Mercedes’ return to racing post-war left it with a bloody nose, as Tony Watson explains
On the run-up to Christmas 1939 porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) gathered on the sidewalks of their city’s seafront to glimpse the distant Battle of the River Plate: Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles hounded and pounded pocket battleship Graf Spee until it sought sanctuary in the neighbouring Uruguayan port of Montevideo. Eleven years later, from those exact same sidewalks, tens of thousands of Porteños watched another confrontation, albeit at closer quarters: José Froilán González, aboard his non-works Ferrari 166, battled a three-car team of pre-war GP Mercedes. On each occasion German hopes were scuttled.
Having run the Temporada races over a variety of street circuits in Buenos Aires and up-country cities since 1947, the organisers simplified their task for ’51 by plumping for a briefer, two-race programme around a track based on the capital’s coast road. This layout would see cars flash past each other in opposite directions separated only by hay bales and tipa trees. Yet the closing speeds would’ve been even greater had not the track been trimmed to 2.175 miles. The organisers initially selected a much longer stretch of the Avenida Costanera — but on the advice of the star local driver the straights were shortened. This was done to level the playing field by restricting the space in which the faster cars could stretch their legs. A German runaway was being widely predicted and so the event needed artificially pepping up.
The 1951 Temporada didn’t attract a capacity field: Ferrari, Maserati, Gordini and Talbot-Lago, who had all contested the summer series’ four-round programmes of the past, were either unwilling or unable to make the long journey south. Their absence, however, was more than made up for by the presence of Mercedes; the influential people in President Juan Perón’s government responsible for the import of the marque (Mercedes was the local taxi drivers’ choice) had put this not inconsiderable feather in their caps.
The Silver Arrows were to be fired for the first time since the 1939 Yugoslavian GP. Had it not been for Alfred Neubauer, however, there would have been nothing in Mercedes’ quiver. The portly prewar team boss had begged, borrowed and bartered to kick-start the racing team, tracking down engines, locating two W154s on a used-car lot in Berlin and recruiting far-flung personnel. By September 1950 the Nürburgring woods were reverberating to supercharged 3-litre V12s once more: Mercedes was going racing again — and the Temporada was a warm-up to the Big One: the Indy 500 (see below).
The main opposition was the Automóvil Club Argentino’s supercharged 2-litre Ferrari 166s, to be driven by González — “I always raced the short-chassis car” — and Juan Manuel Fangio. Though not as old as the Mercedes, these cars were hardly fresh, having been run by Equipo Argentino during part of 1949 and all of ’50, in Europe and South America. The team’s plans, though, were soon to change: when Neubauer arrived in Argentina his first step was to offer Fangio one of the Silver Arrows.
The local hero seemed genuinely surprised — even though he had just opened a Mercedes-Benz dealership and had starred for Alfa Romeo in the maiden Formula One world championship. Or was he feigning surprise? The reigning world champion, his Alfa team leader, clearly thought so. Giuseppe Farina had been slated for the drive (but only after pre-war hero Rudi Caracciola had turned it down because he felt the W154s were outdated) and he was furious when Fangio gazumped him. He fired off a formal protest to the sport’s governing body claiming that the ACA had connived against him. Whether Fangio had known of these machinations or not, a healthy slice of ‘Who, me?’ was undoubtedly his best defence.
And so Fangio joined Hermann Lang and Karl Kling, the old guard and the ‘new’ kid on the Mercedes block; Kling was 40! This left one of the ACA Ferraris vacant and Oscar Gálvez happily accepted to drive it while his own 3.8-litre Alfa Romeo 308 was taken over by Carlos Menditeguy; the latter, one of Argentina’s leading polo players, was having his first race in a single-seater. There was another pre-war Alfa Romeo present, the 12C-37 of Clemar Bucci, while the rest of the field comprised a number of Maserati 4CLTs, an ex-Farina 4CL, a couple of much-used Gordinis and some locally modded Alfas.
Fangio was the crowd’s favourite for race honours, and expectations were raised even higher when he secured pole position for the opening race, the Juan Peron Grand Prix on Sunday February 18. But Fangio knew something his fans didn’t: his circuit alterations (surely proposed before any approach from Mercedes) would militate against the German machines; put simply, the track was now slower than Monaco. Instead González, whose sideways style had always endeared him to spectators, would become the crowd’s hero.
But it wasn’t just the track — and the forceful González — that was causing Mercedes headaches. When practice for the first race got off to a damp early-morning start on the Thursday, Lang initially showed the way, ahead of Kling and Fangio. It was to be the latter who topped the timesheets on Friday, though, and set the fastest qualifying time: 2min 01.7sec, 64.3mph. An all-Mercedes front row… it was all running to script. Except that it wasn’t.
Fangio had been a regular visitor to the pits, his body language one of disbelief; the silver cars would run beautifully for a few laps and then begin to misfire. Mercedes’ preparation for the race had been typically thorough: new superchargers, carburettors and nose-cones. But the W154s were extremely complex to run, demanding a special fuel brew and constant attention and adjustment to their carburation. Despite Neubauer’s best efforts, knowledge and experience had been lost: his new team was untried and pre-war technical chief Rudolf Uhlenhaut had been seconded to a road car project. Throw into this mix the clammy weather of a Buenos Aires summer and here was the perfect recipe for an upset.
“I thought we could put up some sort of fight for the lead,” admits González. “After all, our lap times in practice had not been that far from theirs (he was the best of the rest on the second row). We had about 335bhp, but the Ferrari was much lighter…”
Perón and wife Evita were wafted around the track in a convertible before taking their places in the official box, and it was about five o’clock when the flag fell. Fangio and Lang led the early stages, but González was right with them — and the massive crowd (reckoned to be 100,000 strong) was right behind him. Fangio’s W154 threw a tread early on — but not before his compatriot had overtaken him — and now González was free to pursue Lang. He passed him after 17 of the scheduled 45 laps: “The Ferrari was quite a bit faster on the twistier parts.”
From then on the puny (in comparison) blue-and-yellow Ferrari continued its unexpected way to the chequered flag, coming home 16.4sec ahead of Lang, with Fangio a distant third. Gálvez in the other Ferrari was fourth ahead of Alfredo Pián (4CLT) and Kling.
Fangio looked like restoring the balance in the second race, the Eva Perón GP, which was held on a Saturday (February 24) so as not to clash with the opening ceremony of the 1st Panamerican Sports Games. Fangio again claimed pole position — the only man under two minutes (1min 58.4sec, 66.1mph) — and was a full 5sec faster than González, who again lined up fourth behind an all-Mercedes front row. But the Ferrari driver confided to those close to him that he was readying himself for another all-out effort, this time right from flag-fall: “That time I had a much clearer idea that we could do well. The car handled terrifically, and more than once I exceeded the engine’s 7000rpm limit; I could get wheelspin even in third gear.”
Fangio and Lang exchanged the lead at first, but this time, as early as lap five (of 45), there was González in the lead. He gave the Ferrari a real caning, got within two-tenths of Fangio’s pole time on lap 28 and only thereafter began taking things easier. With a clear advantage and the silver cars once again misfiring — Fangio retired after 16 laps — did González feel that he had the race in the bag? “By no means, because I have always believed that you only win a race once you have received the chequered flag.”
He may have eased off but even so González continued to scamper into the distance, coming close to lapping second-placed Kling. This old hand trailing home a distant third. Jorge Daponte’s Maserati 4CL was the only other runner. Menditeguy had impressive second place in his Alfa Romeo when it ran out of laps from the finish. He switched to its reserve tank, but air in the fuel lines ensured his race was run.
González got a standing ovation as he made his way to receive the trophy from the presidential couple. Whatever the reason for the German cars’ underperformance (fuel surge was the official ‘word’), it was undeniable that the fat man who would become known as ‘The Pampas Bull’ had at no point gambled on his rivals’ troubles, but had seized his chance with both hands. Both of his displays had been brilliant and led to a congratulatory telegram from Enzo Ferrari; it is said, as from that day, González could walk into the office of Il Commendatore without knocking on its door. These Temporada wins were his passport to a works drive with the team later that year: Silverstone, and another legendary drive — the defeat of the Alfettas — awaited him.
As for Mercedes, it was time to regroup. The 2.5-litre GP formula for 1954 had just been announced…
Five years after their Temporada defeats Fangio and Mercedes-Benz returned to Argentina and claimed its GP; in a neat reversal of fortune González’s Ferrari was on pole, later to suffer in the race’s baking heat. Fangio then won the Formula Libre Buenos Aires GP two weeks later.
Revenge was complete.
Mercedes: Kicking against the bricks
The double defeat by González caused Mercedes technical director Fritz Nallinger to cancel his plans for the Indy 500. A Mercedes W154 had, however already contested the event, twice.
Via a sequence of convoluted dealings from Czechoslovakia to California via RC Rowland Motors near Brooklands and the hold of the Queen Mary, one such car had ended up in the hands of Don Lee. Prepped by Mal Ord, it was entered for Indy in 1947: Duke Nalon qualified 18th (128.082mph) but retired because of piston failure after 119 laps. Mercedes helped with replacement parts and Chet Miller drove it in ’48, qualifying 19th (127.249mph) and retiring on lap 108.
What was really needed was direct works involvement. And that had nearly come about in 1938. Three cars were crated and ready to go when the plug was pulled. The M154 engine had a prodigious thirst for oil and Neubauer was worried about the race’s limit of 8gal. Only later was it discovered that this was the1937 limit, lifted thereafter.
There are two other Silver Arrows/Indianapolis what-might-have-beens:
In 1946 Caracciola’s plan to race one of the Tripoli-winning 1.5-litre W165s was frustrated by red tape. Instead he tried to qualify Joel Thorne’s ‘Big Six’ and suffered head injuries when it crashed.
But the biggest what-if was 1951: Mercedes planned to use wings, not for downforce but as rudders: two vertical wings mounted close to the CoG could be pivoted as the car entered a turn. This operation, and the ‘feathering’ for the straights, was controlled by a lever operated by the driver’s knee. Kling had tested it and his reports were favourable.