The Ballad of Aston Martin
A gearhead, a newspaper ad, a trip Down Under, and Aston Martin's first F1 journey.
Aston Martin had had a complicated history since it was first founded by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford. The brand had seen success with wins at legendary races like LeMans and the Mille Miglia. However, it had been on the brink of bankruptcy almost as many times as it stood on the top step of the podium. After World War 2, the British economy was severely hit, and there was a shortage of materials all throughout Europe. The situation would eventually lead to the Aston Martin brand having to be put on sale for the 4th time in its short history.
Sir David Brown (by this time, just David Brown) was a British industrialist and businessman, with a passion for motor vehicles.
Mr. Brown had amassed a fortune during World War 2 by producing components for military machinery (mainly gears and other transmission parts). By 1947, he was a very well established businessman. During this time he spotted an ad in the newspaper advertising a "High-Class Motor Business". After some investigation, Brown learned that the business in question was Aston Martin.
David Brown bought the struggling Aston Martin brand in 1947
By the time of the purchase, Aston had been limited to producing streetcars in order to stay afloat. Under the management of Brown, the brand produced the 2L, a coupe that would eventually start being known as the DB1. The DB series would allow Brown to rescue the brand and thus allowing it to get back into racing, which rumor has it, was the main reason he bought the brand in the first place. By the early 1950s, Aston Martin had been developing cars to race in different categories, with the LeMans endurance race being Brown's main objective, however, a single-seater program was also in development, with the first prototype completed in 1952.
Despite having LeMans as their main focus, Aston Martin also started development on a single-seater program in the early 1950s.
The DP155 was Aston's first single-seater. Originally developed as a Formula 2 car, it shared its basic chassis elements with the DB3S, one of the brand's racing cars at the time. In 1953 however, they shifted focus into Formula 1 when it was announced that new regulations would be established for the 1954 season. The car was fitted with an inline 6 engine designed by Lagonda (which Brown had also purchased) modified to be 2.5L it produced around 180bhp. Famed Aston engineer John Wyer was involved in the project, and Frank Feeley (who designed the DBR1) designed the body, however, the car was considerably underpowered compared to its rivals at the time such as Ferrari, Maserati, or Mercedes. Despite progress being made, the project was constantly delayed as the brand focused its effort on its sportscar program. It would be Reg Parnell, Aston's development driver who would test the engine after having it be taken out of the DP155 and fitted to a DB3S sportscar.
Aston Martin tested the DP155 engine by fitting it into a DB3S sportscar (#6) and sending it to race at the British Empire Trophy race at Oulton Park.
Aston's tests prompted rumors of the brand preparing itself to enter Grand Prix racing. These were denied by the brand, however, the rumors intensified again when Aston announced Reg Parnell would be taking the modified DB3S to contest a series of races in Australia and New Zealand during early 1956. However, in the end, Aston dusted off the original DP155 and prepared it to go race "Down Under". Originally, the car was tested with a 3L engine the brand took to LeMans in 1954, but it failed during the tryouts and thus the DP155 was shipped fitted with its original 2.5L engine.
Shipped to Australia and New Zealand, the DP155 would face off against the likes of the Ferrari 500 and Maserati 250F
In the hands of Parnell, the DP155 showed potential, with a best result of 3rd at the Southland race. However, the Ferrari 500s, Maserati 250Fs, and modified Jaguars common within privateers were too much, and thus the DP155 managed no wins or poles. Despite this, the results proved that an Aston Martin single-seater program could have potential. Having completed the planned races, the DP155 was shipped back to England, where it would be sold the following year and subsequently dismantled in order to convert it for Sportcar regulations. As the DP155 faded out of existence, Aston was set to make its entry into Formula 1.
The DP155's campaign through Australia and New Zealand provided good enough results to convince the brand that a single-seater program could work. The car would eventually be sold and dismantled.
Development of the new Aston Martin F1 car was well underway by 1957. It was named the DBR4 and shared many of the design elements originally developed in the DP155. However, at the time, the brand became more focused on its DBR1 project, which had made its debut on LeMans the year before with considerably good results and thus had development priority over the DBR4. The car was designed with a steel tubular space frame and a body made out of aluminum. The engine was the same 3.0L inline 6 that Aston had been using in LeMans, modified to be 2.5L, but keeping features like its 3 carburetors and a double overhead camshaft. As it was common at the time, the engine was placed at the front of the car, while the transmission was located behind the driver. The first tests were done at the end of the year.
The DBR4 was the car with which Aston would make its F1 debut, however, delays during development were common as the brand focused their efforts on a LeMans racer.
The relatively slow development prevented the car from being ready for the 1958 season, and although an entry later in the season was possible at the time, the brand opted to wait for the following season to begin. This delay would cost them the interest of Jack Brabham, who was set to drive, but ultimately left for Cooper. The DBR4s would make their debut in May of 1959 at the non-championship race in Silverstone, with a surprisingly good performance as drivers Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby (yes, THAT Carroll Shelby) qualified 3rd and 6th respectively. Shelby held on to his position and finished 6th, while Salvadori recorded the fastest lap of the race and finished 2nd behind the Cooper of Brabham.
The results could be seen as very good for the brand, however, they would ultimately foreshadow what was to come, because while it focused on winning LeMans, Aston Martin had remained ignorant to the revolution that was coming to Formula 1. As Aston developed its car in 1957, John Cooper was presenting his new cars with a mid-engine configuration. These cars would start winning races as soon as 1958. By 1959 Aston's design was outdated as Lotus and Ferrari had already started development on their own mid-engined cars.
As Aston Martin tried to conquer LeMans, it continued developing a car with a design that was soon to become outdated.
After the success at the Silverstone race, Aston Martin arrived at the following round in Zandvoort only to witness how uncompetitive their car really was. Out of 15 competitors, Shelby qualified 10th and Salvadori 13th. They were both the first cars to retire. The team skipped the following race in France as both Shelby and Salvadori were meant to drive Aston's DBR1 at LeMans, a race the duo would ultimately win.
The Aston F1 team returned for the next race in England, with results apparently improving as Salvadori qualified 2nd with the exact same time as poleman Brabham. During the race, however, he slipped back in the order and only managed to finish 6th as several cars, including teammate Shelby, retired. Salvadori managed to hold on to 6th again in Portugal but was lapped 3 times in the process while Shelby finished 8th out of 10 finishers. Italy would be the DBR4s last race, Salvadori qualified 17th out of 21 competitors, while Shelby only managed 19th. Salvadori retired and Shelby finished 10th.
The DBR4s were to be uncompetitive from the start, Aston would withdraw them from the 1959 season before the last round.
The engine location was only one of the outdated design elements in the DBR4. The car still equipped a torsion bar rear suspension while other teams had all shifted to independent suspensions. The engine was slightly more powerful than the Climax power units used by Cooper and Lotus, however, it was considerably heavier. Also, while some manufacturers had started using wind tunnels to design their cars, Aston didn't, and although their design appeared aerodynamic enough, the tall, almost vertical windshield and oversized air intake ruined the effect. With the objective of fixing these flaws, Aston would start design on the DBR4s successor, the DBR5.
The DBR5 was heavily based on the DBR4, the new design would fix some of the flaws in the original car.
Despite witnessing the effectiveness of the mid-engine layouts, Aston Martin would still develop its new car based upon the DBR4. It would be slightly more powerful, lighter, and equipped with an updated independent suspension system, however, improvements weren't that noticeable, as drivers Salvadori and Maurice Trintignant reported the new suspension made the rear of the car harder to control. The car was meant to debut in Zandvoort, but couldn't start the race. The team skipped the races at France and Belgium, before finally arriving at the 1960 British GP. It had a bad qualifying with Salvadori 13th and Trintignant 21st. Salvadori retired, and Trintignarant finished 11th. Aston Martin would not attend any of the remaining rounds, quitting the category. Both DBR5s were disassembled soon after.
The DBR5 (front) was a clumsy successor of the already uncompetitive DBR4 (back) it would only contest one race before being disassembled.
Under the David Brown administration, Aston Martin continued to see success on the Sportscar Series but never again returned to Formula 1. Both DBR5s were dismantled, and the remaining DBR4s were all sold to privateers in the early 1960s. Some of them managed to survive until today.
Only a few of the original DBR4 chassis survive to this day in the hands of collectors, as they remain some of the brand's lesser-known cars
In early 2020 it was announced that yet another businessman had bought Aston Martin and was interested in getting the brand back into racing. The Racing Point F1 team has since been rebranded as Aston Martin for 2021, bringing the brand back into F1 as its own team, ending the longest hiatus between F1 entries for a brand at 61 years, surpassing Mercedes' 54 years. With drivers Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, fans have high expectations for the new team, which already confirmed a return to its original British Racing Green color scheme.
Aston Martin will make its return to Formula 1 in 2021
So, that was the crazy story of when Aston Martin first ventured into Formula 1. Researching for this article I discovered many things that I didn't know. I knew that 2021 wasn't going to be the first time the legendary name competed in F1, and I also knew that they didn't do too well on their first time, but finding out just how crazy a backstory there was to that left me quite surprised. I hope you find this story as interesting as I did.
Thank you for reading