Walking around the paddock at Hallett Motor Racing Circuit
Over 100 Aston Martins have competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours since the 1920s, more often in hope than expectation.
It's a race that is both enduring and to be endured whichever side of the pitwall you're standing. As one of the last truly great motorsport classics yet to be neutered or corrupted, Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans still entrances all who make the pilgrimage each June. Whether a fan or a competitor, you don't so much root for an entry to prevail, you root for it to survive. Le Mans can be a fickle mistress, one who doesn't always play nice.
Just ask any driver armed with an Aston Martin. Ever since the first works effort rocked up at the Circuit de la Sarthe 80 years ago only to return to Blighty with a brace of DNFs, this legendary marque has experienced its fair share of heartbreak. Over 100 Aston Martins – or derivatives – have attempted the 24 Hours, yet the triumph tally remains static at just one outright victory. By means of comparison, Jaguar has triumphed seven times.
Thing is, for so much of its history, the marque has threatened to vanish into irrelevancy – or worse – but somehow always hangs on in there. Same too, for its involvement in the great race. Most of Aston Martin's outings over the last five decades have been down to plucky enthusiasts whose impoverished inventiveness has often maintained the marque's presence, even if their efforts haven't always been rewarded. But then this calamity-prone manufacturer is now independent again (although this may soon change), and run by a cabal of racing men. It shows. In recent years we have been treated to a resurgent brand that has taken on the GT elite for bragging rights - and won. And now, even more tantalising still, comes the prospect of a challenge for overall spoils with a proper sports-prototype.
We can only hope. It's been quite a wait for a second triumph, especially as Aston Martin's lineage at Le Mans stretches back further even than the inaugural 24 Hour race of 1923. The town lent its name and its roads to Grands Prix as far back as 1906 and in sixth place at the end of the 1921 event was B.S. Marshall in 'Bunny', Aston Martin chassis B2. Seven years later, the marque debuted in the 24 Hours with LM1 and LM2. The former retired after meeting with a ditch after 31 tours, its sister lasting until the 19th hour when a gearlever snapped off. There was, however, one small consolation: the equipe trousered the Rudge-Whitworth prize of 1000 Francs for having the fastest 11/2-liter car over the opening 20 laps.
Some 23 team cars would emerge between 1928 and 1936, the marque scooping fifth place and class honors during its next showing at Le Mans in 1931 (A.C. 'Bert' Bertelli/C.M. Harvey) with LM6.
This would prove a regular finishing spot, with Driscoll/Penn-Hughes steering LM9 to a category win a year later, and Newsome/Widengren in LM10 in 1933 to make a fifth place/class triumph hat trick for the marque. There would be further successes, Skeffington/Murton-Neale guiding LM20 to – quelle surprise - fifth place and a class win in 1937 but from 1938 there would be an eleven year hiatus before Aston Martin again appeared in the endurance classic.
By which time it had undergone another changing of the guard. In 1947, David Brown famously spotted an advertisement in The Times for 'A High Class Motor Business' and assumed control. A year later, he followed through by acquiring Lagonda principally to secure its new in-line 'six'. Once inserted into the splendid new Frank Feeley-penned DB2, a three car works team descended on Le Mans in 1949 to showcase the firm's brave new world, backed-up by two privateer pre-war 2-litre cars and a lone DB1. Tragedy struck the factory squad when Pierre Maréchal perished after crashing at Maison Blanche. There would be little glory that year.
But there was some reason to be cheerful. Much of this was down to the arrival of John Wyer as Works Competition Manager. Inheriting a trio of drivers, he set about recruiting more for a tilt at the 1950 race. Eric Thompson was one of them. “I got to know John when he was MD at Monaco Motors which had run my HRG at Le Mans in 1949”, recalls the supremely affable 89-year-old. “When he joined Aston's, he already had Charles Brackenbury, George Abecassis and Lance Macklin. John had a gift for pairing up professional drivers and amateurs like myself. For me Le Mans was lovely as you got so much seat time. It certainly beat Shelsley Walsh.”
Not that his works career got off to a flying start: “For 1950, we had three cars and I was down to drive with Jack Fairman. Unfortunately he had a coming together with a camion on the drive down and was injured. The car wasn't going to be fixed in time either, so I drove a development hack known as 'the sweatbox' with John Gordon. We were out quite early on with a broken crank. The others went very well and finished first and second in class [and fifth and sixth overall]. A year later, we were back with three cars [joined by two privateers]. I was teamed up with Macklin who was very much the coming man at the time. That year we had a fairly uneventful race and finished third overall and won the three-litre class. ” With the arrival of former Auto Union man Eberan von Eberhost in November 1951, Aston Martin upped the stakes. As chief engineer, he conceived the slab-sided DB3 in time for the 1952 event. “There were three cars and the one I shared with Reg Parnell was an experimental coupé: we were out before long,” says a deadpan Thompson. “It was too heavy to be competitive and for the following year we had the DB3S which was a much better car but none of us finished the 1953 race.”
Though the chassis was essentially borrowed from its predecessor, the DB3S was lighter and smaller. But rather than concentrate on honing just this one model, the competition department embarked on a raft of new projects which served only to sidetrack the big push. A supercharged straight-six was instigated, as was a twin-plug 'head. The Feeley-designed coupé was certainly a looker, and cleaved the air more cleanly than the open car, but without any noticeable rise in velocity (only rear-end lift). Lastly, there was David Brown's own pet project, the ill-starred 4.5-litre V12 Lagonda sports-racer. Thompson was lumbered with this white elephant.
“I was teamed up with Dennis Poore who was another good amateur but it was obvious to me that none of the professional drivers would touch the thing. I don't have terribly fond memories of it.” Which is understandable as he crashed out on lap 25. It was a disastrous race for Aston Martin. Both of the factory DB3S coupés were eliminated in separate incidents, while the remaining trio of open cars retired through accident damage and mechanical woes. By the time the following year's running rolled around, the DB3S had reached the end of its development cycle, although Peter Collins and Paul Frere still splashed their way to second place in a race that entered notoriety following Pierre Levegh's apocalyptic accident.
Some months earlier, Aston's newly appointed Chief Racing Designer Ted Cutting had been handed a brief to produce a replacement for the DB3S. Lack of time meant the new strain had to be created around the existing – and proven – straight-six. There was no talk of selling replicas to privateers, though: this was strictly a works effort. The three-litre DBR1 debuted in prototype form in 1956, and ran near the front for 22 hours before retiring: in second place at the flag was Stirling Moss and Collins in a DB3S, just ten miles behind the victorious Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-type. A three-car works team, including the 3.7-litre DBR2 pictured here, participated in the 1957 running and left with nil point, Tony Brooks having been lying second in an ill car before turning turtle at Tetre Rouge. A class win for a French-entered DB3S was scant reward.
But this result did go to prove the august model's worth and never more so than in 1958 where the three factory DBR1s stumbled and it was left to brothers Peter and Graham Whitehead to maintain Aston's honour with another second-place finish. Distracted by a heart-hearted stab at Formula 1, the marque didn't appear a likely bet for 1959 either. As usual, Moss was the hare, dicing with the Jean Behra's Testa Rossa in the early stages but his race was run with nineteen hours to go. The fancied challenge from Maranello effectively evaporated by midday on the Sunday as the leading Ferrari of Hill/Gendebien dropped out, supposedly due to 'fuel starvation'. With four hours to go, Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori throttled back the lead DBR1 and ran an eventual 324 laps to head the sister car of Paul Frere and Maurice Trintignant to a triumphant one-two finish. And having realised his ambition, and also conquered the World Sportscar Championship, Brown pulled the plug at the end of season: racing would be sole preserve of privateers, albeit some being more privateer than others.
Though the DBR1 landed a brief reprieve, Salvadori claiming third overall with Jim Clark under the Border Reivers banner in 1960, Zagato's take on the DB4 soon became the weapon of choice in place of the regular GT. But it wasn't enough for some dealers who wanted an official motor sport programme, the French concessionaire doing most of the lobbying. Yielding to pressure, Brown and Wyer announced a single-car effort for Le Mans, 1962. Comprising parts robbed from the the DB3S, DBR2 – even the Lagonda Rapide – the resultant Design Project 212 featured a four-litre DB4GT-based straight-six and another Feeley-produced outline. With no development to speak of, the handsome coupé nevertheless made an instant impression. With a strong driver line-up of Graham Hill and Richie Ginther (then team-mates at BRM), the former led early on, and was lying second after five hours only for a cracked oil pump pipe to hasten retirement.
Encouraged by this performance, Brown instigated the construction of three more Project cars for the following season. DP 215 was effectively a development of DP212, with a new box-section chassis and revised suspension, and intended to run as a prototype. Two sister cars were built for the GT class: allocated DB4GT chassis in an act of Ferrari-esque homologation chicanery, the brace of DP214s - with their Mulsanne-friendly silhouettes and lightweight frames borrowed from the DP215 - bore little resemblance to any production Aston. Not that it really amounted to anything. Phil Hill led briefly in DP215, only to abandon the car with transaxle issues. Bruce McLaren's race ended after his DP214 blew its engine at Les Hunaudieres, covering the track with oil and causing a multiple pileup that claimed the life of Alpine driver, Bindo Heinz. The third entry lasted until 2.10am before being eliminated by piston failure. Brown pulled out of front-line motor sport once again, this time for good.
Enter the barren years. In 1964, both DP214s were sold to Dawnay Racing. Michael Salmon and Peter Sutcliffe drove one in that year's 24 Hours and were holding eight place on the Sunday morning before being disqualified. It would be a further three years before Aston Martin would again be represented. And then only as an engine supplier, the new Tadek Marek-designed V8 being raced in five-litre form (although the exact displacement has long been debated) in the back of Team Surtees Lola T70s.
The Polish-born designer was apparently less than keen that the engine be campaigned. The net result was humiliating failure: the lead car of John Surtees and David Hobbs ground to a halt after just three laps with a holed piston, reputedly due to overheating caused by the new – and untested – (itals) Lang Heck (end itals) bodywork. The sister car was in-and-out of the pits before retiring for good two-and-a-half hours in. An inglorious start for an engine that would become a fixture at Le Mans for the better part of 30 years.
If only intermittently. With Brown no longer at the helm, Aston looked unlikely to see out the '70s, serial ownership making a competition programme unthinkable. It was only down to the efforts of marque specialist Robin Hamilton that the marque returned to la Sarthe. Using a 1969 DBS as a starting point, the former Rolls-Royce apprentice modified the car out of all recognition for an attack on the 1976 race. That never materialized although he managed to sweet talk riot gear firm SAS to partially sponsor a stab at the 1977 running. Joined by former autocross star Dave Preece and veteran Michael Salmon, Hamilton hustled Le Petit Camion (as it was dubbed by French fans) to seventeenth overall and third in the GTP class.
A return visit two years on with twin-turbos resulted in a dizzying fuel consumption and scorched pistons. Undettered, Hamilton pushed ahead with a new sports-prototype after tapping Lola's Eric Broadley for input. The resultant Nimrod emerged in time for the new for 1982 Group C formula with partial backing from Aston's latest saviour, Victor Gauntlett. With the works car vying with Viscount Downe's privateer entry at Le Mans, both ran steadily in the race. If only briefly.
The factory Nimrod driven by Bob Evans, Geoff Lees and Tiff Needell was eliminated in a huge accident caused either by a tire shredding or rear bodywork acting as an air-brake, depending on who you ask. Evans recalls: “It wasn't a bad car but it wasn't a great one either. You knew it was never going to be competitive as it was too slow and too heavy but it was early days. It was all very Boy's Own. Tiff was lucky to escape unhurt from his shunt, though. I remember him saying afterwards, 'I always wondered what it was like to turn left at 210mph. Now I know.'” The Downe car meanwhile limped home minus a cylinder to seventh overall. At the end of the year, Hamilton headed Stateside in an effort to save the project, the Viscount's squad producing its own radical rework. But there would be no further finishes, other Aston-powered challengers from EMKA and Cheetah never troubling the dominant Porsches (although the former led a lap in 1985).
There would be a Group C swansong, however. In 1989, Aston Martin was officially represented in the World Sportscar Championship, the Max Boxstrom-designed AMR1 featuring a special 32-valve version of the enduring V8. Managed by Richard Williams, and with a raft of talented drivers on the roster, all looked rosy. But, despite an eleventh place finish in that year's 24 Hours, and altogether stronger showings later on in the season, there would be no AMR2. Williams recalls: “It was a five year programme with the central goal being to win at Le Mans. Ford bought the majority shareholding in Aston's in 1987 but there was no interference. Then the FIA changed the engine rules to 3.5-liter normally-aspirated units. We were up against Jaguar within the Ford family and Jaguar got access to Cosworth's motor rather than us. AMR2 was already progressing, and we'd tested a lot of components, but that was it. We were done.”
There was little cause for cheer during a barren 1990s (unless you count the Synergie-built DB7LM that failed to qualify in 1995. We don't.). Fast forward to July 2004 and for the first time in 40 years, there was something approaching a sustained competition programme. Aston Martin Racing, owned wholly by Prodrive, was established to take the fight to the hitherto dominant Pratt & Miller Chevrolet Corvettes. With GT success in the following year's Sebring 12 Hours, the DBR9 proved its worth and claimed its first Le Mans class win in 2007.
Marque loyalist (and Fiat 500 owner) Darren Turner has his own thoughts on why the British challenger is proving so popular with race goers: “The car has always had a great following at Le Mans; some of that comes from the aesthetics because the DBR9 is a beautiful car, but it's the noise that's mentioned most when you talk to people out there: all these cars sound different but most people really enjoy the shrill V12 sound of the Aston.”
So they're going to love the new Lola-Aston B08/60 then. Run under the Charouz Racing Systems banner, this sports-prototype takes advantage of new rules that give production-based engines a power break in the premier LMP1 category (it uses a six-liter unit from the DBR9). The car finished third on its debut in April's LMS race in Barcelona. Team principle George Howard-Chappell, however, is cagey about its imminent arrival at Le Mans: “It's a nice way of getting some experience of the Aston engine but don't read it in any way as a confirmation of our future programme.”
Except of course we are. Or perhaps we're simply opting for shiny-eyed wishful thinking instead. Either way, Aston Martin remains one of the most emotive names out there, one that remains inextricably linked with sports car racing despite the occasional – and protracted - hiatus. Chasing class wins is good, claiming an outright win would be better. And it's not as though we've had long to wait for another one...