Aston Martin was born out of competition. Lionel Martin’s background in hill-climbing gave the company its name, courtesy of Buckinghamshire’s Aston Hill. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Aston Martin name has become synonymous with success in sports car and endurance racing, with a World Sportscar Championship title, an outright win at Le Mans in 1959 and a number of impressive race and class victories right up to the present day. The company’s ventures into European Grand Prix and, later, Formula One, are less familiar but no less remarkable. When Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford opened their London workshop in 1913, racing was the key to the most demanding and exciting customers. Throughout the company’s first decade, Martin’s dream was always to enter the fledgling European Grand Prix circuit that was emerging from the road races and ad-hoc competitions being held in France and Italy. Racing was where companies could make their name and hone their craft — the perfect symbiosis.
It was through the close participation of key customers such as Count Louis Vorow Zborowski that these dreams came to fruition. Fabulously wealthy and with a penchant for speed, he helped Martin by funding the construction of two cars — and an all-new four-cylinder race engine — for the 1922 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. In a situation familiar to racing engineers the world over, the cars were not ready in time, so Aston Martin’s debut in Grand Prix competition was on 15 July 1922 at the French Grand Prix in Strasbourg. Chassis TT1 was helmed by the Count, with TT2 driven by Clive Gallop.
It was an inauspicious debut as both cars retired with engine problems, but with perseverance and the undoubted skill of the drivers and engineers, the TT cars went on to achieve several podiums, including second place at both the 1922 and 1923 Grand Prix de Penya Rhin, held at Spain’s Vilafranca circuit. In 1923, Aston Martin was third at France’s Grand Prix de Boulogne. Tragedy struck the following year when Zborowski suffered a fatal crash at the wheel of a Mercedes in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The loss of his patronage and enthusiasm, and Aston Martin’s own difficult circumstances, ended the company’s first era of official participation in international motorsport.
It was not until 16 June 1946 that an Aston Martin took to the grid again. The line-up of the Sports Car Grand Prix Automobile de Belgique was characterised by a mix of race cars old and new, including a 1936 Aston Martin 2.0-litre Sports Car. Driving what has come to be known as “The Black Car” was St John “Jock” Ratcliffe Stewart Horsfall. An early enthusiast of the marque, Horsfall had spent the war in M15, honing driving skills that he turned into an impressive victory in Belgium. Just three years later, Horsfall ran an Aston Martin Speed to fourth place (second in class) at the 1949 Spa 24-hour race, having chosen to drive the car for the entire 24-hour race on his own. He died just four weeks later in an accident while driving an ERA racing car at Silverstone.
With Sir David Brown’s acquisition of the company in 1947, Aston Martin placed renewed emphasis on racing. The story of its success in the World Sportscar Championship is well known, but at the same time Sir David was pushing to develop a Formula One car, the Aston Martin DBR4/250 single seater. Created by acclaimed engineer Ted Cutting, the DBR4 first ran in 1957, but only began competing in 1959. Two cars entered the BRDC International Trophy event, a race run to Formula One rules at Silverstone, on 2 May. Car No1 was driven by Roy Salvadori, less than two months before his famous victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Aston Martin DBR1. At Silverstone, Salvadori finished second behind Jack Brabham’s Cooper-Climax T51, but this promising start failed to translate into a successful season. 1960 marked the end of Aston Martin’s first Formula One adventure.
Aston Martin became title Partner of Red Bull Racing in 2018, with the iconic wings featuring on the cars’ livery from 2016, marking the start of the Valkyrie development with Red Bull Racing. 2021 will mark the start of another chapter, the culmination of long-standing ambitions and the exceptional skill and hard work of the company’s engineers and drivers, as the Aston Martin Formula One team makes its debut on the global stage. “The Formula One grid is the right place for Aston Martin,” says Lawrence Stroll, Aston Martin’s Executive Chairman. “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 Formula One, all over the world.”
This story is an extract from an article featured in the AM46 issue of Aston Martin magazine, out now. If you're not already a subscriber, visit magazine.astonmartin.com/magazine-subscription so that you can read the feature in full.