Letter from a Reader
Apropos the comparatively poor performance of the 1939 Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz in America referred to in your February issue, surely this confirms the opinion, expressed by many, that without their own technical team the performance of these cars would be mediocre. Technicalities apart, what car could or would give of its best after being re-named with such characteristic modesty?
Perhaps the following story, and its sequel, may be of interest to yourself and your readers, and might, now I recall it, have some bearing on the subject.
After my demobilisation in 1945, I continued part-time work as M.O. for the Army for a further two years, and in consequence got around quite a bit in my old M.G. Six, during the course of which I met two P.O.W.s who had been with Mercedes. Actually, I stopped to change a plug one morning close to a gang of P.O.W.s laying kerb-stones. The cheerful English foreman was very interested in my stark vintage outfit, and called two of the men over, telling me they were expert mechanics and would welcome some work more in their own line. He had not exaggerated. I was politely pushed aside. All six plugs were whipped out, cleaned and adjusted, and to cap it, I was thanked. One, who was called Hubert, spoke English well. He had been with Mercedes since 1926, and on their re-entry into G.P. racing was employed in the assembling and testing departments. The other, I forget his name, had been in the pits, usually in Lang’s. They were quite astonished that an ordinary Englishman like myself should know anything at all about G.P. racing, and were very eager for news. I told them all I knew, from Caracciola’s accident, to the shipment to America of the 1939 G.P. Mercedes. This was received at first with great enthusiasm.
Who had gone with it to supervise its preparation? The driver? Were more to follow? Could I arrange their passage? What of Auto-Unions? Utter dejection when I pointed out that the car was privately owned and would probably be raced by its owner. Nor were they any happier when I added that although the Americans were developing some potent machinery, they had not as yet anything of such advanced design. And then Hubert explained. It was not a question of careful, meticulous assembly and preparation alone. Now the car was out of the firm’s hands it would be a question of the fuel, the correct fuel, and the only correct fuel was Merc. fuel. There was nothing actually secret or hush-hush about the dope, it was merely that the ingredients and their percentages were the property of the department responsible, and just as much work and research went into this as into all other branches of racing. In other words, racing had become a science, and a failure in any one department would adversely affect the performance of the cars. Thus, with the American-owned car, unless the owner had the correct fuel, he might just as well lock it up in his garage and become a spectator.
To digress, I sought their opinion on that old argument: who was the best G.P. driver between the wars? quite expecting them to name one of their own team, with Rosemeyer and Nuvolari as possibles. Not a bit of it. For all round brilliance, Varzi was awarded the crown. Three wins at Tripoli, four in succession but for a tyre. Yes, Tripoli was the course, they agreed, to show who was really number one. And so it went on. But for those tragedies, Rosemeyer and Seaman, along with Lang, would have fought it out for the European championship. The best independent, “Bira” by far, an immediate choice for any formula team; Wimille, his equal? — yes, probably so!
And then I went home to lunch. They returned to their kerb-stones, but their minds were not on the job any longer.
I met Hubert once again. It was towards the end of the season at a well-known local motor-cycle grass track. He was in the paddock with some enthusiasts with an old but beautifully-kept machine of a famous make. They had just won their class handicap final by nearly a lap at a speed exceeding their previous best lap by some 4 m.p.h. There was great jubilation. Hubert was in obviously borrowed mufti—he looked rather sheepish. He knew I knew he shouldn’t have been there. Yes, he had done the work on the motor in the owner’s workshop in his own time. He was decoking a car tomorrow evening. He was fed up with kerb-stones. But the authorities, they must not know of him coming here, they would never understand, and he was on the eve of repatriation, and his wife, she would never forgive.
Well, Hubert and most of that camp are repatriated, and I wish him luck. He will need it; he lives in the Russian zone. I wonder if he will enjoy himself like the motor-cycle owner; he had been a P.O.W., too.
I am, Yours, etc.,