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Winning the 1959 World Sportscar Championship provided Aston Martin with the perfect book-end to a decade of motorsport success, and 60 years later it remains one of the most celebrated chapters in the marque’s long history.
And yet it nearly didn’t happen.
In 1958, Aston Martin had won the Nürburgring 1000km and the Tourist Trophy, but Ferrari had taken victory in the other four rounds and been crowned champion.
The fabulous but ageing DBR1 would be entering its fourth season of racing in 1959, and thought was given to abandoning sports-car racing in favour of what would become an ill-fated Grand Prix programme.
David Brown, however, still craved victory at Le Mans. He and John Wyer therefore decided to focus their sports-car efforts solely on the French endurance classic.
But then, early in the year, the organisers of the opening round at Sebring got in touch and offered to cover Aston Martin’s expenses if it would send a DBR1 to Florida.
Wyer reluctantly agreed, and team manager Reg Parnell flew out to oversee operations for drivers Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby.
Frustratingly, the car retired early. Just after Shelby had taken over from Salvadori for his first stint, the gearlever broke off in his hand…
Ferrari won at Sebring, but next on the calendar was the Targa Florio. Aston Martin didn’t enter the Sicilian road race, and when the works Ferraris all struck trouble, the Porsche of Edgar Barth and Wolfgang Seidel snatched victory.
Two races down and only three to go – and Aston Martin was yet to score.
Further evidence that a full championship assault still wasn’t on the cards came via the fact that Wyer had no intention of sending a car to round three, the Nürburgring 1000km. Only when Stirling Moss began pestering him did Wyer relent.
Even then, Moss would have to cover the expenses, although Aston Martin provided two works mechanics and it was agreed that Jack Fairman would be co-driver.
The brilliant Moss went to Germany, overcame a trio of works Ferraris, and kick-started Aston’s title challenge.
As was often the case, he was first away from the Le Mans-style start, and finished his opening lap of the Nordschleife 18 secs clear of everyone else. By the time he eventually stopped after 17 laps, his lead was well over five minutes.
Fairman took over but was unable to maintain the gap to the chasing Ferraris, and worse was to come.
On the 23rd lap, he lost control and slid into a ditch. The Italian cars were through and into the lead, but to Fairman’s eternal credit he manhandled the Aston out of the scenery and drove it round to the pits.
Moss jumped in and charged back to the front, before handing over to Fairman again at the end of lap 33. Despite Fairman’s second stint lasting only a couple of laps, he was overtaken by Phil Hill, meaning that when Moss took over he had to catch and pass the Ferrari for a second time.
The Englishman was in irresistible form, though, and swept through to take one of his greatest victories.
‘Surely it would make winning more easy,’ wrote Denis Jenkinson in Motor Sport, ‘if [Aston Martin] found Moss a co-driver of higher calibre. To run a single-handed race two years running is enough to take years off his life.’
But Aston was, belatedly, back in the game. Two races remained in the World Championship season – Le Mans and the Tourist Trophy.
For the 24 Hours, the factory entered a full complement of DBR1s. Moss and Fairman would be in the ‘hare’, with which it was hoped it could goad Ferrari into a dangerously fast early pace. The other works Astons were for Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori, plus Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frère.
As predicted, Moss led away and the Ferraris went with him, the Scuderia also not doing itself any favours with shambolic pit work. Behind, the other DBR1s took things easy and circulated at a conservative pace.
The Moss/Fairman Aston eventually retired with engine trouble, but then the Ferrari of Cliff Allison and Hermano da Silva Ramos also dropped out, as did the sister car of Dan Gurney and Jean Behra.
By Sunday morning, the Phil Hill/Olivier Gendebien Ferrari led, but the surviving DBR1s had moved up to second and third. Just after 11am, the Italian car was into the pits with overheating issues that proved to be terminal.
The Astons motored on to claim a famous one-two, Shelby and Salvadori taking the honours. Jenkinson wrote that the victory was due to ‘reliability, careful planning, coolness and discipline, which was a fine example of how to approach the Le Mans 24 Hours.’
David Brown’s greatest ambition had been realised, and Aston Martin was now only two points behind Ferrari in the championship with just the Tourist Trophy to go.
Attention switched from the faltering Formula One campaign to sports cars as the factory got behind the elderly DBR1 and its efforts to secure the title.
Wyer decided to employ the same tactics as he had done at Le Mans. Moss and Salvadori would be in the ‘hare’, while Fairman and Shelby were in the second car, and Trintignant and Frère completed the trio of DBR1s.
Moss again led the early stages and everything went according to plan as he handed over to Salvadori, but disaster struck at the end of Roy’s first stint. When he pitted, fuel was pouring from the hose before it was anywhere near the filler cap, and it quickly ignited on the DBR1’s exhausts.
Salvadori leapt clear, but then the refuelling rig collapsed and made an already serious situation far worse. Eventually it was all brought under control, but obviously the car had to be retired.
Aston continued thanks to Graham Whitehead withdrawing his privately entered DBR1 so that the team could use his pit, while Moss was switched to the Shelby/Fairman car.
It had been running second, but Moss soon retook the lead from the Porsche of Jo Bonnier and Wolfgang von Trips, going on to claim a dramatic victory and secure the title for Aston Martin.
Behind him, Tony Brooks had been put into the Gendebien/Allison Ferrari in a late attempt to chase down the Aston, a task that was beyond even Brooks. He crossed the line in third, only two seconds behind the Porsche.
If he’d caught and passed the little German car to finish second, Aston and Ferrari would have finished the season tied on overall points, but only the best three scores counted – and Aston had recorded three wins to Ferrari’s one.
At the end of the season, Aston Martin finally abandoned sports-car racing and for 1960 turned its full attention to Formula One.
Sadly, its DBR4 was outdated and slow, and there was no question of producing a new design for the 1.5-litre formula that was being introduced in 1961.
The Aston Martin name continued to be seen in sports-car racing after the demise of the DBR1, from the Project cars of the early 1960s to the Nimrod and AMR1 Group C prototypes of the 1980s, plus the various GT models that have been such a successful presence in 21st-century endurance racing.
But 1959 will always be its crowning glory.
As celebrations continue for the 60th anniversary of that momentous achievement, spare a thought for the man without whom it wouldn’t have been possible.
How special it would have been to see Sir Stirling Moss reunited with a DBR1 this summer, evoking the famous Nürburgring victory that laid the foundations for an unforgettable season.
Images: Motorsport Images