Aston Martin AMR-One

The fine line between success and failure

Nothing beats a feel-good story with a major victory as the finale. An epic failure, however, also makes for fascinating reading. A prime example is undoubtedly the Aston Martin AMR-One from 2011.

Built to win Le Mans, it ended up lasting a combined six laps in its single outing ten years ago this year. Produced by hugely talented and experienced engineers, the AMR-One’s story shows that there is a very fine line between success and failure.

The AMR-One was the culmination of Aston Martin’s successful return to sports car racing that started with the DBR9. Created by Aston Martin Racing, this was a GT1 racer based on the DB9 production road car. The company was a joint venture between Aston Martin and specialist racing car constructor Prodrive, which had previously created the all-conquering Ferrari 550 Maranello GT1 racers. Although a full works effort, the program relied heavily on privateer backing. In addition to the cars raced by the factory team in major events, Aston Martin Racing also produced customer cars for privateers to run.

Equipped with a howling 6.0-liter V12 engine, the striking DBR9 was not just a fan favorite, it hit the ground running in the competitive, top-level GT category. Aston Martin Racing debuted the car at the 2005 Sebring 12 Hours where it immediately beat home favorites Corvette Racing to victory in the GT1 class. It also won drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the Le Mans Series and FIA GT Championship before the coveted class wins at Le Mans were scored in 2007 and again in 2008. By that time, Aston Martin Racing had also produced cars for the three lesser GT categories: GT2, GT3, and GT4.

Having won the GT1 category at Le Mans twice, Aston Martin Racing set their sights on bigger things for the 2009 season – outright victories. This increased ambition coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Aston Martin’s 24 Hours of Le Mans win in 1959 with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori driving a DBR1. To repeat that feat, the British manufacturer had to step up to the Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) class. That meant going up against purpose-built racing cars produced by major manufacturers like Audi and Peugeot. These factory LMP1 racers were usually years in the making and benefited from eight- or even nine-figure budgets.

Underneath the chassis, the large duct is seen that feeds part of the airflow through the AMR-One.

Aston Martin Racing neither had the time nor the funding to start from scratch. Instead, an inspired way in was found to nevertheless compete in LMP1. By using what was readily available, an Aston Martin-badged LMP1 car was readied for the 2009 season. It was built around an existing Lola chassis and featured the glorious V12 from the DBR9. This combination had already been used with some success by a private team in 2008. By using a production-based engine, the effort could also run a slightly bigger restrictor compared to the pure racing engines. New for the Aston Martin–badged car in 2009 was bespoke body work that was liveried in the iconic Gulf colors.

Known officially as the Lola Aston Martin DBR1-2, a two-car effort was fielded in the Le Mans Series and a third car was added for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With neither Audi nor Peugeot competing in all the rounds of the Le Mans Series, the door to outright victories was wide open for the striking new Aston Martins. As the DBR9 had done before, the DBR1-2 won the first time out, taking the outright victory at the season-opening Barcelona round. Although ultimately no match for Audi and Peugeot at Le Mans, the DBR1-2 scored several more wins and remained competitive in North America well into the 2011 season. A hugely popular machine, the DBR1-2 ticked all the boxes for sports car enthusiasts with its striking design, iconic livery, and magical soundtrack.

The unique aerodynamics of the AMR-One required an usually high waistline.

Ahead of the 2011 season, the LMP1 regulations were rewritten. With an eye on capping the performance, the engine displacement limits were cut considerably. This required all competitors to definitely produce new engines and effectively also brand-new cars. Pegged back considerably, the DBR1-2s were still allowed to run, but Aston Martin Racing saw the rule change as an opportunity to really step up to the top prototype category and produce an Aston Martin LMP1 racer without relying on help from specialist racing car constructors like Lola. This decision, however, was made at the eleventh hour and provided the engineers with the monumental task of producing a new car from scratch in mere months instead of years.

The new program was announced in September of 2010. Aston Martin chairman and Prodrive founder David Richards was clear about the intentions: “Having won the GT category twice at Le Mans in 2007 and 2008 and the Le Mans Series outright in 2009, we still want to achieve our ultimate goal of winning the 24 Hour race overall to bring the title back to Britain.” He was, however, somewhat realistic about the chances: “Even with this new car, it will still be a “David and Goliath” fight against the massive resources of our competitors, but we have become accustomed to this and relish the challenge.” In the same press release, it was mentioned that development had already started a few months earlier but as it turned out, the actual work did not start until the autumn of 2010.

Clearly ready to go, the Aston Martin Racing team is seen here in the official Le Mans team shot.

Aston Martin dubbed the new car the AMR-One, which should not be confused with the short-lived AMR1 Group C car that raced in 1989. To raise at least some of the required budget, a limited production run of six examples was proposed. Five of these were reportedly already pre-sold to Aston Martin collectors before the first car was completed. Further backing was provided by Gulf Oil, which had been a partner of Aston Martin Racing since the 2008 season. Tasked with the development of the AMR-One was George Howard-Chapell, Aston Martin Racing technical director and team manager. During his tenure at Prodrive, he had already developed the Ferrari 550 Maranello and Aston Martin DBR9 into race winners.

Whereas the DBR1-2 was a combination of an existing engine with a third-party chassis, developing the AMR-One from scratch allowed for the car to be a complete package. The reduction in maximum engine size meant that there would be more emphasis on efficient aerodynamics. Designed using sophisticated Computer Fluid Dynamics (CFD), the AMR-One aero package was unconventional as it not only channeled the airflow around but also through the car. This was in attempt to find the right balance between low drag and sufficient downforce. The chassis itself was a conventional monocoque constructed from carbon-fiber composites with an aluminum honeycomb core.

The compact straight-six engine can just be seen underneath the tubular steel subframe.

The revised engine regulations set a maximum displacement of 3.4 liters for naturally aspirated petrol engines or 2.0 liters for forced-induction units. Audi and Peugeot used diesel engines to great effect, but, taking the Aston Martin road car range in account, it only made sense to go for a petrol-fueled engine. It was determined that an in-line, turbocharged engine best suited the AMR-One’s general layout – in particular, a straight six, which was narrow enough to allow the airflow through the car. Compared to a V6 of a similar size, an in-line engine did not quite have the same torsional rigidity. This meant that the engine could not be mounted as a fully stressed unit. Instead, additional struts were fitted that connected the rear of the chassis to the gearbox.

Although regularly used for road cars, a straight six had not been used for a sports prototype at Le Mans for many years. The narrow, all-alloy unit was equipped with direct fuel injection and a single turbocharger. According to the specifications released in March of 2011, the 2.0-liter unit produced around 540 hp with the mandatory intake restrictor fitted. It was mated to a six-speed, paddle-operated gearbox, which was supplied by specialists XTrac. Meeting the minimum weight limit set by the regulations, the AMR-One tipped the scales at 900 kg.

One of the unused AMR-One tubs was used for the ground-breaking Nissan DeltaWing of 2012.

The Aston Martin Racing engineers did the virtually impossible and managed to turn the AMR-One from concept into a fully functional machine in a startling six months and on a shoe-string budget. Among the things that made this possible was the extensive use of computers during the design and development phase. This, at least in part, did away with the need for expensive and time-consuming wind-tunnel testing. Another key factor was the 3D printer. New parts could be created in record time for test fitting before the actual parts were cast, molded, or laid up.

Aston Martin Racing filed an entry for a single car in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, with the intention of running a second car at high-profile events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Testing commenced in March, and at the start of April, one car was entered in the Le Castellet 6 Hours, which was round one of the Le Mans Series. This was more a test than a race and the AMR-One finished eighty-nine laps behind the leader and was not classified. Three weeks later, two examples were brought to Le Mans for the official test. It was a very poor showing, as one engine failed within a few laps, while the other lasted a further twenty-odd laps despite the power being turned down to a mere 300 hp.

The large exhaust coming from the single turbo is mounted underneath the radiator.

Back at base, it was determined that the cylinder liners had failed. New ones were made from a stronger material but the fix could not be carried out in time for the cars to race at the Spa 1000 km. The very next outing was the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The two cars looked fantastic in the iconic Gulf Oil livery and the Aston Martin Racing team could once again rely on a strong fan base. No one expected a victory, but the spectators certainly looked forward to a left-field challenge to the dominant Peugeot and Audi. As it turned out that left-field challenge certainly did not come from the two AMR-Ones. The engine once again proved to be a weak spot in qualifying as the cars were twenty-second and twenty-fifth fastest. Losing much time on the straights, the two Aston Martins were slower than most of the second-tier LMP2 cars.

After qualifying, cracks were found in the aluminum pulley for the auxiliary drive on both engines. It was estimated that in order to survive the full 24-hour race, the pulleys had to be replaced four times. Another solution would be to remake them in steel, hoping it would not crack at all. It was a last-minute fix that could only be tried briefly during the warm-up. That proved to be a catastrophic mistake, as the increased weight had a devastating effect on the engines during the raced. It caused vibrations that destroyed the first engine at the start of lap three. Replacing the pulley on the second engine did not help, as the damage had already been done and after completing just four laps the second engine was also destroyed.

The only night-running the two AMR-Ones got at Le Mans was during the practice sessions.

While no one expected the Aston Martins to immediately challenge for victory, the actual result was a disaster and above all a huge embarrassment for both Aston Martin and Prodrive. Although a subsequent inquiry found nothing fundamentally wrong with the design, Aston Martin Racing decided not to spend the much-needed resources and time to turn what was a sound design into a proper racing car. The team understandably could not afford another poor showing and run the risk of losing its precious backers. Disappointed by the decision to axe the project, Howard-Chappell left Aston Martin Racing and later joined Multimatic. Here he oversaw the development of yet another Le Mans (class winning) vehicle, the Ford GT.

The AMR-One was not raced again, but at the 2012 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans two of the six chassis did line up for the race. One was used for the ground-breaking Nissan DeltaWing, which featured a very narrow track and ran in the experimental class. Equipped with a naturally aspirated Judd V8, the second was raced as the Pescarolo 03. Much like the AMR-One the previous year, the Pescarolo also lacked proper preparation and was run on a much tighter budget still. This lack of testing even prompted long-time Pescarolo driver Jean-Christophe Bouillon to withdraw from the race, as he did not feel comfortable or even safe inside the car. It was eight seconds faster than the AMR-One had been the previous year but again failed to reach the finish.

One of the two AMR-Ones at the start of the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans.

After competing several more races in 2011 with the DBR1-2, and even winning at Laguna Seca, Aston Martin Racing returned to the GT ranks in 2012. With various incarnations of the production based V8 Vantage and Vantage, the British team would remain successful for much of the decade. With Aston Martin focusing on Formula 1, the works team was finally disbanded at the end of the 2020 season.

Needless to say, most of the customer orders for the AMR-One were canceled, but the two cars that “raced” at Le Mans were sold to privateers. Both are reportedly still in running order; neither one has returned to the track.