Glory Days – Celebrating 125 years of Mercedes-Benz in motorsports – 1894-2019

Graham Robson
Daimler Global Media and Mercedes AMG Petronas Media
How many of the world’s automotive manufacturers can claim a direct link between racing victories in 1894 and 2018, between an early motorcar that took nearly seven hours to drive from Paris to Rouen in Europe’s first-ever speed event and Lewis Hamilton winning yet another F1 World Championship? The correct answer, of course, is one and only one. The engines used in both vehicles were designed and built by one firm: Daimler, and later its successor company – Mercedes-Benz.

Glory Days

Celebrating 125 years of Mercedes-Benz in motorsports – 1894-2019

Article Graham Robson

Images Daimler Archives • Mercedes-AMG Motorsports

 

How many of the world’s automotive manufacturers can claim a direct link between racing victories in 1894 and 2018, between an early motorcar that took nearly seven hours to drive from Paris to Rouen in Europe’s first-ever speed event and Lewis Hamilton winning yet another F1 World Championship? The correct answer, of course, is one and only one. The engines used in both vehicles were designed and built by one firm: Daimler, and later its successor company – Mercedes-Benz.

 

In 1894, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach’s fledgling Daimler-Motoren- Gesellschaft (DMG) supplied Peugeot with racing engines, allowing Albert Lemaître to average an earth-shattering 11.4 miles per hour between Paris and Rouen. This was an extraordinary feat at the time, but quickly made to look positively pedestrian as the practical science of automotive engineering advanced at a startling pace. Soon, not only would Daimler and then-rival Benz build mighty racing engines, but also entire state-of-the-art, race-winning machines.

 

After 125 years, Mercedes-Benz today remains as committed to motor racing as ever. Along the way, there have been so many triumphs that we would quickly exhaust these pages in a vain effort to detail every dramatic highlight, technical innovation and resounding victory. Success encompassed many forms of motorsports beyond Grand Prix racing. There were also countless headlines that celebrated gallant failures, or one-off wins.

 

But if a golden victory list were to be drawn up, must we ignore a Monte Carlo Rally win merely because it was not technically a motor race, or a still-born land-speed-record contender blighted by a looming world conflict, or pioneering high-speed record runs in the 1930s and again in the 1970s? At best, we are forced to mention these heroic efforts – and untold others – only in passing, so that we may instead prepare to be dazzled anew by some of the most storied deeds in all of motorsports history. 

 

From the very first, neither Daimler nor Benz went racing simply for fame. Rather, it was to author a compelling tale starring winning machines, thereby demonstrating the supremacy of the marques’ engineering and reliability, and thus helping to sell more motorcars in more showrooms. Would a fortune have been spent on the Silver Arrows of the 1930s if political and commercial reasoning had not been a major consideration? Would it make financial sense for today’s F1 team to employ hundreds of skilled technicians at Brackley and Brixworth in the United Kingdom, all to support only two racecars, plus a tiny handful of engines for client F1 teams, if there were no commercial advantage to be gained?

 

Early years

 

In the final years of the 19th century, both Benz and Daimler built a series of racecars to compete in the long-distance, open-road, town-to-town marathons of the day. However, it was the debut of the 35-horsepower Mercedes – new low-slung chassis, new engine, new name – at the 1901 Nice Speed Week (see The Star, November-December 2017), which truly set the new business strategy: Success in motorsport equals more showroom sales – in motion. For the next few years, DMG built on the performance of these cars, which led to Camille Jenatzy winning the 1903 Gordon-Bennett Cup race in Ireland, the marque’s first international victory. Benz tried to keep up, developing more and more competitive racecars during the next few years, but it was DMG’s advanced Mercedes vehicles that stole the show.

 

The dawn of modern racing

 

It soon became clear that modified production vehicles were no longer capable enough to win world-class races. For the annual Grand Prix – there was only one each year, usually held in France – Mercedes and Benz both began to construct purpose-built racecars. Though the Mercedes machines failed in 1907, the Untertürkheim company used an all-new 12.8-liter engine, a new chassis and the driving skills of Christian Lautenschlager to win the 1908 Grand Prix. It was this decisive victory, carried out on a rough road course with laps measuring nearly 48 miles in length, that demonstrated DMG’s clear intent to dominate motorsports.

 

Benz, outclassed by the Mercedes vehicles in Grand Prix competition, fought back with the amazing “Blitzen Benz,” a huge two-seat machine with a 200-horsepower engine designed to be the fastest car in the world. These spectacular vehicles won many long-distance races around the globe – especially in North America in the hands of Barney Oldfield – and for a time the Blitzen Benz was indeed the world’s fastest car.

 

Mercedes racecars of a new design – the famous DMG 4.5-liter open-wheelers built for the 1914 French Grand Prix – soon eclipsed Benz’s best efforts. Utterly dominant over the 20-lap road circuit near Lyon, the magnificent white machines finished first, second and third – just in time to fill the headlines before the tidal wave of World War 1 swept away international motorsports.

 

At the eleventh hour, just before war was declared, the American ace Ralph DePalma managed to spirit the second-place finishing machine back to the United States (see The Star, November-December 2017); in May 1915, he drove it to victory at the Indianapolis 500. Another of the winning trio of cars – sent to London for public display before hostilities began – was swiftly requisitioned by the British military, its advanced features soon reappearing in the latest Rolls Royce aircraft engines.

 

Aftermath of the Great War

 

During the dark period after the First World War, with Germany’s economy in tatters and the survival of both Mercedes and Benz an open question, there was no appetite to develop new Grand Prix vehicles. Even so, Mercedes found time to learn all about supercharging while Benz produced stylish mid-engined cars that were fine looking, but never dominant in competition.

 

After their 1926 merger finally assured salvation for the two firms, Ferdinand Porsche developed a series of extremely powerful sports cars for Mercedes-Benz which – in SS, SSK and SSKL forms - set new racing standards in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rudolf Caracciola became the merged company’s star driver behind the wheel of these thundering giants. His epic wins in the 1928 German Grand Prix, and the 1929 Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy race – held in Ireland – made the front page.

 

The first golden age

 

Then, of course, came what we must call the Silver Arrows’ golden years: 1934-1939. A succession of hugely complex single-seater Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars was developed with financial aid from a new German state anxious to prove the nation’s technical superiority. These innovative vehicles fought wheel-to-wheel with Germany’s Auto Union for dominance in a series of high-profile races in the 1930s. The first Mercedes-Benz W25 victory came at the 1934 Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring. Three more successes followed that same year – and thereafter, the team’s management and backers always expected success.

 

This was a “Golden Age” of motorsport for the marque. By 1937, the latest Silver Arrows – the W125s – were not only the most powerful racecars the world had ever seen, but also were the winners of almost every race they contested. Naturally, when the Grand Prix formula was revised for 1938 and 1939 – among many changes, the new formula mandated 3.0-liter supercharged engines – the firm’s engineers quickly redesigned everything, developing the new, sleek and tremendously effective W154, and remained the world’s most successful racing team.

 

This was also the era when the company designed a new supercharged 5.6-liter V-12 engine that was never intended for Grand Prix racing. Instead, it powered a series of speed-record cars that ultimately ran at a record-breaking 268.49 miles per hour on the new Autobahn (see The Star, January-February 2017).

 

In 1939, in one stupendous effort that fully convinced the motorsports world that Mercedes-Benz really could do anything, the racing department designed, engineered and built 1.5-liter W165 racecars to contest the Tripoli Grand Prix. The team duly won; however, with the world on the brink of war, the victorious W165 was pushed into storage and never raced again.

 

Nor could we ignore perhaps the most significant unfinished machine that Mercedes-Benz ever built. Although the T80 speed- record car was incomplete when World War II broke out in September 1939, it somehow survived the bombing and endured into the postwar era as a phenomenal might-have-been record-breaker. Powered by a 44.5-liter, 3,000-horsepower DB603 V-12 aero engine, the T80 was projected to be able to reach speeds of more than 370 miles per hour. What a way to end an era!

 

After 1945

 

At the war’s end in 1945, there was no thought of motorsports at Mercedes-Benz; the company had to clear away rubble and rebuild. By 1951, the firm turned again to racing, building a new set of 1939 W165 cars; this overly ambitious project was soon abandoned. For the moment at least, a return to Formula One racing lay beyond the Stuttgart manufacturer’s grasp. Sports-car racing, on the other hand, was a different matter.

 

Here lay the true beginning of the rebirth of Mercedes-Benz in international motorsports. In 1952, the 300SL Gullwing was revealed, uniting a complex tubular space-frame chassis with modified versions of many components – engine, transmission and axle – from the new “Adenauer” 300 sedan (see The Star, March-April 2019). The 300SLs original waist-high lift-up doors were soon replaced by full-depth gullwing doors. Before the end of the first season, open-top spider versions had also been built. In a fairy-tale return to racing, the Mercedes-Benz works team won the grueling 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans contest and the marathon Carrera Panamericana road race.

Then in 1953 came silence. What was going on? The race team was deeply involved in the design and development of two new machines. These were the W196 single-seater F1 racecar and the closely related 300SLR two-seater streamlined sports racing car, with its unique lift-up air brake – intended for Le Mans – fitted to the rear of the seating area. Both vehicles used fuel-injected 8-cylinder engines, and both used versions of the multi-tube chassis pioneered on the 300SLs.

 

The second golden age

 

From mid-1954, when Juan Manuel Fangio drove the W196 in its first outing, taking a convincing win at the French Grand Prix, to October 1955, when the last of the 300SLRs won Sicily’s renowned Targa Florio sportscar race, these designs dominated the world’s top-two racing categories. Fangio was crowned F1 World Champion in 1954 and 1955; Stirling Moss joined the Argentinian master at Mercedes-Benz in 1955. Moss particularly liked the 300SLR, achieving a sensational average speed of nearly 100 miles per hour over 1,000 miles in the 1955 Italian Mille Miglia to cement both his and the car’s reputation for all time.

 

 At the end of a glittering 1955 season – having won back-to-back Grands Prix crowns, the World Sportscar Championship and the European Touring Car Championship – the Mercedes-Benz racing team was disbanded. The abrupt withdrawal sent shock waves through the motorsports world, although no doubt also bringing sighs of relief from opposing teams. Upon hearing a rumor that newly built 300SLRs would be sold to private owners, Moss reportedly said, “Thank God it’s not for sale. I’d hate to have to run against it.”

 

Why did Mercedes-Benz close down its winning team? Most certainly, the terrible accident in June at Le Mans when Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR became airborne, killing Levegh and 83 spectators and injuring more than 100, cast a pall over the squad’s record. However, Mercedes-Benz was also in the middle of an unforeseen expansion, fueled by huge postwar demand for its vehicles. Management was forthcoming about the decision to withdraw, noting just how much time, effort, and investment had a gone into the W196/300SLR program, while making it clear that the skilled technicians who had engineered the racing team’s success were now needed to streamline road-car production and develop a new generation of cars, trucks and buses.

 

The wisdom of this far-sighted business decision was proven over the course of the next decade: The Ponton, the sporting 300SL and 190SL, the 230-, 250-, and 280SL range and the magnificent 600 the first big S-Class, all went on sale; production and sales mushroomed.

 

Keeping a hand in

 

Despite officially withdrawing from international motor racing, Mercedes-Benz kept a hand in with a modest presence in rallying – works team drivers won the European Rally Championship in 1956 and again in 1960 – while in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the company’s rugged road cars won a string of demanding events as far afield as Greece, Monte Carlo and Argentina. Gifted development engineer Erich Waxenberger even found time to “invent” the 300SEL 6.3, and to prove that it could become a race-winner as well. Waxenberger also masterminded the company’s impressive triumph in the 1977 London-Sydney Marathon; after traveling nearly 19,000 arduous miles through Europe, Asia and Australia, Mercedes-Benz W123 280Es placed 1-2-6-8 (see The Star, March-April 2019).

 

In the 1970s, company engineers (“talking to themselves,” as one respected pundit put it) developed the innovative C111 Wankel-engined coupes, turning them into multi-endurance record-breaking machines. Meanwhile, upstart tuning firm AMG, with ever-increasing support from Mercedes-Benz, developed formidable C-Class sedans to race in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft  – the DTM, or German Touring Car Championship.

 

A new beginning

 

Even so, there was no further official Mercedes-Benz motor racing program until the 1980s. In 1983, American racing team owner Roger Penske provided ex-Cosworth engineers Mario Illien and Paul Morgan’s fledgling firm Ilmor with funds to design and built IndyCar race engines for Penske’s team; their success soon attracted Mercedes-Benz support. During the same period, Sauber of Switzerland launched a sports car racing program that used specially developed Mercedes-Benz engines. A Sauber chassis powered by Mercedes-Benz won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1989. Not only that, but that same year and again in 1990, the Swiss team also captured the World Sportscar Championship.

 

 Although the Stuttgart firm was still unprepared to reopen an official works team effort at any level in the early 1990s, Mercedes-Benz did find time to design a new flat-12 racing engine for Sauber. Meanwhile, Ilmor – having seen a chink in the new regulations for the 1994 Indianapolis 500 – began designing a unique new turbocharged V-8 engine, quickly nicknamed “The Beast.” The amazingly powerful Penske-Mercedes 500 I proceeded to win the 1994 Indianapolis race, prompting Mercedes-Benz to increase its financial control of Ilmor.

 

A new golden age

 

By then supplying several Formula 1 teams with engines, Ilmor soon cemented solid links with McLaren. Mikka Häkkinen became F1 World Champion in 1998, and again in 1999. With talented drivers like Kimi Räikkönen and David Coulthard following Häkkinen, McLaren-Mercedes-Benz became a potent force in Formula 1.

 

Mercedes-Benz completed its acquisition of Ilmor in 2001. Renamed Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines Ltd., this advanced engine-design and manufacturing hub, based in Brixworth, in the United Kingdom, is a vital part of today’s all-conquering Mercedes-AMG F1 organization.  

 

Mercedes-Benz management showed keen interest when a young Lewis Hamilton joined McLaren in 2007; in 2008, he won the first of what became – to date  – five F1 World Championships. In 2010, the company returned to Formula 1 after a 55-year absence, buying out Mercedes-powered – and 2009 F1-title winning – Brawn GP Formula 1 and setting up its own manufacturer’s team, Mercedes-AMG Petronas, based in Brackley, United Kingdom.

 

In 2013, Hamilton left McLaren and came over to the Brackley squad; he quickly won his second and third world titles in 2014 and 2015 in the silver cars. Hamilton’s then-teammate Nico Rosberg took the Drivers’ Championship in 2016, before Hamilton reasserted his dominance, taking Drivers’ titles 4 and 5 in 2017 and 2018 to equal the total of that other great Mercedes-Benz ace, Fangio. Matching Hamilton’s efforts, the team brought a fifth consecutive F1 Constructors’ Championship home to Brackley in 2018.

 

Of course, the past – even one that stretches back so many glorious decades – is no certain guide to the future: The only constant in motorsports is change. At the end of 2018 – after winning 11 Drivers’ titles and 190 races over 30 years, Mercedes-Benz finally withdrew from the DTM  (see The Star January-February 2019); the Stuttgart company has since joined the new electric Formula E series (see page 26 of this issue).

 

The 2019 Formula 1 season brings fresh rules and regulations, throwing up major new challenges that are sure to test the current dominance of the Mercedes-AMG team. Certainly, win-starved racing competitors will have sharpened their collective game. Yet no other marque in Formula 1 has carried the motorsports gene for as long as the Stuttgart manufacturer. Since 1894, Mercedes-Benz has proven again and again that innovative technology, superb engineering, an irrepressible will to win and dedicated teamwork can astonish the competition and rewrite the record book.

 

Captions

1. The first car race, from Paris to Rouen, July 22, 1894: A Daimler-engined Peugeot was the first combustion-engined vehicle to finish the race – in second place. A steam-powered car – later disqualified – was first.

2. Nice Speed Week, March 25-29, 1901: Baron Henri de Rothschild’s Mercedes 35 HP racing car in La Turbie after winning the Nice-La Turbie hill climb.

3. French Grand Prix, July 4, 1914: Christian Lautenschlager in the winning Mercedes Grand Prix car. Mercedes finished 1-2-3.

4. Daytona Beach, Florida, March 16-23, 1910: Barney Oldfield drove the “Blitzen-Benz” to a world speed record of 131 miles per hour.

5. German Grand Prix, Nürburgring, July 15, 1928: Winner Rudolf Caracciola in Mercedes-Benz

6. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, September 9, 1934: Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz W25 leads an Alfa Romeo and a Maserati on his way to victory.

7. Unfinished Mercedes-Benz T80 speed-record car, 1939.

8. On January 28, 1938, Rudolf Caracciola flashes past an unfinished Frankfurt Airport on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt Autobahn in the futuristic 12-cylinder W125 during his historic run to 268.49 miles per hour.

9. Masaryk Grand Prix, Czechoslovakia, September 26, 1937: Race winner Rudolf Caracciola at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz W125.

10. 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans: The winning car No. 21, driven by Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess. Mercedes-Benz placed first and second.

11. Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, June 5, 1955: Juan Manuel Fangio on the way to victory in his Mercedes-Benz W196 R.

12. Mille Miglia, Italy, May 1, 1955: Winner Stirling Moss and his navigator Denis Jenkinson in their Mercedes-Benz 300SLR flying through Ravenna. The duo covered the 992-mile distance in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, at an average speed of almost 100 miles per hour.

13. April 1978, high-speed oval circuit, Nardò, Italy: Mercedes-Benz C111-III turbodiesel speed-record car sets a new diesel-engine speed record of more than 186.41 miles per hour on the banked track.

14. December 9-14, 1979, 11th Bandama Rally, Ivory Coast, Africa: Rally winners Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz in their Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0 rally car.

15. Indianapolis 500, May 29, 1994: 79 years after Ralph DePalma first drove a Mercedes to victory at the Brickyard, Al Unser Jr. took the Penske-Mercedes PC23 to victory.

16. 24 Hours of Le Mans, June 10-11, 1989: Sauber-Mercedes C9 Group C racing sports cars finish 1-2-5. The team of Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens drove the winning car, No. 63.

17. In 1998 and 1999, Mika Häkkinen won the F1 World Drivers Championship in a Mercedes-powered McLaren.

18. Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory at the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final race of his title-winning season.

19. May 20, 2018, Lausitzring, Germany: Gary Paffett takes a win in the German Touring Car Championship for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport; the team won the 2018 Drivers and Manufacturers’ titles.

20. 2018 Japanese Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton (No. 44) leads teammate Valtteri Bottas (No. 77) to a 1-2 finish.

 

 

 

 

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