In the 1930s, Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz fought epic battles on the mountain climbs of Europe now the fierce rivalry returns for the Goodwood festival of speed. Chris Nixon reports
In October 1937, Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz arrived in England for the Donington Grand Prix. It was the first time that Germany’s thunderous Silver Arrows had assailed the ears and eyes of British enthusiasts. In the hands of heroes such as Rudolf Caracciola, Bernd Rosemeyer, Dick Seaman and Manfred von Brauchitsch, the 600bhp machines stunned spectators as they blasted around the 3.1-mile circuit in a series of lurid power slides, leaping off the ground as they breasted Melbourne Rise.
Sixty years on, the Silver Arrows are back. Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz are entering one car each at the Goodwood Festival. Moreover, it is hoped that Hans-Joachim Stuck will drive the Auto Union in what will be a fitting tribute to his late father, the team’s longest-serving driver. Between 1934 and 1939 Hans Stuck won 12 major climbs for Auto Union and was known as King of the Mountains.
When the old established firm of Daimler-Benz and the new concern Auto Union entered Grand Prix racing to the 750kg formula in 1934, it was taken as read that they would also enter the European Mountain Championship. This comprised events at Felsberg (5.0 miles); Kesselberg (3.1 miles); Klausenpass (13.4 miles); Freiburg (7.45 miles) and Mont Ventoux (13.4 miles). The British were proud of Shelsley Walsh, but being a mere hill of 1000 yards in length it was understandably not considered for the championship. No, in the 1930s Real Men climbed Mountains.
The Silver Arrows engaged in battle for the first time in the Eifel GP at the Nurburgring in June 1934, when von Brauchitsch in the front-engined, eight-cylinder Mercedes W25 beat Stuck’s mid-engined, V16 A-type Auto Union.
A week after the Eifel race Stuck made Auto Union’s mountainclimb debut at Felsberg, where he won. The next weekend he won again, at Kesselberg, but at Klausen in August he was beaten by Caracciola in the Mercedes W25. And a name that was soon to become as famous as theirs also appeared in the Klausen results: second in the 500cc class for motorbikes was B Rosemeyer on a DKW.
That was Caracciola’s last success on the mountains, but Stuck had only just begun his winning streak for Auto Union. He won the last two events on the 1934 calendar, at Freiburg and Mont Ventoux, and thus claimed the championship with four victories from five events.
In 1935 he won at Kesselberg and then Freiburg, where more than 40,000 astonished spectators saw Dick Seaman give their hero a very severe fright, for the young Englishman climbed the course just one second slower than Stuck. His ERA was a 1500cc supercharged machine giving about 150bhp, whereas the Auto Union (also supercharged) was now of five litres capacity and gave 375bhp.
Stuck scored his third victory of the year at Feldberg in October (driving a special short-chassis car) and secured the Mountain Championship once more, but his victory was marred by the anti-Jewish sentiment that was already sweeping through Germany. The climb was littered with notices nailed to trees demanding that Stuck be spat upon as a traitor to Hitler because his wife, Paula, was a Jew. In fact, Paula was not a Jew, but she had a grandfather who was. In those sad times, that was enough to make her (and Hans) a target for troublemakers.
In June 1936 there was great excitement in British racing circles when Stuck brought an Auto Union to Shelsley Walsh. He had driven there in 1930 with his Austro-Daimler, setting a new record with a time of 42.8 seconds. Raymond Mays was now the record-holder with 39.6 seconds and there was great expectation that Stuck and the Silver Arrow could beat this time. It was not to be, however, for shortly before their first run it began to rain.
Then, as The Motor reported, ‘the dulcet tones of Mr Findon of The Light Car announced what everyone was waiting for, “Hans Stuck is on the line.”
A great silence fell upon the assembly beneath the dripping trees, and many a mournful eye regarded the shiny, wet road surface. It seemed impossible to crack the record on a wet surface and it was.’
In the circumstances, Stuck’s time of 45.2 seconds was remarkable, but Mays’ record remained intact. On his second run Stuck made a poor start and much wheelspin cost him precious time, but he still put up another fabulous performance. ‘All the way out of sight the tail was never-straight and one rear wheel clouted the bank as he shot across the line.’ But it was slightly slower than his first run, with a time of 48.8 seconds.
Stuck was unable to defend his championship that year because he suffered minor injuries in two racing accidents, during the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara then in the Italian GP at Monza. As a result he was not fit enough to compete at Freiburg and Feldberg. In his place Auto Union entered its new phenomenon, Rosemeyer, who was about to win the European Drivers Championship in only his second season of motor racing.
Rosemeyer shattered Stuck’s course record at Freiburg by 25 seconds, becoming the first man to break the eight-minute barrier on the climb. At Feldberg a month later, he won again and, despite appalling weather, was less than one second away from Stuck’s 1935 record. Rosemeyer was declared German Mountain Champion.
The good news for 1937 was that Mercedes returned to the mountains. The bad news was that there was only one mountain to climb: Freiburg. Stuck was back for Auto Union, determined to regain his title, and he was partnered by Rosemeyer. He, however, was off form, deeply upset by the death of his friend Ernst von Delius in the German GP the previous weekend. Of the Mercedes team Dick Seaman was injured and von Brauchitsch was ill, so Hermann Lang found himself backing up former Mountain Champion Caracciola.
Auto Union had now developed its V16 engine to six litres, producing 520bhp, whereas the new W125 Mercedes had a 580bhp 5.6-litre engine. They were the most powerful racing cars the world had seen and the promise of Stuck, Caracciola and Rosemeyer flinging their Silver Arrows through the innumerable bends had no fewer than 140,000 spectators lining Freiburg’s 7.45-mile course.
By the time of the main event it had begun to rain, so no new record was possible. Stuck went first and recorded eight minutes 11 seconds. Caracciola couldn’t match that eight minutes 17.7 seconds so it was up to Rosemeyer to retain his title by beating Stuck. He made a valiant attempt, but was just two seconds away from Stuck’s time. So Stuck was King of the Mountains once more.
That was Rosemeyer’s last appearance on a mountain for, tragically, he was killed in January 1938 during a record attempt on the FrankfurtDarmstadt autobahn.
In March, Austria became part of Germany and it was decreed that the German Mountain Championship would be decided not at Freiburg but on the Grossglockner Pass, which was now in Germany. Mercedes-Benz entered two 5.6-litre W125s, for von Brauchitsch and Lang. The event was split into two climbs, but on race day the top one was covered in clouds, so two runs were held on the lower.
Stuck won both heats, beating Lang in the first and von Brauchitsch in the second, to regain the championship on aggregate by just 4.2 seconds. For some reason Freiburg was not reinstated for 1939, but another Austrian climb was found, at near Vienna. It was 2.5 miles long.
Mercedes-Benz went to great lengths to win the championship that year, building four special steam-cooled cars two W125s and two 3.0-litre W154s (built to the new GP Formula). At Kahlenberg, von Brauchitsch drove a W125, whereas Lang chose a W154. Both used twin rear wheels on the broad, flat road.
Auto Union also built special cars, shoe-horning 6.0-litre V16 engines into its latest chassis, built to take its new 3.0-litre V12 units. Stuck and HP Muller were the drivers, but Stuck was curiously off form and could finish only fourth. Muller, on the other hand, was flying and gave Lang a considerable fright, beating him in the first heat by 0.9 seconds. But he was slower in the second: Lang, meanwhile, was faster and won the event on aggregate by 0.8 seconds. Von Brauchitsch was third.
And so the Silver Arrows went to Grossglockner for the final round of the championship in August. Here, both Mercedes drivers used the 5.6-litre W125s, but ran without twin rear wheels on the bumpy and narrow road. This year the organisers used the lower, 7.8-mile run only and, as at Kahlenberg, it was Muller who surprised everyone in the first heat, beating Lang by one second, with Stuck third, just 0.4 seconds behind Lang.
Then rain and fog descended on the mountain and visibility became very bad. Whereas Lang had made his first climb in eight minutes 55.3 seconds, his second took 11 minutes 12.6 seconds… Stuck was 3.2 seconds slower and Muller lost his chance for glory by being 20 seconds behind Lang. And von Brauchitsch was almost a minute behind Muller. So Lang became German Mountain Champion for 1939 and before that tragic year was out he was also declared European Drivers Champion, with five Grand Prix victories.
With its length of 1.2 miles and elevation of just 300 feet, Goodwood is a far cry from the 7.8-mile come at Grossglockner, which rose 4060 feet, from 3740 to 7800 feet above sea level. But the Festival of Speed is not so much a hillclimb as a marvellous stage on which to show some of the greatest racing cars ever built. And what a sight it will be to see the Silver Arrows in action, especially as the Auto Union taking part is the one driven in the 1939 Mountain Championship by Muller. Discovered in Riga, Lithuania, in 1977, this car is now owned by Audi and has just been magnificently restored by Crosthwaite and Gardiner.
Also on static display will be a 1936/37 6.0-litre C-type Auto Union and one of the vast streamliners Mercedes built for the 1937 Avus GP. There is going to be a fabulous array of cars at the Festival of Speed but there seems little doubt that the stars of the show will be the charismatic Silver Arrows.