The 1937 Avus GP was a high-speed party
The 1937 Avus GP was a high-speed party political broadcast. Chris Nixon tells the story of a thirst of power and glory that was quenched at 240mph.
‘Three races each won at over 150 mph was the staggering result of Sunday’s Avus meeting. Without exaggeration, there were gathered at the Berlin track easily the fastest group of racing cars in the world. Four Auto Unions, two of them ultra-streamlined models, and five Mercedes-Benz, three of them fully streamlined with enclosed wheels and two with the new 12-cylinder engine.’
That was the opening of John Dugdale’s report from Avus, in The Autocar. The fastest lap of over 171mph would not be bettered for more than 30 years and never again would rival teams of fullystreamlined single-seaters appear in GP racing.
The weekend of June 3/4, 1937, was an awesome extravaganza of speed, as the all-fared-in Silver Arrows nudged 240mph on the track’s six-mile straights. Closing at speeds of almost 500mph, yet separated only by a narrow strip of grass, this was a test of nerve and concentration rather than out and out skill.
The event was also a dazzling showcase for Nazi Germany’s engineering and technology, made all the more effective by the absence of any competitive foreign rivals, frightened off by the Silver Arrows’ remarkable speed in the recent Tripoli GP.
Hitler’s government had already proved itself a master of pageantry with its torch-lit night-time rallies glorifying the selfstyled Master Race. Now the same ruthless efficiency was brought to bear on Avus. Flags bearing the Swastika fluttered everywhere, and many high-ranking Nazi officials, led by Dr Josef Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda, were present Better than anyone since the Roman Emperors, he understood the influence of sporting events, and used them to infuse the minds of millions with the glory of Aryan supremacy. As with the brilliantly executed Berlin Olympics of the year before, the entire weekend was intended to show the world the greatness of the Third Reich.
The initials AVUS form an acronym for a German phrase meaning more or less ‘automobile traffic and practice street’. This was officially opened with a series of races (Avusrennen) in September, 1921. It comprised two, two-lane roads running side by side for just over six miles between Kaiserdamm, in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, and the train station at Nikolasee.
This fast but boring track had a wide-radius loop at the north end and a hairpin at the south; otherwise it was just a flat-out blind. Nonetheless, in 1926, the German Grand Prix was held there, notable as Rudolf Caracciola’s first major victory. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and at the Berlin Motor Show in March made it clear that he wanted a home car manufacturer to get properly involved in the new grand prix formula. In May, he attended a motor race for the only time as Chancellor, watching the Avus GP. A Mercedes had won the previous two years, but Hitler was not pleased to see foreign cars take the first three places on this occasion. However, his foresight paid off and by the end of ’34 the teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were dominating GP racing, as they would for the next five years, until the outbreak of World War Two.
Both teams went record breaking at Avus in 1934, Mercedes using a W25 with enclosed cockpit. This car was then entered for Hanns Geier in the ’35 Avus GP. “It was not, as you might imagine, very noisy,” he recalled, “but it was rather worrying because it could only be opened from the outside!”
Auto Union entered two cars with enclosed cockpits and wheel fairings, entrusted to Prinz zu Leiningen and the young motorcycle racer, Bernd Rosemeyer, who was making his fourwheel debut in this race. However, it was Hans Stuck in an unstrearnlined Auto Union who won the first heat at an average speed of 155mph and set the fastest lap at a remarkable 162mph.
Neither team got around to producing a fullystreamlined body enclosing all four wheels until Mercedes went record breaking again in October, 1936, this time on the Frankfurt-Heidelberg autobahn. A W25 GP chassis was fitted with a 5.6-litre, 616 bhp, DAB V12 engine (too heavy for grand prix racing) and covered with an all-enveloping aluminium body. With it Caracciola set three new Flying Start records, including a Flying Mile at 227.9mph.
There was no Avus GP that year because the North Turn was being rebuilt at the expense of the Berlin Corporation, which required a new access road to the Berlin Motor Show. Another reason was that, despite Stuck’s 155mph winning speed in 1935, a faster circuit was deemed necessary. Germany’s capital was a very speed-minded city in those days and, according to the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung of December 28, 1935, it was the Fiihrer himself who decided that the new North Turn should have a high banking, to increase the lap speeds to between 160-170mph. The job of designing the new turn fell to Erich Krey, with a brief that it should be good for speeds of around 110mph. Both Caracciola and Stuck agreed that a 45-degree incline would allow this, reducing lap times by approximately 30 seconds.
In March, 1937, Brian W Twist visited Avus for Speed. ‘Picture a wall of earth over 60 feet high,’ he wrote, ‘stretching round in a semicircle, with about 200 yards between the open ends. The inner face is banked with bricks, and has a slope of almost 1 in 1. Introduce a low, streamlined racing car into the picture, skirling round the turn at 125mph or more. That is what the new North Turn at the Avus track is like.’
Helmut Reiners, director of the circuit, told Twist: “The banking is not concave, and the 43-degree slope is maintained over a width of 12 metres, to give ample room for passing. Near the top the track is sloped at 75-80 degrees, or near ly vertical, to form a retaining wall. Then there is a narrow strip at the bottom, which is quite flat The total width, edge to edge, is 22 metres.”
Also under construction were the tower forming the new offices of the Avus Syndicate, incorporating a restaurant and, at the start of the main straight, a new grandstand, to hold 4500 people.
The governing body of all German motor sport was the ONS, run by a professional soldier, Major Adolf Huhnlein, who was given the title Korpfuhrer. It was he who decided that the 1937 Avus GP should be a non-formula race, thus allowing the German teams to enter streamlined cars that would be over the 750kg weight limit. Using experience gained with their 1936 recordbreaker, Mercedes prepared three wicked-looking devices, while Auto Union clothed two of their mid-engined chassis with much more elegant, all-enveloping bodywork.
The banked North Turn was ready at the end of April and Caracciola and Rosemeyer found that they could now take this curve at around 120 mph. However, Mercedes Technical Director Rudolf Uhlenhaut was not too impressed with the new addition to the track, as he explained in Racing The Silver Arrows.
“I drove one of our cars during practice, and although we were doing around 240mph on the straights, there were no problems at that speed. The main problem on the circuit was the newlybanked North Turn, which didn’t have a curve in the banking, so if you went too fast you just slid over the top. It was very dangerous and you had to treat it exactly as if you were driving on a normal road. Had the banking itself curved up to the perpendicular, then you could have cornered just as fast as your body could stand.”
The Avus GP was divided into two heats of seven laps each (84 miles) and a final of nine laps (96 miles). This made things more interesting for the spectators and avoided having all nine German entries running together on this narrow track, about 20ft wide. Also, both teams were worried about tyre wear with such high speeds.
Mercedes entered three streamliners, for Caracciola, Hermann Lang and Manfred von Brauchitsch. England’s finest, Dick Seaman, had just joined the team and was given a standard W125. Auto Union entered two streamliners, for Rosemeyer and Luigi Fagioli and two normal C-types for Ernst von Delius and Rudolf Hasse.
In practice Rosemeyer set the tone for the weekend by lapping at 176mph with his Auto Union. This was remarkable in a car which had a mere 520bhp, as against the 616 of von Brauchitsch’s V12 Mercedes, which managed 174mph, and suggests that the Auto Union’s aerodynamics were somewhat better than those of the Mercedes. Initially, both teams fitted spats over all four wheels (hinged at the top to facilitate wheel changes) but these gave problems for Mercedes, as Lang recalled.
“During practice we tried the streamliners with covers over the wheels. Those at the front were fairly wide to allow the wheels to turn in the bends at either end of the circuit and on one run I was doing around 245 mph when the front of the car began to lift and all I could see was the sky! I immediately thought, ‘I must not move the steering, for if the front wheels return to the road in a different position there is bound to be an accident.’ Luckily there was no crosswind and I backed off the throttle very carefully, but it was a long time before the front wheels touched the ground again.
“I must admit that this incident gave me quite a fright and I stopped at the pits, white-faced, and said, ‘For Heaven’s sake take those covers off!’ The air was getting trapped inside the wheelarches and it was like having two balloons under there. The covers were removed and I had no more problems. Needless to say, the wheels stayed uncovered for the race.”
Dugdale set the scene for his readers: ‘Great crowds of sunburnt Germans watched the practice on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The capital filled with visitors, the usual gay international party that gathers for a great motor race.
‘On Sunday the sun shone brighter still. Thousands of Nazis, trying not to appear uncomfortable in their heavy uniforms, marshalled the crowds (estimated at 380,000) moving past the immense new exhibition hall to the tribunes.’ Some 40,000 of them paid to go into the enclosure in front of the new North Turn, giving them a superb view of the cars on the banking.
Only five cars took part in the first heat, Caracciola and Seaman for Mercedes, Rosemeyer and von Delius for Auto Union, and Balestrero in a completely outclassed Alfa Romeo. As the first four finishers qualified for the final, no one was in any hurry and von Delius took an early lead, followed by Seaman, the cars (according to Motor Sport) ‘loitering round at about 148mph’. Dugdale wrote: ‘As they came down to the North Turn, blowers screaming, each a flash of silver between the green of the trees, Delius led Seaman by a few lengths and Caracciola followed Rosemeyer. They looked just like aeroplanes as they banked over, corrected the tendency to skid and then hurtled from the banking as if catapulted.’
The streamliners were soon in the lead, however, ‘They came into the final lap together, Caracciola making a tremendous effort. He soared higher and higher, his rear wheels sliding out as they tore against the bricks but, wrenching his car off the banking with terrific acceleration, he nosed forward past the stands. He kept his advantage to the pits and won by seven-tenths of a second. A wonderful race and a thrill which the crowd loved. An excited chatter filled the air as the cars hummed away into the distance.’
Caracciola won at an average of 155.5mph and Rosemeyer’s last lap was the fastest of the day, 4 mins 11 secs at 171.6 mph.
The second heat was between the Mercedes of von Brauchitsch and Lang and the Auto Unions of Fagioli and Hasse, with the Maseratis of Sofietti and Hartmann making up the numbers. Fagioli led initially at 157mph, but Lang decided to give the spectators their money’s worth and took the lead with a lap lOmph faster, only to have to change a tyre at the South Turn on lap five. Fagioli was right behind him, but no sooner had he taken the lead than his gearbox failed and he stopped on the circuit Von Brauchitsch now led with the 12-cylinder Mercedes, and stayed there to the end.
Lang set off after Hasse, but the Auto Union driver managed to baulk him to the finish and Lang had to be content with third, much to the fury of Mercedes Team Manager Alfred Neubauer.
After a long delay while Fagioli’s Auto Union was removed, the final got under way with the new grandstand casting long shadows on the track. Caracciola led from Rosemeyer for two laps, but then Bemd stopped at the South Turn pits to report falling oil pressure, letting Lang and Seaman make it a 1-2-3 for Mercedes.
They were in trouble, though, as Uhlenhaut recalled. “We’d had no opportunity to try them out beforehand. In the race the gearboxes got too hot as the streamlined bodies kept any cooling air away from them. One of the oil pipes to the gearbox was soldered on and it got so hot that the solder melted and the oil escaped.
“Lang was lucky, though, he had the newest car, in which the oil pipe wasn’t soldered on but made as one part with a flange attaching it to the gearbox, so there was no loss of oil and he won the race.”
Caracciola’s car joined that of von Brauchitsch in ‘the dead car park’ on the grass strip between the two lanes opposite the main pit building, and Seaman’s Mercedes threw a tread, forcing him to make a 40-second stop for two new rear tyres. The Auto Unions of von Delius, Hasse and Rosemeyer now occupied the three places behind Lang, with Seaman a rather disgruntled fifth.
They finished in that order and Dugdale noted that, ‘In quite a frenzy of excitement, and careless of the consequences, Neubauer hurled his flag right in front of the Mercedes as it flashed past to win.’ Neubauer’s celebration was understandable — this was the Stuttgart team’s first victory on German soil since Caracciola’s win in the 1935 Eifel GP.
The Avus GP was a great success, retaining the title The world’s fastest motor race’ for decades, but it was never held again, no doubt due to the tragic death of Rosemeyer on the FrankfurtDarmstadt autobahn in January the following year.
Suddenly, racing up and down a national highway at speeds of around 240mph had lost its appeal.
‘Rudi soared higher, rear wheels sliding out as they tore against the bricks’ – John Dugdale