This year, Aston Martin will make its return to the F1 grid for the first time in more than 60 years. The British luxury brand, better known for its achievements in sports car racing also has a fascinating Grand Prix history, rich with anecdotes and characters; such as Lionel Martin, the co-founder and the engineering brain behind the badge, Count Louis Zborowski, the marque’s first competitive driver and Carroll Shelby, among many others.
Multiple class wins at Le Mans stretch from 1931 to last year’s multi-class victory which secured the GT Manufacturers’ World Endurance Championship. Numerous race and class victories over the years have cemented the brand as one of the great names in endurance racing. Less well-known though, perhaps, are Aston Martin’s European Grand Prix and, later, Formula 1 exploits.
Lionel Martin, since co-founding Aston Martin in 1913 with partner Robert Bamford, had plans of taking his cars into the headline-grabbing racing arena. Event hough his cars achieved notable success on the hillclimb courses of Great Britain, often with Martin himself at the wheel, he knew that competition victories in the Grand Prix races around Europe was need to bring the wider recognition his company required. For that, they needed a competitive driver and a financier with deep pockets.
Martin and Bamford found both in the person of Count Louis Zborowski; an American millionaire descended from Polish nobility with an insatiable passion for moto racing. His life inspired Ian Fleming’s children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the subsequent cult classic musical film.
Already familiar with Aston Martins as a privateer racer, he approached the founders and commissioned two race cars to compete in the 1922 Isle of Man TT. Martin used the generous funds to develop an entirely new 1,486cc, four-cylinder race engine which could produce around 55bhp and a top speed of around 137kmph.
Because the cars were not ready on time for the TT races, they debuted in the 1922 French Grand Prix at Strasbourg, marking the manufacturer’s debut at a European Grand Prix event. Even though both cars retired with engine problems, they were subsequently improved and went on to secure several podium finishes in 1922 and 23.
The untimely death of Zborowski in 1924, at the wheel of a racing car, sent Aston Martin’s GP ambitions into hibernation for nearly 20 years; till after World War II.
A 1936 Aston Martin 2.0-litre ‘Speed Model’ competed in the 1946 Belgian Sports Car Grand Prix and took the chequered flag ahead of other pre-war models. This victory not only gave Aston Martin its long-awaited first GP victory, but also one of its most celebrated personalities.
Behind the wheel of the winning car was St John Ratcliffe Stewart Horsfall, or ‘Jock’ as he was widely known. Born to a well-to-do family, Horsfall acquired his first Aston Martin in 1934 and went on to significantly contribute to the carmaker’s development and testing.
When war broke out, he served with the MI5, driving officers, agents, double agents, and captured enemy spies from one place to another, very fast. He was also involved in testing the security of naval sites and airfields. His most famous contribution was his role as a driver in Operation Mincemeat, a successful deception prior to the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.
Three years after Aston Martin’s maiden GP win, Horsfall took second in class, and fourth overall, in the 1949 Spa 24-hour race as a privateer in an Aston Martin Speed Model. This is considered his most remarkable achievement because he chose to drive the car for the entire 24 hours single-handed.
His achievements as a driver become even more remarkable when one considers that Horsfall was astigmatic and severely short-sighted, but was averse to wearing glasses to correct his vision. He died in a racing incident at the 1949 BRDC Trophy race at Silverstone. The Aston Martin Owners’ Club organises its annual St. John Horsfall Memorial Trophy in his memory.
Sir David Brown, who had acquired the business in 1947 and had added the Lagonda brand later that year, was steadily creating finely styled British sports cars with a growing appeal. However, like his predecessors, Sir David recognised the importance of motorsport to the brand’s commercial success. In 1955, he launched a plan to create cars that would compete in both the World Sportscar Championship and the then relatively new Formula One World Championship.
In the Sportscar Championship, the DBR1/300 came in first and second at the 1959 Le Mans 24-hours. The winning car was driven by Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori. The victory at Le Mans and the marque’s third consecutive victory at the Nürburgring 1,000km saw Aston Martin crowned World Sportscar Champions in 1959.
For the Formula One events, Aston Martin developed the single-seater DBR4/250. The spaceframe, single-seater was powered by a 256bhp producing 2.5litre, six-cylinder engine based on the same basic design as the one in the DBR1. However, despite being driven by some of big names of the era, Salvadori and Carroll Shelby among them, the front-engined DBR4 was out of step with the new mid-engined competition and failed to match the achievements of the DBR1. After a disappointing debut for its successor, the DBR5, Aston Martin withdrew from top-flight single-seater motorsport in 1960.
After nearly half a century, the Aston Martin wings returned to Formula One paddocks as the title sponsor and technical partner of Red Bull Racing; a relationship that spawned the extraordinary Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar, due to enter production in 2021. This year, for the first time in over 60 years, an Aston Martin F1 car will line up on the grid and continue the legacy created by founders Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford.
“The return of the Aston Martin name to Formula One, set against such a colourful and dynamic history in the sport, is a genuinely exciting time for all of us involved with this great British sports car brand,” said Lawrence Stroll, executive chairman of Aston Martin. “The Formula One grid is the right place for Aston Martin. It’s where this brand should be, and I know this next chapter of our racing history will be incredibly exciting for fans of Aston Martin, and the sport of F1, all over the world.”