough for the title against slim opposition but a fuel pickup problem that forced their retirement from Barcelona, combined with a perfect finishing record for Luc Alphand Corvette rivals Guillaume Moreau and Patrice Goueslard, meant they came up six points short.

After two years at Le Mans in the Lola-Aston in 2008, when the DBR9 again won the GT1 class with Turner, Brabham and Garcia, and 2009, Enge got back into the DBR9 for the GT1 class’s Le Mans swansong in 2010 and took a remarkable sixth pole with the Fischer-run Young Driver AMR team. He says his appreciation for the DBR9 was heightened by his time in the Lola-Aston.

Enge and Garcia enjoyed success with Team Modena DBR9 GT1 in 2008, but missed out on Le Mans Series crown

Enge and Garcia enjoyed success with Team Modena DBR9 GT1 in 2008, but missed out on Le Mans Series crown

Photo by: Sutton Images

“The LMP1 car, I didn’t really like,” he says. “We had the heavy engine at the rear and we were sitting on the front axle. For some reason I didn’t like to be on the front axle and having such a long, heavy rear, it was not really suitable for me.”

The race was once again a disappointment, as two driveshaft failures meant Enge, Kox and Christoffer Nygaard were a distant 20 laps down as the last classified GT1 runner – albeit still third.

But there was solace to be found in the GT1 world championship, where Enge and Turner won both the qualifying and main race at the Nurburgring after shedding 20kg of ballast. But another win in Silverstone’s prized Tourist Trophy round was denied in the stewards' room by an overly-worn skid plank. A non-scoring final round in San Luis dropped them from second to fourth in the points.

Seven years on from its introduction, Enge bowed out the DBR9 with two qualification race wins in 2011, although had to settle for runner-up in the Tourist Trophy after winning the sprint. A likely triumph with Alex Muller slipped away as a safety car shortly before the pit window closed up their lead margin, but he again secured fourth in the standings.

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Now a regular in rallying, Enge says “every car I was successful in was my favourite car”, but he has a special place in his heart for the Prost AP04. He was reunited with the final car produced by Alain Prost’s doomed squad in 2021 when he performed a demonstration run at the Most circuit in the very chassis, AP04 (02), in which he made his F1 debut in Monza, sourced from ex-Indycar racer Laurent Redon’s LRS Formula company in France.

“We did a small celebration,” he says of the event that marked 20 years since his F1 debut. “I had good memories when I sit in the car, I was nearly crying. It was beautiful, even for a few laps.

“There were old tyres from Formula 2 or whatever, the steering wheel was completely different, but still when you sit in it and you feel that it is your car, still you have tears in your eyes.”

Enge was delighted to be reacquainted with the Prost AP04 in a commemorative event at Most in 2021

Enge was delighted to be reacquainted with the Prost AP04 in a commemorative event at Most in 2021

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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