Karl Kling, who died recently, may never have been a great racing driver but he was certainly one who had his days. I interviewed him only once, appropriately close by the Nordschleife, in 1996. He was close to his 86th birthday but there was no hesitancy in his walk, and his speech was crisp, his memory sharp. As we sat down in a motorhome, rain streaming down the windows, there was no impression of talking to an old man.
Forty-four years earlier Kling had been chosen as Germany’s Sportsman of the Year following his famous victory in the Carrera Panamericana in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, this the greatest success of a career abbreviated by circumstance.
“The Carrera was the longest road race of the time and Mercedes entered with the newly developed 300SL. Seven prototypes were shipped to Mexico and we then drove the race cars to the start in Guatemala. We had a top speed of about 150mph, which came not from horsepower but from the excellent aerodynamics.
“Everything was going well until, all of a sudden, my windscreen went bang and my co-driver, Hans Klenk, was hurt. He almost lost consciousness but told me to go on until the next depot. There was a really nasty stench and, honestly, I thought he’d shit in his trousers — but it wasn’t the case. This vulture, which had come through the screen and hit him in the face, was lying dead in the back of the car, and that was what stank so much!
“At the next depot we put some small steel rods across the screen, mounted vertically. They had to be bent a little, so I got a barrel and bent them round that. These were to prevent other birds from hitting us, and it almost happened again — although not with a vulture. But anyway, we won all the stages after that and won the race overall.”
Like many other drivers, most notably the great Hermann Lang, Kling lost what would have been perhaps his best years to WWII.
“I started off on motorbikes, and then did some sportscar races in 1947-50 with a BMW 328 and a Veritas. Later I did one race in an Alfa Romeo, and another in a Porsche; otherwise, my entire career was with Mercedes. I started as a mechanic in 1927 and I retired as competitions manager in 1970, when I was 60 years old.”
The links endured and through the 1990s Kling attended many races as a guest of Mercedes. “I still love watching Formula One,” he said. “Until a few years ago I went to every race in Europe, but today I prefer watching on TV because I can see the race better… and, at home, I can have my glass of wine and watch at my leisure.”
The Nordschleife always kept a place in his heart, not least because it was there, in 1954, that he drove perhaps the best race of his life. He did not win that German Grand Prix but remembered it with particular satisfaction.
“I had to start from the back of the grid because my car lost a wheel in practice before I’d been able to set a time. In the early part of the race I passed a lot of drivers and eventually got up to second place, behind Fangio. If the main thing was that Mercedes should win it was quite correct that the team orders should be in Fangio’s favour, because he had the best chance to win the championship.”
In the pits, therefore, there was consternation when Kling not only caught Fangio but went by him, at which point legendary team boss Alfred Neubauer began hanging out pit signals.
“I was not really trying to race with Fangio,” Kling said. “From quite early on I had a fuel leak and knew I would have to stop for fuel — which was unusual because, in those days, we used to do the whole race on one tank and one set of tyres.
“Of course, we had no radio contact with the pits then, so Neubauer and the others didn’t know of my problem. I drove like a madman that day, quite honestly; our normal rev limit with the W196 was 8500rpm, but that day I used 9000 most of the way, and I didn’t care about it! After a time I began to worry about the rear axle, too — the mounting had broken on one side.
“The Nürburgring was my home track and I covered many kilometres of testing there. And that day I was faster than Fangio. Of course, in the final analysis, I wouldn’t have attacked him, but I had to go flat out to make up the time I knew I would need for refuelling, and to get the axle mounting repaired. Then I went back into the race, but the car wasn’t really perfect any more.”
In the end Fangio won; Kling came away with fourth place, and the fastest lap. “I didn’t win, no, but I had a lot of pride that day, to drive the whole race flat-out at the Nordschleife. At that place, you know, I would look at my room as I left each morning and wonder if I would see it again.”
After an absence of 15 years Mercedes had returned to racing a month earlier, at the French Grand Prix. There Fangio and Kling stunned the F1 establishment by qualifying first and second, and immediately clearing off into a race of their own. For the Reims circuit, with its long straights, the streamlined W196, with its all-enveloping bodywork, was ideal, but generally Kling preferred the open-wheel car, which made its debut at the Nürburgring.
“At normal circuits it was much better because it was so much easier to place precisely in the corners. But for the faster places like Reims and Monza, though, it made sense to use the streamliner, which obviously had a higher top speed.”
It was in this car, in the autumn of 1954, that Kling won his only F1 race, against minimal opposition in the Berlin Grand Prix at Avus. When I mentioned it, he sniffed derisively.
“The Nürburgring was a complete driver’s circuit, with no safety precautions, and I really loved it — every driver did. There was a lot of satisfaction there, but Avus… Avus was not interesting at all.”
For 1955 Fangio and Kling were joined in the team by Stirling Moss, for whom Karl had the highest regard: “Moss was very fast, and much better at setting up the car than Fangio, who tended just to drive it as it was. I had a very good relationship with Moss — in fact, after the war, all the relationships between the Mercedes drivers were good.”
Not so before the war, then? Kling made a face. “Hmm! I worked in the sport department before the war and I knew all the drivers. Rudolf Caracciola was dominant until Lang and Auto Union’s Bernd Rosemeyer came along. At first Lang was not allowed to drive as fast as he could… you could write a novel about what went on in those times! Some would be flattered by it and some would not — but I’m not writing it! People said that von Brauchitsch hated Lang, but they had a much better relationship than Caracciola and Lang — or `Caratsch’ and Fagioli, for that matter.
“In the 1950s the contact between the drivers was more friendly, perhaps, and certainly more so than today. Everything was less commercialised, more gentlemanly than now.
“The other thing that has really changed, of course, is that in my era nobody gave a thought to safety — even in the development of the cars. Safety simply wasn’t in the concept of the car. In those days nobody ever mentioned it”
Kling refused to say which of the drivers he considered the greatest — “I wouldn’t presume to do that. And anyway, I don’t think you can compare different eras.” Very clearly, though, one individual stood out in his memory.
“Rudolf Uhlenhaut was an exceptionally good driver and he always wanted to race, but the Mercedes directors wouldn’t let him because he was too valuable in the development of the cars. He was, in my opinion, the best engineer that Mercedes-Benz has ever had, and it would have been a waste to have had him as a driver.”
On the subject of Neubauer, the legendary team manager, Kling was rather more reticent
“A genius on strategy and on motivating the drivers? Yes and no. I mean, he stood there with his stopwatches, but the more important man was Uhlenhaut, not Neubauer. He was a very quiet sort of person; he would sit in the pits and tell Neubauer, ‘Now you have to refuel. Now you have to change tyres. And now you have to change drivers!’
“But Neubauer was good at promoting the company, for sure. He would have made a very good actor! I could tell a lot more stories, but these people are not alive, and should rest in peace…”
When Mercedes-Benz pulled out of racing at the end of 1955, it never entered Kling’s head to drive for any other team. “No, no, not at all. We were all surprised and saddened by the announcement that they were going to stop racing, but I was an old Mercedes man and I didn’t want to leave.
“I never regretted my decision.”