Some thoughts on Mercedes-Benz

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Now that the Mercedes-Benz company has announced the withdrawal of its 300SL models from International racing, it is not without some interest to review briefly what these cars have accomplished in a very short time. Back in 1934 the Mercedes-Benz firm made a serious onslaught on Grand Prix racing, appearing with very little flourish or publicity and proceeding during the following years to assist in turning motor racing from a happy-go-lucky sport into a calculated science. Whether this was desirable progress or not I do not intend to discuss here; suffice to say that in the years 1934-39 motor racing did became a science, as far as Grand Prix events were concerned, and a big part of its success was due to team organisation. In these years Mercedes-Benz built up a fabulous organisation that became a yardstick for everyone else, whether it was pit work, transport, practice, or actual racing. This organisation was obvious in every move that the Mercedes-Benz team made and it played a very major part in their monopoly of most of the immediate pre-war years. It was not the sort of organisation that revolved on forms and papers, neither did it rely on hordes of “yes” men and clerks. It was a fine example of simple and straightforward efficiency with no unnecessary frills.

With the war this organisation for racing purposes was disbanded, but when racing resumed the nucleus began to form again and it was not long before prominent members of the Mercedes-Benz équipe began to appear at the Swiss Grand Prix to study post-war form. As Germany was not allowed into International racing until 1950 there was little they could do but watch, and when their entries became due the great Mercedes-Benz organisation still sat tight, saying nothing, but nevertheless taking a keen interest in what was going on around them. Always the racing world felt that Mercedes-Benz would return one day, but no one could say when, and the Germans appeared much too busy building up their industry to tackle racing. In 1952, very early in the year the news was released that Mercedes-Benz were re-entering International racing and intended to compete in sports-car events. Photographs were sent out showing the new models to be very compact and smooth 3-litre saloons, outwardly bearing nothing obviously Mercedes-Benz with the exception of a large three-pointed-star motif on the air intake grille, which immediately gave an impression that these cars were out to win and to regain the pre-war standing of the firm. Somehow, that star said “We are Mercedes-Benz cars and we want the world to know.”  Almost at the same time as this release three entries were sent in for the Mille Miglia, one of the toughest sports-car events, and for years the preserve of the Italian firms. With that same air of efficiency that prevailed in pre-war years the team of cars set out by road from Stuttgart accompanied by the rest of the équipe and as the three silver cars drove down through Switzerland they created the impression that Mercedes-Benz were re-entering racing very near the point where they left off in 1939. The Millie Miglia saw one of the silver saloons finish in second place, needing the inspired genius of Giovanni Bracco’s driving of his Ferrari to keep in front. The Mercedes-Benz was driven by Karl Kling and Hans Klenk, neither of whom had driven in a Mille Miglia before, while Rudolf Carraciola and Kurrle finished fourth. The third car driven by Hermann Lang and Gruppe, was forced out when they crashed, but the new cars made such an impression that many mutterings were heard about this team coming back into racing with “their specially-built racing cars competing against our production-type sports-cars.”  While this accusation was true in some respects it was only because Mercedes-Benz had built their cars in an efficient manner as close to the allowed regulations as was mechanically possible, as distinct from other teams who only went halfway. While the Germans had been unable to beat the Italians on their home ground, they had given them a lot to think about and were well satisfied with their first outing.

Their next appearance was at Berne for the sports-car race preceding the Grand Prix and here they appeared with four cars, one red, one green, one silver, and one blue, thus appeasing everyone in this neutral country. They had little opposition at this race, the only Ferrari being driven by a local driver, though it was a works 4.1-litre model and it made fastest practice lap. In the race the Mercedes-Benz cars were quite untroubled, for the Ferrari broke its transmission as it left the line, and they put up a fine demonstration in the leading four positions until Carraciola crashed the red car just before the end. The finishing order was Kling, Lang and Riess, with the works Ferrari being dismantled behind the pits.

Following this race the team entered for Le Mans and again their very thorough organisation was prominent throughout the event, both in practice and in the race. During practice hours they were sufficiently prepared to have three team cars, once again silver in colour, a spare practice car painted red, and an experimental silver car, and while the drivers took turns at consistent lapping with the hack car the experimental one was doing tests and the team cars were awaiting the actual race-day. In the 24-hour race they adhered to a strict constant-running programme, letting the other teams set the pace and blow-up in the process. Relentless clockwork-like regularity won for them first and second places, driven by Lang and Riess, and Helfrich and Niedermeyer. Their whole programme of running was carefully calculated, each car having a clock and list of times for refuelling on its dashboard, while the Mercedes-Benz star was used as a pit identification mark. While Jaguar, Cunningham, Ferrari, Talbot, and Gordini fought for the lead, the German cars played a waiting game, relying on efficiency and calculation of their rivals’ weaknesses to bring them victory. They were not entirely free from trouble, for the car driven by Kling and Klenk was put out with dynamo failure, oddly enough the same trouble that caused Carraciola’s retirement from the Le Mans event in 1930 with the SSK model. While the 300SLs made no attempt to prove themselves the fastest or most powerful sports-cars they gave a pretty good demonstration of the efficiency of their team organisation and it was fairly clear that they were aiming for bigger things than sports-car racing.

Whenever they were tackled about the possibility of a Grand Prix team they always explained that such racing was very expensive, only intimating that it was too expensive for them, but never saying so. The final European appearance was at Nürburgring for the sports-car race preceding the German Grand Prix and there the practice period for sports-cars appeared to be especially for Mercedes-Benz. They had as many as six cars out and four of them had been converted into open models and lightened considerably, while one open and one saloon car were tried with a supercharger fitted. Throughout the meeting the keynote was one of preparedness with time for experimentation. Opposition came from a single 4.1-litre Ferrari from the near-works Marzotto organisation, driven by Piero Carini, and a single works 2.3-litre Gordini. Mercedes-Benz finished 1-2-3-4 in the general sports-car category, the Ferrari being quite incapable of challenging, while the Gordini broke its gearbox. The finishing order was Lang, Kling, Riess and Helfrich, but still the team made no pretext at being infallible, for the supercharged cars were not raced as they were overheating.

The final appearance of the 300SL models in 1952 was in Mexico for the Pan-Americana race and two saloons and one open car were run, with works Ferrari, Lancia and Gordini opposing them. Although the crazy Bracco led until the last stage of the event, it cannot be disputed that Mercedes-Benz finished a convincing first, and second, the drivers being Kling and Klenk, and Lang and Riess. The third car, driven by the American John Fitch, was disqualified, due to a misunderstanding of the rules, but finished the course nevertheless. Once again there were faster cars in the event, but they blew-up and Mercedes-Benz did not, and to finish first is surely the aim in racing. It was interesting to note in this event that while most of the competitors were permitting their cars to be blatantly plastered with advertising and gaudy colours, the Mercedes-Benz team concentrated on the job in hand and had the minimum of “decorations” so beloved by the Americans, to adorn their cars. They did, however, have a very large three-pointed star prominently displayed.

Out of five events entered Mercedes-Benz had won four and finished second in a fifth in their first season of post-war racing, and though it could easily be proved that there was a great deal of luck in their winnings, or lack of opposition, the fact remains that the organisation behind the team must surely be of a high order. While others broke down, Mercedes-Benz did not, while others did not enter, Mercedes-Benz did, and while others said what they could do, Mercedes-Benz did what they set out to do. At the beginning of 1953 when everyone was musing on this season’s sports-car races a note arrived from Stuttgart to the effect that the 300SL cars would not be raced in 1953 as the last season had proved all they had set out to do, the race organisation had been proved, the drivers had been well tested for future projects and Mercedes-Benz had proved that their cars were the finest in the world. As an after-thought it was mentioned that in addition to the above reasons for withdrawing from racing for 1953, the factory would be too busily engaged in preparing their team for the 1954 Grand Prix season. All this caused quite a bit of havoc one way and another. Ferrari and his men were hopping mad as they considered they had the best sports car, while everyone else pondered deeply on the final part of the Stuttgart statement. Ferrari challenged Mercedes-Benz to prove their sports-car claim, but this was turned down with the polite statement that there had been ample opportunity during 1952 and anyway they were not interested in beating challengers, being more concerned with winning races.

What of 1954? Last season showed clearly that the Mercedes-Benz race organisation is highly capable and it is true to say that it was the preparation rather than the actual racing that gave them a score of four wins out of five, so that with the same team building Formula 1 cars we can expect a repetition of 1952 activity. There is no need to expect the 1954 Mercedes-Benz cars to be vastly superior to their rivals, but we can assume that they will be as efficient as they know how and that they will be backed by an organisation who care about only one thing and that is, to win.— D.S.J.