“International motorsports was changing almost overnight: racing was turning green. Two new British marques had broken through to win their first Grand Prix; Cooper at Monaco and long suffering BRM earned a miracle victory at Zandvoort. Then the whole international racing world paused for Le Mans where only one Jaguar D-Type sat
with its tail toward the pit counter.
Aston-Martin was now Britain’s premier Le Mans challenger. Aston Lagonda owner David Brown had three DBR1s poised for his most serious assault on the only race that meant anything to him. He was indifferent toward the 1959 Sports Car Championship and intended to ignore the first two rounds to concentrate exclusively on Le Mans.
But Stirling Moss persuaded him to enter a single car for the Nurburgring 1000 Km. Aston had won the German race in ’57 and ’58 and Moss figured his chances against the works Ferrari trio were good with the Ring date moved nearer the summer solstice. Through sheer force of will and the sort of virtuosity that flavored Moss’ sports car career he ran down and beat the Ferraris after co-driver Jack Fairman saved the day; reliable Jack had put the lone Aston into a ditch rather than hit a stray Alfa Giulietta. It was just the lift Astons needed two weeks before Le Mans.
Porsche was leading the championship battle and went to Le Mans in its favorite role: giant killer. Ferrari was the giant and reacted with appropriate muscle: a trio of refined three-liter Testa Rossas with Pininfarina-drawn bodywork out of Fantuzzi. Ferrari had finally relented and fitted Dunlop’s world beating R5 racing rubber in place of the usual cotton cord Belgian Engleberts thatb had won him Le Mans in ‘58. He balanced his Barletti transporters with a fast and lovely Dino 196S for the two-liter class.
It was a fine little group that John Wyer had assembled. Three new DBR1s led by Nurburgring-winners Moss and Fairman; elegant Roy Salvadori with partner, Texas strong man Carroll Shelby plus his honor the mayor of Vergeze, France, Maurice Trintignant sharing with the gifted Belgian journalist and racer Paul Frere in the third DBR1; all riding on very British Avon tires.
Ferrari and Astons had faced each other during the first late April tests ever held at Le Mans. Modena had focused on psychological warfare. Hill and Cliff Allison were tasked with the destruction of the lap record and the morale of Aston-Martin. Aston sent Jack Fairman and Carroll Shelby to test and learn. They learned that the 12-cylinder Ferraris were too fast for the Aston sixes. But they knew that speed was just a single component of a successful Le Mans.
Further development by Moss gained over 400 rpm in top gear by fitting a tonneau cover and wheel spats. But the red cars still had the legs of the Astons on Mulsanne. Moss pounded around in his DBR1 tweaking and tuning for the 4:00 o’clock start. Shelby and Salvadori logged a total of four practice laps and returned to the hotel to fish, drink, eat and play gin. John Wyer plotted and planned and visualized a race that could bend his way. This required a sacrificial hero. Luckily, Aston had one in stock.
Wyer’s three car team was in reality a two car team with a piece of live bait. The number-four Moss/Fairman DBR1 was a lightweight hot rod with a one-off, high revving engine. The number-five and six cars wore the regular seven main bearing race engines; true 25 hour cars. Moss’ hopes for a Le Mans win were sacrificed for the team.
Naturally Moss was first away in Wyer’s DBR1 bait-mobile.
First to go take the hook was Jean Behra in the Testa Rossa he shared with Ferrari new hire Dan Gurney. The #12 Ferrari was geared a bit low and the Frenchman had made a mess of his start. Not Moss. He led until 5:00 o’clock from Gendebien’s TR and Behra who had run wild after his poor start and was already third and turning in laps that made Ferrari boss Romolo Tavoni grimace.
Behind Behra Innes Ireland had the lone D-Type Jaguar well placed. At 5:15 the excited Frenchman with the plastic ear passed Gendebien and Moss and took the lead. Moss played his role to the hilt and reported, on the next pit stop, that he got a huge tow from the Behra Ferrari that bumped his telltale from 5,700 revs to 6050 rpm on the run down Mulsanne! He was clearly enjoying himself and his role.
The Aston hare lasted all the way through Jack Fairman’s first shift. Three laps before the end of his stint Fairman pitted to report fluctuating oil pressure. Thus the Ecurie Ecosse
D-Type was promoted to second place. Moss got one lap into his second shift when a bit of bodywork was ingested through the air intake and destroyed a valve. It wasn’t even dark yet. Thus Salvadori moved the number-five DBR1 into third. When the aged Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar quit, the surviving Astons were second (a lap down to Gurney and Behra) and fifth (Frere and Trintignant).
But Behra had run the TR too hard too early. Gurney stopped just past quarter-distance, the cockpit wet with oil. As night fell the Shelby/Salvadori Aston ground around to Wyer’s stern orders with, since the departure of the Behra/Gurney Ferrari, a two lap lead from Hill and Gendebien: the ’58 winners were now on a mission to reclaim the time they had left in the pits. Behind them, the other Aston, was running a different pace and race. Then, already up to fourth and sixth overall, the Porsche RSKs, playing their giant killer role with quiet discipline.
Dawn brought the Germans grief. The fourth place von Trips RSK broke a crankshaft. Then Salvadori felt a vibration and pitted unexpectedly. A thorough inspection revealed no mechanical clues and Salvo was ordered back to fight the grinding advance of the relentless Ferrari. His out lap took six minutes, and Salvo was back with more urgent complaints about further vibrations. Just as the perplexed crew was poised to shove the number-five back into the fray a mechanic saw the problem. It had been hidden by the Aston’s aerodynamic fender spats: 18 inches of tread had been stripped off one of the rear Avon tires! Relief and chagrin mixed as the crew pulled the spat, changed the wheel, refitted the spat and pushed Salvadori, who had driven almost 60 miles on the bare cord of the tire, back to second place. John Wyer was stonily quiet.
By 10:00 o’clock the Ferrari had a three lap lead on the Astons. An hour later the winner of the 1958 24 Hours were practically four laps ahead. That ended just before noon. The leading Ferrari was in the pits and an alarmed Gendebien was pointing at the oil pressure gauge. They fiddled with the #14 Ferrari for several laps and finally sent it back on the course. When Shelby passed the staggering Ferrari the aristocratic Belgian spurred his mount. It was too much for the Ferrari and the steaming V-12 went to the dead car park with “fuel starvation” named as the official and final culprit. Apparently the steam had boiled the fuel in the six twin-choke Weber carburetors.
The final four hours were quiet agony for the entire Aston-Martin team. Salvadori’s lap times were well off the 4:12 pace set him by Wyer. Frere and Trintignant were a defensive second at a slightly slower pace. But there was no one left to worry about. Only 13 of the 53 starters survived to race in the warm afternoon. Jacques Swater’s 250GT Ferrari was 25 laps behind Trintignant and Frere; the first of four Ferrari GT coupes lined up behind the green cars from Newport Pagnell.
David Brown was thrilled. His cars had actually done it: Shelby brought DBR1/2 under the checkered flag just after 4:00 o’clock. It was a vivid example of intellect over passion, of strategy over speed. David Brown took a lap of honor with Shelby and Salvadori in the winning car but complained for an entire lap that the young lady who had been dragooned into riding along for color and photographic bait was getting greasy footprints on his expensive new jacket. It made Carroll Shelby laugh aloud.
Paul Frere named Stirling Moss as the author of Aston’s Le Mans victory. Frere was eloquent and blunt: Moss’ tireless pre-race work to find speed in the DBR1 made Wyer’s brilliant strategy work.
That September in the final race of the 1959 sports car championship season at Goodwood Moss did the impossible again. After his DBR1 burned to the ground during a botched pit stop he jumped into Shelby and Fairman’s DBR1/2 – the Le Mans winner – and won the race and the World Championship for Aston-Martin. The racing year ended pure Green with Aston Martin as World Sports Car Champion and Surbiton-based Cooper as F1 World Champion. “