Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
Yesterday’s news that Aston Martin is teaming up with Red Bull and Adrian Newey to build the world’s ultimate hypercar came with a small additional fact: to celebrate this year’s Red Bull RB12 F1 cars will race all season wearing Aston Martin wings in celebration.
But while that will be the extent of Aston’s involvement in F1 in 2016, it is not Aston’s first dabble in racing’s ultimate discipline. Indeed, but for one poor decision, Aston Martin could quite easily have become F1 world champions in the 1950s, and who knows how the course of its history could have changed thereafter.
Bizarre to recall though it is, over the winter of 1957 and ’58, Aston Martin designed and developed its own Formula 1 car. It was conventional in design, with a Ted Cutting tubular spaceframe chassis, wishbones up front and De Dion axle behind. Power came from the same twin-cam straight six that powered the DBR1 sports car, albeit it sleeved down from 3 litres to 2.5 litres to satisfy the regs.
Straightforward it may have been, but the so-called DBR4/250 was quick. In preliminary testing the indications were that it was quicker than both the Maserati 250F in which Fangio had just won his fifth world title, and the Vanwall that would take the constructor’s title in 1958. Tony Brooks was one of the first to drive it and pronounced it ‘much nicer to drive and better balanced than the Vanwall.’
But there was a problem, even if as problems go it was a nice one to have. All of Aston’s racing to date had been with sports cars yet it all its years of trying it had never won Le Mans, nor the world sports car championship. Yet now the DBR1 was showing real promise of delivering on all that effort and investment. The issue was Ferrari was the only team in the world with the resources to run separate, properly funded, state of the art F1 and sports car teams. Aston would have to choose between them.
It went with the devil it knew, and while the DBR1 spent 1958 failing once again to win Le Mans or the title, the DBR4 languished under a sheet.
All of which would have been bad enough; what made it infinitely worse was that this was greatest transition season in F1 history before or since. Before 1958 every single World Championship F1 race had been won by a front-engined car, after 1958 and to date just four would not be won by a mid-engined machine.
So when the DBR4 was eventually wheeled out for the 1959 International Trophy race at Silverstone in 1959, a car that would have had a genuine shot at the title the year before was already obsolete. Incredibly with Roy Salvadori driving, it scored the fastest lap and came second only to Jack Brabham in a (mid-engined) Cooper and for a moment it must have seemed as if the DBR4 might still deliver on its promise. Cruelly, it was all a flash in the pan. The car never troubled the top five again and the less said about the DBR5 with its totally undeveloped all-independent suspension that raced briefly and scarily in 1960 the better.
The car I drove was the last of the four DBR4s to be built, and fitted with the full fat 3-litre motor that was permissible at the time in Tasman racing. It’s a physically large car, at least compared to a 250F, and spacious and comfortable as a result. Ergonomically it’s a lot easier than most of that era, with no reversed pedals, gearlever disappearing up your trouser leg and steering wheel in your chest.
Weighing just 680kg and with 300bhp from the bigger engine (the F1 engine had around 260bhp), the DBR4 now has the one thing those who drove it in period said it lacked: power. And that power brings not only speed but the facility to really bring its chassis to life in the corners. I drove it at Silverstone and once Tim Samways’ team had had a bit of a fiddle with the set up, it was just beautiful to drive. As it did in the 1950s, it has the Maserati gearbox developed for the V12 250F (the earlier homegrown David Brown transmission being discarded thanks to its slow and stiff change), and the speed at which you can swap ratios is limited only by how fast your arm can move. The engine is tireless, the car’s appetite for speed relentless. The brakes are probably no better than adequate given the performance, but the chassis is one of the sweetest of any Grand Prix car I’ve driven. As user-friendly as the legendarily exploitable 250F? I’d say so, and if not then certainly the very next thing.
So just imagine for a moment that decision had gone the other way and the DBR4 had raced in 1958 and, as testing suggested, it beat the Vanwall to the Constructor’s Trophy. And then, suitably buoyed, the team went ahead with the mid-engined Aston race car that had already been discussed by John Wyer and David Brown, allowing Aston to start 1959 with a state of the art car rather than one that was already over the hill… Things might have been very different, and we might not have had to wait another 57 years to see the Aston wings on an F1 car again.