Aston Martin will do better in Formula One than the last time

In case you are completely isolated from the contemporary world here is news for you: Aston Martin will return to Formula One. Which is a good thing.

I love Aston Martins then and now and for that reason alone I warmly welcome the Brits back into the pinnacle of motorsport. As I wasn’t actually around the first time they ventured there I should maybe feel that I missed something. But actually I didn’t: The first time around in 1959 was a complete fiasco and the programme was abondoned the year after.

The Aston Martin DBR4 was such a pretty Grand Prix car.

Their Formula One cars (better known as Grand Prix cars back then) have made an impression on me nonetheless as I finally saw them many years later at the venues of historic motorsport, most profilic probably at the Goodwood Revival Meeting. Here they fared much as in period, completely overshadowed by the sports car DBR1, which was then AND now capable of winning – and the Grand Prix car was not.

Exactly why that is was probably a surprise even then, as the logic seemed rather fair: Aston Martin had a brilliant sports car in the DB3/DBR and couldn’t they use the knowledge gained from that to build a good Grand Prix car too? It turned out they could not and to be fair one of the reasons was probably time it self: Aston Martin had started looking at Grand Prix racing in the Mid Fifties, but chose the postpone the debut u ntil 1959. Another explanation would be the cost cutting that led to this approach: Sports cars and Grand Prix car were after all two different kind of beasts and even though Grand Prix races back then were longer than today they could not be won by a sports car.

Which is sort of what the Aston Martin Grand Prix car DBR4/250 was: Borrowing heavily on the DB3S-architecture it even featured the classic De Dion-rear axle from that car – making it the last Formula One car to sport a non-independent rear suspension. Braking by disc brakes were up to contemporary standard and that applied to the basic chassis with a tube space frame construction clad in aluminium bodywork too.

Probably the true Achilles Heel of the DBR4 was the engine, the “250” part of its name: Only 2,5-litres in displacement compared to the 3,7-liters of the basic road car construction and the 3 litres of the Le Mans-winning car it was a sleeved down version of these rather than a built-to-spec racing engine. Meaning not only that it was basically bigger than it need to be, but also that it suffered an unreliability that the proven long distance-unit did not. And finally there was the location of the engine: Front mounted was the way it was done in most of the Fifties – but in 1958 Stirling Moss won in an underpowered but mid-engined Cooper, starting a revolution that Aston Martin missed.

Even though the DBR4/250 did in fact perform quite well on its debut in April 1959, as Roy Salvadori took second place behind Jack Brabham’s Cooper, it never again challenged for the leading places. And as that debut race was a non-championship race the DBR4/250 must suffer the indignity of the statistics pointing out that it never managed to score a single point towards the championship. In truth Aston Martin sensed where this was going and only entered the DBR4 in five races, instead focusing on the sports car DBR1 at Le Mans and what a wise decision that was: It won. Making it the most important Aston Martin ever – well, arguably challenged by some Bond cars, but surely a Le Mans win beating Jaguar and Ferrari would have made them forget the meagre performance of the Grand Prix car.

Which is why it is rather easy predicting that the “return” in 2021 will fare better. Not only will they run all the championship races, but there are in the 2021 season many more of them than in 1959 – as well as many more points awarded per race. Not to mention that the Formula One team is an entirely different entity to the actual Aston Martin automobile makers, which is indeed why I put the word “return” in quotes.

As usual I have even before the season starts realized that the old car might have been a failure but still strikes a lot more chords of what I really love in cars than the new one – and results are not going to change too much about that. Which is completely analogue to my sentiments towards the cars: Lovely twelve cylinder GT’s, yes Sir, but you can keep the hypercars and hand me a somewhat withered DB4 instead. That’ll do just fine: Not the fastest, but it’s not about that, is it?

Except in contemporary racing, of course. But there’s even a solution for that and it’s called “historic motorsport”. Give it a try in 2021.

Aston Martin made the above short film explaining why they are racing and it contains a lot of driving shots of the DBR4: Click to enjoy.

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