The Peak of an era

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The high-tide of Mercedes Grand Prix cars had their final race overshadowed by the declaration of war

Fifty years before the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s Rumania, the fiffh birthday of Peter II, Yugoslavia’s boy king, was celebrated on September 3, 1939, by a Grand Prix motor race. Taking place on streets encircling Belgrade’s old Kalemegdan fortress, the cobblestoned course was narrow, bumpy, slippery and liberally adorned with tram-lines.

On Friday, September 1, Belgrade’s second practice day, German Panzer columns rumbled into Poland. Britain and France had guaranteed Polish independence. At 9am on the morning of race day, in Berlin’s Foreign Ministry, British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson delivered his Government’s ultimatum that unless by 1 lam all offensive action against Poland had ceased, and German forces begun withdrawal, Great Britain and Germany would be at war. The French Government concurred. The Third Reich persisted. So World War ll erupted.

In Belgrade, just two works-entered Mercedes-Benz and a pair of factory Auto Unions began that race. Their single rival was Bosko Milenkovic’s outclassed Bugaffi Type 51. Mercedes’ drivers were Hermann Lang and Manfred von Brauchitsch; Auto Union’s were Tazio Nuvolari and H PMuller. The Germans had agonised whether to race or return home. The Yugoslav promoters pleaded “stay”; the German Embassy confirmed they should.

At 4.45pm the race began, each professional determined to win. But Lang’s start was too brutal. Brauchitsch’s sister W154 chassis No15 led. But he drove wildly, and on lap seven clipped a gutter, his spinning wheels throwing up stones which shattered Lang’s aeroscreen and both goggle lenses. Lang stopped for team medic Dr Glaser to remove glass splinters. Two laps lost, Walter Baumer took over Lang’s car. Brauchitsch lapped two-tenths faster than his pole position time, but on lap 16, already leading Muller’s Auto Union by 13.8sec, he spun and stalled in a fast uphill curve before the French Embassy. He restarted by rolling downhill against race direction then spun the car to rejoin, just as Muller and Nuvolari shot ahead. Muller led until lap 29, while the feverish Brauchitsch spun again, allowing Baumer by. Brauchitsch promptly shouldered the youngster into straw bales and a tree.

On lap 30 Muller’s leff rear tyre stripped and Nuvolari inherited a 5sec lead from Brauchitsch, but on lap 36 Brauchitsch had to change tyres, giving Nuvolari 50sec before the Italian too stopped for tyres on lap 39. His wheel change took 26sec, and after 64 minutes’ racing Nuvolari won for Auto Union, with von Brauchitsch’s hardused Mercedes No15 7.6sec behind in second place. The Silver Arrows era, 1934-39, was over. Seven years would pass before Grand Prix racing resumed.

During the war Daimler-Benz stored their racing cars round Unterturkheim, Stuttgart, until 1942-43 when Allied bombing really intensified and the cars were dispersed for safety. The company tended to consign them in pairs, either to trusted Mercedes agencies, mining and industrial or heritage sites. Both W154s in this story, No7 and No15, went to the Esterhazy Palace estate in Eisenstadt, Austria. In 1946 Soviet forces shipped them into Rumania, but left them at Braila, where Jozska Roman rescued the pair. No7 is now with Arturo Keller in California, while No15 resides in the Collier Collection in Florida.

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