Twenty-three years after its Le Mans win, Aston Martin returned to La Sarthe. Sort of. Richard Heseltine explains how a one-time club racer fired up a sleeping giant and got a rude awakening
When club racer-turned-entrant Robin Hamilton moved into the big league with his ill-starred Nimrod Group C venture, he was tarred with the more derogatory connotations of the word 'amateur'. But he was blessed with many of the good ones, too.
"When we were racing, Robin came in for abuse from the press," recalls Nimrod driver Tiff Needell. "He was naïve at times, and there were occasions when he was a little out of his depth, but the Nimrod was very much his baby. The whole project was carried along by his enthusiasm."
Enthusiasm was one thing the former Rolls-Royce apprentice did not lack. Nor ambition. On being made redundant by the Crewe firm in the early 1970s, the Midlander turned to repairing and restoring Aston Martins. Perhaps inevitably this led to competition, initially with a DB4 and, from '74, a near-standard '69 DBS V8. Within three years of his first tentative foray at the Curborough sprint track in the latter, he remarkably went the distance at Le Mans in the same car, albeit now barely recognisable.
And it was at this juncture that a proper La Sarthe challenger with AM V8 power was mooted. This Tadek Marek-designed unit had featured in two works Lola T70s during the 1967 running, and both retired early. But it was to Eric Broadley that Hamilton turned to realise his vision. Only after a great deal of persuasion did he agree in 1980 to design a car, codenamed T385, as an entirely private venture. Its starting point was a monocoque distantly related to the '60s classic, a T70 body being briefly used on the prototype while in the workshop, although the only carry-overs on the completed car were the pedal mounts and windscreen. (The latter caused problems at Le Mans as it was below the 1000mm minimum height regs, prompting 'taxi sign' extensions.)
A lack of money forestalled development until a saviour appeared in the form of Victor Gauntlett. In 1981, the Pace Petroleum boss bought the controlling stake in Aston Martin, and the arch-enthusiast agreed to partially fund a race programme for '82, the first year that the World Endurance Championship was run to Group C regulations. The marque's US distributor Peter Livanos also promised backing, although at no point was the team ever a fully sanctioned Aston Martin programme.
After initial testing by Derek Bell at Silverstone in '81, the official launch of Nimrod Racing Automobiles was held at Goodwood on November 19, with James Hunt and Stirling Moss performing demonstration runs. Also present was Tiff...
"It was a great day out. The cars looked good and we had a nice lunch at Goodwood House. There were a lot of drivers like myself who were there hoping to forge careers in sportscars including, I seem to remember, Nigel Mansell." Needell was signed up, as was F5000 and sometime F1 driver Bob Evans, and reigning European F2 champ Geoff Lees.
And then it all began to go horribly wrong. Livanos pulled out, Gauntlett and Hamilton having to dig deep to cover the £110,000 shortfall. Then there were the engines. AM Tickford was chosen to build and develop the enduring V8, a move that was to become a bone of contention with Hamilton. Using standard block, head, camshaft and crankshaft, the claimed 580bhp at 7250rpm was debatable. Its lack of reliability was not. By the time the works car arrived at La Sarthe, Hamilton's brave new world was yet to register a single finish. The squad had endured 13 engine failures, most embarrassingly at the team's season opener, the Pace Petroleum-sponsored Silverstone 6 Hours.
"It wasn't a bad first go," claims Evans. "The Nimrod was heavy and never likely to challenge the Porsches or Lancias, but we were on for a good finish until the car died at Becketts." Face was saved, at least for Gauntlett, by the sixth place (fourth in GpC) of Viscount Downe's privateer Nimrod.
This racing peer and AMOC president had become embroiled in the fervour of an Aston-powered Le Mans challenger, selling his prized GT40 to fund its purchase. Gauntlett underwrote the deal while Simon Phillips, who was down to co-drive at Le Mans, picked up the tab for the operating costs. Running this team was the experienced Richard Williams, who tended Downe's fleet of historic racers.
By the Silverstone race, and only a month after receiving chassis 004, Downe's lead driver Ray Mallock had tweaked the suspension (junking the rocker-arm front end and revising the Champ Car-derived rear from Lola's T600) and improved the cooling and plumbing. Williams, recognising the potential for engine problems, also insisted on running lower revs in an effort to stave off budget-crippling blow-ups. The works drivers could only look on enviously at his meticulous approach.
Evans: "By the time we got to Le Mans, I was having serious doubts. I was having more and more disagreements with Robin, wishing that he would take a closer look at what Williams was doing: Richard's team was properly drilled and knew racing inside out"
Needell is less forthright: "Robin was, I suppose, still learning the ropes. I think some of the mechanics were taken from his Aston garage. It was only my second time at Le Mans and I remember the atmosphere before the race being positive. It was like racing in the golden days. Unfortunately, during the race the car tried to kill me!"
At 7am, while holding 12th place, Tiff found himself ricocheting down the Mulsarme Straight: "It was a big accident The rear bodywork subframe collapsed and the car veered to the right I put on some opposite lock and just bounced along for what seemed like ages. Having a rear-hinged engine cover wasn't a great idea, and when it went up, it acted like an air brake."
Miraculously, Needell emerged unscathed, but Evans was incensed: "Hamilton blamed the tyres, which was rubbish. We knew there was a potential problem with the rear bodywork, but nothing was done about it. The Williams team identified it and fixed it. I was really very unhappy about that accident. That was the turning point for me."
The fact that the Downe car was running fourth for much of the night probably didn't help Bob's mood. Only a compression problem saw it slide down the order, limping home to a well received seventh overall.
More was to come. With a further top 10 placing at the following round at Spa, and a ninth spot at the fifth and final round at Brands, the Downe squad had done enough to guarantee third in the Makes tide chase for Aston.
"That was a fantastic achievement," says Williams. "When we started the programme we weren't naïve enough to think that we could take on the big works teams. I still maintain that we achieved what we did on Porsche's catering budget"
Tellingly, Hamilton hadn't made it to the Kent round: he'd run out of money. Having previously made free and frequent use of the press in his efforts to stir up support for the project, he issued a release haranguing British industry for a 'shameful lack of interest'. Then Motoring News merely pointed out that it was he who had been unable to get a car to the finish from three starts, and that if anybody should feel any sense of entitlement, it was Viscount Downe.
Hamilton's response was to pack his bags and head Stateside, taking 002 and 003, and an incomplete fifth car, with him. IMSA beckoned. Its first round at Daytona should have been a turning point.
"It was my first time at the track," recalls Needell, bought in for this one event "I was there with an Argentinian driver ['Yo-Yo' Maldonado] and two of the biggest names in American racing — Darrell Waltrip and AJ Foyt. It was incredible. Typical of Robin. He'd persuaded Pepsi to sponsor us."
Sadly, the Pepsi Challenger wasn't to make its mark. Despite running as high as fifth, with Foyt up, it retired on the 121st lap. "That was disappointing," recalls Needell. "The car seemed suited to Daytona. Bizarrely, one of the welded sump baffles had come loose and got chewed up."
Upscaling efforts to run a second car only added to Hamilton's worries, and — aside from a creditable fifth at Sebring thanks to Reggie Smith, Lyn St James and Drake Olson, the best result for a Nimrod — the writing was on the wall. Or, more accurately, the windscreen. A sign attached to the previous year's Le Mans car in the paddock read 'For sale or rent'. Relying on pay drivers as the season progressed saw no reversal of fortune and Nimrod Racing Automobiles was disbanded on August 22, 1983. The remains of Hamilton's equipe, including a completed 'evolution' NRAC3 carbonfibre tub, were sold to John Cooper.
Meanwhile, in Brixton, Mallock had comprehensively redesigned the Downe car, roping in Alan Jenkins and Ron Tauranac to help with an all-new high-downforce, low-drag body. With funding from building firm Bovis, the revised car promised much.
"It wasn't rocket science," admits Williams. "The old car was way too heavy and already an old design. We needed to pare the weight and help it run through the air more cleanly."
The Silverstone 1000Km passed without incident, Mallock and Salmon finishing seventh. Le Mans, however, wasn't so successful. A broken fuel line prompted eventual engine failure. Yet despite non-finishes at Spa and Brands, the Downe equipe's tally of four points was enough to repeat third place in the final standings!
An ultimately joyless Daytona trip kicked off 1984, the Downe equipe augmented by the arrival of Nimrod 005, as completed by John Cooper. Funded in part by Livanos, he was keen for it to showcase Tickford's experience with twin turbos. Williams wasn't pleased: "I was dead against it. The exercise was a blind alley. We did not have the resources to play around with that sort of set-up."
At the Silverstone 1000Km, Salmon drove the normally aspirated car along with dentist John Sheldon and Dickie Attwood, while the twin-turbo was shared by Mallock and Olsen. It soon transpired that Tickford's claim of 650bhp with forced induction was a tad over-optimistic, Mallock trailing around no higher than 15th. The car's appetite for oil was so great that it was eventually withdrawn. The normally aspirated version retired because of a dropped valve.
As June rolled around, the turbo engine wasn't an option for Le Mans, although the Silverstone driver set-up remained. With the rare bonus of a spare engine and something approaching a realistic budget, the mood in the camp was bullish. At one point the Mallock/Olsen entry was as high as fifth, only for a puncture to drop it down the order. And then, at 9.21pm, disaster struck. Sheldon suffered a blow-out and his Nimrod became an airborne fireball. Remarkably, a badly burned 'Driller' survived to race another day, but a marshal, Jacky Loiseau, was killed by debris.
Just to heap on the tragedy, the sister car, driven by Olsen, was running 8sec behind on the road, despite being a lap ahead, and was right in the tracks of Jonathan Palmer's Porsche 956. As the latter braked to avoid the accident, Olsen was forced to jink to the left, prompting a major smack against the Armco.
This was the Nimrod's last outing in contemporary motorsport.
And Robin Hamilton? Having lost almost everything, he disappeared off the motorsport radar. But he retains his defenders. Needell: "I still feel that Robin and the Nimrod have been unfairly maligned. He made mistakes but there was never any malice. If anything, he was a dreamer, but he built a racing team up from scratch and took it to Le Mans. That in itself is an achievement. From a personal point of view, it allowed me to race in Group C for another 10 years."
Williams is equally affirmative: "Our experience with the Nimrod allowed us to go into C2 with Ecosse and then C1 with Aston Martin. It was a great stepping stone." Which, though not what Hamilton would have wished for at the outset, is at least some consolation for his efforts.
Le Mans RHAM effect
Before Nimrod came RHAM 1. Not the most romantic title but this ungainly device was Hamilton's first dip into Le Mans waters and led to Nimrod's full immersion.
The basis was a '69 DBS V8, although very little was retained by the time the car made the Le Mans grid in '77 — hence the Robin Hamilton Aston Martin 1 chassis number. Pitted against factory Porsches in the GTP class, it was never going to be in the fight for class honours, yet the 520bhp beast steered by Hamilton, autocross star Dave Preece and former Maranello Concessionaires driver Michael Salmon, finished 17th overall.
Unable to compete the following year due to lack of funds, Hamilton returned for '79, RHAM having undergone major surgery, not least a 3in roof chop. Derek Bell drove it, now twin-turbocharged to 650bhp, at May's Silverstone Six Hours and the following August's Brands Hatch enduro, with little to show for his efforts. For Le Mans, the '77 squad regrouped but weren't to finish.
A further outing the following year at Silverstone proved short lived and the project was mothballed. But not before Hamilton broke the World Land Speed Record for towing a caravan (124.91mph) at Elvington Airfield.