Aston Martin AMR-1

VICTOR Gauntlett looked the happiest man in the world at Brands Hatch on July 23, after seeing David Leslie and Brian Redman drive the Aston Martin AMR-1 to fourth place overall in only the car’s third World Sports Prototype Championship race. Initially the Max Boxstrom-designed Group C car had not created a good impression on its first outing at Dijon in May, but the subsequent 11th place at Le Mans was better.

“But fourth! I never dreamed we could do so well, so soon” exclaimed Aston Martin’s chief executive, who is also the team’s keenest supporter.

Maybe he is the second keenest supporter, because the title should go to Peter Livanos, a director of Aston Martin Lagonda Limited, who pledged £26 million to Aston’s World Championship programme over a period of five years longer in fact, than any other manufacturer has committed itself. Gauntleft and Livanos were side-by-side for an hour as they leaned over the pit rails at Donington in September, putting up with the thunderous noise in a way that some other motor magnates might avoid.

Their interest is all the more surprising, perhaps, since they are minority shareholders in AML, with 12 % per cent apiece. Ford, the majority shareholder with 75%, has spent no money at all on the racing project although, clearly, the principals of the team hope to have real support in the form of a 3½-litre engine in time for the 1991 season. Many people remember the Aston Martin Nimrod all too well, the privately sourced project having been born at the beginning of Group C in 1982, and abandoned with a terrible accident at Le Mans in 1984. It was overweight and underpowered, although Richard Williams and Ray Mallock, who were deeply involved, will not have it that the Nimrod was a failure.

Nimrod is, in any case, history. The AMR-1 was overweight, too, by 80kg when it first raced at Dijon-Prenois in May, and pressurisation of the oil tank gave the impression that it was a hazard on every lap. Testing had been badly hampered by a crash at Donington, the first composite “tub” being badly damaged in a crash that followed the loss of a wheel.

The omens were not, at that early point, very good at all, but it’s necessary to remember how the red, white and blue Mobil-sponsored car was in May, to understand how far it progressed over the next three months.

“We all knew it was going to be bloody hard,” says Protech’s managing director and team manager Richard Williams, “but it was even worse than we expected. We worked ourselves into the ground, and I actually feel guilty for the employees because we’ve done a year’s development work in six months. “We have incorporated literally hundreds of modifications into the original design, some quite major.. .such as fabricating new front uprights, because we suspected that the magnesium castings weren’t stiff enough. We were right, because for the first time the Craner Curves at Donington were “flat”, which they certainly hadn’t been before.” Like Victor Gauntlett, Williams thrives on hard work. They are both regularly at their desks at 6am, Williams at the space-age Protech premises in Milton Keynes, Gauntlett a few miles away in the old fashioned Aston Martin factory in Newport Pagnell. Both work until the day is done, typically at 8pm, and will work through weekends when the schedule demands.

“I love being the first into work in the mornings” says Williams, 43, who wound up his thriving Aston Martin restoration business to accept his new post at the beginning of 1989. “In fact, I’d hate it if someone was there before me. I’ve always wanted a job like this, and I sometimes can’t believe it has happened.”

Ray Mallock is Protech’s engineering director, now responsible for all the development, and his twin priorities in the weeks after Dijon were to reduce the Aston Martin’s weight, and to improve the suspension characteristics. Just how successful he has been is indicated by the fact that chassis 05, which was completed on the morning of Donington pre-qualifying, was weighed at 906kg with steel discs, not carbon which would be 10kg lighter still and the AMR was one of the best-handling cars on the difficult circuit, surprisingly qualifying faster than the nimble Spices. Another key member of the team is former journalist Michael Bowler, a director of AML, who is Protech’s operations manager. The Aston Martin was designed by Swedish-born Max Boxstrom, who helped with the development of the Ecosse C2 car in 1986 when it won the World Championship for C2 Teams powered by the Metro/Rover V6 engine. In fact the Ecurie Ecosse connection has been very strong throughout, through drivers Ray Mallock and David Leslie, and manager Richard Williams. Now, Mallock represents Hugh McCaig and Ecurie Ecosse’s 12½per cent share of Protech.

On behalf of Ecurie Ecosse, McCaig approached Aston Martin straight after his team had won the C2 Championship and a year later he was awarded the contract, and a budget, to design and develop the AMR-1. The V8-engined car was ready to run at the beginning of December 1988 and was tested extensively at Silverstone and Donington, although generally four or five seconds off a decent pace. Suspicions grew that the car wasn’t any good and the Dijon performance didn’t allay these fears. The write-off at Donington in March set the team back further than it was prepared to admit. Protech braced itself and paid the mandatory fine of $250,000 for missing Suzuka (they tried a plea of “force majeure” but it was rejected by FISA), and months of testing time was wasted.

“Morale got very low,” Williams admits. “We lost wheels, crashed, lost oil, worked all-nighters, that’s how it was for weeks on end. We really were in the fourth division when we looked at first division teams like Mercedes.”

Then on June 2, Prince Michael opened the spacious new premises in Milton Keynes (unusually there were no journalists present, “so it was a family affair which raised the morale a bit”) and then the team went to Le Mans and got one car home in 11th place.

“It was our fourth place at Brands Hatch which did the trick,” says Williams. “That changed everything overnight. Everyone’s spirits picked up tremendously, and suddenly we felt as though we’d shot up to the top of the second division. We haven’t looked back since, and we know that next year we’ll be of age, we won’t be the new boys anymore.” Boxstrom was clearly under great pressure at Dijon, and a few days later it was announced that he’d left the team to concentrate on his Dymag wheels business. “He took on too much,” says Williams. “He thought that he could do both jobs on a part-time basis but it just wasn’t possible. When it became clear that development of the Aston Martin would be a full-time job, and then some, there was really no choice.” Both Williams and Ray Mallock closed their own businesses to work with Aston Martin, but for Boxstrom, Dymag was his first priority.

Development of the chassis has been far more intensive than that of the 6-litre, four-cam “Virage” engine which has been the responsibility of Reeves Callaway in Connecticut. Starting with Aston Martin’s 5.3-litre V8, Callaway increased the capacity and designed, developed and installed a chain-driven four-cam system to drive the 32 valves, releasing a lot more power.

Callaway Engineering was commissioned to produce the “Virage” engine for the latest road model, just into production, but Livanos and Gauntlett were not slow to realise its potential in racing.

The 16-valve engine had developed a claimed 580 bhp when prepared by Tickford (though Chuck Graemiger doubted that figure, when he started his own preparation) but the 32-valve produces “over 650 bhp” with credibility, and rivals on the track now find the AMR-1 fully competitive in all departments.

“I’m terribly pleased with what Callaway is doing,” says Williams. “The engine has been very reliable and gives plenty of power. Up to Le Mans we wanted reliability more than anything, but since then Reeves has been concentrating on a “Series 2″ which we’ll run in Mexico; we’ll need it, at that altitude.” The S2 will have more power, lower frictional losses and better economy, work having concentrated also on the cylinder heads, porting and camshaft timing, and on new mapping for the Zytek engine management system. In the S2 version the four camshafts will each be 8 ounces (226 grammes) lighter, representing a total saving of 2 pounds (0.9kg) at the top end of the V8, where any saving is most beneficial. The total weight of the 4-cam V8 is 500 pounds (226 kg), about what one would expect when compared with the 240kg of Jaguar’s TWR-prepared racing V12.

The most remarkable progression was seen on the AMR-1 between the Brands Hatch test days on July 5/6 and the race on July 23. On the test days, Michael Roe was unable to break 1:22 around the former Grand Prix circuit and was the unfortunate launch pad for the Toyota driven by Johnny Dumfries. Race weekend, however, opened another chapter for the hard-pressed Protech team as David Leslie qualified in 14th place at 1:17.961, and both he and Brian Redman were able to race consistently at below 1:20 to a very worthy fourth place.

A complete transformation was seen in the Aston Martin team, and performances at the Nurburgring, Donington and Spa have shown that this wasn’t a one-off improvement. Ray Mallock denies that everything was done in a fortnight. “Although the car looks similar on the outside, a huge amount of work has been done over a period of six months and there’s no one thing that accounts for the performance at Brands Hatch. We have always believed in the integrity of the monocoque, in the whole car, but we started with safety-related problems, the crash while testing at Donington due to a wheel falling off, and then concentrated on aerodynamics and suspensions.

“We realised we had ample downforce but too much drag, which meant that we ran to a maximum of 212 mph (341 km/h) at Le Mans instead of the 230 mph (370 km/h) that we’d expected. There was too much kickback through the steering and the road holding was poor; we realised that the suspension travel was far too limited as the car had been designed for the perfect race circuit, which doesn’t exist of course, which has no bumps!

“We had a suspension failure on one car during qualifying which was cured by a small modification, but there was a different failure on Brian’s car on Sunday morning which involved more development work. Because of a wiring fire at the start of the race, David Leslie’s car ran without a rev-counter, and that eventually resulted in over-revving and a bearing failure between numbers 7 and 8 cylinders.”

The young Aston Martin team went for a finish with the car driven by Redman, Michael Roe and Costas Los, and was duly rewarded with 11th position in the classification. Since then the engine, thought to be “bomb proof”, has been looked at anew and modified with new oil ways, a different oil pump and an uprated scavenge system; even the direction of the water flow inside the engine has been changed. Capacity has been increased to 6.3 litres from the original 6.0 and in tests at Donington, it proved to be 1.2 seconds a lap faster.

Generally the development work has concentrated on increasing the suspension travel (Nissan has had to work on similar lines with the R89C), front and rear suspension geometries which have secured “huge improvements”, a rear anti-roll bar has been added, and the entire spring rate/roll stiffness ratio has been developed. Although the placing of the water radiator across the tail, underneath the wing, is judged to be an interesting idea, it’s likely to be located at the front of the car in 1990, in the interests of better weight distribution. One feature of the car is the special gearbox casing, designed by Boxstrom around Hewland VGC internals to maximise the underbody aerodynamics, and Williams is particularly warm in his praise for the transmission, “a great credit to Max”.

Ray Mallock, who competed at Le Mans but claims not to miss being a racing driver, assumed overall responsibility for the AMR-1’s development in May, but the search is being stepped up for a leading designer for the 3½-litre AMR-2 which must be ready by the end of next year, and the appointment has now become “a pressing problem”.

David Leslie, Michael Roe and Brian Redman have already signed contracts for 1990, Redman though for a limited programme which will include Le Mans, and Williams is most anxious to get Stanley Dickens’ signature after his drive at Spa. The future for Aston Martin’s Protech team seems a lot brighter now than it did in the early months of 1989, when the euphoria of forming the team was soon replaced by a realisation of the task ahead. Realistically, Richard Williams admits that the AMR-1 has not been a potential winner, but believes that the S2 engine will make the car much more competitive in 1990. Above all, though, the team’s sights are set on reaching the top of the first division in 1991. MLC