Nimrod

Nimrod Description

In production: September 1981 -1984

Chassis numbers: NRAC1/001 – 002, NARC2/003 – 005, NARC3/006 (unfinished) Following the relative success of much his modified DBS V8, christened RHAM/1, Staffordshire Aston Martin dealer Robin Hamilton was encouraged to build a purpose built mid-engined endurance race car to compete in the new Group C World Championship. The new Group C rules were for closed sports prototypes where manufacturers could construct their own chassis, but engines had to be production based. This allowed for small, independent, constructors to fit race specification production based engines and compete with the established and much larger manufacturers.

Even before the 1979 Le Mans race, Hamilton had commissioned Eric Broadley of Lola Cars to design and supply two tubs, based on the T600 and designated T385; a wide monocoque of folded and riveted thin aluminium sheet and aluminium honeycomb sandwich with gullwing doors and inboard rear suspension. The tub also allowed the engine to be semi stressed and be able to be removed quickly if needed during a race. Initially Hamilton wanted to be able to build and sell partly finished chassis without an engine and for the buyer to have a free choice of what to fit. There was even the possibility that sometime in the future the car could be developed into for the road yet without a wealthy partner to share the financial burden the project could progress no further.

The partners who did join Hamilton to advance this bold project were Victor Gauntlet, Chairman of Pace Petroleum and also the recently appointed as Chairman of AML, and Peter Livanos, owner of AML North America. Together the three partners formed Nimrod Racing Automobiles Ltd (NRA) in September 1981 and ensured the fitting of the Aston Martin V8 engine was the natural and only choice. It also allowed the legitimate use of the famous Aston Martin grille design on the central cooling duct. The name for the car, ‘Nimrod’, came from the name of a hunter in the Old Testament, famed for his prowess, which more recently featured as one of the stirring and patriotic Enigma Variations by British composer, Elgar. With sponsorship from Pace and the blessing of AML who were keen that the name be seen on a race car again, NRA would not only build the cars and operate as a works team but also build and sell cars to private teams too. Whilst Aston Martin Lagonda was not actually directly involved in building or running the cars racing success, especially at Le Mans, would reflect very well on the company. Following some testing at Silverstone by Le Mans legend, Derek Bell, the prototype/development car, /001, was unveiled to the press in November 1981 at the Goodwood motor racing circuit and demonstrated by non-other than Stirling Moss and James Hunt. It went on to be demonstrated at the Dubai Grand Prix in December 1981 although the car was never actually raced in anger. Identified as NRAC1/001, the C1 indicated that it was built to IMSA GTP specification rather than FISA Group C; IMSA being the sanctioning body for sports car racing in the USA. With the exception of the first car, which used an engine from RHAM/1, engines were prepared by Aston Martin Tickford Ltd, a company wholly owned by AML, especially formed to offer engineering services for outside clients. Experience from the racetrack could be used to further develop the road cars. The race engine, designated as DP1229 was designed under David Morgan and claimed to produce between 550 and 600 bhp @ 7250 rpm dependent on the use of carburettors or fuel injection.

Soon after the prototype was unveiled, NRA had an order to build another car for a customer, AMOC president, Viscount Downe. The Downe car, NRAC2/004, was to be run by a separate team managed by AM specialist, Richard Williams who already had a long association with His Lordship and his collection of Aston Martins. The C2 in the chassis prefix indicated the cars were prepared to FISA specification and were also lighter than the IMSA speciation cars. Before even their first race which would see the NRA works team and private team car battle each other, a friendly rivalry was already developing.

The first time that the Nimrods were seen in competitive action on the racetrack was at the Silverstone 1000 Km race in May 1982, traditionally accepted as a warm-up for Le Mans the following month. NRA entered NRAC2/003, driven by professional drivers, Tiff Needell, Geoff Lees and Bob Evans, and finished in the team’s distinctive silver and green livery. AMOC president, Viscount Downe entered /004 in red, white and blue Pace Petroleum livery to be driven by ‘gentleman drivers’ Mike Salmon and Ray Mallock. During the race itself the cars performed well but were significantly off the pace of the dominant Porsche 956s which could lap almost 8 seconds quicker. The NRA works car retired after 148 laps with engine problems but the Downe car finished an encouraging 6th overall, 4th in the Group C class, and first British car home.

Prior to Le Mans, Ray Mallock, who as well as a talented driver, was also a respected racecar engineer, introduced revised suspension changes to the Downe car. The decision was also taken to set a lower rev limit than Tickford had recommended which, whilst costing ultimate top-end power, would ensure the V8 would last through the entire 24 hours. During scrutineering, the ACO, organisers of the 24 Hour race, found both the NRA and Downe cars to be too low. Whereas the NRA car had its ride height increased to comply, the Downe car acquired an extension above the windscreen that looked like a taxi roof sign when illuminated with the obligatory Le Mans marker lights. The gamble was that it was better to keep the suspension settings as they were and accept the additional aerodynamic drag of the greater frontal area. The NRA driver team remained the same as Silverstone whereas the Downe team driver line-up was augmented by Simon Phillips. During the race, the NRA car was running ahead due to its higher rev limit but after three and a half hours and whilst in 9th position with Tiff Needell at the wheel, the car crashed heavily on the Mulsanne. A rear tyre had deflated at around 200 mph and the car was sent into a wild spin bouncing between the Armco, the rear of the car taking most of the impact. Thankfully Needell was able to walk away unhurt and the strong cockpit had remained intact. The Downe car made steady progress up to 4th position in the early morning; the fastest non-turbo car. Sadly with less than 6 hours to go, the engine started to give trouble and power was much reduced. Despite becoming temporarily stranded on the track, an extended 27 minute pit stop and dropping down the field, the car continued to circulate albeit more slowly trailing a haze of smoke. The Downe car eventually crossed the finish line in 7th place despite a ponderous 7 minute final lap having been running on just 5 cylinders.

For the next outing in the 1000Km of Spa, the NRA car again retired due to engine problems but the Downe Nimrod ended the race 11th overall and 7th in Group C. After finishing well in three out of three races, the Downe team had achieved third place in the 1982 World Endurance Championship.

Viscount Downe entered his Nimrod into a fourth race in the season, the 1000 km at Brands Hatch in October even though the result would only count towards the drivers’ championship. The car had acquired a full width front wing and substantial sponsorship from the construction group, Bovis. Despite the heavy rain, the car came in 9th from a grid of 35.

Following the three retirements in three races in 1982, Pace and Victor Gauntlett withdrew their backing from NRA and Hamilton, despite being low on funds, set his sights on America and the IMSA series. Once in the US, Hamilton had no option but to accept paying drivers. The agreement to use the AM Tickford engines was also cancelled and Hamilton was free to build up his own from there on.

NRA's first venture into the IMSA series was the entry of two cars in the Daytona 24 hour race in February 1983. Chassis NRAC2/003, which was a group C car was driven by Drake Olsen, Lyn St James and John Graham and sponsored by Moosehead Beer. Chassis NRAC1/002, a lighter car already built to IMSA specification, was driven by the talented and experienced grouping of Darrel Waltrip, A J Foyt, Guillermo Maldonado and Tiff Needell. /002 had also attracted lucrative sponsorship from Pepsi Co, was painted yellow, and renamed the 'Pepsi Challenger'. The 'Pepsi Challenger' made a strong start climbing from 13th on the grid up to 5th. A series of small problems dropped the car down the field until the 121st lap when a sump baffle worked loose and damaged the engine. The same terminal fate affected the other car on the 208th lap. Rather oddly, later in the race, A J Foyt was added to the driver line up of a Porsche 935 which actually went on to win. The next outing for the work’s Nimrods was the heavily rain affected Miami Grand Prix, a 500 km race that was cut to just 1 hour 45 minutes on account of the appalling weather. The IMSA car /002 in the hands of Victor Gonzalez and Drake Olsen went from 22nd on the grid up to 13th overall and the Group C /003 car of Doc Bundy and Lyn St James achieved 20th overall having started 17th on the grid. For the 12 Hours of Sebring held that March, Chassis /002, still painted yellow following Daytona, began from 13th on the grid in the hands of Gonzalez and Drake Olsen but retired on lap 86 with a broken valve due to over-revving. The heavier Group C chassis /003, driven by Reggie Smith and Lyn St James only qualified 48th but finished an incredible 5th, the best result for the works Nimrod ever.

For the Road Atlanta 500km in April and with no sponsorship, only the Group C car, /003 was entered and driven by Olsen and St James. Despite a good qualifying spot of 7th, the car failed to finish after St James crashed on the pit straight.

Later in April came the Riverside 6 Hours when, again, only the Group C /003 was entered for Olsen and St James. The car retired after running over debris from a Jaguar that had been involved in an accident. A day before the event, the IMSA spec /002 was sold to Jack Miller, who carried on racing the car in IMSA events through to the end of the 1985 season.

The final works outing for NRA was at the 1983 Mid-Ohio 6 Hours in the hands of Olsen and paying driver Robert Overby. Olsen qualified the car 10th on the grid but Overby crashed twice and the car retired.

NRA was forced to cease trading and racing in August 1983 when the banks called in the loans. At the time, the company was developing the highly advanced carbon composite C3 chassis for the 1984 season which would have been the first in endurance racing but it was not to be. The tub for the car, chassis 006 was sold off and, as yet, has still not been built into a complete car. Whilst NRA and Hamilton were in financial difficulty, the private Downe team were able to attract sponsorship from Bovis, the UK building firm. Over the winter of 1982/3, with some money from Pace Petroleum, development of chassis 004 continued under Williams and Mallock. The car received a new ‘evolution’ body with the advantages of being lighter in weight and with 10% less aerodynamic drag than the original, but also offered three times the downforce too. Although the winter development had produced a drop in weight from 1074 kg to 987 kg, it was still heavier that the team had wished for.

The first competitive outing of the 1983 season was at the Silverstone 1000 Km during May where 004 achieved 7th place from 15th on the grid in the hands of Mallock and Salmon. The following month again saw the Downe Nimrod entered into the 24 Hour race at Le Mans where the driving team were Mallock, Salmon and Steve Earle. During qualifying, the car achieved a top speed of 213 mph along the Mulsanne Straight, 12 mph more than the previous year and 11 seconds a lap quicker than with the original style body with the result that the car started from 15th on the grid. During the race itself, the car both gained and lost places until shortly after 9 of the Sunday morning, a conrod broke and the car was retired.

Another two 1000km races at Spa and Brands Hatch followed with /004 being driven by the established pairing of Mallock and Salmon but the car failed to finish either race due to engine and transmission problems. The last race of the 1983 season was a 45 minute sprint in the Thundersports series at Brands Hatch where the /004 car came in fourth.

The Downe team equalled the 1982 achievement of coming third in the 1983 World Endurance Championship. The 1984 season saw the competitive debut of the 5th Nimrod, originally purchased by Peter Livanos in 1982 then sold it to Victor Gauntlett who then sold it on to John Cooper.

The Downe team with /004 made their one and only race appearance in the USA during the 1984 Daytona 24 Hours. The race was also notable for being the only time that three Nimrods had competed against each other as /002 had been entered by Jack Miller and /005, painted British Racing Green, had been entered by John Cooper. Following 24 hours of racing, the /002 car had retired, the /004 Downe car of Mallock, Olson and Sheldon finished 16th and on its debut and /005 in the hand of Cooper, Bob Evans and Paul Smith came in 7th after starting 26th on the grid.

Following Daytona, John Cooper parted with /005, which returned to Peter Livanos who was the original owner of the car back in 1982. The car was entrusted to the established Downe Nimrod team and received Evolution bodywork with Bovis livery although this was in made from lighter Kevlar with quick release too. Weight was further reduced with the fitting of titanium springs. Another modification to /005 to achieve more power and lower fuel consumption was the fitting of twin-turbos, something that AML had already done with the Lagonda turbo and the Bulldog.

The first appearance of the two car Nimrod Downe team was at the 1984 Silverstone 1000 Km in May but neither car finished the race. The turbocharged /005 of Mallock and Olsen was withdrawn with an oil leak and /004 of Richard Attwood, Sheldon and Salmon dropped a valve. Following this race, /005 returned to normally aspirated form.

The 1984 Le Man 24 Hour race had special significance for Aston Martin since it had been 25 years since the famous 1959 win with the DBR1. Chassis /005 was given a Tickford engine especially built for qualifying and in the hands of Mallock, Olsen and Attwood achieved 10th on the grid. The heavier /004 of Salmon, Attwood and Sheldon was down in 30th place. All was going well until after 9 in the evening when the /004 car whilst in the hands of John Sheldon suffered a tyre blowout at a speed in excess of 200 mph at the Mulsanne kink. The car smashed into the Armco and disintegrated and burst into flames as the tank was almost full. John Sheldon was injured and badly burned although he was able to get out of the car and walk away. A track marshal wasn't so fortunate and was killed. Close behind the scene of the accident was Dr Jonathan Palmer in a Porsche who was able to brake and avoid the debris, followed by Drake Olsen in /005. Olsen, very close behind the Porsche, tried to avoid hitting it by swerving, got onto the loose material at the edge of the track and also spun off into the Armco. The Downe team sadly withdrew from racing, Peter Livanos repaired /005 and took it back to the US although in no longer competed. Although /004 was effectively destroyed, Lord Downe was able to rebuild the car in 1988 from a new tub and spares from the 1984 season. After working in the Downe team, Ray Mallock and Richard Williams carried on endurance racing with Ecurie Ecosse in the C2 class for the next few years until such time as Aston Martin returned to endurance sportscar racing with the AMR1 at the end of the 1980s.

A small point to note is that the Nimrod is not classed as an Aston Martin as such but a ‘special’ that uses an Aston Martin engine. This is despite occasions where /004 was actually entered jointly by AML and Viscount Downe begging the question as to why we don’t call the car a Nimrod-Aston Martin, using conventional notation. This is because FISA homologation required the engine manufacturer’s name to come before the chassis builder.

Further reading can be found in Paul Chudecki's Aston Martin and Lagonda, published by Motor Racing Publications Ltd (1990).

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