Featured: One-Season Wonder: Remembering The 1989 Aston Martin AMR1

One-Season Wonder: Remembering The 1989 Aston Martin AMR1

Armando Musotto By Armando Musotto
February 16, 2021
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Photography by Armando Musotto

If we’re limiting ourselves to choosing a single decade as the proverbial “golden era” of motorsport, the 1980s present a strong argument. It’s not to say that the pioneers who came before or the torchbearers that followed aren’t also characterized by bravery, talent, and intelligence, but the fact remains that the ’80s gave us the most powerful Formula 1 cars ever built, the unmatchable insanity of Group B rallying, and a new breed of sports prototypes that saw one of the most rapid evolutions of aerodynamics in motorsport history.

By the end of the decade, the Group C sports prototypes were reaching their maximum expression of the rulebook, with cars like the Sauber-Mercedes C9 and Jaguar XJR-9 employing ground effects  techniques and massive wings to reach the limits of cornering speeds. Manufacturers that built Group C cars included big names like Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan, but the grids were also filled with smaller outfits like ALD, Tiga, Spice, and Cougar. Little-known names that tried to battle on Mount Olympus with the greats.

The commercialization of motorsport was well under way during the decade of decadence, but there was still room for new teams to enter a world that today would be impossible with their budgets, blockaded by management costs and higher and higher technological barriers to entry. Time will tell if the proposed changes to democratize endurance and F1 racing can bring us back to a more diverse field of competitors.

But back then, almost a dozen unique manufacturers were challenging each other in Group C at the peak, all coming to battle with weapons honed in the wind tunnel. In 1989, Mercedes-Benz reentered the endurance racing world and promptly conquered it by winning a constructors’ and drivers’ title in the World Sportscar Championship (with a 1-2 finish at Le Mans included for good measure), but it wasn’t the only manufacturer to make a resurgence. Aston Martin had been providing engines for other teams during the decade, but they decided to enter an official works team car for the 1989 season.

In late 1987, Aston Martin’s Le Mans hopes began with the formation of a partnership between Peter Livanos (the main backer), Victor Gauntlett, Richard Williams, and Ray Mallock, creating a new company, Proteus Technology, that would design and build the new Aston Martin Racing 1 (AMR1). This was the car that finally got Aston Martin back on track in the endurance racing world, 30 years after after the brand’s sole overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959.

The brunt of the actual work on the AMR1 was carried out by a combination of Richard Williams as the team’s managing director, Ray Mallock as engineering director, Max Boxstrom (ex-Brabham employee) as chief designer, and Reeves Callaway as head of engine development coming off of his work on the Virage production motor.

The result was clean design that made use of a carbon fiber monocoque specially designed to aid in the underbody aerodynamics, with the car being powered by a Callaway-developed Aston Martin V8. The final configuration for Le Mans was a four-valve-per-cylinder, six-liter lump good for 700hp, referred to internally as the RDP87. Before the end of the car’s life, it would also receive a 6.3-liter version of the motor that was good for nearly 750hp.

Although the AMR1 would ultimately be outclassed by its rivals, Max Boxstrom’s design was not without its merits. The shapes on his car were very different from the other contenders in the 1989 season, and novel measures were taken to gain an aerodynamic edge. In particular is the fact that the engine and gearbox were inclined in order to allow for more efficient under-body tunnels that led to the rear diffuser, in addition to the massive openings behind the front wheels which arguably predate the prevailing choice for modern LMP1 and LMP2 cars, and the use of the exhaust gasses directed into the rear diffuser. It may look like a simple shape from certain exterior angles, but this was a cutting edge piece of aerodynamic engineering.

Among the drivers chosen for the car’s debut season were great English, Scottish, and Irish talents like Brian Redman, David Leslie, Ray Mallock, and David Sears, Michael Roe, and the Greek Costas Los.

During the years of the AMR1’s development, only five chassis were produced (only four surviving), and the successor projects were canceled. The designer left the project midway through the season, and with Aston’s parent company Ford also owning a stake in the more successful Jaguar, Aston’s endurance racing dreams were put back on hold. In motorsport many stories last the blink of an eye, or in this case, only for one season of competition.

Aston Martin’s best results with the car in the WSC were a fourth place finish at Brands Hatch, and an eleventh overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The English team had shown that they could compete in Group C, but not at the very top. Still, they managed to beat Toyota, a much more experienced manufacturer in the racing world, in the standings by the championship’s end, but inconclusive results prompted Ford’s decision to effectively cut the program off. During the winter of 1989 the aerodynamics of the car were reworked and the engines were revised by Callaway, but he fate was sealed for good before any working prototypes could come together.

Fortunately, for nostalgic enthusiasts like me who love the lesser known Group C cars, some of those four surviving AMR1s still grace race tracks today. The one that I shot last summer shown here is part of the beautiful Ascott Collection by Xavier Micheron, and I was able to admire it in action at the Peter Auto event in Monza following its restoration.

All the stories of motorsport’s great eras and series are worthy of being remembered, but as time goes on we start to forget some of the supporting characters of these stories. Every time racing’s past returns to the asphalt there is an opportunity to seek these characters out, to retell their stories so they aren’t swallowed up by time and irrelevance. To me the AMR1 is relevant, though, not for how it lost to faster and better-funded rivals, but because its existence contributed to some of the best closed-wheel racing I can think of. It’s just a single lightning bolt in the storm of the rapid and expensive development that characterized the Group C years, but it still mattered. It still took a shot. At the very least, it still looks damn good going around a race track, and that alone will always grab my attention. If you get a chance to see one of these machines in person, I hope it grabs a little bit of yours too.

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