Glory days

06th August 2019

For Aston Martin, 1959 was truly an annus mirabilis. The marque started the championship season with little chance of glory, but ended it – with a little help from Stirling Moss – having bagged sports-car racing’s biggest prize

Words by Andrew Frankel

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If you submitted it as a treatment for a film it would be sent back by return post stamped “too implausible”. A marque claiming a championship it didn’t intend to enter, beating the most successful and feared race-team of them all and winning the world’s greatest motor race in the bargain? And doing it with an out-of-date car and predominantly thanks to the heroics and other-worldly skills of just one man? This is comic-book stuff.

And yet it’s also precisely how Aston Martin won the 1959 World Sportscar Championship (the first British manufacturer ever to do so). And they did it at Goodwood.

It’s a matter of record that Aston Martin had no intention whatsoever of taking part in the championship in 1959. The reason was that just one of its five races mattered more than all the others put together: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And the painful fact was that all attempts over the previous decade, since David Brown had taken over the company, had yielded three second places but never the most glittering prize in sports-car racing. What’s more, Aston’s DBR1 race-car was now entering is fourth season of competition. Team manager John Wyer knew this was the last chance. “It was to be our only race,” he said. “We wouldn’t tolerate any diversions.” Everything would be focused on Le Mans. 

Roy Salvadori’s DBR1 on fire in the pits during the 1959 Tourist Trophy Race at Goodwood.

Roy Salvadori’s DBR1 on fire in the pits during the 1959 Tourist Trophy Race at Goodwood.

In fact there was a lone Aston at the season-opening race at Sebring in Florida but only because the organisers had paid the team for it to be there. It retired before two of the 12 hours were complete, the race won entirely predictably by Ferrari, who’d only failed to win one round of the championship the year before. The title must already have seemed in the bag for the Italian marque. True, the small and agile factory Porsches clean-swept the next race over the tight and tortuous course of Sicily’s Targa Florio, but that was to be expected. With just the Nürburgring, Le Mans and the Tourist Trophy race at Goodwood remaining, and with Aston Martin out of the picture, nothing could stop the mighty Ferrari now. Surely?

Which is where Stirling Moss enters the story. The DBR1 had already won at the Nürburgring in 1957 and ’58, with Moss himself driving in the latter race, and he thought the car could do the hat-trick. The DBR1 suited the circuit and Stirling Moss was, well, Stirling Moss. He also knew there was a spare DBR1. Wyer still said no, and continued to refuse right up to the moment Moss said he’d pay all the expenses out of his own pocket.

The spare was duly sent with a skeleton crew to take on three factory Ferraris. By the time Moss handed over to  co-driver Jack Fairman after three hours’ driving, his lead was over five minutes. Which was fine until Fairman spun the car into a ditch. News came through that it was thoroughly beached, so Moss changed out of his overalls, presuming his race was run. Not so: Fairman, finding strength from who knows where, physically lifted the rear of the car back onto the circuit, fired it up and roared away. Nonetheless, by the time Moss was back at the wheel there were two Ferraris and 75 seconds between him and the lead. It took him three laps to eliminate the deficit. By the finish, and having driven the vast majority of the 1000km race, Moss won by over half a minute in what even he would call one of his greatest drives.

The Whitehead/ Naylor DBR1 leads the Clark/Whitmore Lotus Elite at the 1959 Le Mans

The Whitehead/ Naylor DBR1 leads the Clark/Whitmore Lotus Elite at the 1959 Le Mans

Then came Le Mans, the race Aston Martin actually intended to enter. The team fielded three DBR1s in one last, desperate attempt to grasp the victory that had eluded them for so long. And not only did the Aston Martin of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby win it, another came second. All the rival Ferraris retired.

And yet you won’t see Moss’s name anywhere in the finishing list. Indeed his car was parked up, out of the race, before a quarter distance. So why, then, did Wyer write in his official race report: “It is impossible to over-estimate the part played by Moss in our success at Le Mans.” It was all part of a strategy that not only took account of the fact Moss might not finish, it actually made his retirement far more likely. Indeed, Wyer himself regarded Moss’s car as “semi-expendable”.

Wyer knew that if he planned a normal race, Ferrari would win. The six-cylinder DBR1 might have been more than a match for the Testa Rossas at the sinuous Nürburgring, but the long straight at Le Mans conferred a huge advantage on Ferrari’s V12 enginepower. In practice even Moss was seven seconds off their pace. So Wyer gave Moss a different engine to his other drivers, one with four rather than seven main bearings. This meant less internal friction and, therefore, more power, but at the price of greater inherent weakness. His job was to go out and drive the wheels off the car, in the hope that the Ferraris would over-tax themselves trying to keep up. The plan worked beautifully: Moss charged into the lead and instead of biding their time, the Ferraris rose to the bait. Two were out before midnight. One remained. 

It is impossible to over-estimate the part played by Moss in our success at Le Mans

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Whether you think Aston Martin was lucky the final Ferrari retired from the lead with barely four hours remaining, or you take Wyer’s view that the seeds of its downfall were sown over the preceding hours by the relentless pressure applied first by Moss and then by the Salvadori/Shelby car, all that really matters is that by using iron discipline, the greatest driver in the world, and just a bit of cunning, Aston Martin won Le Mans. Which meant that within two weeks and two races, Aston Martin went from having no points in a world championship it hadn’t planned to enter to being within one race of winning it.

That race was the six-hour Tourist Trophy held at Goodwood, and as the cars lined up for the start, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche all had a shot at the title, so all brought full factory teams.

But unlike Le Mans, Goodwood suited the DBR1 beautifully: the year before, they had come first, second and third, albeit without the presence of Ferrari who, title already captured, had stayed away. Even so, Moss was more than capable of winning it, and if he did, Aston Martin would become the most unlikely of champions. Easy, then? As it happened, anything but.

 Carroll Shelby drives the victorious DBR1 into parc fermé at Le Mans in 1959, with (from left to right) Roy Savadori, David Brown and Stirling Moss hitching a ride

Carroll Shelby drives the victorious DBR1 into parc fermé at Le Mans in 1959, with (from left to right) Roy Savadori, David Brown and Stirling Moss hitching a ride

Moss did what was expected, securing pole position and driving out of sight of the rest of the field after the flag fell. Paired with Salvadori, Aston’s second-fastest driver, it was now just a question of controlling the race. Moss handed over after an hour, and Salvadori maintained the lead. All was well – until Salvadori came in to refuel, whereupon petrol poured out of the refuelling hose before the nozzle had entered the filler and spilled onto the exhausts. In an instant, car and pits were ablaze (the pit plate, rescued from the fire, now resides in the Duke of Richmond’s office). Salvadori was lucky to emerge with only superficial burns, but for Aston Martin, not only was its lead car out of the race, it didn’t even have a pit from which to run its survivors, neither of which looked like winning. The race, the championship, the dream – all gone. Unless…

He was a long way back when he rejoined, but there has probably never been a more harmonious combination of man, machine and motor circuit than Moss, the DBR1 and Goodwood

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There was another Aston Martin in the race, a privately owned car belonging to one Graham Whitehead. And for the greater good, he withdrew his car from the race and gave his pit to the team. I hope he got free Astons for life after that. All that was then needed was to call in the next best Aston of Shelby and Fairman, thank the drivers warmly for their contribution, and give it to Moss. He was a long way back when he rejoined, but there has probably never been a more harmonious combination of man, machine and motor circuit than Moss, the DBR1 and Goodwood. Within half an hour he was back in the lead and while the battle for second place raged between Porsche and Ferrari behind him, out in front, Stirling reigned serene. Now there would be no more mistakes.

That day, Moss drove two cars for over four and half hours of a six-hour race. Against absurd odds, including a field comprising five former or future F1 champions and full works teams from both Ferrari and Porsche, he delivered to Aston what is considered the most important championship the company has won before or since. In the official history of the track, that race is described as “perhaps the most important race ever held at Goodwood”. It is a verdict with which few at Aston Martin would have disagreed.

This article was taken from the Summer 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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