Aston Martin Nimrod 1982
GBRACING CARS FROM THE EIGHTIES
IT COULD ONLY HAVE BEEN A bunch of incurable British optimists that began a project, late in '81, to beat the domination of Porsche in endurance racing for the '82 season. Anyone else would never have attempted it.
The Germans' sheer wall of expertise, their track record, their limitless finance, their dedication and their sheer weight of numbers on the starting grids of European circuits ought to have been enough to put the kybosh on the idea of a British challenge. It didn't. A race-mad group, none too well financed, began the project knowing only that the basis of their machine would be a big but unturbocharged road car's engine. It probably helped that it was made by Aston Martin and they were all closely connected with the marque. The ultimate sign of their optimism was the fact that they called the car Nimrod, after the hunter of the Old Testament, when reason made it clear that their machine was much more likely to be the quarry; the cannon-fodder.
This, of course, is hindsight. None of us saw it this way in 1981. The Nimrod project's announcement raised great
British hopes, together with those sometimes misleading emotions, nostalgia and patriotism. Viscount John Downe, entrant of the most successful Nimrod so far makes no bones about the fact that these things influenced him.
'His lordship races the car', says Downe team manager Richard Williams, 'because he likes to fly the flag for Britain, and he's always had a great loyalty for Aston Martin. Myself, I like things made here, I've always had a strong desire to see Astons back at Le Mans after so many years and I want to stop them playing the same old tune at the end of endurance races. . .'
Viscount Downe, who sold his Ford GT40 to finance the car had
quite literally - his finest Nimrod racing hour when his drivers began closing on the third-placed Porsche in the 20th hour at Le Mans '82. At that point, it looked as if the car could snatch a third place in the race. It was 18 years since Astons had raced officially on the Sarthe circuit and Britons in the know rejoiced. In fact, the car had problems and finished rather distantly seventh.
To add injury, the Nimrod company formed to build and race the cars, but always shakily financed, ceased trading and the Nimrod name had to be upheld by its one or two customers. It looked as if the lights would go out on the whole project; that it would soon be forgotten.
But the reverse is true. This season, three Nimrods (a total of four Aston V8-powered cars, if you count Len Bailey's EMKA) are lining up on the grid for the Daytona 24 hour race, more than have been there before. The Downe Nimrod is scheduled to do five races in total this season (Daytona, Silverstone, Le Mans, Spa and Brands Hatch), which is more than it has done in the past two seasons. The Nimrod-count at Le Mans is expected to be three; there were only two even in the 'year of hope', 1982. The British car's star seems to be ascending again.
The general view among racing afficionados seems to be that if you want to race a non-Porsche and you haven't the money and expertise to build your own car, a Nimrod represents the best bet. It came close to real glory in '82 and restrictions on fuel capacity and consumption are acting in its favour, reducing its need for pit stops, compared with turbo-cars, in very long races.
The Downe Nimrod did have quite a good debut year. Despite the fact that it ran in only three of six World Endurance Championship rounds - and that their funds were considerably restricted compared with the Nimrod company's one works entry, let alone the Porsches - his Lordship's team was placed third in the 1982 points. The works car didn't finish a race.
'It was a nice bonus', says Richard Williams, 'but we were 'way behind Porsch~ in the points. There's no way we could, do races like Monza in Italy or . Fuji in Japan. His lordship' . couldn't consider it. The budget. was stretched just doing the races, we did.
'There's no other team that goes Group C racing with the car towed , in on a trailer. They all have - proper transporters, but we spend what we have on the car. Our budget's big when you look at the totals, but it's probably about equal to what Porsche's people spend on catering. . .'
The Nimrod project was started by Midlands Aston dealer Robin Hamilton. In 1977 and '79 he entered a much modified Aston V8 at Le Mans; the results were disastrous, though the car did at least finish 17th in '77. The most fundamental problem was high fuel consumption, but experience did convince Hamilton that the Aston V8 engine was the right base for a mid-engined coupe, designed specifically to contest long distance sports car events. He asked Eric Broadley of Lola Cars to design such a machine.
It was while Broadley was developing a design for Nimrod, that Victor Gauntlett, Atvil's chairman and sometime historic race competitor, became involved. Gauntlett, who also then owned Pace Petroleum, had only recently taken up his post with the still-ailing producers of Britain's highest performance car. He was only too aware of the pitfalls of a full AM return to racing, but here he saw a way of putting the marque firmly back onto the motors port map. Nimrod Racing Automobiles was formed with Gauntlett as chairman, Hamilton as managing director and a third shareholder, Peter Livanos,
Aston's man in the United States. Aston's contribution was to supply race engines from their Tickford works. The whole operation was based at Hamilton's Staffordshire garage.
The car had a fitting launch at Goodwood with Stirling Moss present and was demonstrated by one of Britain's few World Champions in recent years, James Hunt. Derek Bell, although contracted to race Porsches in the World Endurance series, did much of they works car's testing.
The Nimrod is constructed very 'much with fuel efficiency and reliability in mind. The Group C rules'require a minimum fuel
consumption of 6.mpg (in the V8 . saloon Hamilton was getting a mere ~ 4.5) and a 21.8gal fuel capacity. Consequently much
wind tunnel testing was done.
That produced a clean, though slightly bulbous, shape with a drag co-efficient of below 0.3. The body itself is formed around a Dural monocoque chassis with aluminium sheet. All suspension loads are fed to the tub. The car has gull-wing doors and is unusual in that the whole rear section can be removed in seconds, providing complete access to engine and mechanicals. The dry sumped engine retains its standard 5340cc displacement, but cylinder head, piston, camshaft, induction and exhaust modifications raised the power initially to about 570 bhp at 7250 rpm. Transmission is a five-speed Hewland VG unit with Salisbury limited slip diff, and roller spline driveshafts.
For the rear suspension, twin transverse lower links are used with a single top link and twin radius arms each side, while uprights are cast aluminium. There's an adjustable anti-roll bar. At the front, wide-angle bottom wishbones are used with a single upper link, operating adjustable coil spring/shocker units, mounted inboard. The front uprights are hollow and made in magnesium and there is an adjustable roll bar. Steering is by a rack and pinion system; brakes are Lockheed's massive 13.4in ventilated discs all round with split calipers. The discs, a source of trouble in the past, now licked, cost £200 apiece. Centre locked wheels, 16in x 11in front, 16 or 19in x 15in rear are shod with Avon rubber. 'Because of our tight budget', explains Williams, 'our wet wheels are a different size to our drys. The car arrived with 19in rears and rather than junk them we kept them as wets.'
Appropriately the factory Nimrod made its debut at the Pace Petroleum-sponsored Six Hour Race at Silverstone in May 1982. By then, Lord Downe, (who is also Aston Martin Owners' Club president), had his own car ready to join in.
'I can confirm', says Lord Downe, 'that if there hadn't been a strong Aston Martin connection I would not have taken this on. I've had a great affection and respect for Aston Martin for a long time. And the fact that Richard is a pre-eminent Aston Martin specialist, with experience in racing thinking swayed me.
'The actual idea of racing the Nimrod developed out of a discussion with Michael Bowler, Richard Williams, Victor Gauntlett and myself. It was mostly done on the telephone and finished over dinner with Victor at our club - which is the way Englishmen should go about buying motor cars.'
At Silverstone the cars were not identical in specification. Williams had only taken possession of the Downe car four weeks before, but had rebuilt with modifications. The major change, described by Williams as 'dramatic' was to the suspension geometry. Others involved the resiting of the engine mounts, plumbing and air ductlng. The drivers were Mike Salmon and Ray Mallock.
In the race, the works car retired with ignition problems at the fourth hour; the Downe machine finished a popular sixth, though it had oil surge problems. It was also fourth of the Group C cars entered, racing against the likes of Porsche, Ford, Rondeau, Lancia and others. Fuel consumption turned out to be lower than expected, a factor that was to become a notable forte and hopes were high for Le Mans. But the works car's retirement was an omen for the season.
The 1982 Le Mans was notable not only because it marked the official return of Aston Martin, but also because it was the 50th anniversary of the event. The strict scrutineering presented some problems for the Nimrods. The main one was that they had insufficient windscreen height. Hamilton overcame it by raising the car's ride height. Williams was unwilling to upset his car's handling and so a rather ugly extension was fixed to the windscreen top, that made it look like a London taxi lamp.
Practice put his lordship's car 23rd on the grid. The works car was 26th in a field of 55. The 4 pm start saw the Rondeaus, Porsches and Fords (the latter using Cosworth DFLs) as leaders, with the Nimrods 16th and 21st at the first hour, the works machine ahead. Williams had decided to be cautious and limited maximum revs to 6500rpm against the allowed 7200-pius, though he shed 30 bhp by doing so. He was well aware that the works effort
had blown engines in testing. The roof extension was also reducing top speed by about 7.0mph.
The second hour saw the works Nimrod 11th, the other close behind at 14th, both cars lapping faster than practice. Many other competitors such as Porsche and Lancia, having turned up the turbocharger boost to achieve flying laps in practice and good grid positions, were running lower boost for reliability or low fuel consumption. By 7 pm the British duo had moved up to 11th and 12th places and were lapping at 135mph.
But disaster struck the Hamilton car. Tiff Needell had sudden tyre failure, and found himself spinning down the Mulsanne straight when flat out at over 200 mph, finally coming to rest very hard against the Armco. The car, though the chassis, engine and gearbox suffered heavy damage, remained remarkably intact and Needell walked away unscathed.
Eyes turned to the private entry, which steadily climbed to sixth overall after seven hours. And by 4 am on Sunday the Germans were looking worried; British fans were elated as they watched the Nimrod thunder around in incredible fourth place, its nose snapping at the heels of the third-placed works Porsche, its rich V8 rumbling above all the others as it hove into sight. Would it last?
The sterling effort was maintained until 10.30am when, the car pitted, out of schedule, having mysteriously lost power.
Fuel pump, distributor and plugs were all changed, but the trouble continued. By noon, now running on only seven cylinders, the Nimrod had dropped to eighth. With one hour to go, another place was lost and the big car was lapping at ever-reducing speed. Spirits in the pit were still high, however; the team ready to perform whatever surgery would get the car to finish.
As luck would have it, the third placed Porsche retired, as did a Ferrari Boxer that was ahead. As the clock ticked on towards 4 pm panic began to register on the car's followers. It had been a long, long seven minutes since the Nimrod had passed the pits. Had it finally expired? Then it appeared, travelling very slowly, its engine sounding very sick, and it limped across the line to take seventh place amidst uproar.
A post-race engine check revealed compression on only five cylinders!
'It was a very proud moment', says Williams. 'All the Union Jacks and the cheering'. Lord Downe agrees: 'It was agony. Seeing those Union Jacks and people waving did bring tears to my eyes. They were willing us on and it was marvellous.'
At Le Mans '83 hopes for a good Nimrod result were high, particularly as Mallock shaved 11sec off his best '82 practice lap, putting the car on the eighth row. Now fitted with a 580bhp Tickford engine, it was again the fastest normally aspirated machine. The usual Downe driving duo was joined by American Steve Earle.
An hour after the 4pm rolling start Mallock lay 12th but shortly after handing over to Earle, things started to go dramatically wrong. The car came in with an overcharged and boiling battery. Four hours later, after a lengthy stop for a gearbox rebuild, it was a dismal 27th. As the race progressed the car suffered continuous problems, though on the move it demonstrated lots of speed pulling almost 220mph down the Mulsanne. Midnight saw it back to 23rd, but then Salmon spun in his own oil and, soaked in oil and petrol, he managed an uncomfortable drive back to the pits. The overheated electrics had melted the high pressure oil and fuel gauge lines.
That was how the night went on The car would pit, lose places, rejoin and regain places and pit again. At one point it was as low as 31 st, four hours later it was back to 22nd and then, with Mallock driving a fine double stint, it was 17th. Salmon continued that, so that with seven hours left the Nimrod lay 15th. But, just as a top ten place looked a possibility, the engine blew. Lying on top of the bell housing was a conrod (it is used as a paperweight by his lordship). It had been rejected by an engine that, five hours earlier, had run for a few minutes without
oil pressure when the lines failed.
For 1984, changes are in hand. The V8's power is already adequate, the problem has been a need to shave
off more poundage.'The present
car', says Williams 'is grossly overweight. We hope to spend money on Kevlar bodywork and we want to use some titanium parts - a fairly economic way of getting weight off. We've done wind tunnel tests for a new body arid it has better drag and down-force than the old. If nothing else we can build those results into the current car, but it all depends on money.
'Our aim is to get the car to the minimum weight limit- or at least a kilogram figure that starts with an eight rather than a nine. . . Our chances at Le Mans have obviously improved. We'll be more competitive. I think the privateer Porsches are requiring more and more rebuilds and that should help. At Le Mans we should certainly be in the top ten if the current car is reliable. It's a hell of a long way, though'.
There is no question of turbocharging the V8. 'It's the wrong way to treat this engine', says Williams. 'We've got enough power and increasing it would only hurt the fuel consumption. Now we're comfortably within the new '84 fuel regulations.'
Is there any hope of ever beating the works Porsches? 'None', says Williams, 'we'd have to introduce a batch of duff exhaust valves into their factory to do that.' But Viscount Downe is either less secretive or more optimistic: 'Judging by testing, the results we could achieve are
spectacular and totally classified.'
The grandstands are almost full with people; all following the progress of our Aston Martin Nimrod, the only car on the Brands Hatch club circuit. With Mike Salmon at the wheel we rocket past the pits at 150 in fifth gear, brake ferociously but without a hint of dive, change down to third; twitch slightly, and accelerate, hard, under-steering all the way through the curiously cambered Paddock Bend. Then we're fiat out up the hill to Druids.
Braking for the hairpin; it-takes all my strength not to be hurled through the windscreen, so powerful are the huge discs. There is no passenger seat in the Nimrod, no safety harness. Just an aluminium floor to sit on. The sharp edge of the electronic control box behind jams hard into the small of my back. My legs are pressed hard into the footwell, well to the left, so as not to Interfere with Mike's fancy footwork.
All the way there is noise and the smell of hot rubber, accentuated by Mike's zigzagging the car on the first of our laps in a none-too-successful attempt to warm the huge slicks. And the delicious smell of burning racing oil. Behind our heads, the lusty v8 roars and rises as the collossal acceleration hurls us down the tarmac.
We brake for a mere moment before Bottom Bend, a touch of opposite lock, and then accelerate fiercely through Graham Hill Bend, Mike see-sawing at the wheel. Again the g-force is amazing. The cockpit is now hot and my palms are sweating as my hands slide down the roll cage, searching for grip. There is no respite, however, as Mike hurls the heavyweight into the right hander, Clearways, and then we exit in fourth, 6500 to 6750rpm on the tachometer before Mike snicks the stubby lever on his right into fifth and we rocket past the pits. This is all happening I'm informed later, at below serious race speed.
At 50, my chauffeur is a veteran racer, but he doesn't behave like one. His competition career began with hill climbs and sprints at 17, in a Lea Francis. For his 21 st birthday his parents bought him a Jaguar XK 120 which he entered as often as possible while serving an apprenticeship in Scotland. After moving to Jaguar (under Lofty England) a C-type came next, followed by an ex-works '0' and then an Aston DB4GT Zagato, the latter raced for the 1962 season with success, though piston failure put Salmon out of his first Le Mans.
His association with Lord Downe began with the Aston Martin Project 214 car in 1964, progressing to a Ford GT40 in '67, responsible for the scars Salmon's face still bears. 'I was badly burnt when a mechanic left the fuel filler cap open and the car burst into flames at 200mph on the Mulsanrie straight', says Mike impassively.
Arid what of the Nimrod? 'It's a superb car and I really enjoy it. Driving fast is easy, but driving on the limit requires a lot more. Ray Mallock and I are the same height, so what suits Ray suits me 100percent. I don't interfere Ray has enormous ability for testing the car.
Silverstone 1982 was the first time I drove the car. You know, in 25 years I think I only tested a car about twice. It's a terrible mistake, I know. But there's no point with Nimrod, knowing that Ray can set the car up to suit me and that the car itself is progressively developed through the season.'
Salmon says he found the Nimrod 'staggeringly good' at first. 'Abbey Curve is taken flat out only in some good cars. In the Nimrod you don't even hesitate. It's a different dimension from
cars of the past.' .
Initially Salmon's times were some five or six seconds behind Mallock's though the gap has narrowed. Now there is very little difference, particularly during a long race. 'It's important to remember that Ray drives down to this car. He's had Formula Two experience. He thinks the brakes are not good enough and I think they are superb. I am driving up to the car because, frankly, it's the best I've ever driven.'
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