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Opinion
Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

Why Aston Martin is right to return to Le Mans

OPINION: Aston Martin's announcement that it has reactivated the Valkyrie Le Mans Hypercar project for twin assaults on the World Endurance Championship and IMSA SportsCar Championship from 2025 is excellent news for sportscar racing. And it means the 1959 Le Mans-winning marque will be back at La Sarthe for a long overdue crack at overall glory at the 24 Hours

Aston Martin Valkyrie

Ferrari returning to the Le Mans 24 Hours was arguably the biggest motorsport story of 2021, while the famous Italian marque’s victory in the French classic will probably stand as this year’s feel-good moment. This week’s Aston Martin announcement should be viewed in a similar way.

For sportscar fans, Aston Martin’s comeback is a big deal and – whisper it – endurance competition is the British manufacturer’s true motorsport home. The Formula 1 team has certainly improved and added some much-needed spice to this season, but Aston Martin’s time at the pinnacle of the single-seater ladder still stands at just four seasons: 1959 and 2021-23, aside from a brief grand prix presence between the World Wars.

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Your writer grew up attending Aston Martin Owners Club meetings and, while the sight and sound of a DBR4 GP car certainly made an impression, it was the exception that proved the rule. Sports-racers and GTs provided the mainstay of the exotic machinery on show.

In long-distance racing, Aston Martin has a rich, albeit at times colourful, history. For British fans, only Jaguar is as big a name and it doesn’t have such a long story at the Circuit de la Sarthe, even though it has seven overall wins to Aston’s one.

For many years Aston Martin was a force in the smaller-engined classes before overall victories became a possibility. The 1.5-litre Ulster often punched above its weight and managed third at Le Mans in 1935, the same year future sister company Lagonda pulled off a surprise overall victory against Alfa Romeo.

An often-forgotten long-distance success came at the 1948 Spa 24 Hours, when Jock Horsfall – whose name lives on thanks to AMOC’s long-standing St John Horsfall Trophy – and Leslie Johnson won the first post-Second World War edition of the event in a 2-Litre Sports.

That victory came shortly after a key moment in the company’s history. Industrialist David Brown had just bought Aston Martin (and Lagonda) and made a concerted effort in endurance competition in the 1950s. It’s this period from which the most legendary Aston Martin racers come.

The svelte DBR1 prototype triumphed at Le Mans in 1959 with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori leading home a marque 1-2

The svelte DBR1 prototype triumphed at Le Mans in 1959 with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori leading home a marque 1-2

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The DB2 was a consistent top-six threat at Le Mans in the early 1950s, finishing 3-5-7-10-13 in 1951, while the DB3S was runner-up three times, in 1955-56 and 1958.

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During this time Aston Martin produced some of the best-handling sportscars in the world, even though they were normally outgunned by rivals such as Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes and Maserati. That helps to explain why, before 1959, Aston Martin had won at Goodwood four times and twice triumphed in the gruelling Nurburgring 1000Km but not yet cracked Le Mans.

That changed in 1959 when the DBR1, surely one of the most beautiful cars ever to grace a circuit, scored a 1-2 after the rival Ferrari Testa Rossas overheated. Anyone who has seen a DBR1 drifting at the Goodwood Revival (or were lucky enough to see it in period) will appreciate the place of Ted Cutting’s design in motorsport history.

Many of its main rivals in the marketplace – including Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini – are in Hypercar, taking on the challenge of Le Mans and WEC (and IMSA) in the top class. It makes sense Aston Martin joins the ever-growing party

Thanks to Stirling Moss – both behind the wheel and in terms of persuading Aston to actually send a car to Germany! – Aston also won the Nurburgring 1000Km and Goodwood Tourist Trophy again, thereby pipping Ferrari and Porsche to the sportscar world championship.

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That remains a high-water mark of Aston Martin’s motorsport success, but there have been plenty of stories – good and bad – since then. Brown wound down racing activities after 1959, but the DBR1 was still good enough to finish third in private hands (and with Jim Clark and 1959 winner Roy Salvadori at the wheel) at Le Mans in 1960.

Brown’s series of Project cars – based on the DB4 GT and bespoke prototypes to varying degrees – promised much but were invariably outnumbered. Project 212 led Le Mans in 1962 before retiring, while the last great day of the Brown era came when Salvadori’s 214 beat Ferrari on home ground in the 1963 Coppa Intereuropa at Monza following a thrilling duel with the 250 GTO of Mike Parkes.

Thereafter efforts involving Aston Martin, usually around ‘Tadek’ Marek’s V8 engine, ranged from the disastrous (Lola-Astons in 1960s) to solid-but-unspectacular (Nimrod and EMKA in Group C) via the bizarre (RHAM/1 ‘Muncher’ of 1977 and 1979). The AMR1 showed promise in Group C in 1989 before the project was abandoned.

Aston Martin’s second golden era had to wait until the arrival of Prodrive and the GT1 and GT3 programmes in the mid-2000s. The DBRS9 was a successful racer in British GT and around the world in the burgeoning GT3 category but it was its bigger brother, the DBR9, that really grabbed the imagination.

Prodrive-run works Astons took back-to-back Le Mans victories in GT1 class in 2007 and 2008 (pictured)

Prodrive-run works Astons took back-to-back Le Mans victories in GT1 class in 2007 and 2008 (pictured)

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

The V12 sounded fantastic and provided some of the decade’s best long-distance battles as Prodrive took on the crack Pratt & Miller Chevrolet Corvette team at Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series. The Corvette narrowly came on top at home, but at the 24 Hours the score ended at 2-2.

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The DBR9 remained a winner at world championship level into the 2010s, though its success – like those of other front-engined GTs – was restricted by the controversial inclusion of the Maserati MC12.

The DBR9 and DBRS9 laid the foundations for further success during the Prodrive era. Perhaps most memorably for fans, the GT success encouraged the Lola-Aston Martin LMP project that yielded a Le Mans Series title in 2009 and fourth at the 24 Hours that same year. The latter was a victory of sorts as it made the Gulf-liveried machine the top petrol runner home, behind the Peugeot and Audi turbodiesels nobody expected Aston Martin to beat.

Unfortunately, the success of the DBR1-2 or B09/60 depending on whether you ask Aston or Lola led to the disastrous open AMR-One that abruptly ended Aston Martin’s most-recent attempt at outright Le Mans victory.

Happily, Aston’s efforts in the hard-fought GT classes continued, at least until the end of 2020. The V8 Vantage scored three GTE Am titles in the World Endurance Championship to go along with its 2016 GTE Pro crown, as well as two Le Mans class wins (GTE Am in 2014, GTE Pro in 2017).

Its turbocharged replacement managed the rare feat of two class wins at Le Mans in 2020 and the GTE Pro crown, then took a Le Mans and WEC GTE Am double last year courtesy of TF Sport. In that context, it’s great to hear that all-new GT3 and GT4 contenders are also part of Aston Martin’s new agenda.

But many of its main rivals in the marketplace – including Ferrari, Porsche and Lamborghini – are in Hypercar, taking on the challenge of Le Mans and WEC (and IMSA) in the top class. It makes sense Aston Martin joins the ever-growing party and sportscar fans should rejoice. 

Aston's last assault on the top class with the AMR-One in 2011 was a day late and a dollar short, the two cars managing just six racing laps between them before the project was canned

Aston's last assault on the top class with the AMR-One in 2011 was a day late and a dollar short, the two cars managing just six racing laps between them before the project was canned

Photo by: Sutton Images

As well as chasing a follow-up to its 1959 Le Mans and championship success, this also provides the opportunity to tick some new boxes. A Sebring 12 Hours win would sit rather nicely alongside the DBR9’s stunning GT1 victory on its debut there in 2005, for example, while a proper shot at the Daytona 24 Hours to follow Heart of Racing’s GTD success this year would be apt.

Traditional Aston Martin fans were concerned when Lawrence Stroll took over and immediately seemed to put the focus on F1. So fair play to him – as well as Gabe Newell and Heart of Racing – for taking Aston Martin back to where it belongs.

There’s a long way to go before anyone will know how successful this latest chapter in Aston Martin’s Le Mans story will be, but the good news is there will be one. And, who knows, perhaps it could enjoy the same sort of fairytale return in 2025 as old foe Ferrari did this year.

Aston Martin Valkyrie

Aston Martin Valkyrie

Photo by: Aston Martin

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