It’s a bold claim, given that its annual appearances tend to be one-offs in Dubai, but is the PB Racing Lotus one of the most popular GT cars on the 24H SERIES grid?
Yes. Beyond question.
Representing one of Britain’s most storied brands is a good start, as is the heaping pile of motorsport heritage that comes with the badge. Seven Constructors’ World Championships for instance put Hethel fourth on Formula 1’s all-time records list. 79 Grand Prix wins, or 81 if you count Kimi Raikkonen’s wins for ‘Lotus F1’, make the company the fifth most successful in F1 history. You may even have forgotten the two British Saloon Car Championships (as Ford-Lotus) in 1963 and 1964, the nine Le Mans class wins, and the loan FIA World Rally Championship (as Talbot) in 1981. On top of that, you have the eminence of any period photograph featuring a Lotus and a certain yellow helmet with green and blue stripes…
It’s a heritage not lost on PB Racing team boss Stefano D’Aste either, whose cars continue to hold an almost adamantine grip on fans in the 24H SERIES paddock, pretty much everyone in the radiolemans.com booth, and even rival teams. That’s a key reason why said Lotuses – Loti? – have donned both the seminal black and gold of JPS and Hethel’s more traditional green and yellow liveries over the years, and why this year’s Exige V6 Cup R continues to do so. For Stefano though, there is much more to the brand with which he has been associated for more than two decades than a familiar colour scheme.
“Everybody remembers the gold and black Lotus!” an emphatic Stefano begins. “So as an official team, and with the approval of Lotus Cars, it just makes sense to run in black and gold. It’s what the fans want and it looks great too!
“And I always wanted to race with Lotus, going back to when I was a driver full-time. Almost every engineer I’ve met during my career has said how great Lotus is to work with, and what they managed to achieve. The only thing they missed until recently was financial backing, and they have that now with Geely, which also owns Volvo, 15 per cent of Mercedes, 100 per cent of Link & Co, etc. We’ve already seen progress, they have some very exciting projects underway” – Lotus’ new electric ‘Evija’ supercar had recently completed its high-speed test program – “and it’s a good message from Hethel. They’re showing what they can really do, and I’ve always admired that.”
We’re currently in pit box 5C of the Dubai Autodrome, the mechanics in front of us working in measured fashion to add the ‘705’ race number to the Lotus’ flank and make sure all is well with the brakes, drivetrain, et al. Though it’s been a tough build up to the event for Italy’s PB Racing (we’ll come back to that later), the enthusiasm continues to radiate off Stefano, who, lest we forget, is a motorsport staple in his own right. Only Gabriele Tarquini, Tom Coronel, Rob Huff and Yvan Muller better the Italian’s 206 race entries in the World Touring Car Championship, and between 2005 and 2015, Stefano took two outright wins – not bad for a privateer – 29 ‘class’ wins, and secured the ‘Independent’ Trophy in 2007.
But while he established himself as a BMW pillar during his WTCC tenure – barring a one-season run aboard a TC1 Chevrolet Cruze in 2015 – Stefano has been a Lotus man since PB Racing was founded in 1998. He played a key role in the development of the “extreme” 2-Eleven and 3-Eleven that landed in 2007 and 2018 respectively, and under his guidance PB Racing collaborated heavily with Lotus, among other track-day weapons, the eponymous Elise PB-R. Oh, and the team has also been the body behind Lotus Cup Italia since 2014.
On top of that, there’s the class win in Dubai on they’re first appearance in 2009, and the 3rd in-class on its second in 2017. Stefano even squeezed in a class podium alongside Mansell twins Leo and Greg, Johnny Mowlem and Gianni Giudici in an NFS Racing-entered Lotus Evora Type 124 Endurance Racecar at the event in 2011.
Simply put, Stefano D’Aste and PB Racing know what they’re doing when it comes to all things Chapman and motorsport. It’s what they do.
“As a team, we started working with Lotus in 1999, and we are now an official Lotus racing team and Lotus dealership,” Stefano continues. “We’re also a manufacturer because we developed and built 34 cars for Lotus – the Elise Cup PB-R – which runs in Lotus Cup Italia and Lotus Cup USA. That was a project we started in 2013 and was the car we ran in Dubai in 2017 and 2019. I’m also a factory Lotus driver, and I did the GT4 European Cup with an Evora GT4 [entered by Scuderia Giudici] in 2011. We also run the Lotus Driving Academy in Italy, so we have a very close connection with Lotus.
“The Exige V6 Cup R is completely new to us though, and we’ve never run a 24-hour race with it before.”
Ah yes, the car. And just to make things more complicated, this is one of two versions unveiled simultaneously in 2013.
The first, the road-going but more ‘track-focused’ V6 Cup was built atop the gen three Exige S that landed back at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show. Same chassis, same suspension (give or take the odd tweak), same drivetrain, same gloriously non-power-assisted steering, same mid-engined power-to-weight perfection. Only difference was the interior, or lack thereof, most of which had been stripped out to ‘add lightness’ – the Cup shaved 60kg off the standard Exige’s already welterweight 1,080kg – and make way for an FIA-approved roll cage, fire extinguisher, bucket seat and six-point race harnesses. That, plus four-stage traction control for added rear-end lairiness.
The second meanwhile, the track-exclusive V6 Cup R used in Dubai this year, debuted at the same-time as its road-going alter-ego, but featured a more aggressive front splitter and rear diffuser, floor extensions, a new rear wing and a motorsport-tuned ECU. Somehow it still weighed the same as the Exige S on which it was built.
All three boast a 3.5-litre supercharged V6 sourced from Toyota, a unit that, in the Cup R, sends 361hp (366PS) and 413Nm (305lb ft) to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox as standard. Punchy, yes, but a long way short of MARC II V8 or AMG Mercedes territory, and just 11hp more than both the Cup and the Exige S. Even their performance specs were identical, each Exige buzzing 0-100kph in 3.8 seconds. Not that Stefano feels the Cup R is tapped out when it comes to horsepower.
“It’s the quickest Lotus for the road, and we could probably get 430hp from the supercharged V6 if we wanted. We’ve also gone with the six-speed sequential paddle shift for Dubai. The standard H-pattern gearbox, properly cooled, could last 24 hours, but the problem is human error and mistakes made during gear changes, which could do some serious damage to the engine.”
Focus then, as you’d expect, is almost entirely on manoeuvrability with the Cup V6 R, much as it was with the 250hp, 1.8-litre supercharged Elise Cup PB-R the Italian team used back in 2017. With its endurance-spec modifications in place and with more than a month having been spent preparing for one of the toughest endurance races on the planet, Stefano is confident the Exige V6 Cup R will make an immediate impact in the UAE.
“The car is really close to the road car but we’ve changed the dimension of the brake discs, the type of brake pads, we have a double plate clutch rather than standard single, and we’ve added a 120-litre fuel tank. We’ve also got a standard fuel pump for high-pressure flow and an emergency pump as a plan B in case we hit problems. We also put in a drink system in for the drivers because we need to take care of them as well as the car. We’ve also made some changes to the area around the supercharger: on the road car, it’s difficult because there’s not much room, so you’d need 1.5 hours to change the supercharger belt. On this car, with a new system we’ve come up with, we can do it in four minutes!
“We probably spent a month and a half working 8am to 2am getting the car ready for Dubai. One of my targets was to come here with a V6 and see how it fared. Dubai 2020 is a test date for us because, in the future, we could race a bigger car, the Evora GT4, which has the same powertrain but has more space and a very good aero package, which would give us more downforce.”
Can the Exige still spring a surprise in 2020 though?
“I think so, yes. The Exige is very reliable, and there is more torque and power to play with, so we don’t need to push the engine and transmission as hard. Racing for 24 hours is not easy: it’s 23 hours of driving and one final hour of racing! If you don’t understand that, you’ll never succeed.
“I remember last year, we shared a garage with [ERC Sport]. Their Mercedes-AMG GT4 was running 1st, two laps ahead with 90 minutes to go, and then their suspension broke. It was heart breaking to watch, and it shows that sometimes being two seconds slower per lap – just two – and protecting the car can make all the difference. It’s a philosophy. So having a car like the Exige, which is reliable but can be pushed when we need to, it’s a great starting point.”
Unfortunately, despite its scintillating races in Dubai in ’09 and ’17, PB Racing has experienced almost nothing but dire luck at the Autodrome since then. In 2019, though the heritage liveried beauties walked away with radiolemans.com’s coveted ‘Spirit of the Race’ award and two podium finishes in A3, it was a bittersweet result. Dubai 2020 wasn’t much better.
“With one car, the #633, we were hit in the back, but we didn’t realise that a piece of the bumper had cut a cable for the alternator. So we ran for an hour with only the battery, and that lost charge too. So later, when we lost fuel pressure, there were no warning lights, and we destroyed the engine. On the second car, #634, the drivers were just too aggressive and after 12 hours we started to hit trouble. We finished on the podium, but in 2017, we didn’t have any problems at all, and we won! So we could have been fighting for the win last year.
“Dubai this year was a nightmare from the start. When our container arrived, we found that all of our drybags had exploded. Most of them were in the cockpit, close to battery, and in the engine bay next to the ECU and the alternator. Salt from the drybags was everywhere, so we had major electrical problems. But the guys in my team did an incredible and super professional job. For two days they worked through the night to solve all the problems.”
Unfortunately, 35 minutes in, the Lotus threw an alternator belt after just 35 minutes (salt was to blame once again) and a precautionary stop dropped the Exige V6 Cup R to the tail of the field. Having been unable to fully utilise its consistent race pace and careful use of brakes and tyres, PB Racing could only recoup one place in-class before the red flag was flown seven hours in, though Stefano confidently explains, “once we came back on track, the car was perfect.” What could have been…
Still, this run of bad luck is unlikely to dent the almost tangible enthusiasm of Stefano D’Aste, nor indeed his “super mega knights”, PB Racing. They will be back, and they will win again. It’s what they and Lotus do, and they have a storied history behind them to prove it.
*Stefano D’Aste was speaking with James Gent at the 2020 Hankook 24H DUBAI. Images courtesy of Petr Frýba and Group Lotus Media.
V6, Supercharged, 3,456cc
450hp (366PS) @ 7,200rpm
413Nm (305lb ft) @ 5,000rpm
Six-speed manual, OR six-speed sequential, rear-wheel drive
Double wishbone, front and rear
Ventilated discs, 380mm (front and 332mm rear)
18in (front), 18in (rear)