Soundly beaten by scuderia Ferrari in the 1958 world sportscar championship, Aston Martin was supposed to be concentrating on its Formula One campaign in 1959. So how come David Brown’s men ended up taming the prancing horse on the two-seater front? Chris Nixon, the author of Sportscar Heaven, explains
The late 1950s was a great period of sportscar racing. Even though Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Maserati had all dropped out of the running by the end of 1957, the 3-litre limit set for the following season would see two of the most beautiful and dramatic sportscars go head to head: the six-cylinder DBR1 from Astons (sic) versus Ferrari’s V12 Testa Rossa. The latter won the first round of this two-year championship battle; Astons restored British honour in a thrilling climax at Goodwood in ’59 — yet this was a title the Feltham firm won quite by chance.
Earlier that year, team patron David Brown had decided that his beloved cars would only contest Le Mans, a race he had been trying to win since 1949. The rest of his team’s efforts would be concentrated on grand prix racing, which it was entering for the first time. DB was not often wrong, but he was on this occasion. Whereas his DBR1 s posed a formidable threat to Ferrari’s Testa Rossa (and Porsche’s RSK) in sportscar racing, his DBR4 GP cars were outdated, having sat under dust sheets throughout ’58. They failed dismally. The sportscars, however, triumphed — largely due to the genius of a man called Moss.
Stirling had been very impressed when the 3-litre DBR1 of Tony Brooks, ably backed up by newcomer Noel Cunningham-Reid, had soundly thrashed his Maserati team and Scuderia Ferrari in the 1957 Nurburgring 1000Km. So when Maserati withdrew, he had no hesitation in joining Aston Martin for ’58.
Moss had first joined the team in 1956, by which time its DB3S was in its fourth year and in dire need of replacement. The advent of the remarkable Mercedes-Benz 300SLR in ’55 had convinced Astons’ team manager John Wyer and its designer Ted Cutting that a spaceframe chassis was required. DBR1 was the result, and it made its debut in ’56, at Le Mans. The basic brilliance of this design was shown at the Nurburgring the following year, when Brooks lapped in 9min 48.2sec, 38sec faster than his best DB3S time — with basically the same 240bhp engine. At last, Aston Martin had a thoroughly modern (if underpowered) sports-racer — and the 3-litre formula appeared to be made for it.
But nothing is that simple. Maserati may have gone, but Ferrari was as strong as ever. Throughout 1957, Enzo had been preparing his new 3-litre sportscar, the Testa Rossa. The rough-and-ready prototype appeared at the ‘Ring, and a second car raced at Le Mans a few weeks later. The latter was the first real 250TR, designed by Andrea Fraschetti, with eye-catching bodywork by Sergio Scaglietti. In November, Ferrari showed his new car to the Press at Maranello but, sadly, Fraschetti was not present, having been killed in August while testing an F2 car at Modena Autodrome. Enzo announced that the 250TR would be the factory racer for 1958, and that it would also be produced as a customer car.
But the scribes were underwhelmed by the TR. Whereas DBR1 was state of the art — a spaceframe with independent suspension, a rear-mounted gearbox and disc brakes — the Testa Rossa was old-fashioned, with a ladder-type chassis, solid rear axle, four-speed gearbox and drum brakes. And its engine, which was the work of Franco Rocchi and Walter Salvarini, was basically a scaled-up version of the V12 which Gioachino Colombo had designed in 1947. Even so, Ferrari claimed 300bhp for it, which was some 60 more than Astons could claim. The TR’s bodywork also came in for criticism. There were gaps between the radiator intake and headlamps to get cooling air to the front brakes, and cutaway front wings, in the style of the DB3S. The result was not exactly pretty. Many observers wondered if Ferrari had missed the sportscar boat.
But Ferrari knew his customers: they wanted a car which was simple to maintain thousands of miles from the factory. And while showing a customer car to the Press, he made no mention of the de Dion rear axle, dry-sump lubrication and five-speed gearbox that were under development for his factory racers!
The first event of 1958 was the Buenos Aires 1000Km. Astons didn’t go — it was too far away! Ferrari and Porsche had no such qualms, sending three cars each, and Testa Rossas finished first and second.
The DBR1 and TR finally got to grips with one another two months later, at Sebring. Moss led with ease to begin with, while team-mate Roy Salvadori locked horns with Mike Hawthorn’s TR. Unfortunately, the Astons did not last the pace, both retiring before half-distance, and Ferrari romped to another one-two, Peter Collins/Phil Hill repeating their Buenos Aires triumph ahead of Luigi Musso/Olivier Gendebien.
The latter pair then completed a Testa Rossa hat-trick by winning the Targa Florio in May. Reg Parnell had now succeeded Wyer as Astons’ team manager and he had sent just one car to do battle with four Ferraris. Okay, it was the formidable partnership of Moss/Brooks, and Stirling lowered the lap record by 49sec, but it was a very cautious, optimistic team strategy. Indeed, Brooks never got to drive, the DBR1’s gearbox (already with a reputation for fragility) failing early.
After three rounds of the championship, therefore, Ferrari had 24 points, Aston Martin none!
At the next race, the Nurburgring 1000Km, Moss produced one of his bravura drives to demolish Ferrari (and Porsche) opposition and give Astons their second successive win in Germany. But the championship was out of reach. Even more so after Le Mans: all three DBR1 s failed, and Hill/Gendebien drove a TR58 to a superb victory in one of the wettest races on record. Ferrari were champions — for the sixth year in a row.
There was still one race to come — the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood — but Ferrari stayed at home and Aston Martin strolled to a 1-2-3 result of little real importance other than a boost to morale.
Having sold all their customer Testa Rossas, Scuderia Ferrari brought out a new works racer for 1959, the TR59. Carlo Chiti had replaced Fraschetti as design engineer, and he produced a semi-spaceframe car with a five-speed gearbox, disc brakes, de Dion rear end and styling by Pinin Farina. It was a winner right off the bat, taking first and second at Sebring. Tragedies had robbed Ferrari of Musso, Collins and Hawthorn, but they had been ‘replaced’ by Jean Behra, Brooks and young American sensation, Dan Gurney, to add to the formidable partnership of Hill/Gendebien. The championship looked to be over before it had started.
But wait! The Sebring organisers were so desperate to have at least one Aston in opposition to the works Ferraris that they did the previously unthinkable and offered $4500 starting money. Astons took the bait and sent Salvadori to partner Carroll Shelby. Their efforts were short-lived — the DBR1 was sidelined by oil on its clutch and a broken gear lever — but it was a start.
And the trickle was about to become a torrent.
Moss asked if he could have a DBR1 for the Nuirburgring 1000Km. He was convinced he could win again, so much so that he offered to pay all expenses in return for any prize money he might glean. Astons sent the one car not being prepared for Le Mans, and Stirling chose reliable Jack Fairman as his co-driver.
And they won. But only after a Moss masterclass that, in my opinion, eclipses Juan Manuel Fangio’s epic drive in the 1957 German GP. Stirling began by breaking his own lap record of 9min 43sec on 16 consecutive occasions, leaving it at a remarkable 9min 32sec. In the process, he established a staggering lead of 5min 40sec. But this was still insufficient for Fairman to (superhumanly) manhandle the car out of the ditch he had dropped it into, without the Ferraris of Gendebien and Behra flashing by.
A disappointed Moss was on the verge of packing up and going home when a flustered Fairman arrived back at the pits. Stirling now launched into one of his famous comeback attacks. He reeled in the Ferraris and, after 10 laps and a stop for fuel, gave the Aston back to Fairman with a lead of 1 min 47sec. Jack did two laps, but was overtaken by Hill, so once again Moss had to go Ferrari-hunting, albeit just 19sec in arrears. He retook the lead with five laps remaining and romped home to a stunning victory, 41sec ahead of the nearest Testa Rossa. DBR1 had scored a hat-trick at the ‘Ring.
Next came Le Mans and David Brown’s final attempt to secure that elusive La Sarthe victory. Now in its third season, DBR1 was no more powerful than it had been in 1957, but wind-tunnel work had improved its aerodynamics, if not its looks. Moss made his usual electrifying getaway and acted as hare to the Ferrari hounds. Behra stalled his Testa Rossa and then proceeded to show the French spectators how fast he could go, slicing through the field and taking the lead from Moss after one hour. But all the Ferraris were seriously undergeared and failed to go the distance. Previously, no DBR1 had lasted the 24 hours, but this time two of them came through (Moss/Fairman were forced out early) and Salvadori/Shelby took the chequered flag ahead of teammates Paul Frere/Maurice Trintignant David Brown had finally realised his dream.
But the dream wasn’t completely over: Astons now had a real chance of winning the championship — even though they hadn’t meant to enter. After Le Mans, Ferrari had 18 points, Aston Martin 16 and Porsche 15. This meant that there would be a three-way battle for the title at the Tourist Trophy in September — and Aston Martin Martin had never lost a major race at Goodwood. All three teams fielded three cars each.
With a trio of Nine Hours victories under its belt, Astons knew Goodwood was very hard on tyres and that pitstops would be crucial to the outcome. At the very end of practice, Reg Parnell produced his ace — on-board hydraulic jacks. They were to prove their worth in the race.
Moss took an immediate lead, which co-driver Salvadori easily maintained until his pitstop. Which is where the fun began. Fuel gushed from the hose onto the exhaust and in a moment the Aston was ablaze! Salvadori baled out with minor bums, but although the Goodwood Fire Brigade was superb, the DBR1 was too badly damaged to continue.
No problem. Moss simply took over the Shelby/Fairnan car and set off in fourth place. Mindful of Stirling’s fantastic comeback drives, a collective grin spread around Goodwood as everyone sat back in anticipation of another. They got one. Driving as only he knew how, using the DBR1’s superb roadholding to the utmost, Moss electrified all beholders, regaining the lead from the Porsche of Jo Bonnier/Taffy von Trips at 3.30pm. And that was that.
Well, not quite, for the battle for second was now on. Brooks knew Goodwood better than the other Ferrari drivers, so he was charged with catching the Porsche. If he could finish second, Ferrari would have the same number of points as Aston Martin (although the latter would still win the title, with three wins to Ferrari’s one). Brooks had the Testa Rossa flying, but von Trips was no slouch in the 1.5-litre RSK, which was remarkably quick around Goodwood, and in the end the German combo beat the Ferrari by just 2sec.
Six weeks later David Brown announced that he was withdrawing from sportscar racing altogether. He had achieved his main ambition — the championship was icing on the cake — and the new regulations meant that his DBR1s were ineligible for the 1960 events.
After two seasons of competition, DBR1 and Testa Rossa emerged on equal terms: one championship each, five wins apiece. They were, however, very different in character. Brooks was the only works driver to have raced both: “The Ferrari’s sweet gearbox made gear-changing a joy, and the V12’s power sent it soaring up the hills like a jet taking off— but it could not match the roadholding or balance of the Aston.”
Salvadori, who has driven (but not raced) the 1958 and ’59 Testa Rossas, says: “I reckon that all the Aston Martin drivers should have been treated to a few laps in the Testa Rossa. We were always complaining about the DBR1’s lack of power and lousy gearbox, but after a few laps in the Ferrari we would have shut up, because we were compensated by the wonderful roadholding of the Aston and its disc brakes, which were fabulous.
“A DBR1 powered by Ferrari’s V12 and driving through the Maserati gearbox [which Astons tried at Goodwood in 1959] would have been fantastic — and unbeatable!”
But you can’t have everything, although sportscar racing came very close to it in 1958 and ’59.