Class war

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Hermann Lang was Mercedes working-class hero who conquered the prejudice of his team-mates to become the fastest driver in the world. Then war broke out. Mark Hughes looks back at a disrupted career

In 1932, in the depths of the economic depression, a quiet, modest man who had spent most of the previous year unemployed joined the payroll of Mercedes-Benz as a humble fitter. In 1974 he retired from a position of technician with the same company, looking forward to his pension years. For a brief period in between he was the world’s fastest grand prix driver.

“Champagne all round,” ordered the aristocratic Prussian Manfred von Brauchitsch in celebration of a Mercedes team success. “Oh, and a beer for Lang.”

That quote tells you everything about the social tensions in place in the Mercedes camp of the late 1930s — and about how Hermann Lang’s place in it was accepted through gritted teeth. But however much his team-mates may have disliked it, this former mechanic was there for one very good reason: he was very, very fast. Too fast for his employers to ignore, too fast by 1939 for either von Brauchitsch or the great Rudolf Caracciola to contain. There never was an official ’39 European drivers champion. But morally it was quite obviously Lang. He drove in eight grands prix that year, won five and retired from the other three, two of them while leading. In other words he was not actually beaten all year, even with such a great driver as Caracciola as a team-mate.

Caracciola had watched as two beautiful new silver racing cars were unloaded from their container into the hot humid May air of Tripoli 1939. He was the reigning European champion, Mercedes’ lead driver who’d been performing legendary feats for the company since ’26. His presence confirmed the rumours the Italian racing community had been fretting over: Mercedes had gone to the trouble of building 1.5-litre voiturette cars — miniature versions of their awesome supercharged 3-litre grand prix machines — just for this one race. Just to prove a point, just to show the Italians that they couldn’t hide behind competing in a different formula to devalue Mercedes’ steamrollering success, that they could beat them at whatever game the Italians chose. Just to add to the propaganda value of the Third Reich-backed programme.

There had been so little time to build the cars that the assembly of the second had to be completed in the ship’s hold and it didn’t have the same close gear ratios as the other — there probably hadn’t been time to make enough of them. Not so long ago it would have been Lang down there clattering the spanners, toiling away in the cold. But no longer. Now he was a driver, enjoying the luxury of first-class travel with his wife Lydia. Oh, he would never have lorded it over his former colleagues. He was far too modest and down to earth for that. In fact he probably felt vaguely guilty — it would’ve been in character. The workers at the factory still treated him as one of their own. They had come out in their droves to cheer when he’d returned there after winning at Tripoli two years ago, his first major success. It was difficult for them to identify with the aloof Caracciola, for all his undoubted brilliance, yet more so with the arrogant von Brauchitsch. But Lang was one of them made good.

He felt more comfortable in the company of mechanics than in the typical after-hours surroundings of a grand prix driver. He positively hated the champagne functions that went with the job and avoided them as far as possible. Caracciola and von Brauchitsch resented him; he knew that, felt it. They’d been happy enough to eat the food he used to prepare — he was often the team chef at the circuits as well as a mechanic. In fact once, at a Monza test, he was preparing lunch when team manager Alfred Neubauer summoned him to do a few laps in the car. Lang put the chicken in the oven, drove the laps still in his apron, reported his findings, then got back in time to get the chicken out perfectly cooked! But now this servant was supposedly one of them. It just didn’t seem right, did it?

But he was no pushover. Beneath the mild manners, Lang had a core of steel. After all, he’d had to get work at 14 years old to help support the family after his father had died suddenly. He had a keen feel for the true perspective of things and couldn’t be overawed. Besides, he was racing-savvy. That first job as an apprentice motorcycle mechanic had led to him racing ‘bikes, later sidecars, funded by his own savings. He’d become German sidecar champion in 1931 before the work had dried up.

In fact, when he’d sent his CV to the Mercedes personnel department looking for mechanic’s work, he’d included as an aside his motorcycle/sidecar achievements. That had almost cost him an interview as his file had been passed on to Neubauer, who on briefly looking at the file assumed Lang was applying for a place as a racing driver and discarded it. Lang had to use a friend in the factory to get him an interview with personnel, and from there he’d gone to work as an engine fitter in the experimental department — where the racing cars were prepared. The chief mechanic realised this was the same Lang who’d been the sidecar champion — and pressed his case with Neubauer, who in time relented and gave him a trial at Monza. It went very well. He got occasional races in ’35 and ’36 in between his duties as Luigi Fagioli’s mechanic, and got his first full-time driver contract in ’37, winning twice that year and twice again in ’38. The second of those ’38 wins came at Avus, where in practice experimental covers over the Merc’s front wheels caused the front of the car to leave the ground — at around 245mph! “All I could see was sky,” he recalled. “I backed off the throttle very carefully, but it was a long time before the wheels touched the ground again.”

He’d built up his speed methodically, edging closer to the big names on the team — and going into ’39 he was absolutely at the top of his form. And Caracciola seemed to be slowly losing his. For all that he had won the ’38 title, Rudolf wasn’t anything like the untouchable silken force he’d been in 1937 — and Lang was often quicker. In fact, Tripoli ’38 at the beginning of the season marked the first time that Lang had comprehensively beaten Caracciola in practice times; the Mellaha track seemed to suit Hermann’s clinically committed fast-corner style.

Caracciola’s points advantage over Lang in ’38 came in the main from a better finishing record. Only at a wet Swiss Grand Prix around Caracciola’s beloved Berne track was he able to comfortably outshine his younger team-mate. That race highlighted Lang’s early hatred of racing in the wet. Finishing an off-the-pace 10th after qualifying on the front row, he later said: “I knew that somehow I had to make my peace with the rain.” He did so by taking full advantage of a rain-blighted few days of testing at the Nürburgring the following year, pounding round and round until he became comfortable in the conditions.

Back to Tripoli ’39 and Caracciola was playing up. He wanted the car with the closer, lower gears. Of course — it was faster! Lang refused to be browbeaten. He wanted that car too. This was Tripoli, where he’d already won twice in two attempts. This was his stamping ground. He recalled his first time there, as a reserve driver during testing in ’36. He’d watched as the first-team drivers took the fast left-hander after the pits apparently flat out. So when Neubauer asked Lang to try the car, he made sure he kept his right foot to the floor there too. Caracciola protested to Neubauer: “Lang is crazy! He’s taking that corner at full throttle!” Neubauer later asked Lang if this was true. He confirmed it was, but what was the big deal if the others were too? No they weren’t, actually. The sound Lang had been hearing was the supercharger forcing fuel through the carbs under pressure, screaming at an unaltered pitch even as the drivers lifted the throttle. The more experienced car of Caracciola had been able to distinguish the difference between engine and supercharger tone. Whoah! Flat-out as a novice in a 480bhp monster, ruffling the feathers of the old pros, all of whom were lifting! That had geed up Hermann’s confidence, given him a warm glow as he returned to tending Fagioli’s car for the rest of that weekend.

Now, two years later, the bickering continued after Luigi Villoresi set fastest time in his Maserati; both Mercedes drivers wanted to take out the close-ratio car to usurp him, but Neubauer forbade it. They argued so much that racing director Dr Max Sailer had to step in, allocating the faster car to Caracciola for the race as the more senior driver. Was Lang angry? You bet he was! In part-compensation he was allocated the role of ‘hare’, starting on half tanks and making a tyre change, with Caracciola going through non-stop. Lang led from the start and beat Caracciola by almost a lap. They were no longer even on speaking terms.

Lang’s win at Avus was his third consecutive victory of the year — he’d won at Pau before Tripoli — and he made it four on the bounce at Spa, though it was an inherited win after team-mate Richard Seaman crashed fatally while leading. This was the first of four races counting for the championship, but the next of them, the French GP at Reims, brought disappointment, with engine failure when in a commanding lead after a thrilling early battle with Tazio Nuvolari’s Auto Union. Nuvolari’s team-mate Hermann-Paul Muller was the winner, and the man who together with Lang might or might not have been the 1939 champion — the points system still hadn’t been decided even after the final race! Lang retired from the lead in Germany too, handing the victory to Caracciola from Muller. Which left the Swiss GP as the title decider.

Depending which of the points systems was to be retrospectively used, Muller had to either merely complete 10 laps or finish second to be champion. He finished fourth and so became theoretical champion under the first system but not the second. Lang won the race and was therefore champion under the second system. Had Caracciola beaten him in this race, however, Rudi could still have nicked the title from under his nose. And the late stages saw Caracciola cutting dramatically into Lang’s lead. Still it seemed the team favoured its old warhorse over the younger, faster man as Neubauer began signalling Lang to slow down. As Lang recalled in the late Chris Nixon’s superb Racing the Silver Arrows, he was on top of the situation: “I saw a sight I had never seen before — Neubauer standing by the track giving me a ‘slow’ signal and Lydia standing behind him, urging me to go faster! I knew immediately what was going on so I sped up.”

The governing body was supposed to meet to decide which points system was to be retrospectively applied, and therefore which of Lang or Muller was champion — but the war rather made that meeting irrelevant and it never happened.

That war was already a few hours old when Lang retired from the Belgrade GP — a stone thrown up by von Brauchitsch’s car broke the glass in Lang’s goggles, injuring his eye. The team were instructed to make their way back to the factory, but not via Hungary, where their safety couldn’t be guaranteed. Lang described to Nixon his journey back: “[We went through] Yugoslavia to Austria, and some of the roads were just country lanes in the fields. We eventually arrived home with the war four or five days old. We all had company cars — mine was a lovely 3.4-litre drophead — and we had hardly driven through the factory gates when they were confiscated, as were our trucks! The military had taken over Mercedes, and racing was over for a long time to come.”

Lang waved goodbye to more than just his company car at that moment — his grand prix career was over just as it had got into its stride. He did have some success after the war — he won Le Mans in 1952 and even made a brief grand prix comeback. But the momentum had rather petered out. The man who’d last been seen as a 30-year-old with a scorching turn of speed returned to grands prix as a more circumspect and rusty driver of 44. He quietly hung up his helmet, accepting that his great racing years had been lost. He returned to his job in the technical department of Mercedes, where he would remain until his retirement. He died in 1987, a respected man of 78, a far cry from the young upstart who so rattled the establishment half a century earlier.

Careers lost to combat

The Nazi-subsidised grand prix programmes of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union in the 1930s made it a boom time for aspiring young German drivers as the teams sought to groom new Aryan talent. Lang was one of these and, though his grand prix career was effectively ended by the war just as it was taking off, he at least got to make a major mark on the sport. The same is true to a lesser extent of his ’39 title rival Hermann-Paul Müller. But the biggest frustration of all was probably suffered by Georg ‘Schorsch’ Meier. a team-mate of Müller’s at Auto Union that year.

Meier, a year younger than Lang, was already a hugely successful bike racer for BMW when he was selected for a trial by Auto Union at the end of 1938. He impressed enough to be given a race programme for ’39, which he combined with his bike racing calendar. In between Auto Union races he finished second in the French Grand Prix to Müller in just his second car race he became the first non-Brit to win the Isle Of Man TT. riding a BMW. Prior to his grand prix debut at Spa. he’d practised for the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring. He set a 10min 16sec lap compared to maestro team-mate Tazio Nuvolari’s 10min 05sec. which has to rate as extremely impressive. Unfortunately his car suffered a technical problem and couldn’t start the race. Here surely was what would have been a great car-racing career were it not for the interruption of the war.

The early post-war years were a bleak time for any German driver wishing to race internationally, and Meier had to content himself with national events. He won the national motorcycle titles of 1948, ‘49, ’50 and ’53 as well as becoming a partner in Veritas, for which he won the 1948 German F2 and Libre championships. He died in 1999.

Müller’s career was truncated even more surely than Lang’s by the war. Another former motorcycle racer, he began racing for Auto Union in 1937 His win in the ’39 French GP was his career highlight and during that year he was often as quick as team-mate Nuvolari. After the war he returned to bike racing, winning titles up to 55. He later worked for the Auto Union group (Audi, DKW ) in the press department. He died in 1975, aged 65.

Was Lang champ, or was he even alive?

There are few things as important as motor racing except World War II.

The AIACR had to cancel its October 1939 meeting, where it was due to finally work out that year’s European Championship points system. Five rounds were planned in ’39: the Belgian, French, German. Swiss and Italian GPs, though the last was called off due to war.

Under the pre-39 system (one point for a win, two for second, three for third, etc.), Muller was champion on 12 points from Lang on 14. Caracciola on 16. But there was an intention to replace this system with a 10-6-5-4-3 formula, though it was never officially ratified. That gives Lang the title on 22 from Muller (21) and Caracciola (18).

Undeterred. Korpsführer Hühnlein stated: “I declare as European champion Squadron Leader Lang.” But in this dark period of history little is certain. Even in February 1940, Motor Sport was worried that Lang might have died in Vienna, soon after war broke out, of injuries sustained in the Belgrade GP. MS

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