Before Aston Martin's campaign in world GT racing with the DBR9s, it was 1989 when the bespoke British manufacturer last had a factory team competing in International motor sport.
The AMR1 ran its first race in that year's World Sports-Prototype Championship for Group C machines before the company had already supplied its superb V8 engine to first the Nimrod, and then the EMKA and Cheetah-Aston Martins, in the early and middle years of the Group C formula.
Although only semi-works supported, the Nimrods were a crucial catalyst in the creation of Aston Martin's first race car of the modern era.
An AMR1, a Nimrod and the EMKA, can still be seen today competing in historic Group C events, recalling one of the golden eras of international sports car racing. That era began 1982, heralding a new fuel formula designed to produce parity of performance between forced induction and normally aspirated machines in the fledgling World Endurance Championship.
With fuel limited to 100 litres, force-fed cars could only run high boost in qualifying when consumption was not an issue. Former Aston dealer Robin Hamilton saw the potential such rules would provide for Tadek Marek's all alloy V8 which he already run in a modified DBS V8 at Le Mans in 1977 and 1979.
Hamilton's Nimrod project, using a flat-bottomed Lola monocoque as its base, was bolstered by the financial input of Aston owner Peter Livanos and then new Aston Martin Lagonda chairman, Victor Gauntlett, whose Pace Petroleum concern held a 50% stake in AML. This triumvirate formed Nimrod Racing Automobiles with Aston Martin Tickford preparing engines for what was effectively a semi-works operation. When, however, late regulation changes reduced minimum weight from 1OOOkg to 800kg and permitted ground effects aero, making Nimrod outdated before its first race, Livanos pulled out in January 1982. Ultimately, it was the privately run Nimrod of Lord Downe, the Aston Martin Owners Club’s late former President, that outshone the NRA entries, securing a memorable seventh place at Le Mans in 1982 and third overall in the WEC. That was about as good as it got and after the dreadful double crash of the two Downe machines at Le Mans In 1984, Nimrods, bar a few IMSA races in America the following year, ran no more. The EMKA and Cheetah competed for little longer, completing their final races In 1985. Importantly, though, the Astons V8s potential in endurance racing had been confirmed.
When AML announced the AMR1 project in 1987 four of the driving forces behind the Downe Nimrods were to play important roles: Gauntlett as AML chairman, Livanos as financial backer; Downe team manager Richard Williams in the same role at Proteus Technology, established to run AMR1; Ray Mallock, who developed and raced the Downe Nimrods, as engineering director; and Hugh McCaig whose Williams-run, Ecurie Ecosse team secured the C2 category of the 1986 WEC, with co-responsibility for build and testing of the prototype. As always with Aston Martin, Le Mans was the ultimate goal and a state of the art design was essential.
Penned by Canadian Max Boxstrom, the AMR1 sported a carbon/kevlar central tub but with a wide aerofoil under the nose which created ground effect at the front of the car, making it then unique amongst Group C machines. Also radical was the cars truncated rear with very wide underbody venturi, necessitating the engine and in-house transaxle to be mounted at a notably inclined angle, this having the added benefit of placing most of the transaxle's height forward of the rear axle line. As for the V8, it would benefit from four valves per cylinder using the latest version of the engine developed for the Virage road car which would be launched in October 1988.
Redesign of the production engine had been entrusted to American Reeves Calloway, and it was natural that development of the 6.0 litre racing unit should continue in his hands.
After a testing crash prevented AMR1 from racing at the WS-PC’s opening 1989 round at Suzuka, chassis AMR1/01 made its debut at Dijon-Prenois in May. Unfortunately, limited testing resulted in a suspension set-up totally unsuited for the track and a lowly 17th position for Brian Redman/David Leslie.
Then for Le Mans, two cars were entered. Crewed by Ray Mallock/David Leslie/David Sears, AMR1/03 retired with engine failure in the eleventh hour but AMR1/01, driven by Redman/Michael Roe/Costas Los, finished a commendable 11th in only its second race after a lengthy, unscheduled pit stop. It had, though, become dear that the cars design created too much downforce and excessive drag, limiting the Aston’s potential top speed by some 20mph. Indeed, down the Mulsanne Straight the AMR1s had been one mph slower than the EMKA-Aston in 1985 but they were formidable in braking and cornering.
In time for the Brands Hatch round, another new, lighter car, AMR1/04, had been built, with extensive suspension improvements. The result was a fine 4th place for Redman/Leslie, albeit assisted by a high rate of attrition, but clearly AMR1 had the potential to run in the top six, beating the debutant turbocharged Jaguar XJR-11 in the process. It also marked the first race appearance in Britain of a factory Aston for 25 years.
At Nurburgring, the lack of top speed again told, and with the same driver duo AMR1/04 took a solid 8th place.
The best result would follow at Donington Park when Leslie/Roe came home 6th In AMR1/04 and Redman/Sears 7th in another new Chassis, AMR1/05 (and the lightest yet) an impressive and genuine result without the aid of a high retirement rate as at Brands.
On to Spa Francorchamps and Redman, sharing AMR1/05 with Stanley Dickens, finished 7th while Leslie/Roe in AMR1/04 suffered engine failure.
Alas, the final round in Mexico City would be the final race for the Aston. Chassis AMR1/05, now with a 6.3 litre, Version Two engine pushing out 740bhp, finished 8th driven by Leslie/Roe and in so doing secured 6th place for the team in the championship despite missing two races.
Although a revised AMR2 model with improved aerodynamics was on the drawing board and would later undergo testing, the Le Mans dream came to an abrupt end. Quite simply, parent company Ford did not want Aston Martin competing head to head against Jaguar, its other prestige brand.
The combination of uncertainty over the running of Le Mans in 1990 and Ford reneging on its promise to supply Aston with its Cosworth 3.5 litre V8 F1 engine for 1991 (which Jaguar did get, and for which AMR3 was already on the drawing board) ensured Henry had his way. One can only speculate as to what otherwise might have been achieved.
Happily, historic Group C racing In Europe and IMSA events in America continues to provide the stirring sight of these fabulous machines in full flight. An ever popular spectacle, these evocative endurance sportscars draw appreciative crowds wherever they appear and since 2000 European grids have increased dramatically with Jaguar, Porsche, Spice, Argo, Lancia, Tiga, March and Nissan all represented.
Since 2001, chassis AMR1/05, fitted with a 6.0 rather than 6.3 litre engine, has been putting up some fine performances, in the hands of initially David Leslie and owner Paul Whight. On the car’s historic race debut at Silverstone, Paul finished a creditable 9th, and the combination has since gone from strength to strength. David Leslie displayed his rapid pace in the Aston at a couple of two driver races in 2002, notably at Snetterton where he chased victor Win Percy’s Jaguar XJR-11 all the way to the flag.
The model’s first ever international victory followed at Monza in 2003, most aptly with David Leslie at the wheel and with the team managed by Ray Mallock, the thundering Aston setting the fastest lap.
2004 saw AMR1/05 net two thirds at Silverstone driven, respectively, by Paul and Bob Berridge.
Not to be forgotten is AMR1/04, raced in the USA by Jim Freeman. He had his debut in the car in a mixed historic race at Sebring in 2001, finishing 12th, and at the same meeting, sharing with Brian Redman, 14th in a Thundersports race.
In 2005 both AMR1/04 and AMR1/05 competed in historic Group C/IMSA events in America with Bob Berridge and Paul Whight at the wheel.
After years of sterling service in Group C racing owner Paul stepped back in 2013 and gave the controls to GT3 winner Andy Meyrick (whose father Peter had raced against in group C for a few years).
Andy put AMR1/05 on the front row of the grid at Donington in May 2013. After a phenomenal first lap Andy emerged onto the pit straight significantly in the lead. A position he fought and wrestled to hold on until he took the flag for the marques first ever win on UK soil.
In its next outing in 2014 owner Paul Whight put his Aston GT3 co-driver, Le Mans P2 winner Tom Kimber Smith, at the wheel at the Le Mans 24hr support race. In front of a crowd in excess of 100,000 Tom put the car 5th in qualifying and started the first lap in determined style. In no time AMR1 was up to 2nd and Tom held that position to the flag. The aero and braking dynamics of AMR1 shone again as this was an amazing result for a normally aspirated Group C car on an acknowledged 'power circuit' where the turbo cars should have walked away with the honours.
Most recently, in 2016, French sportscar legend Nick Minassian drove AMR1 to outright victory at Paul Ricard. The car was prepared and run by Group C specialists, John Danby Racing.