Mercedes' W196 Streamliner, with which it returned to competition after the Second World War.
Mercedes-Benz owns the patent for the motorcar. Yes, the very idea of wheels and engine, so commonplace now, was the dream of one Karl Benz from Germany, way back in the 19th century. In 1886, he patented his visionary invention.
Competition is imbued in the very veins of human endeavour. Man has always strived to go faster, and so it was that no sooner had cars been invented, that cars were being raced. Mercedes has a rich and illustrious heritage in global motorsport, from competing in trans-continental races, to grand prix racing and setting some land speed records in between too.
Among Mercedes’ many achievements, there are some which stand out, including its domination of the 1930s grand prix era with the great Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang, the post-war Fifties with the great Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss, and its last successes as an engine supplier to the Formula 1 championship winning McLaren F1 team in 2008, with Lewis Hamilton.
In 2010, Mercedes bought out the Brawn F1 team, winners of both the driver’s and constructor’s trophies the previous year, and renamed it Mercedes GP, marking a return to Formula 1 as a full-fledged constructor for the first time since 1955. Piloting the MGP W01 in 2010 and W02 in 2011 are seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, making for an all-German line-up in this racing team, for long the flag-bearer for Germany in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Benz began competing in international races as early as 1894, but company founder Karl Benz frowned upon motor racing as a worthless distraction. “Instead of taking part in races which provide no benefits in terms of experience, but on the contrary cause damage, we will continue to focus on the production of robust and reliable touring cars,” were the words of Carl Benz in 1901. But Karl’s sons Eugen and Richard were keen on motorsport, and so Benz-supported cars continued to compete with some success, notably in the Paris-Rouen race in 1895, and the Prince Heinrich Trophy at the turn of the century.
Benz 200 HP, called the 'Blitzen-Benz'. Victor Hémery became the fastest person on earth at the Brooklands racetrack on 8 November 1909 clocking a speed of 205.666 kph.
In 1908, Benz produced its first-ever factory-developed racing car, the 120HP. That same year in June, Victory Hemery won the St Petersburg to Moscow race with the car, covering the 686-kilometre long course in little over eight-and-a-half hours, recording a scarcely believable average speed of 80.6 km/h, amazing considering the condition of the roads in those days.
In 1910, Mercedes developed the “Blitzen Benz” or “Lightning Benz”, so nicknamed because it was built purely for speed. O April 23, 1911, Bob Burman drove the car to an astonishing speed of 228.1 km/h over the standing kilometre at Daytona Beach, Florida, twice as fast as any air plane of the period. This achievement firmly cemented Mercedes lore in the minds of the people, establishing the company globally.
Mercedes-Benz continued to build on these initial successes, and in the 1930s was the dominant force in grand prix racing. In 1934, the company built the first of its “modern” racers, the W25, which soon earned the epithet ‘Silver Arrow’ because of its colour. Every racing Mercedes since has carried that moniker. With a 3.4-litre straight-eight pushing out 340 horsepower, the first Silver Arrow was capable of speeds of 250 km/h! The W25 won its very first race at Eifel, with Manfred von Brauchitsch at the wheel, setting a new lap record of 122.5 km/h in the process.
In 1938, Mercedes created a record which has stood the test of time: the fastest speed ever achieved on a public road. A modified version of the W125 racer from that year was driven to a top speed of 432.4 km/h, by none other than German champion Rudolf Caracciola on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn!
Mercedes Motorsport boss Alfred Neubauer (r) and Rudolf Caracciola, in an un-dated file photograph.
These great heights were scaled by men driven by one thing – passion. The engineers, the drivers and the mechanics of that era were true pioneers, risking their lives as they pushed the envelope of design and engineering in the quest to set records. In those days, there were no simulation tools available; the only way to find out whether a particular concept worked, was to build, take it to the track, and drive it. If it broke, and the driver survived, they would fix it, and run it again, a perilous hobby if there ever was.
The outbreak of the Second World War put an end to motorsport after those glory years, but Mercedes returned to racing in 1954, with the W196 Stromlinie (Streamliner). Driving for the German team was the Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio. Partnering him was Stirling Moss, often referred to as the “Greatest driver never to become world champion”.
The great Juan Manuel Fangio en route to victory at the French GP, Reims, 1954.
Mercedes won the French GP in Rouen with Fangio at the wheel, marking its first success after the war. However, at the end of the 1955 season, Mercedes withdrew from grand prix racing altogether, marking a 39-year hiatus from the sport, returning only in 1994, testing the waters as an engine supplier to Sauber. From 1995, it began supplying engines to McLaren, a partnership which continues to this day. In its present avatar, Mercedes supplies not only its eponymous team with racing engines, but also McLaren and Force India. Mercedes also supplies all the track vehicles, including the Safety Car (SLS MAG) and Medical Car (E63 AMG) for every F1 grand prix.
Denis Jenkinson and Stirling Moss at the start of the 1955 Mille Miglia. Jenkinson pioneered the use of pace notes.
But surely counting among the great victories of Mercedes motorsport, the win in the 1955 Mille Miglia ranks among the greatest. Stirling Moss, along with co-driver Denis Jenkinson, won the 1000-mile run around Italy in his 300 SLR at an average speed of nearly 160 km/h, setting a course record.
Mercedes’ latest innings may not be yielding the desired results for the company, with its best finish in 2011 being fifth, but the team is confident that in 2012 it will return to winning ways. With the full backing of Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug, and with Ross Brawn leading the technical team, it is only a matter of time before either Rosberg or Schumacher stand atop the F1 podium.
L-R: Nico Rosberg, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher of the Petronas Mercedes Racing team.
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