In defence of Mercedes-Benz

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We are an anonymous lot on Motor Sport, known mostly only by our initials. But it was good to see ML back again, with his piece last month, although I have long held the view that to recall the 1955 Le Mans holocaust is rather unnecessary. (Only a personal view, of course). But when I saw the statement that this tragic race “was an admission that Mercedes-Benz was not as technically advanced as it liked to appear” I felt I had to ponder how true, or untrue, this is…

I used to believe that the best car for reliability was the VW Beetle, but now this utility accolade seems to have passed to most of the Fords. I continue to think that Mercedes-Benz make the best-engineered car in the world.

I cannot agree that the 300SLR sports-racing cars they prepared for that unhappy Le Mans race, which the sub-heading to ML’s article refers to as “superb”, were technically inferior to the rival Jaguar D-types. May I, briefly, argue my case? Le Mans is a long race in which good brakes play an important part. M-B took unusual but effective means of ensuring that they had these, for this particular race. Early disc brakes were more powerful than drum brakes but had an unpredictable habit of not releasing quickly after application, a factor very much to be avoided in racing. Mercedes-Benz anticipated this happening with their drum brakes in 1955 and took crude but workable steps to counter it. They also knew that if retardation, especially from very high speed along the Mulsanne straight, could be effected by arresting a car other than via its wheels, release-lag, instability, wheel-locking, and tyre-stress could be eliminated. Hence their air-brake.

Far from being technically backward, I would call it very advanced. I believe M-B had data about such brakes to work on, obtained long before Le Mans 1955. I ask ML, if he has not already done so, to read page 282 of Karl Ludvigsen’s authorative book Mercedes-Benz Racing Cars, which shows convincingly how well engineered, ingeniously designed and properly tested this air-brake was. Which fully achieved the purpose for which it was adopted… I know that Jaguar (and Dunlop) deserve credit for using disc brakes in 1953. But at Goodwood that year, when Aston-Martin won the BARC 9hr race, we had optical evidence of how they dissipated heat, when the Jaguar wheels were lit by a fiery glow from those over-hot discs! Too hot; the works C-types retired with overheated brakes, which also locked-on, and with bearing failure. That M-B did it differently is hardly going backwards technically…

ML’s indictment was applied specifically to the 1955 season. So let’s look at that year’s major sports-car contests. Jaguar won Sebring; M-B didn’t enter. (Actually, the season began at Buenos Aires, with Ferrari 1,2.) Jaguar, says ML, thought the roads of the Mille Miglia too bumpy; Mercedes did not and finished 1,2, at record speed. At that disastrous Le Mans the leading 300SLR Mercedes-Benz was some 17 miles ahead of Jaguar at the time of the accident and when the team withdrew 7¼ hours later, in respect for the dead, as ML says M-B held a comfortable lead, from the nearest D-type, which went on to a hollow victory. In the TT Mercedes-Benz finished 1,2,3. Then 1,2 in the Targa Florio, beating Ferrari. Not evidence of technical setbacks, in my book! Mike will now probably unknit the above. That’s journalism…