Aston Martin’s return to the Formula 1 grid might yet coincide with one of the most exciting seasons in years. There are a number of reasons why 2021 might be a corker: regulations will trim aerodynamic performance to enable closer racing, the first stage of the budget cap is being introduced, and the grid is going to see a proper shakeup. Moreover Aston will welcome four-time champ Sebastian Vettel, who will be fully fired up after his disappointing final year at Ferrari. And don’t get us started on the new rumours of George Russell being swapped with Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes...
But that's all in the crystal ball. Aston, as ever, has one eye on its illustrious past, and it has taken the time to remind us that it is not bereft of top tier racing experience. Admittedly, you have to rewind all the way back to 1960 to see where it left off in F1; the DBR5 was retired from single seater racing in what will be 61 years prior to AM’s F1 return. Back then, Aston’s F1 efforts were not a priority – the brand had cemented itself as a force in sports car racing, after all. The 1959 Le Mans-winning DBR1 might spring to mind, but the story goes back much further back than that.
It was in the 1920s that Aston Martin owners Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford (who together founded the brand in 1913) dreant of Grand Prix racing, but rather than Aston’s cars, it was Martin’s name that connected the company to motorsport. He was an esteemed hill climb competitor, something that helped him meet and woo a young, conveniently wealthy racing driver called Count Louis Zborowski. Zborowski used his fortune to pour £10,000 (about £572k in today's money) into the development of a racing car for the 1922 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, using an entirely new 16-valve twin overhead cam four-cylinder engine.
The 1,486cc motor was good for around 55hp at 4,200rpm, and with only 750kg to shift, the TT machine could reach a then impressive 85mph top speed. In some pictures, the TT racer can be seen carrying two passengers, one of them being the ride-along mechanic who not only attended to any issues, but also pressurised the fuel tank via a hand pump! Even more bizarre, the car’s engine design was said to be half of an existing 3.0-litre Ballot motor, designed by Ernest Henry. A torn-in-half blueprint was reputedly used to build the Aston’s motor, hence its 1.5-litre capacity. You couldn't make it up.
The Aston TT1 and TT2 race cars (pictured together in the second image) the engine powered didn’t actually make the ’22 TT, so their first outings were at the 2.0-litre French Grand Prix on 15 July at Strasbourg, meaning the brand’s racing debut officially took place at a proper Grand Prix, which is quite something. Although it wasn’t exactly an auspicious start; not only were the cars each about 500cc short of rivals, they both broke down. But, as Aston notes, “the experience was sufficiently exhilarating for the fledgling team, based at Abingdon Road, Kensington, to continue Grand Prix adventure”. This, of course, coincided with the squad’s growing sports car racing efforts. And it wasn't without tragedy, Zborowski dying in an accident in his Aston Martin in 1924.
Aston remained a feature of Grand Prix racing throughout the subsequent decades and endured its fair share of drama and occasional successes with privateers, but it wasn’t until Sir David Brown took the helm in 1947 that the factory effort was really ramped up. Having recognised the importance of motorsport to the brand’s commercial success, he hatched a plan to enter top-flight machinery into the World Sportscar Championship and the then new Formula 1 World Championship. Around the same time that Brown’s road team was developing the DB4, the race squad was evolving its DP155 single seater. It was with the following DBR4 that Aston finally landed a driver on a Grand Prix podium.
The DBR4 made its competition debut at the 1959 BRDC International Trophy event (pictured above), which was run to F1 rules, with 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Roy Salvadori finishing second behind Jack Brabham in the proven Cooper-Climax T51. It was a tremendous result, and proof that Aston’s 2.5-litre six-cylinder RB 250 engine, complete with its dry sump (it shared a basic design with the DBR1’s engine), was up there with the best. The 256hp spaceframe single seater weighed 575kg, if you’re wondering, which gave it a power-to-weight ratio of 445hp/tonne – almost bang on that of a McLaren 600LT. Grand Prix cars of the fifties were simpler, but still enormously rapid machines.
Alas, the front-engined DBR4’s successes were short lived because despite its potent motor, rivals were introducing mid-mounted machinery offering better handling. A DBR5 (pictured below) was developed to try and close the gap, but the disadvantages of that layout were too great to overcome. Aston withdrew from motorsport’s top rung in 1960. Of course, the badge remained prominent in motorsport via sports car racing, so all was not lost. But there’s nothing quite like F1, is there?
Hence Aston’s return to F1 despite its ongoing sports car successes, including a GTE class win at the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours, no less. Obviously the brand’s F1 entry isn’t going to be a standing start this time, because company chairman Lawrence Stroll is essentially rebranding his existing squad, Racing Point, to make it happen. The team won last weekend’s race with Sergio Perez at the wheel, albeit in unusual circumstances. But it’s only added to the expectation for 2021.
So the year definitely has plenty of potential. And don’t forget, we can also look forward to Fernando Alonso making a return with his former title winning team, Renault, F2 champion (and son of you know who) Mick Schumacher stepping into a seat at Haas. And Sakhir GP winner, Perez, may just find himself in Red Bull overalls. Aston’s certainly picked an interesting season in which to make its return.
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