The five best Aston Martin racing cars

20th January 2021
Seán Ward

Aston Martin is one of the longstanding British brands to have survived the vicissitudes of the motor industry. The products have rarely been perfect, but charm and raw appeal has seen Aston Martin through. Charm and appeal does little on the racetrack, however, and there have been many racing flops. The DBR3 from 1958, for example, raced only once, with a DNF at Silverstone. The Group C AMR1, meanwhile, was a disappointment, at best only able to muster a fourth place finish in the fourth round of the 1989 World Sportscar Championship.

That being said there have been some mighty successes, and there are a number of Aston Martin race cars that are, for one reason or another, legendary.


Arnolt Aston Martin DB2/4 Competition Spider – 1953

You’ve probably never heard of the Arnolt DB2/4 Competition Spider. That’s understandable, because not a great number of people have, but it should be on your radar for the simple reason that it helped save Bertone.

We came across the car you see pictured at the 2019 Spa Classic, where the owner, Heinz Stamm, was more than happy to talk us through the car. The story, he explained, began back in the early 1950s when a Chicago-based car importer known as Stanley ‘Wacky’ Arnolt decided to build his own car. Having met Gruppo Bertone in 1952 and met with Aston Martin executives in 1953, he was set to receive seven DB2/4 chassis from Aston before sending them on to Bertone for bodywork. One road and three race cars were constructed before Aston realised the cars were actually quite good, so the three remaining chassis never made it to Arnolt. No matter, however, as Arnolt had four working cars ready to enjoy and sell, LML 505, the road car, LML 502, LML 503 (a car that was, it is believed, sadly destroyed) and LML 507.

None of the Arnolt DB2/4 Competition Spiders did anything exceptional, but by striking a deal with Bertone, ‘Wacky’ Arnolt inadvertently saved the company. “This was the period when Bertone, after the war, nothing much happened – he was on the verge of bankruptcy,” explained Stamm. But these four cars gave Bertone the cash to keep the business afloat, even if the practicalities of actually getting the cars made turned out to be more complicated than Bertone had bargained. A shortage of aluminium, Bertone’s material of choice, for example, meant that the bodywork was handmade out of steel, a much harder and much more difficult material to form.

‘Best Aston Martin race cars’ doesn’t mean ‘most successful Aston Martin race cars’, and it is because of that, and because without this car so many motoring favourites like the Lamborghini Miura or Lancia Stratos might not exist in the same form, that the Arnolt Competition Spider makes the list.


Aston Martin DBR1 – 1956

It would be laughable to create a list of the best Aston Martin racers and fail to include the DBR1, development of which can be traced back to the mid-1950s. The DB3S had reached a development ceiling, and a change in the regulations gave Aston the opportunity to design something entirely new. What resulted was the DBR1, with the same front suspension as the DB3S but new rear set-up, a tube-frame replacing the ladder chassis, a five-speed gearbox, and, at first, a 2.5-litre straight-six engine.

Its first race was the 1956 Le Mans 24 Hours, where gearbox issues forced retirement at the 20th hour, a fine achievement. In 1957, with a full season in the World Sports Car Championship, the DBR1 managed two second place finishes, the first at the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park and the second at Goodwood’s Sussex Trophy. From there the DBR1 became a 3.0-litre and went from strength to strength. Its first race victory came at the 1957 Spa 1,000km with numerous wins and podiums thereafter.

What is considered by many to be the ultimate Aston Martin racing achievement was its outright victory at Le Mans in 1959, where Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby took the win ahead of the sister DBR1 driven by Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frère. Third place went to Ferrari, a whopping 25 laps behind.

Anyone familiar to Goodwood will know, however, that there was one very special DBR1 victory at Goodwood Motor Circuit a few months later. The six-hour Tourist Trophy was the final round of that year’s season, and Aston Martin was just two points behind Ferrari in the constructor’s championship. With a title within reach, three works DBR1s were entered, but as the leading car of Sir Stirling Moss and Salvadori came into the pits, piloted by the latter, a refuelling mishap saw the car burst into flames, as well as a 50-gallon fuel drum. No one was hurt, but this left the leading duo without a car. And so the DBR1 of Jack Fairman and Shelby came into the pits, and in jumped Moss. From there he drove flawlessly, and within half an hour he was into the lead once more, only this time in a different car. With arguably the most impressive and most unexpected win, surpassing that ultimate Le Mans feat, came the world championship

How valuable are DBR1s today? Well, in a word, ‘very’. A DBR1, driven by the likes of Moss, Salvadori, Shelby and a number of other legends and the car that won the 1959 Nürburgring 1,000km, sold in 2017 for $22.5m, roughly £17.4m.


Aston Martin Project DP215 – 1963

After the DBR1’s success, Aston’s owner and director David Brown decided to move the company’s attention away from motorsport and back towards road cars. With so much motorsport experience, however, and with dealerships all over the world writing letters to Brown asking for a race car to use as a marketing tool, Brown gave the nod to what would become the Aston Martin ‘project cars’.

The first ‘Design Project’ was the DP212, a car that used the DB4 GT as a starting point but with a modified chassis, an entirely new, more aerodynamic body and the straight-six engine now bored out to 4.0-litres. At Le Mans in 1962, its first outing, it qualified in fifth position, driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. Sadly it failed to finish the race, and Hill and Ginther complained of aerodynamic issues at high speeds, but Aston Martin was back on track.

Then came the DP214, of which two were built, and unlike the DP212 these were designed to race not just at Le Mans but elsewhere, and as a result they were even further removed from the DB4 GT starting point. Sections of the chassis were drilled out to make it lighter ( just under 200kg less than a DB4 GT), the engine was moved back into the chassis by eight inches, the DB4 GT’s engine was modified further, and a new nose and tail were fitted to stop the front end lifting. Although one of the two cars was destroyed in a crash during practice for the 1964 Nürburgring 1,000km, sadly killing the driver Brian Hetreed, the DP214 secured numerous podiums and three wins, the first with Salvadori at the wheel in the ‘Coppa Inter-Europa’, a support race for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

It was the final ‘Project car’ in the series, however, the DP215, that’s regarded as the finer machine. A new car was needed for the 1963 Le Mans 24, but it was needed quickly. Very quickly, in fact. Aston Martin engineers had just eight weeks and a budget of £1,500 to get the car made, something that Chief Engineer Ted Cutting relished. Underneath, although similar in appearance to the other DP cars, the engine, a 4.0-litre straight-six, was now mounted a full ten inches further back than in DP212.

Did it make it to Le Mans? Absolutely, and not only did it make it to Le Mans but it was quick too, as at the hands of Phil Hill and Lucien Bianchi it was lapping six seconds faster than the Ferrari 330 LMB in the same class and 12 seconds faster than the Ferrari 250 GTOs in the GT class. While the gearbox gave up after two hours, unable to take the 4.0-litre’s torque, it got up to a 198.6mph on the Mulsanne Straight, the first car to break 300km/h, or 186mph, at Le Mans.

It raced just once more, and sadly recorded another DNF, before crashing on the M1 at 100mph in 1966… Lovingly restored it has since been to Goodwood on numerous occasions, and in 2017 sold for $21,455,000, roughly £15.9m.


Aston Martin DBR9 – 2005

Ah, the Aston Martin DBR9. The noise of its V12 engine alone could earn it a spot on our list, before you’d even glanced at its racing record.

Based on the new DB9 road car, development of the DBR9 began in the summer of 2004 between Aston Martin and Prodrive. A total of 19 cars were made, nine for privateers and ten as factory cars, and while they might resemble the DB9 in some respects they are quite, quite different.

Designed to survive the rough and tumble of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other endurance events all over the world, the DBR9 had an aluminium and composite tub, a new rear subframe, double wishbone suspension and coil springs all the way around, carbon body panels, an aluminium roof, a six-speed sequential gearbox (in most cases – some had an H-pattern manual), huge Brembo brakes and OZ wheels. It weighed a whopping 610kg less than the DB9, too, at 1,100kg.

The engine, meanwhile, was still a 6.0-litre V12, like the road car, but a very different unit by comparison, as we discovered when talking to Jason Hill, Prodrive’s head of new engine programmes and the man responsible for the DBR9’s engine development in period, at the Monza Historic in 2019. “It’s a heavily modified road engine – there isn’t much left of the original engine left,” Hill explained. “It’s a reasonable piece of kit! And it’s designed to last for 30 hours.”

The DBR9 is the car that quite literally got Aston Martin Racing back on track. On its race debut at the 2005 Sebring 12 Hours it finished first in class, fourth overall. Although Le Mans that year didn’t go to plan, with a third place GT1 class finish behind two Corvettes, as more DBR9s hit the track the car grew stronger and stronger. There was no Le Mans victory in 2006, but in 2007 the win Aston Martin had been chasing for so long came, as the car of Darren Turner, David Brabham and Rickard Rydell crossed the finish line a lap ahead of the Corvette competition. What’s more, a privateer DBR9 finished third in class, and two out of the three other DBR9s finished the race. As if the car hadn’t already proved its worth, the DBR9 returned to Le Mans in 2008 and took another class win, its final factory appearance at La Sarthe. The Le Mans bug hadn’t gone away, however…


Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE – 2012

Aston Martin tried its luck in the prototype class, gunning for an overall Le Mans victory, but the project really didn’t work. Up against the might of the better funded and bigger Audi and Peugeot teams, Aston’s Lola B08/60 and B09/60, also known as the DBR1-2, took a few wins here and there but its best showing at Le Mans was a fourth place. Little wonder, then, Aston Martin turned its attention back to the GT classes.

First came the Vantage N24, designed as the name might suggest to compete in the Nürburgring 24 Hours. Then there was the Vantage GT4, eligible, you guessed it, for FIA GT4 competition. And then the Vantage GTE arrived on the scene in 2012. Wanting to prove the Vantage’s worth against the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette, the factory team’s Vantage GTE’s first test was the opening round of the newly formed World Endurance Championship, the 12 Hours of Sebring. The Vantage GTE got off to a strong start, with a third place finish behind Porsche and Ferrari.

Then followed a retirement at Spa, a third place at Le Mans, three second positions in a row followed by another third, and then the first win, at the 6 Hours of Shanghai, enough for second place overall in the LMGTE Pro category. The following year was strong too, with Aston finishing runner-up to Ferrari in the championship standings and grabbing another third place at Le Mans. Add to that customer teams in the Am category that were notching up class wins and podiums and the V8 Vantage GTE was proving to be quite the competitive racer. In 2014 the car managed its first Le Mans class win, in the LMGTE Am category, and a Pro championship in 2016.

Finally the following year with a  win at Le Mans seemingly just out of reach, it happened. After a fierce battle in the final three laps of the race, with just over a second separating the lead Corvette and the second-place Vantage, the Corvette’s fierce defence failed with a slow puncture and the car of Jonny Adam, Darren Turner and Daniel Serra won. It was the final Le Mans for the V8 Vantage GTE, replaced for 2018 by the new-shape Vantage GTE, but to top off 2017 Aston Martin won the LMGTE Am driver’s and teams titles. Not a bad way to retire, wouldn’t you say?

Arnolt and DBR9 images by Pete Summers, Goodwood images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Aston Martin

  • DB2/4

  • Arnolt

  • DBR9

  • DBR1

  • V8 Vantage GTE

  • Vantage

  • DB9

  • DP215

  • DP212

  • DP214

  • List

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