When a Mercedes-Benz W165 runs at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in June, it will be only the second time that the model will have competed in an event. Two cars were built for the Tripoli Grand Prix, they finished 1-2 and that was it. Neither has turned a wheel in anger since
When Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union began to dominate Grand Prix racing in the 1930s, it did not go down well in all quarters. France had some fine sports cars, but no serious Grand Prix contenders, so in 1936 and 1937 the French Grand Prix was run for sports cars. On each occasion a French driver won in a French car, and the victory was celebrated as though it were a real Grand Prix. The Italians were made of sterner stuff, however, and they attempted to beat the Germans on their own terms; but by 1939 they had realised that it was a hopeless task.
Italy could not produce a competitive Grand Prix car, but it had some excellent voiturettes in the Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 Alfetta and the Maserati 6CM and 4CL. Voiturettes were the Formula Two of the day with 1½-litre supercharged engines against the 3-litre supercharged (4½-litre unblown) engines of Grand Prix cars. Further. Italy had some very promising young drivers like Guiseppe Farina, Franco Cortese, Piero Taruffi and the Villoresi brothers, Emilio and Luigi.
The Italian authorities announced that, in 1939, all Grands Prix on Italian soil would be run for voiturettes. This made perferct sense in terms of the Italian national championship (from which Nuvolari was excluded since he was driving for Auto Union, a foreign team) and it had also not gone unnoticed that the Germans had no voiturettes.
All well and good, except that Libya was then an Italian colony and the Tripoli GP was one of the rounds of the European Championship which was the direct equivalent of today’s World Championship. Naturally, the Italians expected to win this race — imagine the San Marino GP run to F3000 — but Mercedes-Benz had other ideas.
Working in secret, Mercedes-Benz designed and built a voiturette contender, the W165. The chassis was a scaled-down W154 Grand Prix car with a twin-tube chassis, coil spring and wishbone front suspension and de Dion rear axle sprung by torsion bars. The engine, however, was completely new, a dohc V8 of 1493cc (64 x 100 mm), with four valves per cylinder and two-stage supercharging, which delivered 256 bhp at 8000 rpm (the Alfetta and the Maserati 4CL each produced 220 bhp).
Maserati won the early voiturette races of the season, then came May: without any forewarning, Mercedes-Benz arrived in Tripoli with two W165s. They were little jewels, low, sleek and made to the standards which then only Mercedes-Benz could achieve. The Italians were not entirely fazed, however, because they felt that, being brand new, the W165s were likely to be unreliable whereas the Alfa Romeos and Maseratis were proven. Maserati also had an ace up its sleeve in the form of a streamlined 4CL for Luigi Villoresi and it was expected to be very competitive on the fast Tripoli circuit. So it proved, at least in practice.
Mercedes-Benz’s drivers were Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang. Despite his Italianate name, Caracciola was German (his family had moved from Sicily 400 years earlier) and he was one of the greatest drivers ever. Those who claim that Nuvolari was the greatest of the 1930s ignore the fact that he and Caracciola (who was the more successful driver) rarely met on equal terms, and when they did, as team-mates in 1932, Rudi was equally as fast.
Things had changed by 1939, however, and Hermann Lang was the new star of the Mercedes team. Lang was a genuine working-class hero, born of simple farming stock, who raced motor cycles when he could afford to and who became a mechanic in the Mercedes-Benz racing department. He was well liked and his immediate boss, Jakob Krauss, made it his business to promote the youngster.
Krauss nominated Lang as the mechanic to drive the car from the garage to the track so he could get a feel for it, and he sent him out when routine jobs like bedding-in brake linings had to be done. Through Krauss’s influence, Lang was entered in the 2000-km German Reliability Trial, which he won. As a result, he was offered a test drive in a Grand Prix car, and did well enough to be made one of the cadet drivers. His first motor race was at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz W25 with 430 bhp, and it was only later in his career that he raced anything that was not a Grand Prix car.
Lang’s rise made him a hero in Germany. He embodied the promise of opportunity on which the Nazi party had come to power. When he won the 1937 Tripoli GP it was only his seventh motor race of any description. There is little to tell about that race; Lang simply flew and nobody could catch him. He had little difficult in winning, but he was terrified of the aftermath. Lang was a shy man and the prize-giving was a state occasion. He felt he would be out of place in such company, he didn’t even have an evening suit, so he and his wife, Lydia, locked themselves in their hotel room and hoped nobody would notice their absence.
The team manager, Alfred Neubauer, did notice, however, and he hammered on their door and ordered the reluctant hero to attend. Hermann Lang rose on sheer talent, but his rise caused resentment. Luigi Fagioli, whose mechanic Lang had been, developed a psychopathic hatred for him — for Faglioli, giving him a drive was like letting privates into the officers’ mess. Caracciola also resented his presence in the team and things got worse as Lang got better. By the 1939 Tripoli GP, Lang was on the verge of greatness while Caracciola’s distinguished career was on the wane.
It was Neubauer’s rule to restrict the number of practice laps his drivers could do, preferring to save the machinery for the race. At the end of the first day’s practice at Tripoli, Lang had pole. Villoresi had put the Maserati streamliner into second place, and Caracciola was third. Neubauer decided not to run in the second day’s practice, but then Villoresi bagged pole. With the honour of the Fatherland at stake, Caracciola was sent out. Rudi improved his time, and moved up into second place, but was still behind Villoresi. Neubauer then ordered Lang to get pole, and that did not suit Caracciola. He didn’t mind being slower than Villoresi, his main concern was being quicker than his team-mate.
Lang went out and moved up from third on the grid to second, demoting Caracciola. That soured relations even more. The question arose as to who drove which car — one had slightly more advantageous gear ratios, and there were no spares. Both drivers wanted it, but Caracciola stood his ground as team leader.
Lang bit his tongue and accepted his decision. Then came the team orders: Lang was nominated to act as the ‘hare’ and draw the opposition to break it. If he did his job well he would have to have a tyre change, whereas Caracciola was to drive steadily on one set of tyres in the quicker of the two cars. Lang was a very angry man indeed, but he contained himself and decided to make his point on the track.
At the start of the race Lang shot off into the lead from Farina’s Alfa Romeo, with Caracciola in third. Villoresi’s Maserati lasted less than a lap and retired with gear selection problems, and Farina was out after 10 laps with engine problems. The North African heat was terrific and drivers began to wilt. One called at his pits and asked for a glass of refreshment. He was mis-heard and handed a pair of glasses which, in his delirium, he sucked on. Another ran out of fuel and asked some spectators for something to cool him down. He was handed a bottle which he poured over his head until he realised it was wine. He then made better use of it and was soon unfit for further action.
So intense was the heat that one driver was convinced that the residue of fire extinguisher fluid near his pits was actually ice, and he refused to come in for fear of skidding on it. Lang was driving under the same conditions. But he drove into the distance, skilfully conserving his tyres. He obeyed team orders, he acted as the ‘hare’, and he did the entire race without stopping.
Lang took the chequered flag after nearly two hours and his average speed was shade under 123 mph — his fastest lap was 130.94 mph. Three minutes and 37 seconds later Caracciola crossed the line, nearly an entire lap down. Mercedes-Benz had pulled off one of the greatest feats in motor racing history: they had built two brand-new cars which ran faultlessly and finished first and second. For Lang it completed a hat-trick of wins in Tripoli.
Although there were many other races in which Mercedes-Benz could have entered the W165s, they concentrated on the European Championship. Besides, it was politic not to upset the Italians by taking the new small cars to Italy. They therefore raced only on the one occasion, and then they were set aside.
In 1939, Lang raced eight times, set pole seven times, led every race, won the five in which he finished and took fastest lap four times. He was the easy winner of the European Championship. When Ayrton Senna won the first four Grands Prix of 1991, some sections of the media went wild and claimed it as a record. It was old news, because the record already belonged to Hermann Lang. Lang’s final win came in Yugoslavia on September 3, the day war was declared.
Lang’s best years as a driver were taken from him by the war. The same is true for many others, but none of the others was de facto World Champion. Lang spent the war as an inspector of Daimler-Benz aeroengines, he wanted to fight for his country but, as a sports hero, he was regarded as too valuable to lose, so his visits to Luftwaffe stations were partly work and partly propaganda. Ashamed that he was unable to do his duty, Hermann would stay up late, drinking and swapping yarns with air-crew who might not return the following day. By the end of the war he was an alcoholic. Even the end of hostilities and the gradual resumption of motor racing did not bring this phase to an end: as a German, he was barred from international racing until 1950.
Caracciola did not face the same ban because he had long been resident in Switzerland and was able take Swiss nationality. He drove in qualifying for the 1946 Indianapolis 500 and crashed. It was two years before he could walk and speak properly.
When Mercedes-Benz returned to international motor racing in 1952 with the 300SL, Lang and Caracciola were in the team and each had recovered from their different afflictions. Caracciola crashed heavily during a minor sports car race at Berne (he had a problem with his brakes) and his great career was finally over. Lang went on to win Le Mans, a sports car race at the Nurburgring (when the 300SLs ran with open bodies) and to come second in the Carrera PanAmericana.
He was brought back for the 1954 German GP, and for part of the race he held second place to his team-leader, Juan Fangio, and came close to matching his lap times. It was nearly 15 years since Lang had last sat in a Grand Prix Mercedes.
Lang’s race came to an end when his transmission locked and caused him to spin. Mercedes-Benz’s press department put out that it was driver error, but film of the incident shows otherwise. As a loyal employee, Hermann Lang kept his counsel.
Lang became a consultant to the Mercedes-Benz museum until his death in 1987 at the age of 78. Caracciola was also employed by Daimler-Benz, as a demonstrator of cars, and he died of a kidney complaint in 1959, aged 58. His body, which had sustained some terrible crashes, was unable to carry his great spirit any longer.
Caracciola, Lang, the Mercedes-Benz W165s, a baking hot day in Libya; a legend was created on May 7 1939. Although many at the time believed that it was funded by the Third Reich, the Mercedes-Benz racing team, like its rival Auto-Union, actually only received a subsidy which accounted for no more than 1 per cent of its expenditure. It designed and built two cars for a single race because, regardless of what else was going on in the world, the competition department was motivated by winning. And it did win.