Of all the manufacturers who will take part on the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans none has a longer history at the Circuit de la Sarthe than Aston Martin.
The name first appeared on the closed roads just to the south of the city in 1928 with a pair of Aston Martin Ltd and Lord Charnwood entered 1 ½ International competing in, obviously enough the class for 1.5 litre engined machines.
That initial entry was unsuccessful, both cars retiring from the race but the early years of Aston’s involvement at Le Mans set the tone for much of their history. In the late 20s and 30s version of multi class racing the 1.5 class shared a circuit with cars powered by anything from 750cc motors to eight-litre power houses.
As the 20s became the 1930s the various iterations of Aston Martin’s 1 ½ became the benchmark in the class.
A.C. Bertelli and Maurice Harvey gave Aston Martin the first of 13 class wins and counting, finished fifth overall as only a half dozen cars were left running at the end of the race. Their victory kicked off three consecutive years of 1.5l class wins before their dominance came to a zenith in 1935. Albeit in the hands of privateer entries Aston Martins took five of the top seven places in class.
This successful focus on the lower classes of the race has characterised Aston’s involvement in the race. Though their long – but by no means unbroken – history at Le Mans leaves their name on entry lists through some of the golden ages of racing at Le Mans their years challenging for open wins are few and far in between.
That there is only one overall win amongst their dozen-plus class successes is testament to their favouring of the supporting classes.
In the Group C era – a period near synonymous with success for Jaguar – their fellow British marque played only a minor role, Tickford built engines powered Nimrod and EMKA chassis in 1984 and 1985 respectively. The Aston Martin AMR1 would carry the brand’s name in the 1989. Aston entered two of the cars in conjunction with Ecurie Ecosse, the best of them eleventh overall, unable to match the pace of the winning Sauber Mercedes.
The showing was Aston’s last for well over a decade, the winged badge returning to the grid only in 2005 with the DBR9 to begin a sequence of years in which the British Racing Green machines battled the yellow Corvettes for victory in the class. The first year – the Le Mans debuts for both the DBR9 and Corvette C6.R – but, following another Corvette win the following year Aston Martin broke back in 2007 with the trio of David Brabham, Darren Turner and Rickard Rydell beating the best Corvette by a lap to claim the GT1 class win and fifth overall.
It was Aston Martin’s first trip to the podium since 1959, the one and only time that the marque’s machinery has taken the overall victory.
Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori’s victory in their DBR1 – the ‘DB’ denoting David Brown, who had brought the company in 1947 – was the high water mark in another decade of class dominance for Aston Martin.
A 2.6 litre engine derived from a Lagonda design – the firm another Brown acquisition – powered DB2 to 3 litre class successes in 1950 and 51, Lance Macklin and George Abecassis heading a one-two before Macklin and Eric Thompson led a DB2 sweep of the podium spots a year later. The 2.6 litre engine spawned a 2.9 litre pressed into use aboard the DB3S that added three more class wins in 1955, ’56 and ’57 as the old car out performed the DBR1 which failed to record a single finish in three straight years up to, and including 1958 when the three litre class became the premier category in the race. As the make-up of the field changed around the team, rather than the team changing around the regulations the DBR1’s fortunes changed in 1959 the team’s cars finishing first and second overall with Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frere completing one lap fewer than their teammates.
As David Brown’s entries switched to a succession coupes the DBR1 would pass into privateer hands, including the legendary Border Reivers outfit for whom Salvadori and Jim Clark finished third in 1960 The line of coupes never enjoyed the same success, leaving Aston Martin to have to wait until the new century to taste success again.
When it did it came at the dawn of their most recent attempt on overall victory. While the works team battled Corvette Racing in GT1, an Aston Martin engine powered an Aston Martin Racing and Charouz Racing System entered Lola to ninth overall despite the car being delayed by a spin at the Dunlop chicane.
The combination of Lola chassis and Aston Martin engine had been seen previously in 1967 when a pair of T70s were pushed along by five litre Aston V8s.
The newer fruit of the partnership was the Lola-Aston Martin B09/60 (in Lola nomenclature) or, as AMR referred to it, the Aston Martin DBR1-2. The latter name harked back to the ’59 victory, referring to the specific chassis that Shelby and Salvadori had piloted to victory. If the employment of the name was intended to help Aston take a second overall victory it fell into redundancy as the car came up against the diesel machines from both Audi and Peugeot, though in its debut year the AMR Eastern Europe team of Czechs Jan Charouz and Tomas Enge and Stefan Mucke did finish fourth, best of the petrol powered cars in the cars.
Just as in the 60s the works team handed class winning cars – in the modern case the DBR9 – over to customer teams, the likes of Young Driver shepherding the car though the final years of GT1 at Le Mans while Drayson Racing, Jota and JMW Motorsport were tasked with readying the GT2 version of the then new Vantage for race track. The Lola-Aston Martin would also pass into privateer hands, the Belgian Kronos team taking one car when Aston’s factory effort moved onto a brief, but still disastrous, dalliance with the AMR-One in 2011.
The pair of cars proving both off the pace and unreliable in completing only six racing laps between them, forcing Aston to back track to their stable of Lola coupes before returning to the GT ranks for 2012 the factory continuing the development work started by the customer teams.
Their work produced a strong car for what would be a tragic 2013 entry for the 24 Hours, the Aston teams suffering one of their darkest hours during their long history at Le Mans with the death of Allan Simonsen in the opening laps before – relatively inconsequentially – Fred Makowiecki crashed out of the LMGTE Pro lead on Sunday, leaving the class win to Porsche.
With four cars, two each in the LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am class for this year’s race Aston Martin begin their second century as a company. Always a favourite with fans, sporting the orange and blue Gulf colours once more any class wins would not only be a popular victory for several reasons, but fitting for a company that has spent much of their time at Le Mans chasing class glory, rather than overall honours.