Eyes on the prize

Aston Martin’s troubled relationship with Le Mans has come to reflect the very essence of Britain’s famous marque

Aston Martin at Le Mans is a précis of Aston Martin, the saga. As much chequered past as chequered flag, emboldening success that includes the 1-2 of 1959 has – just about – seen it through embittering failure. Though there has been tragedy, too, this hand-made’s tale is ultimately uplifting.

Galvanised by a succession of incautious men drawn to a glamorous past and breezily confident of a better future, it has risked all on occasion, often paid the price in the short term, but reaped the benefit in the long.

That’s thanks to: an Italian-born engineer/racer raised in Cardiff; a Huddersfield adventurer made wealthy by transmissions and tractors; a former Rolls-Royce apprentice based in Burton upon Trent; a patriotic petrochemicals entrepreneur; and a world champion rally co-driver.

The first was Augustus Cesare ‘Bert’ Bertelli, engineering focus and driving force of the conglomerate that in October 1926 bought for £10,000 the barely going concern – with good reputation – of Bamford & Martin. With help from coachbuilder brother Enrico, aka ‘Harry’, his low-slung cars – with dry-sump ‘four’ and underslung back axle – were built with little regard to cost.

And sold like stale cakes.

Motor sport was Bertelli’s weakness and strength. Co-driven by Maurice Harvey, his International model, headlights secured by rope, finished fifth overall to win the 1.5-litre class at Le Mans in 1931. Coffers dry and shored by admirers and rivals, it was double or quits by 1932. What could have been the death of Aston-Martin Motors Ltd, however, was the first of several renaissances.

Co-driven by Pat Driscoll, Bertelli finished seventh and secured the puzzling but prestigious Biennial Cup – a handicap based on engine size and target distances spread over consecutive seasons. Their Anglo-Swedish team-mates Sammy Newsome/Henken Widengren finished fifth – a class-winning result repeated by Driscoll and Clifton Penn-Hughes in 1933.

This was topped in 1935 when an Ulster model driven by a pair of Charlies – Messrs Brackenbury and Martin – finished third and won the Index of Performance as well as their class. Two years later the same car finished fifth – Astons’ fifth such class success in seven attempts since 1928 – and a 2-litre Speed Model, designed by Claude Hill for the cancelled 1936 race, clanked across the line with a broken piston, its 11th place sufficient to capture another Biennial Cup.

But Aston Martin was transitioning. Increased use of subcontractors and outsourced components, at the insistence of an increasingly twitchy backer/owner, jarred with Bertelli and he left in February 1937 rather than compromise.

Such reputations are hard to earn and do not come cheap, as David Brown would discover.

The industrialist bought the company on a whim in 1947. Responding to a classified in The Times that simply stated ‘High Class Motor Business’, he paid £20,500 for what turned out to be Aston Martin. The year after he paid more than twice that for Lagonda to gain access to its 2.6-litre twin-cam ‘six’, designed by ‘Willie’ Watson under WO Bentley’s supervision.

That was the easy part.

Le Mans was sportsman Brown’s first priority. Unlike Enzo Ferrari, he knew instinctively the race’s marketing value. Ferrari, however, knew instinctively how to win it; David Brown Aston Martin did not.

Its pre-production DB2 coupés were entered in 1949: the six-cylinder version retired early because of water pump failure but a 2-litre ‘four’ finished seventh. Sadly the other, running with compromised brakes, crashed while chasing third place with fewer than two hours remaining, killing its Franco-British occupant Pierre Maréchal.

Mildly modified six-cylinder DB2s did it proud in 1950 and 1951: five top 10s, two more class wins, another Index of Performance (shared in 1950) and, driven by Eric Thompson and Lance Macklin, an overall best of third (1951). Brown’s fastidious competitions manager John Wyer was matching Jaguar’s ‘Lofty’ England in terms of preparation and strategy, but his cars were being outgunned by the latter’s slippery C-type.

The smaller, lighter DB3S, a rushed yet thorough reworking by Watson and Frank Feeley, went some way to rectifying this – a 300cc increase plus an extra plug per cylinder still left it short – and its second places of 1955 and 1956 (a gearbox gremlin likely costing Stirling Moss/Peter Collins victory on the latter occasion) were important stepping stones. The crucial final step, however, was Ted Cutting’s spaceframe masterpiece: DBR1.

Already proven capable of beating the ‘big bangers’ of Ferrari and Maserati on tracks that highlighted its excellent handling, the switch in 1958 to a 3-litre formula put it at the front everywhere. Recovering from three retirements – leavened by another second place for a DB3S – Aston Martin in 1959 eventually outsmarted and outlasted Ferrari to score the victory Brown so craved: Roy Salvadori/Carroll Shelby led home the sister car of Maurice Trintignant/Paul Frère after Moss had drawn Ferrari’s sting.

Job done, Brown withdrew his world champion team from racing at season’s end.

A DBR1 run by Scotland’s Border Reivers finished third in 1960 – Jim Clark’s first international podium – and dealer clamour coaxed the handsome Project Prototype/GT cars from Cutting’s Design, Developmental & Experimental shop. The first, DP212, led the opening lap of 1962, and the fastest, DP215, became the first in 1963 to top 300kph on the Mulsanne. But all flattered to deceive.

The launch of DB5 and signing of the marque’s most famous and influential driver – James Bond – was much more pressing. The Feltham comps shop at the former London Airpark was closed; Wyer joined Ford in 1963 to usher a new era of sports car racing; and Aston Martin has never quite caught up since.

Both Team Surtees’ Lola T70 coupés, powered by Tadek Marek’s new fuel-injected quad-cam 5-litre V8 (DP218), retired embarrassingly early in 1967 – and the subsequent 10-year lull was ended by a gloriously ambitious verging on delusional club racer in a steroidal DBS of 1969. Robin Hamilton’s ‘Muncher’, so named because of its appetite for pads, won French hearts by finishing 17th in 1977 and – after retirement in overstretched twin-turbo form two years later – persuaded its creator that a bespoke racer ought to be built and outright victory sought.

But could he win over Aston Martin’s new minds?

Brown had paid off substantial debts before selling Aston Martin Lagonda in 1972 for a nominal £101. Bought from the receivers for £1.05 million in 1974, it was again on the verge of collapse in 1980 when MD Alan Curtis bumped into the garrulous boss of independent Pace Petroleum at a Brands Hatch jolly.

The aptly named Victor Gauntlett invested £500,000 for a 12.5 per cent share, but soon increased his stake to become joint owner and executive chairman. “Often wrong, never in doubt”, he would eke a Royal Warrant from Prince Charles, win back Bond, buy a stake in Zagato and charm Ford into buying 75 per cent in 1987. He’d also been prepared to tweak Capris and Metros. Whatever it took.

But he couldn’t win Le Mans.

He gave wholehearted support to Hamilton’s Nimrod Racing Automobiles at a time when Aston Martin was producing as few as 30 units annually, but although its chassis and suspension were designed by Eric Broadley and built by Lola, there was still too much for this inexperienced team to do: the eventual car was overweight and Astons’ in-house Tickford 5.3-litre V8 was surprisingly unreliable.

Ray Mallock’s sister team for Viscount Downe did a better job and finished seventh – first British car home in 1982 – but this much-hyped, ill-starred programme ended calamitously in 1984 when one car crashed at the Mulsanne Kink and the other collided with its debris. Driver John Sheldon was badly burned, one marshal was killed and another seriously injured.

Steve O’Rourke’s rival EMKA led briefly after the first round of pitstops in 1985 and finished 11th – best Brit, first atmo – and the talented Mallock, encouraged by the indefatigable Gauntlett and backed by Peter Livanos, tried again at the decade’s end. By which time the carbon-fibre AMR1, a joint venture between Aston Martin and Ecurie Ecosse co-designed by Max Bostrom, its 6-litre V8 prepped by Reeves Callaway in Connecticut, faced Jaguar, Mazda, Nissan, Sauber-Mercedes and Toyota, as well as Porsche. It finished 11th in 1989. But news of an expensive 3.5-litre formula for 1991 triggered the team’s closure in February 1990.

Aston Martin had popped a sensible pill. Gauntlett stepped aside for Ford’s Walter Hayes so that the next model could be built in its thousands rather than hundreds – on Jaguar underpinnings and engineered by TWR. Ford, who had bought Jaguar in 1990 – and handed its Cosworth HB 3.5-litre V8 to Tom Walkinshaw’s proven racers, too – completed its purchase of Aston Martin in 1993.

The bug, however, would not go away.

German Dr Ulrich Bez, CEO from 2000-13, was a racer at heart, and the production at Gaydon – Astons’ first purpose-built factory – of a more ambitious model, its 6-litre V12 hand-built in Cologne, prompted a return to Le Mans in 2005.

Prodrive’s DBR9 version of it rivals DBR1 as the most important competition Aston Martin. Its GT battles with Chevrolet’s yellow Corvettes were fiercely fought and memorably won in 2007 (in signature almond green) and 2008 (in the zenith blue with tangerine stripe of Gulf) by David Brabham and Darren Turner; ably supported respectively by Rickard Rydell and Antonio García, they finished fifth overall in 2007 and 13th in 2008.

Aston Martin’s return to independence, however, in 2007 – Prodrive chairman David Richards heading a consortium in a £479m takeover – led to another giddy bid for outright victory, with Lola-based 6-litre prototypes finishing ninth, fourth, sixth and seventh from 2008-11, an era dominated by the big-budget turbodiesels of Audi and Peugeot. This culminated in Prodrive’s radical and disastrous 2-litre six-cylinder turbo petrol AMR-One of 2011; it was 1954 and 1967 all over again.

But that’s the charm of a small company with big ideas. No flaws, no soul. Joy compounded by heartache.

Emotion ran understandably high when the ‘Dane Train’ 4.5-litre V8 Vantage GTE of Kristian Poulsen/Nicki Thiim/David Heinemeier Hansson won the LM GTE Am category in 2014, one year after compatriot Allan Simonsen’s fatal accident at Tertre Rouge, and again when Jonny Adam’s Vantage overtook Jordan Taylor’s Corvette at the exit of the last corner of the penultimate lap to win LM GTE Pro in June.

Aston Martin at Le Mans is a précis of the human condition.