Michael Schumacher wasn’t the first German GP star to make his name in a Mercedes sportscar. Hartmut Lehbrink reviews Wolfgang von Trips’ early career
The president of the Cologne Porsche Club, Dr Hanswilly Bemartz, addressed his letter to the omnipotent Mercedes team manager, Alfred Neubauer. It was dated January 5, 1955. In it he pointed out that “his charge” had just become German champion in the up-to-1600cc production sportscar class “in a second-hand Porsche without the slightest tuning”. He added that this was “an extraordinarily sporting young man, an uncompromising non-drinker and non-smoker as well as a fighter of great tenacity and endowed with loads of natural driving talent”.
Then Bemartz cut to the chase: “That is why I would like to ask you to give Count von Trips the opportunity to drive a couple of laps in your presence when you are testing at Solitude, Hockenheim or at the Nürburgring in the near future.”
Bemartz had to wait 11 weeks for a reply. Neubauer apologised and explained that he had been busy; his worldwide racing duties had kept him from dealing with his ‘in’ tray. And then Neubauer cut to the chase: “Perhaps you’ve read in the papers recently that we get 4000 applications every year with the same request…” Bemartz’s petition had fallen on stony ground. Neubauer added that Mercedes already had a well-sorted squad: “We need men who have proved that they can win grands prix, world-class stuff. We can’t make a selection from hundreds of very good drivers nor give those gentlemen the chance to train to be champions at our expense.”
Nevertheless, shortly after the 1955 Le Mans on July 11-12, which he spent as a reserve driver in the Porsche pits, von Trips received a telegram asking him to contact Neubauer immediately. Der Dicke (Fatty), as he was called behind his back, invited him to a test session at Hockenheim on the following day, to drive a ‘gullwing’ 300SL.
Two factors had made Neubauer change his mind: von Trips had been fastest in practice for the Eifelrennen in a Porsche; and during the Mille Miglia at the beginning of May, he had shone with a coup de main that had not escaped Neubauer’s notice. “On the Futa Pass,” von Trips told Burghard von Recnicek, editor of specialist magazine Motor im Bild, “I had cruel luck. I was leading my class when the accelerator pedal broke off. I fastened it with wire and worked with the ignition key. And everything went smoothly.” Indeed von Trips arrived in Brescia as class runner-up behind his friend, bespectacled racing driver and journalist Richard von Frankenberg.
Given his chance with Mercedes, von Trips was swift to impress: “After only five laps, driving that rocket gave me so much pleasure that I went through the corners in the most beautiful powersfides. And I saw the Mercedes people go round the circuit to watch me do so,” he wrote in his comprehensive diary.
When he wanted to introduce himself at Untertürkheim the next day, Neubauer was absent, but his right-hand man, Baron Alexander von Koff, noted in a memo that “Trips was very enthusiastic about driving the 300SL, saying that it agreed with him well. When I told him that he was to come to the Nürburgring on July 3 for further tests, this time in a 300SLR, suggesting that he might drive for us in the 1000-kilometre race, he said that he was really keen on doing so but would be in for huge trouble with his family.” The young aristocrat’s parents were not at all amused by their son’s racing exploits; he had been destined for a career in banking. For that reason he had been driving under the pseudonym of ‘Axel Linther’.
The Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres was cancelled in the aftermath of the Le Mans catastrophe which claimed the lives of Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh and more than 80 spectators, but its test session at the beginning of July did take place. And on only his sixth lap the novice impressed with a time of 10min 16sec, just 20sec slower than Karl Kling’s fastest lap in a W196 during the preceding year’s German Grand Prix. Neubauer moved swiftly; on July 6 he sent a telegram to von Trips telling him to attend the Swedish Grand Prix in Kristianstad on August 7. He would be driving a 300SL in the Grand Touring category. Three weeks later a letter from the Daimler-Benz AG management arrived at the von Trips castle, Hemmersbach, near Cologne. This guaranteed him 1000 Deutschmarks for his services, as well as the customary 250 marks starting money paid by tyre supplier Continental and the “equivalent of 20 dollars per day for the time between your departure from your residence and the completion of this task”. Von Trips was now a professional.
On his way to Sweden he joined “the most impressive Mercedes convoy” in Denmark. He was driving his dual-purpose Porsche, which looked decidedly second-hand in such company and to which Neubauer took an instant dislike. He was mollified when von Trips was faster in practice than Kling, although there were critical voices suggesting that an elderly gentleman about to be pensioned off deserved more respect. In the race von Trips led Kling, but at a cost. His diary notes: “I was too hard on the brakes, one of the 300SL’s weak points. At first there was just smoke and a stench, but eventually they stopped working altogether and my hopes of putting on a good show ended against a straw bale.”
Neubauer then had von Trips’ battered Porsche, dubbed Pestbeule (Bubo) by its owner, removed to Stuttgart. But as the Count had planned a two-week, 3000-kilometre trip up to the Arctic Circle, Neubauer magnanimously equipped him with the 300SL that had been raced by Swede Eric Lundgren at Kristianstad. Von Trips’s companion on this adventure was none other than Denis Jenkinson. In the October 1955 edition of Motor Sport ‘Jenks’ reported that he and von Trips had got along extremely well with one another and with the car, even though they were forced to tiptoe 15 miles on three wheels after two punctures.
Shortly before the Swedish sportscar race, von Trips had received a further call from Stuttgart summoning him to the Tourist Trophy on September 17. This time there was no escaping the Mercedes caravan led by engineer Heinz Lamm, which wormed its way to Ireland via Rastatt, Kehl, Strasbourg, Luneville, Nancy, Ligny, Reims, St Quentin, Peronne, Hazebrouck, Dunkirk, Dover, London, Preston, Liverpool and into Larne near Dundrod – all according to Neubauer’s usual strict and precise instructions. “There were five overnight stays between our departure on Friday morning and our arrival on Wednesday afternoon,” von Trips wrote in his diary. “And the expedition as a whole – the trip through France, crossing the Channel, going right through London, the left-hand traffic in England and yet another sea crossing – was a most impressive experience for me.”
To familiarise himself with the 300SLR von Trips was driving a road-going version of the racing sportscar, the so-called Uhlenhaut coupé. In the race he shared an open 300SLR with France’s André Simon, but was relieved when Kling took over for the third stint in the final phase of the Tourist Trophy; Simon had given up after just a few laps in the rain. Von Trips was tired: “I’d hardly taken a breather but had to carry on immediately. When I came in for fuel about half an hour before the end of the race, I was exhausted.”
The threesome still managed to secure third position behind fellow Mercedes drivers Stirling Moss/John Fitch and Fangio/Kling, to the tune of half of the starting money and further bonuses, minus 10 per cent for the team. Five weeks later, however, von Trips received a letter from Neubauer which reduced his Dundrod earnings.
“When you are in a hurry you tend to make mistakes,” Neubauer stated. “I forgot to allow for the so-called mechanics’ bonus. When a car is among the first three each of the three chief mechanics gets 100 marks, half of which has to be paid by Herr Kling and yourself in this case. So please forward the amount of 150 marks to my Untertürkheim address.”
The letter was dated October 24, 1955, so obviously Neubauer had been clearing up his desk. Just two days earlier, at the annual end-of-season victory celebration, Mercedes-Benz had announced its retirement from Formula One and the world sportscar championship. This did not mean that von Trips was jobless, though. He resumed his Munich activities as a bank trainee and went on racing his well-worn Porsche, enjoying the benefit of works drives for the marque from 1956 onwards.
Nor had his Mercedes connection come to an end. At the 1956 Mille Miglia on April 28-29, many observers were surprised to see the familiar faces of Neubauer, Kling & Co. The Automobil Revue, mouthpiece of the Automobilclub von Deutschland, put it like this: “Mercedes was taking part again with an illustrious staff led by racing directors Neubauer and Uhlenhaut, and with almost a dozen works mechanics. It was a star-studded cast sent to look after the private drivers, the noble extras in that magnificent racing film. Furthermore, the works entered two 300SLs for Count von Trips and Fritz Riess and three modified 220 saloons.”
The Rhinelander’s appearance was short but spectacular: “Count von Trips, the up-and-coming German talent, caused a sensation on the first 400 kilometres by leading much stronger racing sportscars in the overall classification at the wheel of a stock 300SL,” noted the paper. “But then bad luck interfered. In a corner a competitor slammed on the brakes when von Trips wanted to overtake him. In order not to collide with the spinning car he left the road.”
The incident had a strange epilogue half a year later. In a letter dated October 26, 1956, an obviously slightly embarrassed Artur Keser, head of the Daimler-Benz press department, asked von Trips to clarify the circumstances of the episode. There was, wrote Keser, “a dispute between two journalists about whether you were baulked by another car or whether you were just too fast because you misjudged that corner”.
Von Trips answered at once, and without mincing words, which was typical of him: “It was beginning to rain. I drove on the left side of the road as I wanted to overtake a car, possibly an Alfa 1900. But it did not work before the corner so I braked as I wanted to stay behind the guy. But he braked, too, and earlier than I had thought. As Karl Kling later confirmed, there is a cement factory in the neighbourhood so the region’s roads are slightly dusty. The car went out of control as if on butter, hit a wall at the entrance of the bend with its left rear corner, was thrown around and knocked over another part of the wall with its right flank. So that was it.” He concluded that his passenger Horst Straub was prepared to confirm this explanation.
When von Trips wrote those lines his spell at Mercedes was already history. He had wound it up with a bang, though, winning the Grand Touring up-to-3000cc class of the Berlin GP at Avus on September 16 in Wolfgang Seidel’s 300SL — a welcome addition to his victory on the same occasion in the category for 1500cc sports-racers in a Porsche 550RS.
At that year’s Swedish Grand Prix on August 12, however, he had driven for Ferrari for the first time, notching up a second place in a 290MM alongside Peter Collins. And that sounded the bell for a different chapter in the life of Count Wolfgang Berghe von Trips.