To begin a new series, Chris Nixon portrays the man who created the Team Manager’s post, and led Mercedes into the history books.
Mercedes-Benz went to Monza for the 1938 Italian Grand Prix fully expecting to win. And with good reason, for their 3-litre supercharged W154 had won all six of the previous races and really all they had to do was to turn up and victory would be theirs. So confident were they that Team Manager Alfred Neubauer arranged the usual celebratory post-race dinner.
However, things went terribly wrong for the Stuttgart concern. Of the four Mercedes entered, only that of Rudolf Caracciola made it to the chequered flag, and in third place, behind the Auto Union of Tazio Nuvolari and the Alfa Romeo of Nino Farina. Nevertheless, everyone expected the dinner to take place, as Erica Seaman recalled for me some years ago.
“It was a very hot day and all the drivers had been cooked in their cockpits. Dick was not at all sorry when he retired early. After the race Dick cheerily told Herr Neubauer that he was looking forward to the party that evening, but Don Alfredo was not amused by his team’s performance and made it clear that the party was off; he and his wife, Hansi, would be having a quiet dinner on their own.”
Fat chance! The Neubauers had not been long seated in the restaurant before Hermann and Lydia Lang arrived.
“Herr Neubauer what a pleasant surprise!” they beamed. “May we join you?” and without waiting for a reply sat at the table. A few minutes later Rudi and Baby Caracciola turned up. “Don Alfirdo what a pleasant surprise! May we join you?”
Next on the scene were Dick Seaman and Erica. “Herr Neubauer what a pleasant…” By this time Neubauer knew he had been set up, so he gave in graciously and asked the waiters to add a few more tables to his. Soon the restaurant was full of racing drivers, journalists, trade personnel, wives and girlfriends and a tremendous party ensued. Eventually, Neubauer called for his bill, making it clear to the waiter that he was only paying for himself and his wife. Hearing this, Rudi Caracciola leaned across the table and said, “Don Alfredo, this is all on you.”
“Not a hope!” replied Neubauer, before shouting in English, so that everyone could hear, that the dinner was not on Mercedes, because “after the performance of my so-called racing drivers today, Mercedes have nothing to celebrate!”
“Oh yes we have!” exclaimed Baby Caracciola, “Dick and Erica are engaged!”
When the young couple sheepishly admitted that this was true, Neubauer’s grumpy mood was dispelled in a flash. Beaming with delight, he immediately made everyone a guest of Mercedes-Benz for the evening and ordered champagne all round. The party finished up in a nightclub, with Dick and Erica leading the revellers in The Lambeth Walk. That was typical of Neubauer. It was unlike him to be downhearted; despite his team’s dismal performance his natural ebullience soon took over and he was back doing what he did best having a good time.
Gunther Molter, one of Germany’s foremost journalists, went to Mexico with Mercedes for the 1952 Carrera Panamericana, and got to know Neubauer very well.
“He was a Falstaff! A great actor who dominated every room he entered. He weighed about 125 kg (275 lbs) and had a huge appetite for life, food and wine. Everywhere he went, within a few days he knew where to get the best food and drink.
“As Team Manager he was a brilliant organiser. I went to Mexico as a journalist, but he made me his assistant, so I spent a lot of time with him. Before we left everybody on the team was given a little book which he had prepared, containing everything we should know about the country: the climate, the food, the diseases, the lot. He organised the whole race, which was over 3000km – not easy.
“He was a charming man, everybody’s darling when we went out for a meal. We always had fun because he knew how to enjoy life. He was a brilliant mimic and I know that before the war, after a few brandies, he would give a superb impersonation of Korpsfuhrer Adolf Huhnlein, the Nazi officer in charge of all German motorsport. In the right company (and after a few more brandies) he would then do Hitler, which brought the house down!
“Mercedes gave a big party in the Museum to celebrate his 80th birthday and during his speech he announced that his first ambition was to be an opera singer. To prove the point he gave us a few choruses. He had a fine voice, too, and could give a very good impersonation of Caruso.”
It is entirely appropriate that this series on great Team Managers should begin with Alfred Neubauer, for he invented the job. Back in the early twenties, drivers only found out what had been going on in a race after it was all over. At Avus in 1926 Neubauer was shocked to find that his friend Rudof Caracciola did not know that he had won the very first German GP until he was surrounded by jubilant supporters.
Neubauer resolved to do something about this ridiculous situation„ as be recalled in his autobiography Speed Was My Life.
“I settled down to work out a sort of code system with numbers and letters painted on small boards and a series of coloured flags. Then I explained my new system to the (Mercedes) drivers, who now had only to glance at the pits as they raced past to pick up invaluable information.”
Three months later, at Solitude, he introduced these pit signals which helped Mercedes to a 1,2,3 victory. This simple move changed the face of motor racing.
Born in Northern Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia) in 1891, Neubauer went to military school before joining the Imperial Austrian Army. Shortly before the end of WWI he was appointed adviser on motorised artillery equipment at Austro-Daimler, where he met Prokssor Ferdinand Porsche. After the war Porsche invited him to join the company as Director of the Road Testing Department.
Alfred had ambitions to be a racing driver, and his friendship with Porsche won him a place in the factory team for the 1922 Targa Florio. Driving an 1100cc Sascha Austro-Daimler, Neubauer finished 19th. When Porsche joined Daimler in 1923 he took Neubauer with him. He drove in the Targa again in 1924 in the Mercedes team with Christian Lautenschlager and Christian Werner, who won. Mercedes took the team prize, with Neubauer in 15th place. Later, at the Semmering hillclimb, Alfred was mortified to find he was almost 40 seconds slower than Werner, and when his fiancee, Hansi, told him that he had driven “like a nightwatchman”, he decided that he had better do something else.
His bosses at Daimler had already noted his flair for organisation and when the company merged with Benz in 1926 they put him in charge tithe racing team. For the next four years the company ran the vast `White Elephants’ – the SS, SSK and SSKL sportscars – with great success, but the Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929 forced Mercedes to cancel their racing programme.
By now Neubauer had established a firm friendship with the brilliant young Rudolf Caracciola and, in order to save both their jobs, he persuaded Mercedes to sell Rudi a new SSKL and throw in a mechanic and transporter. In return, Caracciola would share all prize money with the firm. The deal worked splendidly in 1931 when Rudi won 11 events, but Mercedes were seriously strapped for cash and had to pull out of the deal at the end of that year. Caracciola joined Alfa Romeo.
Late in 1932 the new firm of Auto Union invited Neubauer to be their Team Manager when the new 750kg Grand Prix formula came into being in 1934. Mercedes had given no indication of racing plans and the new job would reunite him with his mentor, Porsche. He signed with Auto Union, only to be persuaded to stay with Mercedes by the new Managing Director, Wilhelm Kissel, who assured him that Mercedes would soon be back on the tracks.
In 1933 he began forming the new Mercedes-Benz GP team which naturally he wanted to build around his great friend Caracciola. Sadly, Rudi suffered a very bad accident during practice for the Monaco GP and for some time it appeared that his career was over. More to keep up Rudi’s spirits than anything else, Alfred told him that his place in the Mercedes team was assured. He then set about finding two other drivers and chose Manfred von Brauchitsch and Luigi Fagioli…
Caracciola returned to racing in 1934, winning the new European Drivers Championship the following year, and again in 1937 and ’38. He and Neubauer remained close friends until 1939, when Hermann Lang stole the older man’s thunder, and the Championship. Caracciola resented Lang’s success and accused Neubauer of favouring him, failing to accept that Lang was now the faster driver and that the Team Manager had to put him first.
Although the successes of Mercedes and Auto Union were used for propaganda by the Nazi Party, both teams were able to recruit foreign drivers, and Neubauer had no difficulty in persuading Adolf Hitler, to give Mercedes permission to sign the brilliant Englishman Dick Seaman For 1937.
In his memoirs Neubauer is oddly dismissive of Seaman’s remarkable early career, saying that he gave him a test drive at the Nurburgring only because he had come along with his friend Christian Kautz.
“There remained only the tall, fair-haired Englishman whom Kautz had brought with him,” he wrote “I saw no harm in letting him try his hand. But as soon as he started I realised that this young man had real talent. His first lap was excellent; his best lap time was 10 mins 03secs. Only then did I learn something of his history.”
This is all nonsense. In the first place Neubauer had personally invited Seaman to the tests in November 1936, by telegram, because Dick’s success with the 10-year old Delage that season had made everyone aware of his remarkable talent. And in the second place the chances of Seaman lapping the ‘Ring in 10min 03sec during his very first drive with the troublesome 1936 W25 Mercedes were absolutely zero!
Another story concerning Neubauer and Seaman that has passed into history as fact is that of the famous fire in the Mercedes pit during the 1938 German GP. In his memoirs Neubauer states that when race-leader Manfred von Brauchitsch made his second pit stop he complained that Seaman was hounding him, driving too close, despite the fact that Seaman arrived in the pits a good 10 seconds after the German. Neubauer claims that he spoke with Dick, asking him to stay back and let von Brauchitsch win. Then Manfred’s car caught fire during re-fuelling. Neubauer bravely pulled him from the cockpit and, noticing that Seaman was still in the pit behind, ran to him, demanding to know why he was not back in the race. “I thought I was to let Brauchitsch keep his lead,” said Seaman. Furiously, Neubauer waved him back onto the track, and on to victory.
It’s a fine story, and one that Caracciola repeats in his autobiography A Racing Driver’s World, but that is all it is. Film of the pitstop shows that Neubauer does, indeed, pull von Brauchitsch from the cockpit, but by this time Seaman’s mechanics are already pushing his car back, away from the blaze, and one is fitting the starter motor to the front of the W154. Neubauer then rushes over to Seaman who, far from going nowhere, is already accelerating back into the race. No words are exchanged at all.
Sad to say, Neubauer’s memoirs are a good read, but hardly to be trusted. The original German edition, Manner, Frauen und Motoren, was a gossip-laden tome of 394 pages ending in 1939. By the time the book had been translated into English two years later, as Speed Was My Life, it had gained 30 pages extending to 1955, yet had been reduced overall to a mere 203 pages.
Curiously, in the latter edition, Neubauer dismisses the early career of Stirling Moss, just as he had done with Seaman’s. He writes that Ken Gregory (Stirling’s manager) arrived in his Stuttgart office late in 1953 and suggested that instead of signing Juan Fangio for 1954, he should sign Moss. Neubauer claimed that the name Moss “meant no more to me than Herbert Smith or Alfred Jones”. Again, as with Dick Seaman, by 1953 everyone in racing knew of Stirling Moss. Neubauer’s professed ignorance of his success is hard to fathom, for it doesn’t reflect well on him at all.
It is unfortunate that no-one appears to have interviewed Alfred Neubauer before his death in 1980. It would be fascinating to know, for example, why he chose to sign Luigi Fagioli in 1934 when both Tazio Nuvnlari and Achille Varzi were apparently available. Fagioli, while a brilliant driver, had a very high opinion of his own abilities and an explosive temper, whereas Nuvolari and Varzi were regarded as better drivers and not so temperamental.
Neubauer got a taste of Fagioli’s attitude to team discipline in the Italian’s very first race for Mercedes, the Eifel GP at the Nurburgring. Fagioli took the lead, only to be signalled by Neubauer to slow down and let von Brauchitsch through to win. Fagioli did as he was told, but at his first pitstop gave Neubauer some serious Italian chat! Alfred got the message, but when Fagioli set about harrying von Brauchitsch Neubauer called him in and gave him some verbals of his own.
Mercedes began its post-war comeback by sending three of the 1939 W154s to Argentina early in 1951. The drivers were Hermann Lang, Karl Kling and, at the organisers’ insistence, one Juan Manuel Fangio. The venture was not a success and Neubauer had no chance to judge Fangio’s skills, but back in Europe he watched him win the Swiss GP for Alfa Romeo and decided that when Mercedes returned to racing he had better be in the team!
Signing Fangio for the return of the Silver Arrows in 1954 proved to be a very astute move, for he won four of the team’s six races that year; although the Mercedes W196s were technically far in advance of the opposition, without Fangio’s genius they would not have done nearly so well.
For 1955 Neubauer added young Moss to the team and he proved to be almost as fast as the Old Man. Apart from a bewildering failure at Monaco, the Silver Arrows crushed the opposition, winning five of the six races run, and finishing first and second in four of them.
Stirling remembers Neubauer very fondly. “He was the most sympathetic, but hard-faced man. By that I mean that he was very strict, but he had a wonderful sense of humour. I think he really loved his drivers and took great care of them.
“His attention to detail was fantastic. Before I signed for Mercedes they invited me for a test drive at Hockenheim. After a good. session in the W196 I came in with a lot of dirt on my face – brake dust which had been blown into the cockpit from the inboard front drums. I was greeted by a mechanic in pristine white overalls with a towel over one arm, offering me a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap!
“A few weeks later we flew to Argentina for the races there and after we’d been airborne for a couple of hours Neubauer went to the loo. Moments later he called out, ‘Der Moss, der Herrmann – komm!’ and Hans and I turned round to see him stuck in the doorway. He insisted that we push him inside, but of course, although he was a very large man, he wasn’t stuck at all. He just having a bit of fun.”