Motorsport: Five Things You Probably Forgot About Aston Martin’s F1 Run

Five Things You Probably Forgot About Aston Martin’s F1 Run

James Gent By James Gent
February 5, 2020
2 comments

Last weekend, it was announced that Racing Point F1 owner Lawrence Stroll had bought a stake in Aston Martin, and that the British marque would be returning to Formula 1 as a factory team for the first time since 1960. That, naturally got us thinking about Aston’s previous F1 run, the notoriety surrounding the DBR4 and DBR5, and what could have been had its debut podium been emulated.

But of the facts surrounding Aston’s initial F1 run, did you know…?

1) The team only started five championship races, a year later than planned.

Something frequently mentioned following the Racing Point news is the fact that Aston Martin’s initial foray into Formula 1 was in 1959 and 1960. What’s tends to be swept under the rug though is that this ‘tenure’ included only five starts at official F1 Grand Prix events, seven if you include the non-championship BRDC International Trophies at Silverstone in 1959 and 1960.

On top of that is the bittersweet irony that, had it not been for Aston Martin’s own parallel sports car program, the British marque would have debuted the DBR4 one year earlier in 1958 to far greater success.

Designed by Ted Cutting, the chief designer of Aston’s Le Mans-winning DBR1 no less, the DBR4 borrowed the chassis and engine layout used by the DBR3 sports car, a proven winner, and is said to have been race-ready by mid-1957. Indeed, six-time Grand Prix winner Tony Brooks, one of the few men besides Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby to drive the DBR4, claimed at the time that Aston’s single seater was actually easier to drive than the VW 5 that ultimately won Vanwall the inaugural Constructors’ Championship in 1958 (he would know, having won three of Vanwall’s six Grand Prix that year). Since then, motoring historians have even drawn parallels between the DBR4 and Maserati’s wildly successful 250F, which helped Juan-Manuel Fangio to World Championships in 1954 and 1957.

Only when Aston’s sports car program throttled back to (successfully) focus on Le Mans did its Formula 1 charger receive support. By that point, however, regulation changes for 1961 and a sharp switch to rear-engined machinery meant the DBR4 was all but obsolete by the time it made its debut. Had it arrived a year earlier as planned, it’s entirely possible that Aston Martin, not Vanwall, would have been crowned Britain’s first F1 Constructors’ champion.

2) Aston Martin actually did score a Formula 1 podium.

Consult Formula 1’s record books and you’ll see that Aston Martin’s best results, as a works outfit, in championship races are a couple of 6th place finishes, taken by Roy Salvadori at the British and Portuguese Grand Prix in 1959. That’s not technically true though.

Aston Martin’s F1 debut, as the ‘David Brown Corporation’, actually came at the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone on 2 May 1959, a non-championship event at which Salvadori finished 2nd behind only Jack Brabham’s Cooper T51. The Briton’s flying start even included the event’s fastest lap. Throw in a 6th place finish for teammate Carroll Shelby (yep, Mr Cobra himself), and ironically, Aston Martin’s debut Grand Prix ended up being its most successful weekend in F1.

With non-championship races often overlooked in F1’s history books, Aston’s official tenure ended with zero points-paying finishes at all. Somewhat brutally, only the top five finishers of a race were awarded points in 1959 before the system was overhauled to award the top six just one year later.

3) The time between Aston Martin’s Formula 1 entries will be the longest in history.

At the 1960 British Grand Prix, the David Brown Corporation made its last official race start as a works outfit in F1. With Aston Martin set to return at the 2021 Australian Grand Prix, that means an astonishing 60 years and eight months (give or take) will have passed between the British team’s previous F1 start and its return. There has never been a longer period between race starts.

Nope, not even Mercedes. In the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans disaster, ‘Daimler Benz AG’ famously walked away from Grand Prix racing until its purchase of Brawn GP in late 2009 brought the Silver Arrows back to the grid at the 2010 Australian Grand Prix. That’s a hiatus spanning 54 years, six months and change (anyone want to give us the absolute figure in the comments, go nuts), a full six years short of Aston’s potential record.

Mercedes and Aston Martin are far from the only manufacturers to come in from the cold after an extended time in the F1 wilderness of course. At the 2006 Australian Grand Prix, Honda Racing put a near-38 year break to bed when it took control of BAR, making its first start as a works’ entry since the 1968 Mexican Grand Prix. The Alfa Romeo badge, after a few seasons on Ferrari’s multiple engine covers, returned as a re-branded Sauber in 2019, a notable return for the marque that defined Grand Prix racing in 1950 and 1951. That would be an unbeaten 67 years and five months for the cloverleaf were it not for that unfortunate stint from 1979 to 1985 that yielded just five podiums for Autodelta / Marlboro Team Alfa Romeo.

4) The Aston Martin DBR5 doesn’t exist any more.

Despite being achingly close in nomenclature to the daily driver of a certain Martini-swilling secret agent, you won’t find the DBR5 on a list of ‘Aston’s greatest cars’. Its official competition history includes just one race at Silverstone in 1960, the results of which were 11th place for Maurice Trintignant and ‘indifferent handling’-related retirement for Roy Salvadori.

The reason behind such an emaciated sporting record? Introduced mid-way through 1960, the DBR5 was essentially an evolution of its front-engined predecessor. Lighter, smaller, boasting more sophisticated suspension and more power from the 2½-litre version of Aston’s 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, sure, but essentially a DBR4, as the results quickly demonstrated. Aston Martin was heading for F1’s exit door shortly afterwards.

Unlike many of its contemporaries of the age though, the DBR5 did not receive a new lease of life with a private owner, or would later be found pounding the asphalt during the Goodwood Revival. After its single outing, and with the rear-engined revolution having already begun in Grand Prix circles, Aston Martin ordered the only two existing DBR5s to be scrapped and recycled for parts.

Were that not brutal enough, a Matchbox version of the DBR5 was released in 1962, two years after Aston’s final F1 race. Poor sales meant the line was discontinued in 1965!

5) It almost cost Sir Jack Brabham a World Championship.

Just think how much of a rewrite the F1 history books would need had ‘Black Jack’ not gone back on his handshake and decided against re-joining Cooper for 1959.

Such was the case though. In 1958, under the recommendation of future team manager Reg Parnell, the future three-time World Champion was earmarked for a seat alongside Roy Salvadori, both of whom had competed in sister Cooper T45s a year prior. Brabham, still with only one full season under his belt and having already competed with Aston Martin at Le Mans, initially agreed. The prospect of an innovative, rear-engined Cooper with a compact 2.5-litre engine was too tantalising for Brabham though, and the Australian eventually agreed to re-join John Cooper’s eponymous outfit for 1959. The first of two consecutive drivers’ titles beckoned at the end of that year.

Just imagine what would have happened had Black Jack not gone back on his word. Certainly his first title in 1959, and almost certainly his second in 1960, would be erased from the record books, and it’s quite possible that Sir Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks, and/or Bruce McLaren would today be celebrated F1 champions.

On top of that, had he honoured his Aston commitment, it’s also possible that Sir Jack Brabham, not Caroll Shelby, would have won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Salvadori instead. Don’t forget that his run at Le Mans aboard the DBR1 in 1958 and his 2nd placed finish at that year’s RAC Tourist Trophy were among the reasons Brabham was considered for the F1 seat in the first place.

Yes yes, conjecture, salt and pinches thereof. Tantalising prospect though, isn’t it?

*Our thanks to Patrice Minol, for his shots of the recreation Aston Martin DBR4 we featured in THIS article from May 2018. Our thanks also to Motorsport Images and Vectis Auctions for the archive shots. 

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James GentMinol Patrice Recent comment authors
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Minol Patrice

My pleasure for the pictures James, nice story.
I’m looking forward for the “car season” to start and work again with Alex Sobran on article!