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  • Bruce Cox

ASTON MARTIN IN GRAND PRIX RACING

Aston Martin is known worldwide for its high-profile successes in sports car racing. A famous outright win at Le Mans and a third consecutive victory at the Nürburgring 1,000km saw Aston Martin crowned World Sportscar Champions in 1959. Multiple class wins at Le Mans stretch from 1931 to this year’s multi-class victory which secured the GT Manufacturers’ World Endurance Championship. Numerous race and class victories over the years have cemented the brand as one of the great names in endurance racing.


Less well-known though, perhaps, are Aston Martin’s pre-WWII European Grand Prix and later World Formula One exploits. These may not be as famous, but they are equally notable. Indeed, from the very beginning of the Aston Martin business 107 years ago, founded by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford in 1913 in a small London workshop, top-flight motorsport participation was integral to the company’s very ethos and identity. Now, as the British luxury brand prepares to return to the F1 grid for the first time in more than 60 years with the former Racing Point team, it is the ideal moment to look back on the brand’s previous endeavours in the world’s most competitive and challenging motorsport class.

The Aston Martin name had been established on the hillclimb courses of Great Britain but from his earliest days at the helm of the fledgling sports car firm, Aston Martin co-founder Lionel Martin dreamt of putting the name of the business he had created with partner Robert Bamford into the headline-grabbing arena of Grand Prix racing.


At the start of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ that dream moved toward reality when Martin was introduced to a young racing driver, Count Louis Zborowski. This fabulously wealthy son of a Polish Count and an American heiress who had an unquenchable thirst for speed. With a fortune that in today’s money would comfortably class him as a billionaire, Zborowski had ample resources at his disposal which, allied to his existing knowledge of Aston Martin as a driver of some the brand’s earliest side-valve open wheel racers, gave him the confidence to commission and work with Lionel Martin and his team to build two cars to compete in the 1922 Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) event.


Zborowski supplied around £10,000 for the project – a small fortune at the time – with the money going toward not only the cars but also the creation of an entirely new 16-valve twin overhead cam four-cylinder race engine. The first Aston Martin Grand Prix car, featuring this 1,486cc unit, was good for around 55bhp at 4,200 rpm. It weighed in at 750kg, had a top speed of 85mph and carried two seats. One of these was offset, as per the Grand Prix regulations of the time. This was to accommodate the riding mechanic who was an essential member of the team back then - not least because part of his job was to continually pressurise the fuel tank via a hand pump. Incredibly, by today’s standards at least, the car was driven by road to the race meetings it competed in. As ever with Aston Martin, the engine itself has a story behind it. By 1922, similar engines had been successfully developed for a few years by the likes of Peugeot, Bugatti and Alfa but the genesis of the Aston Martin powerplant is believed to be considerably more colourful. Count Zborowski’s close friend and fellow racer, Clive Gallop, had an acquaintance with Peugeot engineer Marcel Gremillion. The talented Frenchman had been a pupil of the great engine designer Ernest Henry, now at Ballot. Gremillion persuaded Henry to let him have details of the 3.0-litre Ballot straight-eight engine and Henry did no more than essentially split his drawings in half which Gremillion then adapted into the Bamford & Martin four-cylinder, 16-valve motor in return for what was described as a substantial bag of gold coins. Thus, with a blueprint that had been divided in two, the Henry-designed 3.0-litre eight became the Bamford & Martin 1.5-litre four!

Count Louis Zborowski and riding mechanic, Len Martin – 1922 French GP

While chassis TT1 and TT2 were intended to race in the Tourist Trophy event on 22 June 1922, time was against the team and they could not be made ready. Instead, it was decided to give the cars their first outing at the 2.0-litre French Grand Prix on 15 July at Strasbourg – thereby marking Aston Martin’s debut in Grand Prix competition. Zborowski was at the helm of TT1, with Len Martin (no relation to Lionel) as his mechanic, while Clive Gallop piloted TT2. He was assisted by his mechanic H.J. Bentley (again no relation to ‘W.O.’ the famous car designer of the same era).


Perhaps unavoidably as a result of a lack of power due to the engine’s smaller-than-race-required capacity as well as their hurried development and a regulated need to carry ballast, both cars retired with engine problems. But the experience was sufficiently exhilarating for the fledgling team, based at Abingdon Road, Kensington, to continue the European Grand Prix adventure. Having been hastily constructed initially, the TT cars were developed over time and in the months and years that followed they secured several podium finishes including a second place at the 1922 Grand Prix de Penya Rhin, staged on the circuit in Villafranca, Spain. The team repeated the result at the same Mediterranean event the following year; and, also in 1923, took third at the Grand Prix de Boulogne on the northern coast of France.

The Aston Martin name was becoming well-known in continental Europe but the untimely death of Zborowski in 1924, almost inevitably at the wheel of a racing car, signalled the beginning of the end of Aston Martin’s first foray into top-flight motorsport. Many successful privateer appearances notwithstanding, it would be another 20 years before the brand made another serious impression in the world of Grand Prix racing.


St John ‘Jock’ Horsfall and Leslie Johnson won the 1948 Spa 24 Hours race in Belgium

In the meantime, there were some notable sports car successes, beginning with the 1948 Spa 24 Hours Race. Pre-war Aston Martin ‘Speed Model’ racers were still competitive, and so it was not surprising to see one on the grid for this event. At the wheel was one of the most colourful characters ever to be associated with the Aston brand: St John Ratcliffe Stewart Horsfall – or ‘Jock’ as he was widely known. Driving with Leslie Johnson, he took the chequered flag first ahead of a cluster of Frazer Nash, BMW, Talbot and Alvis competitors. The car was powered by a four cylinder 1,950cc overhead cam engine that produced around 125bhp, and weighed around 800kg. With Aston Martin Ulster style’ open bodywork, two seats and separate ‘cycle type’ wings it was capable of over 100mph.


Sadly, Horsfall was killed a year later in a crash at the 1949 BRDC International Trophy race, at Silverstone. His standing within the ranks of Aston enthusiasts can be measured by the fact that the Aston Martin Owners’ Club organises the annual St. John Horsfall Trophy race meeting in his memory.

The 1950s were an exciting time for Aston Martin. Company owner Sir David Brown, who had acquired the business in 1947 before adding the Lagonda brand later that same year, was steadily creating finely styled and fast British sports cars. He recognised the importance of motorsport to the brand’s commercial success and, in 1955, hatched an audacious plan to create cars that would take on the best competition in both the World Sportscar Championship and the still relatively new Formula One World Championship.


The history books focus on the famous achievements of the Le Mans-winning DBR1, and the DB3S that preceded it, but the company’s initial venture into single seaters, the prototype DP155, was a valuable learning exercise for the brand, and was the precursor to the later 1950s Grand Prix cars. Essentially it was DB3S sports racing car with single seater bodywork and its 3-litre engine reduced to 2.5-litres to comply with F1 rules, It was tested by Reg Parnell and he also took it to New Zealand as a way of earning some money in the UK wintertime. It did justify Reg’s start money with decent placings there but no wins. And while the development time was no doubt useful, there were bigger things happening back in the UK.


Alongside the DP155 project, Sir David Brown initiated work on a new engine, and a new road car design that would become the DB4. He also decreed that competition car development should be focused upon the DBR1 replacement for the DB3S sports racer. So it was then, that even though it had been tested as early as 1957, it was not until 1959 that the new DBR4, with its then conventional front-engine layout, made what was actually a somewhat promising debut. This was at the BRDC International Trophy event, run to Formula 1 rules, at Silverstone in May of that year.


Roy Salvadori (Aston Martin) and Jack Brabham (Cooper Climax) battle for the lead in the 1959 International Trophy F1 Race at Silverstone. The win went to Brabham but it was still the Aston Martin’s best-ever performance. The days of the front-engine GP car were essentially over. Two cars competed in the hands of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby and the car driven by Roy Salvadori, came in a creditable second behind Australian Jack Brabham in a rear-engine Cooper-Climax as well as setting the fastest lap. Shelby was also running well up until an oil pump failed with two laps to go. He was credited as taking sixth place, two laps down. Just a month later, Salvadori and Shelby co-drove the Aston Martin DBR1 sports car to victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, a win which led to Aston taking the World Sports Car Championship that year. Despite being driven by the Le Mans-winning pair, however, there was no further glory for Aston’s Grand Prix challenger. The front-engine DBR4 was out of step with the new rear-engine competition from Cooper and failed to mirror in Formula One what its DBR1 cousin famously achieved in the sports car arena.

Interestingly, the 1959 Silverstone International Trophy winner Jack Brabham had driven for Aston Martin in 1958 sports car races and for three years had driven for Cooper in Formula One and Formula Two races. Most notably he had been lying third until close to the finish of the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix until a broken fuel pump caused the engine to cut out in Casino Square. He was able to coast down the hill and on to the harbour front, from where he pushed the car home to officially place sixth.


Salvadori had also driven Coopers in those same years and was one of the most successful racers in the Formula Two class. So at the beginning of 1959, both he and Brabham had the choice of driving either for Aston Martin or for Cooper. Salvadori chose Aston Martin and Brabham chose Cooper. It was the right choice for the Australian as he went on to take the World F1 Championship for Cooper in 1959 and 1960. On the other hand, sticking with Aston Martin did lead to the Le Mans win and a share in the World Sportscar Championship for Salvadori.


Roy Salvadori teamed with Carroll Shelby to win the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours race for Aston.


Shelby was also Salvadori’s teammate in the Aston Martin F1 Grand Prix squad

As for Aston Martin’s attempt at Formula One glory, that fizzled out in 1960 when the updated DBR5, which was lighter and faster as well as having better having better handling via all-round independent suspension, still failed to get on terms with the rear-engine opposition at either the Dutch or British Grands Prix. In terms of both development and their arrival on the F1 scene, for both the DBR4 and DBR5 it was a question of too little, too late.


For 2021 Aston Martin will again be seen on the Grand Prix grids as the team formerly known as Racing Point and Force India has been rebranded with the Aston name. Drivers will be former four-time World Champion, Sebastian Vettel, and Lance Strohl while the motive power will be provided by Mercedes Benz engines. In the Racing Point livery, the team’s cars took a win and a pole qualifying position in 2020 – so hopes are high for some good results as Aston Martin.

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