"They must have been crazy"

That’s what Aston Martin works driver David Brabham thinks of the men who won the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours. As the DBR9’s attack on the race gets ever closer ‘Brabs’ samples the victorious DBR1. By Damien Smith

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Aston Martin’? If you’re under 40 James Bond might spring to mind. A little older and it’s more likely to be the cars themselves: maybe the DB4 — so elegant, so stylish, yet so aggressive. If you’re a touch older still, Aston Martin will go hand in hand with the phrase ‘Goodwood on a summer’s day’, pea-green sports racers drifting through Madgwick driven by Roy Salvadori or Stirling Moss.

But whatever your age there is something else about Aston Martin. Something so very… British.

Dig a little deeper than first image association and eventually you will come to Le Mans. The 24 Hours was an obsession for the men of Feltham during the 1950s, a quest that became ever more desperate with each failed attempt. It was only at the very end of the decade, in 1959, that Aston Martin would be satisfied. Without that victory the marque’s sports department would have been written off by history as a failure, despite the list of wins elsewhere. That’s how important Le Mans was — and still is.

Since then 46 years have passed, 46 years of chequered road-car production, of small-fry privateer racing projects, of a brief return to Le Mans as a factory (in 1989 with the AMR1 Group C project). But now, finally, Aston Martin is going back to the 24 Hours. Not for overall honours with some alien, sculpted prototype. No — fittingly it’s with a GT, in the same pea-green colours sported by DBR1/2, race number 5, in 1959.

The new DBR9’s senior driver is only too aware of the heritage he will represent at Le Mans this June. And he’s fair game for a taste of a vintage year: that very car on which the Aston Martin reputation is built. So can David Brabham, youngest son of Jack and crack sportscar ace of the here and now, open his mind and transport himself back to Le Mans 46 years ago — to a narrow, tree-lined circuit that promised unknown dangers over every flatout brow? To a raw, thin-shelled car that left its vulnerable pilot utterly exposed? To a day-long race that would unnerve the bravest of souls in an era when courage was always a given? To a time when motor racing was still a true blood sport? “No,” he fires back. “I can’t imagine racing these things. Full stop.”

Brabham’s love affair with sportscar racing and Le Mans had already begun when his grand prix dream ended after a traumatic season with Simtek in 1994. Having starred in TWR’s Jaguars in ’91, he made his debut at the 24 Hours with Toyota’s potent Group C TS010 the following year. That first experience would have put lesser men off for good…

“I hardly got any laps in practice because we had problems, so I didn’t know the circuit or the car,” he recalls. “My first stint in the race was at night— thick fog and it was bucketing down. I was sharing with Geoff Lees and before I went out I heard him tell the team, ‘You guys aren’t paying me enough for this.’ Geoff was getting paid good money at the time, so I was thinking, ‘Christ, it must be pretty bad.’ On my first lap I didn’t get out of third gear. I could not see a thing — nothing. All I saw were the white lines in front of me. I’m thinking, ‘The pace car’s got to come out, surely.’ I finished the lap — no pace car, so on I go. I get on the Mulsanne, I’m flat-out in sixth, I can’t see the barriers on either side, I have no idea if there is a slower car in front of me —I was shitting bricks!”

Since his harrowing debut, ‘Brabs’ has raced at Le Mans for two iconic British makes: with Jaguar he won the GT class in 1993 before the car was excluded; with Bentley in 2003 he finished second overall. Aston Martin completes a perfect set.

Le Mans is a race he adores, but one his father never liked. “It was one of his least favourite races,” says David. “As far as he was concerned it was beyond dangerous, beyond the levels he could ever be comfortable with. I look back at his time and just think, ‘Christ, they must have been crazy.’

Fortunately, conditions are dry at Silverstone today. That wasn’t the case earlier this morning though, when DBR1/2’s faithful restorer Tim Samways gave me the ride of a lifetime in the car, with a blast through the back lanes from his base near Bicester to the circuit. My hair still won’t lie down.

As official media duties go, this is better than most for Brabham. Old Formula Vauxhall Lotus rival and regular DBR1 racer Peter Hardman offers him a passenger ride around the Grand Prix circuit to show him what’s what. Surprisingly, ‘Brabs’ accepts, but is quick to warn Peter, “Don’t show off.” Peter ignores him and spins at Club Corner!

Fortunately (for the sake of this article as much as anything), they make it back to the pits. Now it’s David’s turn. Time for a blast into the wheel tracks of the old man — for young Jack Brabham was an Aston Martin works driver himself. He played a part (eight laps) in Stirling Moss’s epic Nürburgring 1000Km victory in 1958, driving DBR1/3. The wide open spaces of über-safe Silverstone in 2005 might not be quite a match for the old ‘Ring, but no matter. The glorious six-cylinder rasps into life, David needs both hands to fiddle with the first gear lock-out mechanism, drops his visor, blips the throttle and pulls away.

A hat trick of Aston Martin wins at the Nürburgring was great, but it wasn’t Le Mans. That was always the view of team patron David Brown. After so many disappointments, expectations were high in 1959.

A trio of works DBR1 s were entered for Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby (DBR1/2), Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman (DBR1/3), and Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frère (DBR1/4). Despite a lack of mechanical development, the cars had undergone a significant aero facelift. The bodywork at the front drooped part way over the wheels, the rear bodywork was raised and quick-release spats covered the back wheels down to the hubs. A plastic cover was fitted over the passenger seat to further aid airflow.

As far as Salvadori was concerned the biggest revision was the rerouting of the exhausts through the rear of the car rather than out beside the driver. He’d no longer get deafened, but he would get his feet burnt. “I used to wear boxing boots and I’ve still got the scars on my feet now,” he says. “Really, those boots weren’t up to the job. It was very painful throughout the race, but you just had to get used to it. You had to cope.”

It wasn’t a problem for Shelby— “I was wearing asbestos driving shoes” — but he was still badly handicapped by a stomach bug: “I just drank Coca-Cola all through the race — I couldn’t keep anything down.”

The pair shared a philosophy on how to win Le Mans. Shelby: “Le Mans is a sprint race now. Back then it was a matter of attrition. We knew the engine and the brakes weren’t strong enough to run fast all the way, so we relied on some luck.”

But Salvadori adds it wasn’t as simple as that: “We had to drive carefully because of our height. We’re both over six foot and we weren’t comfortable in the car. In any case, we couldn’t have lapped as fast as Stirling — he was just in a class of his own.”

Indeed. At Moss’s request his car was fitted with a more powerful engine and he put it to good use, taking the fight to the faster Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas. From the start he took the lead, but was soon in a battle with Jean Behra’s Ferrari, the darling of the French crowd typically on a mission after stalling twice at the start.

The battle between the lead Aston and the Behra/Dan Gurney Ferrari would end with Moss’s retirement before 9pm. The oil pressure had dropped, the engine lost power and the car was retired. But as the Aston ‘hare’, Moss had done his bit…

Meanwhile, Salvadori and Shelby stayed out of trouble, keeping to a strict pace laid down by general manager John Wyer. They were by now lying third, Salvadori showing restraint as he ran in close company with lnnes Ireland’s Jag D-type. The first problems for Ferrari occurred around midnight when the gear lever of Gurney’s Testa Rossa came off in his hand. The car was also overheating after being pushed so hard early on and was soon out. One down…

The Aston led, but that would soon change: Salvadori hit trouble. A tapping sound developed and he called into the pits to report. After a quick checkover nothing could be found and he was sent on his way, only for the vibration to return. Another stop, and again he was sent back out to slowly complete his 30-lap stint, at the end of which he could be refuelled. When the car was finally jacked up it was discovered that a large chunk of rubber was missing from the offside rear tyre.

Quite reasonably, Roy had suspected a problem with the gearbox, DBR1’s Achilles’ heel. Team manager Reg Parnell was unimpressed that Salvadori had not pinpointed the problem. “He was very sarcastic and it did annoy me,” Salvadori says. “John Wyer was very good and smoothed things over, but we had lost a lot of time.” Around 12-15 minutes had been wasted, as Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien’s Testa Rossa built a sizeable lead into the night. David Brown’s dream looked to be slipping away once more.

“It’s a bit of a culture shock,” grins Brabham as he steps out of DBR1/2.

From those first moments trundling down the Silverstone pitlane he has left behind the mindset of ‘David Brabham, DBR9 driver’. Everything he knows from his 10 Le Mans starts will prove utterly useless here. “You feel so exposed: the way the gear lever sits, the brakes, the lack of head protection — you feel vulnerable. But that all disappears as soon as you get out of the pits because all of a sudden you have to focus.”

At least he has some previous experience to draw on: “I drove an ex-Duncan Hamilton Jaguar C-type at the Coys Festival a few years ago, so I had some idea what to expect.

“One of the things you notice is how much movement goes on at the rear. Going down the straight on full throttle these things don’t have an awful lot of horsepower, but even so things are not as light as you are used to. You can feel the rear moving, but once you experience it you get used to it and stop thinking about it. In the corners you are constantly correcting, putting on and taking off lock.” In other words, he’s having fun.

The early morning rain has left the track damp, and with so many cars of varying speeds sharing the circuit Brabham has plenty to think about — not unlike Le Mans, in fact. But Silverstone is drying fast and Brabham grows in confidence as he pulls away for a second run. “We made a change to stiffen the damping and that did make quite a difference on the drier track,” he says. “It was interesting to feel the change. Also, when you slide you learn that with too much angle the car just dies — it doesn’t move forward. You can overdrive them pretty easily.”

“In the corners you are not travelling that fast and you don’t feel you’re on edge that much. It’s so forgiving you can really throw the car around. You can go in with a bit of oversteer or a bit of understeer — it really depends on how you want to do it.”

So the key question: if the car is so forgiving, has Le Mans actually got harder for drivers over the past 46 years? “Difficult one to answer. I think perhaps it was harder then. Not so much physically, although you do work hard at the wheel in a ’50s sports racer. The concentration levels would be the same, I reckon.”

At 5am Hill and Gendebien held a three-lap lead over the number 5 Aston. Comfortable. Like Salvadori and Shelby, they had sensibly avoided the ‘grand prix’ duels of the early hours to run at their own pace. But still the Testa Rossa would prove fallible. Through the morning the water temperature rose and the oil pressure fell — Gendebien retired just after 11am.

Salvadori and Shelby were back in the lead, ahead of the sister car of Frère and Trintignant and well clear of any opposition. The dream of victory had been revived — but a DBR1 had never made it to the finish of Le Mans before… “This was the hardest part of the race,” says Salvadori. “When you throttle back to save the car you hear all sorts of noises and you can lose concentration too. It was the most dangerous part of the 24 hours.”

Time ticked slowly by. But as four o’clock approached Shelby kept on rolling and duly delivered David Brown his long-awaited victory. The boss was ecstatic, the rest of the team simply relieved it was over. Salvadori, nursing his burnt feet and a heavy cold, didn’t even make the official presentation. “It didn’t mean much to me at the time, I hardly thought about it,” he says. “Now of course I’m very proud.” For Shelby it was “the highlight of my career”. A year later he would retire from driving after being diagnosed with angina pectoris, but that Le Mans win gave him clout back home as he turned his hand to becoming the most famous independent car manufacturer in the US.

As for Aston Martin, a shot at the World Championship was now on. At the Goodwood TT Moss would crown a wonderful year for the marque with a dramatic victory, taking over Shelby and Fairman’s car when his own caught fire in the pits with Salvadori at the wheel. And the car he seconded? DBR1/2. Some race history.

Anyone who thinks Le Mans is easy these days compared to the past is surely fooling themselves. But David Brabham admits that some things have improved the Le Mans drivers’ lot. “Two drivers a car — I don’t know how they did it,” he grimaces. “The cars might not have been so physical, with the loads and g-forces we deal with, but you have a lot less mental rest between stints with two drivers rather than three.”

You could argue that the intensity of two drivers per car rather than three is cancelled out by the pace at which the 24 Hours is now run. When Moss ran in sprint mode in ’59, few were surprised his DBR1 didn’t last. These days that sort of pace is essential. “It’s no longer just about driving the car so that it gets to the finish line,” says Brabham. “Technology has come on a long way, with components lasting much longer, so they can be pushed a lot harder. We have to push more to the limit on every lap than they used to.

“Then again, you are only in sprint mode to a degree. You don’t take the risks with passing that you might in a sprint race. If you hit another car you could lose a few laps in the pits, and to win Le Mans these days — whether it’s a class or overall — you can’t have problems. Once you could spend an hour in the pits and still win. Not any more.”

So much has changed, so much time has passed — it’s almost incomparable. But not quite. The circuit has evolved: once it was simply long straights connected by five true corners: the Esses, Tertre Rouge, Mulsanne Corner, Indianapolis and Arnage. Now a left-right-left sweeper takes you under the Dunlop bridge (Brabham: “It’s great, but I preferred it the way it was”); the Mulsanne Straight is broken by two chicanes, inserted for 1990; the Porsche Curves have added to the spectacle on the run from Arnage; and the Ford chicanes slow everything down before the start/finish line. But in spite of all this Le Mans has retained its character. Yes, there’s more gravel run-off, more corners and the Mulsanne has been diluted — but it’s still a great race circuit.

Le Mans remains rooted to its past. “I love it,” says Brabham. “The thing is the atmosphere is probably still the same between then and now. There is something special about it, you can’t really describe it — you have to feel it.”

For men like David Brown Le Mans was always the biggest race. But there were so many great tracks and races to rival it in the 1950s. That’s not the case now. Le Mans is an anachronism: still dangerous despite the changes, still the ultimate challenge — especially on a banzai qualifying lap. “Le Mans has remained unspoilt in a sense, which is why the atmosphere is still there,” Brabham smiles. “It still has all the magic ingredients.”


Our thanks to David Brabham, Aston Martin, Silverstone, Tim Samways and Sporting & Historic Engineers (www.timsamways.co.uk) for their help with this feature.


Aston Martin vs Chevy vs Ferrari

The return of Aston Martin to Le Mans is the end of a tortuous road for David Richards. The boss of Prodrive Engineering, one of Britain’s most successful racing specialists, is a true Aston enthusiast and worked long and hard on a deal to bring the Ford-owned marque back to racing.

As a result a new company was created: Aston Martin Racing is owned by Prodrive, which masterminded Subaru’s rallying success and, more significantly, the Ferrari 550 Maranellos that the Astons will race against in the 24 Hours on June18/19.

A GT car was always the obvious choice for Aston Martin, a company strongly associated with stylish Grand Tourers. The GT division is high in quality and prestige, pitching Aston against the might of Chevrolet and a host of well-run Ferraris. But the real reason is less romantic: there is a market to sell these cars, important if Prodrive wants to recoup any of its heavy investment.

The Ferrari. which Prodrive took to a Le Mans class win in 2003, provided an ideal platform for the DBR9. “I can count on both hands the number of components carried over from the Ferrari, but both are front-engined V12 GTs and are similar in proportion and layout.” explains Prodrive team leader George Howard Chappell. “The Aston is an evolution of the Ferrari.”

From the moment the car began testing last November things have gone well. “We had the usual new-car teething problems, but it was ready to go for Sebring in March,” says Howard Chappell. And on a superb debut David Brabham, Darren Turner and Stephane Ortelli won the GT1 class in the12-hour classic after the rival Chevy Corvettes hit trouble. Then after the race the team stayed on to complete more than 24 hours of mileage without a hitch. Not bad, given that Sebring is known to be tougher on mechanicals than Le Mans.

The consequent rise in expectations is no bother to Howard Chappell and his team. All they care about is heading to Le Mans with a (so far) bulletproof car that has already defeated Chevy and its new C6.R. Confidence is high.