Andy Palmer was born several years after Aston Martin’s first entry into F1 — which is probably just as well. The British motor company’s CEO and President will not recall first hand how dithering by Aston Martin led to a disastrous association with grand prix racing in 1959 and 1960. But the fact that Palmer is not in a hurry to become an independent F1 engine manufacturer has nothing to do with his firm’s history of indecisiveness.
Aston Martin, as we know, has strengthened its hypercar link with Red Bull by becoming title sponsor in 2018. Meanwhile, the decision to travel down the engine route for 2021 will rightly be predicated on F1’s ability to agree on a power unit that is much cheaper and less complicated than the present techno conglomeration than doesn’t even sound attractive.
Back in the winter of 1957/58, the engine was not the problem. Aston Martin had a glorious 3-litre straight six, well proven in sports car racing. A decision to stroke the engine down to 2.5 litres and build an elegant F1 car around it placed the team management on the horns of a dilemma.
With the firm’s budget being insufficient to stretch to both categories, it was a matter of either continuing the quest to beat Ferrari in the prestigious world sports car championship or stepping up to the challenge and acclaim associated with grand prix racing.
Aston played safe and chose the former. They would lose out on both counts. While spending 1958 failing to beat the Ferrari Testa Rossa, Aston Martin parked their F1 car, the DBR4, under a dustsheet.
During that season, the world of F1 technology was being turned on its head; or back to front, to be more precise, as Cooper continued impressive progress started in 1957 with the first mid-engine GP car. Yet despite this sea change, Aston Martin made the curious decision to simply dust down their F1 car and go racing in 1959.
The DBR4 was elegant and reportedly as nice to drive as the superb Maserati 250F with which Juan Manuel Fangio had won the 1957 title. Compared to nimble Cooper, however, the Aston Martin would be obsolete before it had so much as turned a wheel in anger.
The debut was both promising and misleading as Roy Salvadori finished second to Jack Brabham’s Cooper in the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone. That was as good as it would get, Salvadori subsequently doing no better than a couple of distant sixth places (three laps behind the winner on one occasion).
If choosing to race the DBR4 had been questionable, a decision to build a new car for the following year was bonkers — particularly in the aftermath of Cooper’s domination of 1959. The DBR5 may have been smaller and lighter but all that effort was rendered pointless by the engine — and a heavy one at that — remaining up front. Mercifully, perhaps, the Aston Martin raced just three times in 1960 before a line was finally drawn under the F1 effort. But not before the bungled project had destroyed a British driver’s huge potential.
Salvadori had raced alongside Brabham at Cooper in 1958, a fine second place at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, combined with third in the British GP and fourth in Holland, placing the debonair Englishman fourth in the championship.
Both Cooper drivers had promised to race for Aston Martin in 1959 but, when Brabham saw the nifty 4-cylinder 2.5 Coventry Climax engine about to go into the back of the Cooper, the wily Australian stayed put. Salvadori, too much of a gentleman, did not want to let down the team with whom he had enjoyed success in sportscars. His reputation went down with the ill-considered grand prix venture.
F1 has changed out of sight since then. This time, at least, Aston Martin’s delayed decision makes a lot of sense.