Echoes of Glory

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Mercedes last won its home Grand Prix in 1954. Karl Kling, the star of that race, was at the Nurburgring to see the first signs of a McLaren Mercedes resurgence. Mark Skewis reports

Not even the brilliance of Michael Schumacher, who sat in the wheel tracks of the Williams for the last 20 laps of the European Grand Prix, could deprive Jacques Villeneuve of his first Formula One victory. Afterwards, the World Champion was asked how disappointed he felt at not repeating last year’s sensational home win. “I don’t see why I have any reason to be disappointed,” he responded, surveying the men either side of him in the press conference. “Today, I think all three of us are winners…”

He had a point. Indycar’s champion had demonstrated his mettle by withstanding intense pressure on Schumacher’s home soil. The German himself had matched the Williams for pace much earlier in the season than he had believed possible.

But perhaps the biggest celebrations of all were reserved for the Mercedes-Benz awning, where David Coulthard’s third place finish was greeted with greater euphoria than have been many of McLaren’s victories in the past.

The last time the German car giant really did win its home event was 1954, and one of the surviving members of that squad, Karl Kling, was present to witness Coulthard’s mobbing.

In his era, Mercedes was pioneering new technological frontiers. With McLaren’s chassis having taken much of the blame for the team’s poor start to the season, today’s engine is also well-respected sufficiently so for somebody to indulge in espionage at this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. The indications are that the spy was attempting to reveal the secrets of the V10’s variable inlet trumpet system. Ironically, Kling reveals that when it last quit the sport, in 1955, Mercedes was so ahead of the game that it was already far advanced in the study of variable trumpets…

Kling is from another generation. In terms of morals, he may as well be from another planet.

Fully 40 years after the accident which nearly cost him his life on the Nordschleife, he refuses to divulge the cause of the crash. The suspicion has always been that the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante sports car he was driving suffered steering failure. If it did, he’s not about to spill the beans. “I don’t speak ill of Mercedes,” he says, “so why should I say anything bad about Alfa. The people there were very good to me. They came and visited me in hospital every two weeks.”

There is not a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Loyalty is a byword for Kling and it seems a strange concept, a throwback to an age of chivalry, if you like, in an era when most of us have been brought up on kiss and tell stories. Don’t expect Johnny Herbert and Benetton, Jean Alesi and Ferrari, or Mark Blundell and McLaren to give a glowing testament of each other after last season. But Kling resists speaking ill either of his former team or racing colleagues. For instance you get the impression that he didn’t really rate Juan-Manuel Fangio. He praises Stirling Moss as better able to adapt to a range of cars and hints that Fangio often benefited from other drivers set-up, as well as from the Silver Arrows’ team orders, but stops short of destroying a legend. “Those who are not alive any more should rest in peace,” he insists.

Ironically, Kling himself was accused of breaking team orders by passing Fangio in the 1954 German GP. He maintains, however, that he never broke the faith, instead pointing out that he upped the pace because he knew a leaking fuel tank would require him to make an extra pit stop.

Aged 85, Kling is a Mercedes man. Always was. He began work there as a mechanic when he was 17 and with the exception of two races in an Alfa sports car and one in a Porsche for which the factory gave him permission – he drove only for the one marque.

Robbed of the best years of his career by the war, he was further deprived when his beloved company withdrew from racing at the end of the 1955 campaign in the wake of the Le Mans tragedy. By then, he had enjoyed only two seasons alongside Fangio in the team’s W196, but he never even considered moving on when the Mercedes board pulled the plug. Conversely, when Mercedes officially re-entered Formula One in 1993, with Sauber, in 1993, with Sauber, there was never the slightest chance that Schumacher, whom it had groomed for stardom through its Junior scheme, would return to the fold…

Immediately before the European Grand Prix, Kling accompanied the present crop of Mercedes juniors on a visit of the old ‘Ring. They found it inconceivable that, just 20 years ago, F1 cars raced around the track that has claimed more GP lives than any other since the inception of the world championship.

“In my day no drivers had any thoughts about safety,” he admits, recalling that Fangio’s victory at that 1954 race was marred by the death of Maserati’s Onofre Marimon. “The development of the cars didn’t show any safety thinking either it was not in the concept of the car. I welcome the development of safety for the car and circuits: that’s one of the greatest step forward for motor racing, but nobody thought of it back then.”

“Now I know why they drove with their legs so far apart in those days,” marvelled a candid Jan Magnussen after watching a film of Kling’s exploits in ’54. “It was because their balls were so big!”

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