To highlight its Classic department, Mercedes decided to go racing — slowly. In a vast Fintail…
The idea was simple and came from the mind of Michael Bock, head of Mercedes-Benz’s Classic department and as such the man in charge of the most important single-marque collection of cars there is. He wants more people with old Mercedes racing cars to use them and believing actions to speak louder than words, he determined to practice what he preached. The plan was to enter a racing Mercedes saloon into the FHR series of European endurance races in 2012, each time pairing a stellar Mercedes professional racing driver with a journalist. But the car was ready before the end of the 2011 season so it was decided its first outing would be at the last race of the year, at the Nürburgring. Step forward K Ludwig and, very much to his surprise, A Frankel.
The weapon du choix is a ‘Fintail’ 1963 220SE. I’d presumed that, being a factory car, it would contain every legal trick in the book, but nothing could be further from the truth. The last thing Mercedes wants is to turn up with a skunk works car and blow everyone into the weeds. Its approach, from the van in the car park to the car on the track, is delightfully modest and low-key. The Fintail is stripped out, has stiffer springs, race pads and a control Dunlop race tyre but otherwise is near enough completely standard. And that includes the 2.2-litre fuel injected engine which was rebuilt and carefully balanced, but still only produces 138bhp, just 20 more than when it was new. All Mercedes did not hold back on was safety, as a roll cage that would keep King Kong under control bears witness. At 1300kg, the car is just 75kg lighter than standard.
The first problem is that as practice starts, the Nordschleife is reported to be covered in ice. Klaus heads out, does a lap just to make sure the car is qualified, hands the car over to me and laconically confirms that there is indeed ice everywhere the sun has yet to reach. Having not raced at the ‘Ring in eight years,driving a car belonging to Mercedes with Klaus as your team-mate, it was pressure I could do without. My first lap takes almost a quarter of an hour — the fastest Klaus has ever been around the Nordschleife is 6min 19sec.
But by the time the race starts the sun has been shining for hours and the track is dry. My only problem is I’m still not sure exactly which way it goes. The race forms up in three groups of 50 cars each, with the Fintail towards the back of the last. We spent 20 minutes on a parade lap waving to the surprisingly large crowds before the race starts. And, as often happens on long tracks when you’re at the thin end of the grid, soon the cars that could get ahead had and those I could drop had been dropped. For all practical purposes, I had the track to myself.
Keeping a car like the Fintail on the boil around the ‘Ring is an art in itself. Drive it conventionally and it feels painfully, almost pointlessly slow. You drive up to a corner, brake, understeer through and spend what seems like the next half hour getting your speed back. So you don’t brake unless you absolutely have to which, in this car at this track, is hardly ever. Instead you turn into each corner impossibly early on a trailing throttle and as soon as your trajectory is established, get back on what little power there is, often long before the apex. There’s not enough steam to drift it, but you can all but eliminate the understeer and carry more speed than you’d ever have imagined. And then driving the soft and slow old car becomes positively fun. My lap times were still falling 20 seconds per lap when I pitted and handed over to Klaus, who then made me look ridiculous by going half a minute faster than my best. Only when I looked at the in car video and saw him using bits of track I didn’t know existed did I feel less than disgraced.
And what did Klaus think of our noble steed? By the end of the race he was going so fast even the Mercedes mechanics were starting to giggle, he won us the class and emerged wreathed in smiles. “Honestly, I thought she was going be a bitch. But in fact if you turn early, she is wonderful. Very forgiving and nicely balanced. You have to hook the kerb to get it to turn in and power on early, then it’s real fun. I never expected that.”
Nor I. We both agreed the car would be transformed by more power and Mercedes would be within its rights to use a 3-litre direct injection motor; but I don’t think that’s how they’re thinking. Everyone knows that if it put its mind to it, Mercedes could build a car no one could catch. But by using a car as unusual and beautiful as the Fintail and asking drivers of the calibre of Ludwig to drive it, Mercedes gets all the positive attention it needs, with none of the attendant downsides. So the Fintail may not be the fastest thing out there, but as far as classy ways for a car manufacturer to go racing is concerned, it takes a hell of lot of beating.