The craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the three-pointed star’s 1939 Grand Prix racer appeals to a designer who fervently believes in elegance and simplicity
I am full of admiration for the Mercedes W154. I believe in elegance and simplicity; a lot of people confuse complex with sophisticated. And if you look at the Mercedes, you’ll see there’s nothing to it. That’s the sort of grand prix car Hike; one where every single part fulfils two, if not three, functions rather than there being brackets on brackets. It’s very pure. While that period’s Auto Union has a lot going for it too, you can almost say it was fundamentally wrong: its proportions weren’t right. The ratios of engine weight to chassis weight, and torque to grip, and all those other things, were such that it was never going to be a nicely balanced and complete car. I think one thing you really need to do when designing a racing car is integrate the engine, the chassis and the gearbox correctly, because I don’t like crude cars with fabulously powerful engines, and I’m unimpressed with cars that have very sophisticated chassis, loads of grip and no power so they’re flat out all the way round. I admire a nice balance, and the Mercedes had a nicer balance than the Auto Union.
A good balance between power and grip wasn’t an option because they hadn’t yet invented proper tyres, though they had invented massively powerful engines. But having a car like the mid-engined Auto Union with the driver sitting on the front axle, a massive engine stuck out the back — such that, by the time the driver noticed he was oversteering, he was at 45 degrees — didn’t, for me, bring balance. Yes, having the engine at the back meant it was ahead of its time, of course. But then the Jensen Interceptor FF was more advanced than the Audi quattro. It had anti-lock brakes and four-wheel drive and the engineers said, ‘This is the future’, but unfortunately it was 20 years before customers said they wanted it. lam not saying the Auto Union wasn’t the right answer, but it certainly wasn’t developed into the right answer. Maybe it would have been in time.
It’s difficult to compare those two cars because it’s an era before my time. And the thing I admired about the Mere wasn’t its concept, it was its execution. It was sophisticated, but it didn’t have a billion bits on it. You look at the 1950s W196 and it’s got variable inlet trumpets, and there’s bits of pipe and bits of tube and grodge all over the thing. You look at the W154 and it has an elegant tube frame, and you’d have serious trouble finding anything in there; it looks like there’s nothing surplus to requirements.
I was brought up to believe that an engineer is someone who could do for five bob what any fool could do for five quid. And I think the Merc W154 is a good example of that. Unfortunately in grand prix racing today, Formula One engineers are people who can do for 10 quid what any fool could do for five — because the money’s there. To machine a differential out of a solid material that is literally 0.1 per cent better than an average steel one and costs 50 times more doesn’t matter anymore, because it is 0.1 per cent better and there is 50 times more money. From my perspective, I have always considered that to be bad engineering. Patrick Head is the best designer of the lot in my opinion because he’s just got this knack for finding a simple way of solving engineering detail design problems. He works so hard at it and succeeds brilliantly.
I haven’t had the opportunity to test any of my designs as Rudolf Uhlenhaut did with the W154. I haven’t considered myself to be much of a driver since sitting beside people who really are. Carlos Reutemann was the most impressive driver I ever sat alongside. I’d see him doing something with ease in the wet, that I’d never have tried because I didn’t think it was possible even in the dry. Tony Rudd, my old boss at Lotus, tested BRMs though I don’t know how close he got to a competitive lap time. I think in those days a very large amount of the testing and development of a car was getting the engine running right — carburation, ignition timing and so on. I think probably the designer of the car would be much better than a professional driver at sorting out that type of thing. So while I as an engineer wouldn’t consider myself a good enough driver to sort out the handling of the car — and I’m slightly suspicious whether Uhlenhaut ever could have either — I think it would have been the case that, in the absence of all the transient dynos and other clever kit we have these days, there would be no one better than the engine designer to do that by driving it. I guess that would have been a very big benefit in Rudi Uhlenhaut’s era. When I look at old racing cars, I find it’s easy to say that they could have done this better, or that better, but maybe they couldn’t at that time. Maybe that knowledge just wasn’t available. I look at the aerodynamics from the 70s and think, ‘If only we had known how sensitive the car is to the front wing endplate, we’d never have put that on it.’ But we didn’t. So I can’t look at the W154 and think they could have done that better, for maybe that was state of the art at that time. I’m not really knowledgeable enough on that period of racing to know what was technologically state of the art at the time, but I believe the Mercedes was at the cutting edge.
For me, the W154 is just a classic car, with a stonking engine which sounds lovely.
Frank Dernie was talking to David Malsher