Apathetic Aristocrat - 1995 Aston Martin DB7 V8 GT1
British luxury manufacturer Aston Martin had seen some dire times during the 1980’s, but was starting to find its feet again in the 1990’s. Under the direction of Victor Gauntlett the company had been producing antiquated V8-powered boxes for the better part of a decade, which had caused it to lose the appeal and popularity enjoyed in the 1960’s. By 1991, a takeover by automotive giant Ford gave hope for the future.
Aston Martin received a massive influx of extra budget, and immediately set out to rejuvenate and expand its model range. With Ford’s help they introduced the drop dead gorgeous DB7 in 1994. The new model as an entry level model positioned below the barbaric square-jawed Virage. The svelte new car looked very modern, but was in fact based on the ancient underpinnings of Jaguar’s XJS. Power came from a modest 3.2L supercharged straight six. Nonetheless the car marked a turning point in Aston Martin’s history.
An area where the famous marque had been absent was the discipline of GT racing. With Victor Gauntlett AM had made a stumbling entry into Group C sportscar racing in 1989, but a factory GT-class car hadn’t been seen in over 20 years. To French former racing driver turned media mogul Michel Hommell, this presented a lucrative opportunity.
Hommell was the owner of car magazine Échappement, and had started his own eponymous car company in 1990. As with any French billionaire car enthusiast, Hommell had a strong interest competing at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1994 he had funded an ill-fated attempt using the Bugatti EB110 SS, but that company had since slipped into financial difficulties. Developing his own lightweight 4-cylinder designs into GT1 machines would have been very time consuming and mostly pointless, so Hommell turned to other means to realize his dream.
Impressed with the new DB7 model, Michel Hommell contacted Aston Martin. The company agreed to sell him a bodyshell without engine or transmission, which kickstarted the project. Through the link with Jaguar, famous racing engineers Tom Walkinshaw Racing were pulled into the project to arrange parts for the new machine. Aston Martin’s Group C partners R. S. Williams also contributed in the form a detuned version of the 6.3L RDP87 V8 racing engine.
Although the standard DB7 was only available with the 3.2 straight six, the presence of a 6.3L engine option on the Virage meant its use was withing GT1 homologation requirements, which stated any engine from a single manufacturer could be used. The V8 was some 100 horsepower down from its Group C-spec, with 620 horsepower still on tap. A ZF six-speed manual transmission was fitted to deal with the leftover horses. Extensive use of carbon fiber in the doors, front wings and bonnet/hood ensured that the GT1 weighed just 1330 kg (2932 lbs), 395 kg (870 lbs) less than the standard car. The design was finished off with a remarkably subtle aerodynamics package.
Renowned Le Mans-based race car constructor Synergie was tasked with building the car, but found it difficult to meet the deadline. The company frantically worked to get the car ready on time, and barely made it. As a result the DB7 had seen very little testing, which wasn’t an encouraging proposition.
Michel Hommell retained his two highly experienced drivers from the Bugatti project. The pair consisted of Peugeot Group C-ace and 1993 Le Mans winner Éric Hélary (FRA), and 1974 GT runner-up Alain Cudini (FRA).
With just days to spare the car was rushed to the Le Mans Pre-Qualifying session. This session was held two months before the actual race to give first timers a taste of the track, and to weed out any cars deemed too slow to compete. The DB7 would face competition from far more potent and well developed designs like the Ferrari F40 GTE, McLaren F1 GTR, Lister Storm GTS, cousin Jaguar XJ220 and Porsche’s confusingly named 993 GT2 Evo. Beating these seasoned juggernauts with a rush-job concept like the Aston was simply an impossible feat.
Driving talent was in no short supply, so the entire effort depended on the speed of the hastily prepared machine. Hélary and Cudini tried with all their might, but they could not get the car to perform well enough. In the end the DB7 fell short of a qualifying position by a very narrow margin. As a small consolation prize, the ACO put the car on the reserve list in case any entered teams dropped out during the next two months.
For Michel Hommell this simply wasn’t good enough. The year before he had been in contention for the GT1 win with his Bugatti, and now he was fighting for scraps. Embarrassed by the Aston’s dismal performance, he decided to walk away from the project. Consequently, Hommell withdrew his entry into the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Aston Martin DB7 GT1 was a hopeful and ambitious project hampered only by time. Some of the world’s leading motorsport companies joined forces in its construction, but the slow building process and lack of testing caused it to lag behind from the start. Against much stronger competition the posh brute simply didn’t stand a chance.
Even with more development time the DB7 was still laughably old-fashioned. In the GT1-category front-engined cars were quickly becoming obsolete, as the dawn of the fire-breathing homologation specials was fast approaching. Michel Hommell’s effort might have had a chance as a GT2 car, but his pride made him cancel the project before it could compete. As a result the car never got the chance to race.