Test Driver's Fame

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Christian Lautenschläger is lauded for winning for Mercedes two of their greatest landmarks, the 1908 and 1914 French Grands Prix. Memorable, because he was a test-driver competing against the elite of racing men.

Lautenschlager was born in April 1877 at Magdstadt in Southern Germany. At 14 he commenced an apprenticeship with a locksmith in Stuttgart and soon excelled at such precision benchwork. He then travelled as a journeyman, working in various factories maintaining the giant stationary engines of the period, keeping fit by hillwalking and athletics. By 1899 he returned home, got married, and joined Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, then embarking on pioneer car construction. By now a skilled mechanic, Lautenschlager found himself working on Mercedes racing cars for wealthy owners; he was promoted to Fahrmeister, or master-driver, running in completed cars, and then to head tester.

Impressed, Otto Salzer secured Lautenschlager as his riding-mechanic in the 1906 Circuit des Ardennes race. They were partners in some further races, and then in 1908 the Mercedes management informed the tester that he was to drive in the 1908 GP. He had never driven in a race previously, but he studied every aspect of the GP team-cars as they were being built, and took their top assignment calmly, as he did the race. It paid off, and he vanquished a big field of famous racing drivers in some of the top cars.

After which the new hero returned to work in the factory until Mercedes again called on him to race in the 1913 Sarthe GP. He finished only sixth, but in the 1914 French GP, on the eve of war, his experience paid off and he led home his two teammates to a fabulous 1,2,3 finish. I have it on the authority of Col Stubbs (who met Lautenschlager when he was at the Mercedes factory just after the war, researching his meticulously accurate and very detailed large-scale models of the 1908 and 1914 GP Mercedes models, which I am delighted to report have survived) that it may have been Lautenschlager’s intimate knowledge of the car he was driving that ensured this all-important victory. Because, towards the end of the tough struggle against the twin-cam FWB Peugeots, his rev-counter ceased to function but he had already noticed a very slight engine vibration at just above 2500rpm. This enabled him not only to assess engine-speed, but to humour his car a trifle, in order to retain his race lead.

After the war this remarkable driver continued to work in the factory, appearing in the Targa Florio contests of 1922 and 1924, driving a revamped 1914 GP car and a 2-litre Mercedes respectively, a contrast to the pre-war racing cars. He was also sent to Indianapolis in 1923, but hit a wall. Lautenschlager built a house for himself overlooking the Stuttgart factory, remaining at his more mundane driving tasks until retirement in 1935; he died in 1954. A good omen for an Austrian testdriver who looks promising in modern F1 racing?