The Aston Martin DBR1 - A Great British Le Mans Legend

Ben Adams
16 Apr , 2021

The DBR1 is a car often described as both the pinnacle of racing achievement and breath-taking design for Aston Martin, and it's really not hard to see why.


The shapely DBR1 was designed as the successor to the DB3S, which was introduced in 1953 and gave Aston Martin the taste of success that the team needed to spur it on to create something truly remarkable. The DB3S never managed to win at Le Mans but it did take the fight to Ferrari, which was dominating the World Sports Car Championship at the time. Aston Martin managed a one-two finish at the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in Ireland, as well as a win at the Goodwood Nine Hours in 1953. The team managed to place third in the championship at the end of the year, behind Jaguar with the C-Type and Ferrari with the 340 MM and Ferrari 375 MM. Notice had been served.


In 1956 came the iconic DBR1, a car that was designed with the ultimate goal of winning at Le Mans. The project was started in 1955, as the team led by John Wyer and David Brown knew that the days of the DBR3S were numbered, with the latest rules change in the championship meaning that manufacturers no longer had to use cars that were road legal or even based on road-legal models.

The DBR1 was developed by a tiny team lead by engineer Ted Cutting, who personally designed the body, engine, chassis, and suspension. The car had a rear transaxle (which was considered advanced at the time) and a new all-alloy racing engine in the front that offered a perfect 50-50 weight balance. The fact that the 3.0-litre straight six powerplant was extremely light and quite powerful meant that it could achieve speeds of up to 175mph at Le Mans. It is a car that was described by Stirling Moss as one of the best-balanced machines he ever drove.


Ted Cutting later went on to work on the early stages of the Ford GT40 project with John Wyer in 1966, with Wyer also being associated with the dominance of the legendary Porsche 917K in later years. In a way, the DBR1 was also a sign of the brilliance that these influential men had to offer.

The beautiful styling of the car was very similar to the other open-cockpit cars of the era that it raced against, such as the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa or the Jaguar D-Type. With long flowing curves, a wide front grille, and a bulbous rear end, it didn't have much in the way of aerodynamics but it was stylish and awe-inspiring: perfectly fitting to the gentleman driver aesthetic of the 1950s. The interior was typically simple, as race cars tended to be, but it also had a touch of English elegance thanks to a leather-wrapped dashboard contrasting against the wood-rimmed steering wheel.


The DBR1 even had a recess in the body for an air hose connection, which would then feed jacks on the front of the car with compressed air to lift it, making it easy for mechanics to change wheels and brakes.


The DBR1's Racing Achievement

Considering the fact that Aston Martin was mostly focused on winning Le Mans, the car got off to a slow start: retiring in the 21st hour of its debut race at Le Mans in 1956, due to gearbox failure. It was a similar story in 1957 with both DBR1s failing to finish, followed by three DBR1s failing to finish in 1958. Through all this the car still showed promise. The team took victory at both Nurburgring 1000-kilometre races that it entered, and with all the experience and fine-tuning of the car that had been carried out by 1959, Aston Martin was ready to once again take the fight to Le Mans.

Le Mans in the 1950's

Just a few weeks before the 1959 Le Mans race was the Nurburgring 1000 Kilometres. This was a race that Aston Martin had already won for the past two years, but with the focus on winning Le Mans, the team wasn't planning to enter a car in 1959. That was until Stirling Moss got involved. Having already won at the Nurburgring in the DBR1 the previous year, he was confident he could do it again, and so the Englishman convinced John Wyer to go for a third consecutive victory.

Described as Sir Stirling’s finest drive – which is no small comment considering his illustrious race record – he was leading with a massive five-minute and five-second gap by the first driver swap on the 17th lap, achieved by breaking his own lap record a frankly unbelievable 16 times over. The car then went into the hands of his co-driver Jack Fairman just as the skies opened up and rain covered the track. Pretty quickly the Ferrari 250 TRs started making up time. With the pressure on, Jack slid the car firmly into a ditch. What came next can only be described as heroic. Being the strong guy that he was, Fairman managed to push the 800-and-something kilogram car out of the ditch and get back to the pits for a quick inspection and driver change.

Nurburgring in the 1950's

 

Moss re-entered the race in fourth position – not quite where he last left it, with a five-minute lead –  and then spent the next 33 laps chasing down and overtaking the Porsche 718R5K and two Ferrari Testa Rossas that were ahead of him, before handing back to Fairman. Moss wouldn't be back until the final 10 laps, where he entered the race in second place behind Phil Hill in the factory Ferrari. Driving like a man possessed, Moss quickly overtook his rival and finished the race with an astonishing 41-second lead, proving not only the genius of his driving ability but also the full potential of the DBR1.



Le Mans 1959

 

Just weeks after Aston’s epic battle at the Nurburgring, three DBR1s showed up at Le Mans to go for the gold, piloted by Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby, Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman, and Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frère.

The practice session went well, with all the DBR1s performing similarly, although it was Ferrari that set the fastest pace in the new 250 TR/59. The now four-year-old Astons required modifications to keep up, one of which was a re-routing of the exhausts. Roy Salvadori had said that the abundance of heat around the pedals ended up burning his feet so badly that he actually had to wear boxing boots. Fortunately, that wasn't an issue for Shelby, who wisely wore asbestos driving shoes...


The race got off to a great start with Moss and Fairman in the lead, battling with the Ferrari 250 TR/59 of Jean Behra and Dan Gurney. Unfortunately, only six hours into the race, the Moss-Fairman car had to retire with engine issues. Salvadori was later quoted as saying: “Moss was very unlucky. He was very gentle on his car and did not push it unduly. They could easily have won.” The pressure that they had put on the Ferrari meant that the Italian team was having to push harder than they planned, which contributed to all of the 250 TRs failing to finish the race.
Disaster then struck for all the other cars in the top class, with the Porsche RSKs and Jaguar D-Types also being forced to retire. This presented an opportunity for the DBR1 to claim Aston Martin's first Le Mans win in 31 years of competing.


While sticking to an agreed pace the remaining two cars finished the race in first and second positions. Salvadori and Shelby took the win at an average speed of 112.5mph throughout the race, which broke all records for their engine class in 1959, combined with incredible top speeds of 175mph down the Mulsanne straight. The winning crew had perfectly demonstrated the full potential of this now-legendary car.



The 1959 World Sports Car Championship

After the Le Mans win, Aston Martin was only two points behind Ferrari – which was leading the championship – and so the British squad had a new goal in sight: taking the title. Three cars were entered into the six-hour RAC Tourist Trophy at Goodwood to go for the win. Unfortunately disaster struck once again for Stirling Moss:  his car (co-driven by Roy Salvadori) caught fire, also taking out the garage in the process. Moss was then put in the Fairman-Shelby car and ended up right back in the battle.

He managed to finish the race one lap ahead of the second-placed Porsche 718 RSK to claim the win and the World Sports Car Championship. The DBR1 became one of only three cars in the 1950s to claim a win at Le Mans as well as the championship in the same year (alongside the Ferrari 375 Plus in 1954 and the Ferrari 250TR in 1958).


That year would spell the end of sports car racing for Aston Martin, as the manufacturer moved to focus on Formula 1: a category it has only just returned to this year. The four remaining DBR1s were sold to private teams and raced for the next few years before being retired. In particular, a young driver by the name of Jim Clark drove a DBR1 in the 1960 and 1961 Le Mans 24 Hours, placing third in 1960 with Salvadori.

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