Recalling how the 1½-litre Merced-Benz Dominated the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix
Not unnaturally by 1939 Italy had grown tired of Germany winning the Tripoli Grand Prix. In 1935 Caracciola had won in a 4½-litre Mercédès-Benz, at 122.93 m.p.h. In 1936, it was Varzi’s 5½-Iitre Auto-Union which won, at 129.62 m.p.h.; 1937 saw no respite for Lang came past the chequered flag, victor in a 5½-litre Mercédès-Benz at the prodigious average speed of 134.42 m.p.h., and the following year he repeated this performance, averaging 127.45 m.p.h. in a 3-litre Mercédès-Benz.
So for 1939 the Italians decided to limit their race to 1½-litre cars and not say so too soon. By this move, they imagined the race would lie between Italian cars.
They had reckoned without the Mercédès-Benz racing organisation, however. In a matter of four to six months Mercédès produced a couple of V8 1,490-c.c. racing cars, known as the Type M 165, following the lines of the famous and invincible 3-litres, but developing about 270 b.h.p. at 7,800 r.p.m. and weighing 17½ cwt. with driver and fuel. A five speed gearbox was incorporated with the back-axle and front i.f.s. was by wishbones and coil springs, the rear de Dion suspension by torsion bars. Eight or ten designers and draughtsmen were let loose on the project and soon the first car was under test at the Nurburg Ring.
The entries for Tripoli comprised these two unexpected—one might almost say unwelcome—Mercédès-Benz, entrusted to two of Mercédès greatest drivers, Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola, opposed by the Alfettes of Alfa-Corsa—forerunners or to-days invincible Type 158—to be handled by Farina, Biondetti, E. Villoresi, Severi, Pintacuda and Aldrighetti, the official 16-valve Maserati team of Trossi, Luigi Villoresi and Cortese, Villoresi having a fully-streamlined car, and nineteen assorted Maseratis
In practice Villoresi’s low-drag Maserati lapped the fast Tripoli circuit in 3 min. 41.8 sec., or 134 m.p.h. But Lang managed 3 min. 42.3 sec., Caracciola got round in 3 min. 43.1 sec. and Mercédès were well satisfied.
The day of the race was torrid and it was a matter of speculation whether the new cars from Germany could stand the heat and the speed.
As the flag fell and released the thirty competitors, Lang at once took the lead, in the compact little silver Mercédès-Benz, which should have been white. Behind him came Caracciola and after five laps Lang was 30 sec. ahead of Farina’s Alfa-Romeo. Moreover, the entire Maserati team was out, Villoresi having mixed his gears at the start and pistons broken in the engines of Trossi’s and Cortese’s cars. Caracciola was now third, behind Farina, and not far behind, either.
After ten laps the Mercédès-Benz cars both went right ahead, being appreciably faster than Farina’s Alfa-Romeo. Lang kept his foot well down, lapping at 130 m.p.h. and the German cars lapped the Italians one by one. They met no trouble and Lang won at 122.91 m.p.h., taking 1 hr. 59 min. 12.36 sec. Caracciola crossed the line 3 min. 37.28 sec. later, 4 min. 10.30 sec. ahead of E. Villoresi’s Alfa-Romeo, “Rudi” averaging 119.2 m.p.h. to Villoresi’s 115.3 m.p.h. The remaining seven places were occupied by Maseratis.
Thus Germany scored a useful surprise victory, very valuable to them with war so imminent. The 1½-litre Mercédès-Benz were never raced again, but had fully proved themselves.
With the promised advent of the B.R.M. at Silverstone on May 13th this domination of the hard-fought Tripoli Grand Prix of 1939 by new 1½-litre cars is not without interest. It must be remembered, however, that the Type M 165 Mercédès-Benz was a direct development of Mercédès-Benz racing cars evolved over the preceding five years. As Laurence Pomeroy, M.S.A.E., sagely observed in the Motor of February 12th, 1941, the M 165 “was thus the synthesis of five years’ work by a team of perhaps 40 designers and 150 mechanics and represented the engineering return on a financial outlay of well over £1,000,000.”
The B.R.M. project has been in existence for a matter of only three years and to date the expenditure on it in materials and finance represents a total of approximately £150,000.
Nevertheless, it has some 400 b.h.p. to the Mercédès’ 270 for rather less weight, and if it could succeed in dominating this year’s G.P. d’Europe as Mercédès-Benz dominated the 1939 Tripoli race, how gratified we should all be! Writing of the 1½-litre Mercédès-Benz domination, Motor Sport commented: “It was just about as convincing a victory as one is likely to see in any motor-race, and one can only stand in respectful admiration of the manner in which the Mercédès engineers have got down to the production of a 1½-litre car. Altogether, the German challenge in the voiturette field can only be characterised as formidable.”
If the same could be said of the B.R.M. after its first appearance, national prestige would be enhanced the world over, and certainly Mercédès-Benz showed that it can be done with an untried car, hurriedly prepared. But if at first the lone B.R.M., prepared under post-war difficulties, is unable to do what the great Mercédès-Benz rating organisation did pre-war, let, its hope that, helped by private subscriptions—dare we hope by a Government subsidy?—it will win equally convincingly later this year, or next.—W. B.