Doug Nye: 'This is not the first hiccup in Mercedes' grand prix history'

Mercedes dominated grand prix racing in the early 1930s before being tripped up by weight restrictions. But it soon bounced back...

So the opening races of this season’s new-era Formula 1 saw Mercedes-AMG perform so badly that team principal Toto Wolff declared it “unacceptable”. Although they are rare, this is not the first hiccup in the hallowed Mercedes marque’s Grand Prix history.

When funding from the German state oiled Mercedes’ Grand Prix comeback in the 750kg maximum-weight Formula of 1934, their ground-breaking new W25 cars won their debut race, the Eifelrennen on the Nürburgring. After demonstrating fantastic speed at Montlhéry for the French GP reliability let them down, but they got a grip and their hired-gun Italian driver Luigi Fagioli then won the important Coppa Acerbo race at Pescara, and both the Italian and Spanish GPs. Against sophisticated German rival Auto Union, and a valiant Italian Alfa Romeo rearguard action, Mercedes would shine brightest by the end of that year.

Through 1935 Mercedes effectively dominated Grand Prix racing. Its latest 4.3-litre supercharged straight-8 engine delivered a reliable 400bhp plus 424lb/ft torque. The chassis handled nicely and harnessed that power and torque well enough to win five of the year’s seven European Championship rounds, plus four lesser GP Formula events – nine victories in all, including five 1-2 finishes and a 1-2-3 result at San Sebastián.

So, familiar dominance? Yes, but, in 1936 Daimler-Benz tripped. The background involved 750kg maximum weight Formula restrictions, devised in 1932-33. The contemporary equivalent of today’s FIA governing body – the AIACR – was trying to rein-in what its officials perceived as the technical excesses of such leading manufacturers as Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Bugatti. The Great Depression had followed the global financial collapse of 1929-30 (also familiar today?) which had then seen race organisers open their events to whatever any interested entrant might care to offer. Free formula promptly saw engine power and car speeds surge with such doubled-up engine designs as the Bugatti parallel 16, the Alfa Romeo Tipo A parallel 12 and the track burning Maserati sedici cilindri V16. But to the law makers big spelled heavy, hence their new maximum weight formula for 1934, calculated to restrict power and speed.

“Daimler- Benz tripped in ’36. It could have been wonderful, but wasn’t”

What they missed was German industry’s unmatched metallurgical and design prowess. And the German engineers at Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union produced big, powerful alloy engines still light enough for the cars to meet that 750kg maximum weight limit – if only just…

That ‘only just’ tripped Mercedes in 1936. Wanting to enlarge their engine capacity and power even further the design team recalled the SSK version of their late-1920s SS sports car, the ‘K’ or ‘Kurz’ (short) – having a shortened chassis and wheelbase to save weight. So their W25/36 programme was to produce an inherently lighter, lower, shorter GP car, to carry a new-design ‘DAB’ 5.57-litre V12 engine offering up to 598bhp.

It could all have been spectacularly wonderful, but wasn’t. The DAB V12 weighed a whopping 650lb, and struggled to deliver 570bhp. So instead a new version straight-8 was rushed through, 4.7 litres, just over 450bhp, weight 465lb.

This 1936 forerunner of today’s Mercedes W13 was dubbed the ‘Model 1936’ or in-house ‘the short car’ – more than 10in shorter wheelbase permitted by a compact rear-mounted transaxle. The 1934-35 cars’ swing-axle rear suspension had finally proved incapable of putting increasing power through to the road, drivers complaining that breakaway was almost uncatchable. The solution chosen was a solid axle, a Y-shaped fabrication with the leg to the rear, mounting upon a ball pivot on the end of the chassis. The end of each arm carried the wheel hubs, the assembly located laterally by a bronze block sliding within a steel-edged slot in the back of the transaxle.

First time out Caracciola’s wet-weather genius won the Monaco GP, and he won in Tunis (but only after the rival Auto Unions had crashed). At Tripoli all the team drivers complained of the short car’s nervous handling. In Barcelona Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo won, Mercedes engines failed in Budapest and – a Mercedes nightmare – the German GP saw an Auto Union 1-2 for Rosemeyer and Stuck, with Alfa Romeo third.

Team reorganisation soon followed. Mercedes’ new Rennabteilung was created under then 30-year-old engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut. He proved as fine a test driver as an engineer. He identified flexibility in the new rear axle causing “terrible vibration” near the cornering limit, brake judder, wheel flap and – at the core of the short car’s problem a need for a longer wheelbase to minimise “difficulties in cornering”.

When chief engineer Fritz Nallinger wrote his design brief for 1937 he requested a stiffer frame, “probably oval tube”, longer-travel front suspension with progressive springs, better location of the existing rear axle and “lengthening of the wheelbase”. The result was the 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 – the finest and most successful Grand Prix car of its time.

So while the best might drop the ball –never dismiss the prospect of a bounce back.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s