Mercedes at Donington

The Mercedes-Benz W154 demonstration at the VSCC Donington Meeting on May 23 prompts the question of how Mercedes (which we never, ever called ‘Silver Arrows) fared in the Grands Prix there in 1937 and 1938. In fact, they lost to Auto Union, driven by Rosemeyer and Nuvolari. Mercedes had not had a good year in 1936, but they had won the last three races prior to the 1937 Donington GP, at Berne, Livorno and Brno, Caracciola victorious in each.

So when the Stuttgart team arrived at the Derbyshire circuit, with drivers Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Seaman at Id Lang, victory seemed assured. Yet it was Rosemeyer’s Auto Union which led Brauchitsch over the finishing line by 37.8 secs at 82.86mph. Some think Caracciola, who was third, assumed those ahead would retire and, perhaps to save his tyres, slowed too much to regain a striking position. He was followed by the Auto Unions of Muller and Hasse, in a race which had proved staggering to British spectators who hadn’t seen the German cars in action before. So fast were they that none of the British runners, led by Earl Howe’s ERA, was classed as a finisher!

I have described the reasons we were so enthralled – the cavalcade of M-B lorries and mobile workshop, Neubauer’s military-like control of everything (when Seaman left his goggles in Donington Hall and was about to fetch them for after lunch practice, he was told “Ze Seaman stays here, ze mechanic fetches ze goggles’) and the fabulous acceleration and speed of the straight-eight W125 Mercedes-Benz. Then the fastest GP cars in the world, they consumed eye-watering fuel, slid through corners, drivers’ arms crossed on the steering wheels with supercharger screaming, making me and John Eason-Gibson, in spite of track passes, climb back over the fence when we first heard the cars approaching through the woods. This and more I described in The MOTOR SPORT Book of Donington (Grenville, 1973). But it is a W154 M-B which will enthral the VSCC this year, so it is the 1938 Donington GP we are concerned with, Hiller preventing a repeat in ’39.

In 1938 M-B had von Brauchitsch, Seaman, Lang and Bauer as drivers, A-U fielding Nuvolari, Willer, Hasse and Kautz in their oversteering rear-engined V12 cars. The W154 Mercedes-Benz also has a V12, of three litres to comply with the GP rules. It was an electric occasion, the race started by the Duke of Kent, the BRDC President in Chief, German Embassy staff arriving in open Mercedes and BMWs and Hitler’s Reichsleiter Huhnlein present. Huhnlein was given a few laps in Lionel Martin’s Bentley, while the Duke, after flying up from London, had some quick ones in a V12 Lagonda driven by Seaman, coat over his overalls.

Like Schumacher, Nuvolari, sitting in a Studebaker, had asked how much more of the last practice session remained, then, with minutes to spare, rotated a finger to tell his mechanic to start the Auto Union and went out to try for pole-position. But Lang had gone 0.2sec quicker.

The flag fell and they got away in an crash of sound, and the almondy boot-polish aroma of burnt racing fuel hung under the trees. One lap gone and already Nuvolari led, but Muller had come from the second row to second place, ahead of Brauchitsch, Seaman, Lang and Baumer. Along the straight speed rose to 170mph. Kautz’s throttle struck open and he hit a bank and was out after two laps. Ten laps run, and Nuvolari had 14.6sec on his team-mate and Seaman had passed von Brauchitsch. At 26 laps Nuvolari came in to change a plug, dropping him after the 53sec pause to fourth, Muller still leading Seaman and Lang picking off the ERAs as if they were London taxis.

Then drama! Hanson’s Alta blew its engine, shedding oil before the hairpin. Nuvolari, forseeing this, slid sideways onto the grass, bare arms putting the steering from lock to lock, and kept on. Von Brauchitsch spun twice but recovered. Hasse really lost it and hit the bank. Seaman went off and push-restarted; Lang and Muller slid but kept going. Drama again, as Baumer had all the wheels changed and fuel put in, to leave after 35sec, against Lang’s earlier stop of 33sec. With 30 laps to run, Muller led Lang by 21sec, Nuvolari by 79sec. But as expected Tazio gave all he had. Making fastest lap at 83.71mph with 17 more to do, he closed on Lang, whom he took on lap 67, to win the race, at 80.49mph, after 3hr 6min 22sec of hard work. Seaman was third, a lap behind. As Gibson drove me back to London in his Opel Kadett, we had much to discuss. Those who see the W154 running this year should just, perhaps, be able to visualise what that battle of Mercedes and Auto-Union was like, 61 years ago.

Besides the W154 demo, the VSCC will have the Penske PC23 Indy Mercedes, driven by John Watson, the car which won the 1994 ‘500’ for Unser, its 1000hp Mercedes-Ilmor engine giving him a top speed of 254mph. The 1998 West McLaren-Mercedes will also circulate, driven by Nick Heidfeld. Essential viewing, great crowd-pulling; but as the VSCC is mainly about pre-war motoring, the W154 will not, I hope, be overshadowed and will be the main attraction for its members.