There is a delicious story doing the rounds at the moment that I’d have not taken seriously were it not for the fact that, first, it originated from the editor of Autocar, who is a serious journalist with impeccable credentials and, second, the attempts of concerned parties to give the impression of denying it without actually denying it. The talk is that next year Red Bull’s F1 cars will be powered by Mercedes-Benz, but branded Aston Martin.
An interesting proposition, no? In favour of the idea is that I expect right now Red Bull would look kindly upon an engine deal with Briggs & Stratton if it got the Renault unit out of the back of its car, and would have both the means and motivation to pay Mercedes-Benz top dollar for its world class power unit.
Mercedes’ desire to defray its expenses through supplying customer teams is well known and on the record. For Aston Martin it would represent a vast global marketing coup, and because Mercedes already owns five per cent of Aston and will soon start using Mercedes powertrains, architectures and electronics for its road cars, it’s not a complete irrelevance either.
Against the idea is the fact that Red Bull’s contract with Renault and Infiniti currently runs to the end of next season. You have also to ask yourself whether Mercedes – which prides itself on providing precisely the same equipment to its customers as it does for its own team – really would want to run the risk of giving such a well-funded, high profile and until recently wildly successful rival the wherewithal to terminate Mercedes’ current dominance of the sport.
As for Aston Martin in Formula 1, we have of course, been here before.
It is perhaps little remembered today that Aston Martin and not Vanwall could have been the first British marque to win the Formula 1 constructors’ title. Indeed Tony Brooks, who is the only person I know, other than the late Roy Salvadori and Maurice Trintignant, to have driven both Aston Martin’s DBR4 F1 contender and the aforementioned Vanwall, pronounced the Aston a far nicer and better handling car than that which went on to win six of the 10 races in the 1958 F1 World Championship. John Wyer, a man not known for overstating the facts, said of the car: ‘We had no trouble going faster than the Vanwall and Maserati 250F’.
Of course that would have required Aston Martin actually to enter the championship. But having built a state of the art Formula 1 car that was running in 1957 and race ready shortly thereafter, Aston Martin then parked it. From this distance it seems a somewhat bizarre decision (‘fatal’ was the word chosen by Wyer), but the truth was Aston could not afford to run parallel sports car and F1 campaigns and it decided to throw everything at an ultimately vain attempt to wrest the World Sportscar Championship from the Scuderia.
This meant the DBR4 didn’t make its race debut until the International Trophy race at Silverstone on May 2 1959 and even then the car was quick enough to break the lap record and for Salvadori to come home second only to Jack Brabham’s Cooper.
But the result flattered to deceive. Back then if suitably updated, one fundamental car design could race across multiple seasons. With Fangio at the wheel, the Maserati 250F won on its debut in Argentina in the first round of the 1954 title fight and was still quick enough for the same driver to take pole and fastest lap on the same circuit in 1958. But that was the season during which everything changed.
Before 1958 no mid-engine car had ever won a round of the F1 world championship. Since 1958 just three (four if you include the farce that was the 1960 Italian Grand Prix) have not been won by mid-engined machines. The DBR4 was absolutely the right car, at completely the wrong time. It never finished higher than sixth again, so why Aston Martin continued to hurtle down this blind alley by creating a successor – the independently sprung and by all accounts quite awful 1960 DBR5 – is very hard to fathom.
A few years back I drove a DBR4, fitted with a Tasman-specification 3-litre engine and likened it to ‘a slightly larger, more senior and powerful 250F,’ which was some compliment. It really did handle beautifully and with more power than it would ever have had in period, had the grunt to properly exploit its chassis.
But what I seem to remember enjoying most was the gearbox, which was actually a Maserati unit designed for the V12 250F and adopted when drivers complained bitterly about the shift quality (or lack thereof) of the Aston transmission. The irony, given David Brown’s gear-making origins, would have been lost on no-one.
How likely is Aston Martin to return to F1, even as only a name on an engine cover? When asked about it at the British Grand Prix, Aston boss Andy Palmer said, “If something drops into our lap and if suddenly those stars align, would I consider it? Yes.”