By A.J. Mallan
Aston Martin winning the 1959 Le Mans 24hr with first and second place was a great achievement in a time when Ferrari dominated at Le Sarthe, as they basically did from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s. These were the days of true “endurance” racing where making it through to the end of the race was an achievement in itself and finishing with a 1-2, the pinnacle.
So, how did they do it?
The Aston Martin DBR1 model was built to replace the Aston Martin DB3S; it was developed by a small team, lead by Ted Cutting who personally designed the bodywork, chassis and engine.
The car initially featured a 2.5 Litre inline 6, due to the racing regulations at the time limiting displacement, but later they were able to run a 3 litre inline 6, that in the 1957 specification produced 250 bhp. At the time the DBR1 was at the cutting edge in terms of technology; for example having an alloy engine block and a rear transaxle.
While the Aston Martin DBR1 is undoubtedly most famous for its overall win at the 1959 24 hours of Le Mans, it also did well in other races and championships; the DBR1 sits in rare company being one of only 3 cars in the 1950s to win the 24 hours of Le Mans and the Worlds Sports Car championship, the others both being Ferraris, the 375 Plus and the 250 TR.
For the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans there were 3 DBR1s entered under the team of David Brown Racing, but there was also 4th car, a private entry under the name of A.G. Whitehead.
The Drivers were as follows, for David Brown Racing, Stirling Moss & Jack Fairman in the number 4 DBR1, Roy Salvadori & Carroll Shelby in the number 5 DBR1 and Maurice Trintignant & Paul Frére in the number 6 DBR1.
The number 7 DBR1 for team A.G. Whitehead was driven by Graham Whitehead & Brian Naylor.
The 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans began at 4pm on Saturday 20th June 1959 in dry conditions, with Stirling Moss getting away and leading the early stages of the race at a very fast pace. This was a strategy to lure the Ferraris into going very fast too. Meanwhile the other two David Brown Racing DBR1s were sitting back in 8th and 9th position. By the evening the 250 TR of Behra & Gurney was comfortably leading from the Moss & Fairman DBR1.For a while these two cars were the only cars on the lead lap having both lapped the other cars in the race.
A couple of hours later and now five hours in, Naylor rolled the Whitehead & Naylor DBR1 after hitting oil on the track. Then shortly after that on lap 70 the Moss & Fairman DBR1 were forced to retire from the race due to issues with their engine. This was then closely followed by Behra & Gurney in their 250 TR experiencing a head light problem that forced them to pit.
At this point in the race the DBR1 of Salvadori & Shelby were in the lead from the 250 TR of Behra & Gurney and in third position was the other DBR1 left in the race, that of Trintignant & Frere.
In the early hours of Sunday morning the 250 TR of Behra & Gurney finally retired from the race due to engine problems.
During this time the 250 TR driven by Gendebien & Hill started to close in on the lead of Salvadori & Shelby DBR1 who had lost time due to suspension issues forcing them into this pits. This resulted eventually in Gendebien & Hill’s 250 TR taking the lead, until at around 11am they came in to the pits to retire due to overheating. As a result of the last 250 TR retiring from the race the 2 remaining DBR1’s were left to cruise to a comfortable 1-2 Finish 25 laps ahead of the 3rd place car! A truly historic achievement for Aston Martin with Carroll Shelby taking the flag first.
Winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans as well as winning the World Sports Car Championship in the same year was a magnificent achievement for Aston Martin, during a time otherwise dominated by the prancing horse. In addition over the course of the DBR1’s racing history they were driven by some of the most legendary drivers of the time with the likes of Carroll Shelby, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham to name but a few. In my mind this makes DBR1 one of, if not, the most important Aston Martins ever and still to this date the only Aston Martin to win overall at the 24 hours of Le Mans.