Continental Notes, October 1954



The Formula-One Lancia
Last winter there was much speculation about the new Lancia Formula 1 car, and yet during the past season it has been doing a “B.R.M.,” never being quite ready to race and always being promised for the next race, if it was ready. It seemed almost certain that it would appear at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix; in fact it was unlikely that Lancia would dare to refrain from running his cars in his own National Great Prize, but nevertheless Monza took place without any signs of the Lancia Grand Prix cars. Whenever efforts are made to find out why the cars do not appear the answers are always vague and evasive, the main excuse being that they are not ready. Most of the testing has been done on the Monza circuit and, though no times are officially recorded, no one has ever suggested that the Grand Prix Lancia could better 2 min. 8 sec., and that with Ascari driving it. At the recent Monza race the top boys got just below 2 min., so clearly the Lancia is pretty mediocre and it has been assumed that it lacked sufficient horsepower. Somehow this assumption never seemed to ring true, for the sports Lancias and the Gran Turismo competition cars have always had plenty of power for their size; why the Grand Prix engine, which is a 2 1/2-litre V8, should suddenly refuse to produce sufficient power, has always been rather a mystery.

Recently a suggestion has been made that may throw some light on this apparent “washout,” as the Grand Prix Lancia has come to be regarded. The suggestion is that it is a four-wheel-drive car. Normally such wild rumours I tend to discount, but having been puzzled by Lancia’s apparent flop I decided that this rumour deserved a little thought. Four-wheel drive for a Grand Prix car today is not a bad idea in theory, the practice is another matter, but with present-day power outputs of around 250 b.h.p., and more to come, the problem of keeping the overall weight of the car low enough to ensure a good performance, but at the same time having sufficient weight to ensure adhesion for the driving wheels, is one that many people have spent much time over. Connaughts have thought about the problem and decided that the only way out will be to have the engine over the rear axle, to ensure sufficient weight on the driving wheels to get traction. This solution brings in many complications with regard to steering and roadholding, but they are not insuperable; four-wheel drive is another solution, but it too has its problems, especially as regards steering. However, if Lancia decided on four-wheel drive in order to transmit his power to the road, and yet keep the overall weight of the car low, it was a reasonable decision that also had a big advantage from the acceleration point of view, as was demonstrated a few years ago by Archie Butterworth. The problem of solving the steering problem is another one which up to now Lancia would appear not to have overcome.

On numerous occasions this season the Grand Prix Lancia has been tested at Monza, which is not a difficult circuit, and nearly every time the car has been reported as having spun off the course. Ascari has always been the driver and just why he should he unable to control the Lancia has always been rather a puzzle. If this new car has four-wheel drive it would explain his inability to keep it on the road. In addition to this, the places that he leaves the road are seldom the normal ones, for it is well known that if a driver tries too hard it is not difficult to imagine just where he is going to slide off the track. The Lancia has been known to go off the Monza circuit in the most peculiar places, so maybe the cause can be traced to four-wheel drive. Another thing about this new car that has always appeared strange is the weight distribution. From photographs it is evident that, the designer has gone out of his way to keep the weight well within the wheelbase, with no overhang either end, and this fact also adds up with four-wheel drive. The general opinion about Grand Prix teams is that Mercédès-Benz are terribly secretive and have armed guards about the place, whereas in fact they are very friendly and reasonable. Ferraris are generally known to be ready to tell you anything, but about Lancias nothing is known, except that they have always made good road cars, the factory sports cars are as good as they come, and they definitely intend to enter the Grand Prix field, as they put it “when we are ready.” Consequently, any enquiries after details of the Grand Prix car are met with polite evasions of the subject. Bearing in mind Lancia’s ability to design things which will not work in theory, or are bad in theory, and yet to get away with them, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they are solving the four-wheel drive problem. After all, Mercédès-Benz have solved most of the problems as regards fuel-injection, Alfa-Romeo and B.R.M. took supercharging to its absolute limit, Ferrari conquered the unsupercharged engine, so why should not Lancia have a monopoly on four-wheel drive. Obviously time will tell and the day will come when all is known about the Grand Prix Lancia, just as everything is known about Ferraris, but in the meantime the idea makes interesting conjecture.

The 300SLR Mercedes-Benz
As a yardstick for the sheer speed of a car the lap times at Monza are interesting, especially as most cars are tested there at some time or another. On the Monday and Tuesday following the Italian Grand Prix the track was monopolised by Mercédès-Benz and they had the two cars that had finished in the Grand Prix, the streamlined one that Fangio drove to victory and the exposed-wheel type that Herrmann drove home into fourth place, while a 300SL coupé formed the personal transport of the head of the development department, Rudolph Ohlenhaut. In addition to these three cars was the new 300SLR prototype, which was supposed to have been ready for this year’s racing, but which will now not appear until next season. The car being tested was a 3-litre with fuel-injection, based on the current Grand Prix car, complete with wire-wheels and inboard brakes, and was in open two-seater form with left-hand drive. As will be seen in the photograph on page 557 the car resembles closely the streamlined Grand Prix car and has two short stub exhaust pipes, while the noise was very little short of that of the single-seater. There is little doubt that it is fast, for it was lapping in 2 min. 3 sec. driven by Uhlenhaut, and in the streamlined Grand Prix car he could not better 2 min. 6 sec. During the Grand Prix practice Fangio ably demonstrated that he could improve on the chief’s time by nearly 6 sec., so a small sum will indicate that the new Mercédès-Benz 3-litre sports car is very fast indeed.

Throughout the two days Uhleuhaut was driving almost continuously, first in the sports car and then in the two Grand Prix cars and always at speeds that would not put him to shame in a present-day Grand Prix field. Having got the sports car going to his liking he let Herrmann and Lang do continuous running in it, sometimes as many as 15 laps straight off as hard as possible. In addition to all this, comparative tests were made between Continental tyres and Pirelli tyres, but the outcome of those tests was not decided in public. It is interesting to record that on the streamlined Grand Prix car the front wheels are joined by a limited slip differential, presumably to ensure even braking at all times, while on the exposed-wheel type this device has been discarded. With the inboard brakes in the centre of the car, only 6 in. apart, a limited slip mechanism could easily be installed or left out as occasion demanded. While the mechanism could not be inspected the result was obvious as the mechanics changed wheels and the idea is certainly worth trying out even if the gain is not very much. Throughout the two days the thoroughness of the Mercédès-Benz technical team at times seemed almost over-done and often unnecessary, but in principle such thoroughness is bound to build up a tradition of always knowing as much as possible about your subject, even though it may be possible to get by with a lot less knowledge. Maybe this attitude removes a lot of the “sport” from motor-racing, but it undoubtedly has enabled Mercédès-Benz to provide Fangio with a mechanism with which to win this year’s World Championship, however lucky some of the wins have been and in spite of a miserable catastrophe at Silverstone. Having an admiration for things Germanic in engineering, especially racing, and therefore standing the risk of being accused of being biased, I still think that as a beginning, after a lapse of 15 years, the three-pointed star of Stuttgart has not disgraced itself, especially when it is considered that the chief rivals, Ferrari and Maserati, have been racing consistently since 1947, which is seven years’ advantage, whichever way you look at it. When a team of new cars appears for a race one would normally consider how they were going to shape up to the existing giants, but this year everyone, without exception, has been considering whether Ferrari or Maserati, or the two combined, were going to be able to give the Mercédès-Benz cars a beating. There has never been a question of “shaping up,” Stuttgart set a new standard on their first appearance and, while they have had to struggle to keep it up, everyone else has been struggling much harder. Having already proved how wrong I can be in the past it is likely that I may be wrong in the future, but I am prepared to take a chance on that. Of one thing I am certain and that is that the new 300SLR Mercédès-Benz sports car is as many years in advance of its rivals, technically, as the Grand Prix cars, and this is only the end of the first season, there are many more to come. — D. S. J.