Mercedes-Benz versus Auto-Union

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SOME OF THE MOST INTENSIVE RACING EVER AS A PRELUDE TO WAR

 [Continued from the October 1940 issue. The 1936 Season]

EVEN before the New Year, news of German plans for 1936 had reached this country. Auto-Union had overcome oiling troubles, it was said, by fitting simple scraper rings, and, much more intriguing, the engine size had leapt up yet again front 5½ to 6 litres. The team was early announced as Stuck, Varzi, and Rosemeyer. Mercedes went across Switzerland to Monza with five lorries for test purposes, in December, 1935, taking three of that season’s cars and the new slimmer job which had run at Berne. The cars, with some twenty mechanics, arrived first, then Neubauer came, and then Caracciola, Chiron, Fagioli, and Lang, while Brivio spectated. Neubauer’s car was used to sweep the track clear of leaves and this wintery training commenced, the chicanes of the Italian G.P. still in place, suggesting practice for Monaco. “Caratsch” did 20 laps, using both old and new cars. Fagioli and Lang put in about 12 laps each and Chiron toured about only to lap in earnest in 2 mins. 59 secs. after lunch whereupon Lang did 2 wins. 57 secs., only 7.2 secs. below “Nuver’s” own record. The new car was subject to some attention. More training was put in next day, and Chiron rapturously declared the G.P. Merc. to be ”Une veritable bicyclette!” The 1936 team was announced to be Caracciola, Fagioli, Lang, Chiron, Brauchitsch and two reserves. Hitler was said to have given personal attention to Chiron’s appointment, which received a mixed reception in France, Chiron’s friends averring it better for him to win on a German car than to be beaten by an Italian. The scheme was apparently to let Brauchitsch shine in Germany. Chiron in France, and Fagioli in Italy, with “Caratsch” as a free-lance, as it were. Chiron went to see his people in Monte Carlo and was feted by Monaco G.P. officials, ere he went to Switzerland for the winter sports, and Varzi was in the all-racing drivers bob-sleigh teams at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. By January Auto-Union had decided to form provisionally two teams, composed of Varzi, Stuck and Rosemeyer, backed by Heyder, Hasse and von Delius, depending an trials at the end of the month, which Prince Leningen was expected to attend. Mercedes-Benz racing-cars were again exhibited at the Berlin Show, opened by Herr Hitler, and much was made of the increase in Germany’s motor trade—44,000 cars sold in 1932, Asher to 215,000 in 1935. At a revue run during the show, Brauchitsch and Lang in Mercs. and Rosemeyer in an Auto-Union, steamed across the stage, accompanied by the Avus broadcast, and wheel-changes were carried out under Neubauer’s care.

The Auto-Union trials were duly held at Monza, and the promising newcomer Heyder was killed when his car entered a chicane too fast and went off the course into a tree. Dr. Porsche and Stuck blamed inexperience; the funeral was most imppressive, with Porsche, Stuck, Nuvolari, Marinoni, Castagneto, Ricordi, and the political secretary of Monza attending. Stuck got in some 30 laps in all, in two stages, and then left for winter sports at Garmisch. Another car was specially sent down to replace the crashed one, and Varzi, just recovered from a throat operation spent a day on it, while Pietro Taruffi was allowed by Dr. Porsche to handle one of the cars. Stuck later took part in an amusing imaginary interview with a spectator, written by Frau Stuck, in a broadcast from the Beromunster radio station. Caracciola went over to the States, but on his return to Germany Mercedes put in some further training at Monza with the full team. The Monaco entries included both German teams, but the unfortunate Varzi was soon to be in hospital, to ensure no further trouble from the appendix that had worried him the previous season.

Already international polities were looming large in Grand Prix racing, for the three Ferrari Alfa-Romeos were stopped at the Italian-French frontier on the way to Pau, orders having been given that Italian cars were not to race in sanctionist countries until after the next meeting of the League of Nations . . . . Etancelin finally won a hard race with the 4.8-litre Maserati.

The season really started for Germany when Stuck took out the enclosed Auto-Union on the new Frankfurt-Heidelburg autobahn and took three Class B and five world’s records, under conditions of poor visibility and rain. Two days were occupied with the attempts, and for the longer runs the car had to hairpin back to the place from whence it had started, along the other leg of the dual carriageway. Even so, the 10 km., 5 miles and 5 km. class records, and the 10 miles, 50 km., 50 miles, 100 km. and 100 miles world’s figures were raised, the previous holders being Abe Jenkins and Capt. George Eyston. Stuck’s speeds ranged from 163.4 m.p.h. to 194.12 m.p.h., and the car had unfaired wheels, covered cockpit, cowled radiator arid a faired “dumb-iron” apron. Stuck followed this up by a splendid victorious drive at the La Turbie hill-climb with the special short chassis Auto-Union, breaking Wimille’s record by 3.4 secs., clocking 3 mins. 39.8 secs.

So to Monaco, for the Grand Prix. In practice Delius crashed the spare Mercedes, the car overturning and being severely damaged, although the driver escaped with slight cuts. Characteristically, Neubauer promptly ordered fast lappery while the course was free of other cars as the mess was being cleared up, and so two Mercs. gained front rank positions. There were eighteen entries in all, and Caracciola and Chiron had the new, lower cars, actually lower in appearance only as the bonnets were now within an inch of the cam-cases, resulting in better streamlining and improved visibility. The tanks carried fuel sufficient for the whole 200 sinuous miles. Fagioli and Brauchitsch had older cars. Varzi and Rosemeyer had short wheelbase Auto-Unions, with Stuck on one of the longer cars. The race started in heavy rain and drama entered into it right away. On the line, at the very last moment, Brivio’s 3.8-litre Alfa-Romeo was seen to be losing oil. An over-full tank was suspected, but Brivio was bundled into Tardini’s car. As they moved off, Tardini was seen to be spraying oil over the course, as the sick Alfa had a broken oil pipe. Meanwhile, Nuvolari’s Alfa-Romeo just led from Caracciola and soon the Mercedes led, Rosemeyer third, Varzi fourth and Fagioli fifth.

The oil film laid on the soaking road by Tardini altered everything in the second lap. At the chicane on to the quay Chiron went straight on into the sandbags, followed soon afterwards by Farina’s Alfa-Romeo. Brauchitsch next hit the Alfa, and both cars were not only disabled but all but blocked the course. Brivio’s Alfa-Romeo and Trossi’s Maserati completed the mess. Blue flags waved madly; frantic efforts were made to move the more damaged cars. Rosemeyer came upon it all, spun like a top, recovered, and departed at speed. The pace here, even with the chicane patched up and much petrol poured on the oil, fell from 40-50 m.p.h. to 12 m.p.h. or so, and still the cars slid badly. Six cars were out with only four of the 100 laps run! Conditions were terrible, but Nuvolari, just up from a sick bed in direct defiance of doctor’s orders, kept close behind the leading Mercedes. Fagioli went out on lap 10, crashing into the wall at the fatal chicane. “Caratsch” was alone now for Mercedes, but shortly afterwards Rosemeyer swerved violently approaching the Hotel de Paris, went on to the pavement, and crashed tail first through the brick wall, the car suspended on the edge of a deep drop, whereupon the driver climbed out, selected a piece of masonry as a souvenir, and walked off. On lap 10 the wonderful Nuvolari got past Caracciola and led by 2 secs., soon lapping in 2 mins. 20 secs. or so, to increase his lead to 10 secs. Ten rounds later the Alfa’s brakes seemed to be failing, and the Mercedes began to close until, by 25 laps, it was only 3 secs. behind. Caracciola was ever the master on wet roads, and when Nuvolari, sick and worried by the illness of his two children, went a little wide at the gasworks turn, the German driver accelerated snakily past.

By the 35th lap he was some 20 secs. in front. Varzi and Stuck ran close together until at half-distance Stuck passed, seemingly by arrangement, as he was signalled to chase Nuvolari, and passed him on lap 57. Stuck now lapped in 2 mins. 11 secs. and Varzi did the fastest race lap of all, in 2 mins. 8 secs., finally passing his team mate. Stuck then refuelled in 18 secs. Varzi stopped later without losing second place and Nuvolari had dropped back due to fatigue and a 15 secs. fuel stop. Caracciola ran on non-stop, to win a faultless and trying race in 3 hrs. 49 mins. 20.4 secs., at 51.95 m.p.h., 1.2 sec. ahead of Varzi, with Stuck third and “Nuvers” fourth. Caracciola was lucky in lapping Tardini before the oil trouble began. Some idea of the terrible conditions is gained when it is realised that “Bira’s” win in the 1½-litre with the E.R.A. was at an average 1.04 m.p.h. higher, albeit for half the distance. Under such terrible conditions Mercedes-Benz conclusively took first round in the 1936 season.

The second round was that great race at Tripoli, on the fastest road circuit in the world. Auto-Union put three 6½-litre cars in the field, handled by Varzi, Stuck and Rosemeyer, while Mercedes-Benz had Chiron, Caracciola, Fagioli and Brauchitsch, all driving the new, low 4¼-litre cars, having a 15″ shorter wheelbase than formerly. Alfa put in the new twelve, of 4.1 litres capacity, but Nuvolari burst a tyre and turned his model over completely in practice, escaping with slight back injuries. Rosemeyer set a new lap record, in 3 mins. 33.2 secs., against Caracciola’s 3 mins. 41 secs. The tyre problem was expected to be severe and the German teams brought 300 spares, using 22 x 7 covers. Stuck led Chiron away when the flag fell, and he did his standing 8 mile lap at 139.3 m.p.h., leading Rosemeyer by 300 yards. “Nuvers” was third, Caracciola fourth, Fagioli fifth and Brivio’s Alfa sixth. After a few rounds the three Auto-Unions were line ahead in the lead, the order now being Rosemeyer, Stuck and Varzi. At 10 laps Stuck was back in first place, and as all three Auto-Unions came in for tyres on lap 12 the Mercedes went ahead. However, when the Mercs. came in for the same reason the position reversed again and Varzi consolidated it with a lap in 3 mins. 33 secs. Brauchitsch then retired, but things were evened up when Rosemeyer’s car lit up on lap 18. Varzi was now second and Chiron third. The Alfa-Romeos were no match for the German cars and were experiencing plenty of tyre trouble as well. After 20 laps Stuck led at the immense average of 129.6 m.p.h. with Varzi a mere 0.8 of a sec. to the bad. The latter actually led two laps later, only to be repassed. More tyre delays and then Stuck and Varzi were ordered to ease up in their ding-dong battle; at first both obeyed to the tune of 10 secs, a lap. Varzi soon lost another 30 secs. having a front cover changed, and he then did an immense lap in 3 mins. 35 secs., to lead Hans by 15 secs. He kept to it and finally won by 24.4 secs. at 128.9 m.p.h. from the more obedient Stuck. The race time was 2 hrs. 31 mins. 5.4 secs. Fagioli was third, and Caracciola fourth, but the new Mercs. seemed less stable than formerly, and Brivio’s new V12 Alfa was faster. However, the following weekend Caracciola won the Tunis G.P. at 100.2 m.p.h., ahead of Pintacuda’s Alfa-Romeo and Wimille’s Bugatti. Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union was completely burnt out and Varzi had a miraculous escape when his Auto-Union went out of control at 180 m.p.h. He was thrown out before the car somersaulted several times and finished up a mass of wreckage. Only four out of eleven starters finished.

Now came a most interesting period of Grand Prix history, and a reversal of German successes. It started with the Coppa Penya Rhin, at Montjuich Park. Over this twisty circuit everyone expected Caracciola to repeat his previous year’s victory. However, Nuvolari the Master led away in the V12 Alfa-Romeo, and at half-distance Caracciola was still behind him. The Italian then lost 40 secs. in a terrific refuel and tyre change and let the Mercedes past, but a record lap at 71.5 m.p.h. regained him the lead. Caracciola then lost time refuelling and he just failed to catch the Alfa-Romeo when Nuvolari lost another 30 secs. for a wheel change. The last 20 laps were terrific, but Nuvolari won by 3 secs., in 2 hrs. 43 mins. 7 secs., at 69.2 m.p.h. Farina’s eight-cylinder Alfa-Romeo was third, ahead of von Delius and Rosemeyer (Auto-Unions) and Chiron’s Mercedes-Benz. It was rumoured that Mercedes were in a position to pull out 10 per cent. more speed whenever a real challenge made this necessary, and 300,000 folk went to Nurburg in the rain to see if this was so. The Eifel race was not a formula event, but Auto-Union put in 5.8-litre cars, while Mercedes used the shortened chassis, the teams being Stuck, Varzi, Delius and Rosemeyer; Caracciola, Brauchitsch, Lang and Chiron. “Nuvers” and Brivio took the V12 Alfa-Romeos. In practice Brauchitsch had set a new (but unrecognised) Nurburg lap record of 81¼ m.p.h. Rosemeyer looked like being away first, but wheelspin on the tricky surface let Caracciola through, and Nuvolari was very soon between the Merc. and Auto-Union. “Caratsch” led lap one by 4 secs. from Tazio, at 72.5 m.p.h. for 14 soaking miles. After two laps Nuvolari was a mere second behind and then the Karussell announcer was heard to say: “Nuvolari leads!” At the end of that great lap he still did, and by 5 secs. On lap four, the meteoric Rosemeyer also passed Caracciola, and the Alfa-Romeo led by 18 secs. Stuck now lost 1½ mins. while all his sixteen plugs were changed. The Merc. now seemed to be slowing and Brauchitsch passed, and the trouble was found to be a broken shock-absorber which made the car so useless that Rudi retired. At half distance Rosemeyer was 9 secs. behind Nuvolari, and lap six was immense, the Auto-Union closing and finally passing on the stands straight, to go past the hysterical crowd with a three lengths lead. Mist in great patches now added to the driver’s unpleasantness, but Rosemeyer just speeded up some more and established a 15 secs. lead. Lang left the road after spinning round several times and a tyre change was needed, and Brauchitsch, from third place, now retired for similar reasons. Chiron’s car remained unwell, but the leading Auto-Union was going amazingly, mist or no mist, and did the ninth lap at 72.96 m.p.h. So Rosemeyer won a very trying race, helped by sheer good pilotage, in 1 hr. 56 mins. 41 secs. at 72.76 m.p.h., 2 mins. 13 secs. ahead of the Alfa-Romeo. Brivio and Farina were third and fourth and the best Mercedes could do was fifth and sixth (Lang and Chiron). Varzi, Stuck and Delius were next home.

So German prestige was a little improved. But in the Hungarian G.P. at Budapest Nuvolari, now with the eight-cylinder Alfa-Romeo led, was passed by Rosemeyer, tailed him until beyond half-distance, then caught him at a corner and went on to win by 14 secs. at 69.1 m.p.h., in 2 hrs. 14 mins. 3 secs. Varzi was third, and the Stuck-Delius combination fifth behind Tardini’s Alfa, while all three Mercedes retired. Then, at Milan. Alfas home town, only Varzi, of the Germans, met the Alfas, and after an almost wheel-to-wheel tussle for the better part of the 98 miles, Nuvolari got home first by 9 secs., after 1 hr. 35 mins. 56.2 secs. of concentrated motoring. Truly great is Tazio; so, too, was Neubauer’s frown at this time! Meanwhile, Stuck had brought an Auto-Union to Shelsley Walsh—the 5.3-litre, wide rear axle, twin rear-wheeled job and on a typical English summer afternoon, found the wet and the course quite unsuited to the car, which ascended in 45.2 secs., winning his class, but his time equalled by Denis Evans’s M.G.

The German G.P. at Nurburg opened well, but tailed off at the end, although terrific enthusiasm was displayed before, during, and after the race. Brauchitsch led until half way through the second lap, when he slowed, to be overtaken by Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union. Rosemeyer proceeded to drive the race of his career, proving himself master of the Ring, to win in 3 hrs. 49 mins. 39 secs., at 81.8 m.p.h. Lang, for Mercedes, drove extremely well in second place until he broke a finger and Brauchitsch took over. When Fagioli came in Zehender hopefully prepared to take over, and actually entered the car, when Lang appeared, his finger now splinted, whereupon Neubauer barked “Get out!” and Zehender obeyed, after which Caracciola always filled the role of spare driver. In the end Stuck’s Auto-Union was second, and Brivio’s Alfa-Romeo third, Nuvolari having retired. Chiron had a very terrific crash. Tazio declared Rosemeyer the Nurburg champion, and in Adenau that night the Eifelerhof Hotel was besieged with crowds demanding the great ones. Again Mercedes had done badly and the rigid team discipline enforced by Neubauer seemed to have resulted in resentment and ill-feeling on the part of his drivers. In contrast, Auto-Union had a no-trouble run and everyone was very happy. While Mercedes stayed behind at Nurburg in an endeavour to cure the suspension troubles which had beset them throughout the 1936 season, Auto-Union set out on the long journey to Montenero, hardly touching their cars. The Coppa Ciano opened badly for Alfa-Romeo, when Nuvolari’s twelve-cylinder car broke its rear axle in the first lap and the three Auto-Unions led. However, Nuvolari took over Pintacuda’s eight -cylinder Alfa-Romeo and drove in a truly inspired manner, and on lap 20 he caught Rosemeyer. The Auto-Union brakes were in poor shape after the German G.P. and soon Tazio had passed Varzi and Stuck. The Alfa won easily at 74.8 m.p.h. after “Nuvers” had occupied 1 hr. 44 mins. 40 secs, with some of his greatest driving ever. Brivio and Dreyfus on Alfa-Romeos were second and third, which shows how a modern G.P. car suffers in the course of one long race—when did you last reline your brakes?

So to Pescara, where a huge, very pro-Italian crowd watched the Coppa Acerbo in glorious weather. Chicanes had been erected to compensate for the inferior maximum speed of the Alfa-Romeos and for five laps Nuvolari led the Germans. Then Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union went out ahead and, doing 170 m.p.h. or so along the straight, won at 86.48 m.p.h. in 2 hrs. 57 mins. 4 secs. Nuvolari finally retired after 150 miles of fighting the Auto-Unions. Varzi was delayed by a pit stop and subsequent trouble, but he did 183.64 m.p.h. over the timed kilo, and set a race lap record of 88.9 m.p.h. He finished third, behind von Delius with Brivio’s Alfa-Romeo fourth. Stuck hit a chicane with his elbow and retired with nasty injuries.

Mercedes-Benz hoped to stage a comeback in the Swiss G.P. at Bremgarten and Caracciola led away, followed by Rosemeyer, Lang and Nuvolari. Tazio got into third place on lap two, but the circuit did not humour his car and he fell back to sixth position. “Caratsch” and Rosemeyer indulged in an immense duel, and the latter set up a new lap record of 105.42 m.p.h. on lap 15. At half distance he refuelled in 35 secs., including a change of rear wheels. Here Mercedes committed a grave error, as only fuel was taken on, perhaps remembering the poor pit work in the German G.P. A mere lap later Brauchitsch’s car threw a tread and the cars had to be called in for the rear wheels to be changed. Fagioli had already retired with a broken oil pipe and soon afterwards Caracciola went out with a broken rear axle tie-bar. Rosemeyer eased up, to win in 3 hrs. 9 mins. 1.6 secs., at 100.53 m.p.h. Varzi was second and Stuck, his arm in bandages, necessitating his being lifted from the car, finished third. Lang’s finger troubled him, so Fagioli took over his Merc., only to suffer a puncture; it came in fourth, ahead of Hasse’s Auto-Union. Another Mercedes-Benz debacle!

There remained the Italian G.P. at Monza. Stuck crashed at one of the artificial corners, but the now world-famed Rosemeyer won in 3 hrs. 43 mins. 25 secs., over 2 mins. ahead of Nuvolari’s Auto-Union, with von Delius’s Auto-Union third. Incidentally, Rosemeyer had also been victorious in the Grosser Bergpreis hill-climb, winning in 7 mins. 59.3 secs., from Delius.

Thus the “score” for 1936 was:— Auto-Union: six firsts, seven seconds and five thirds. Alfa-Romeo: four firsts, three seconds and five thirds; and Mercedes-Benz: one first, one second and one third. Germany clearly was still meeting a challenge from Italy.

Mercedes did a little to repair lost prestige when the new V12 was brought out in fully streamlined form, with body extending over the wheels and enclosing the rear ones, but with unclosed cockpit. With Caracciola driving, they took the 1 kilo, (f.s.) to 10 kilo. Class B records and the world’s 10 mile record. The last-named went up to 209.41 m.p.h., and the Class B mile was set at 228.07 m.p.h. With one exception (Alfa-Romeo) Auto-Union had held all these records. The car used had a 5,370 c.c. engine said to develop 600 b.h.p. at 7,000 r.p.m., and it, weighed a ton. The new engine was rumoured to be scheduled for the 1937 Tripoli race, and its record showing was certainly historic.

For racing, Mercedes-Benz had relied on the lower-bodied 4.9-litre V8s they had used in 1935, with coil spring i.f.s. and a rigid rear axle, while Auto-Union triumphed with 5.8-litre V16 engines, still rear-placed, and torsion bar front, and transverse leaf-spring rear suspension. The built-up crankshaft was changed to a solid crank running on roller, in place of the former ball-bearing, mains. Alfa-Romeo used straight-eight and later V12 engines, the V12 car having independent suspension all round.

[To be continued]

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