The racing world gasped when in 1954 the shapely alloy flanks of an all-enclosed GP car were rolled out of the Mercedes-Benz transporter at Reims. Fifty years on one of the men who raced it that day is reunited with this streamlined beauty. Hartmut Lehbrink went to watch
July 4, 1954, was not just another Sunday for post-war Germany, a country still struggling to cope with the aftermath of WWII. Against all expectations its football team beat odds-on favourites Hungary 3-2 to win the World Cup in Berne. And Juan Manuel Fangio shone on the comeback of the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows, notching up victory in the French Grand Prix at Reims, with team-mate Karl Kling breathing down his neck in second.
Today, that Reims starting grid has been reduced to just seven gentlemen, namely Monaco citizens Paul Frère and Roy Salvadori, Argentinians Froilán González and Robert Mieres, Frenchmen Robert Manzon and Maurice Trintignant, and German Hans Herrmann. The last-named was the third member of the Mercedes squad. Its junior member. Both Fangio and Kling were 43 at the time of the race; Herrmann was an up-and-coming 26-year old. And he’s still going strong today — and quickly if required to be or if the old urge takes him. Reims was his first real grand prix and, given the occasional cue, his memories come thick, fast and detailed.
Herrmann’s spectacular successes in Porsche sportscars had attracted the attention of Mercedes team boss Alfred Neubauer, and any potential problems that might have arisen in serving two masters were sorted out in a friendly chat between Neubauer and Ferry Porsche. “We didn’t need anything written down,” says Herrmann, obviously regretting the way things have changed. “The two just shook hands and that was it”
Herrmann’s Mercedes adventure began when Neubauer rang him up in 1953 to ask if he was prepared to take part in Nürburgring tests for the Stuttgart marque: “Suddenly, there was that enormous voice on the phone. I was completely at a loss for words, but then managed somehow to murmur yes, yes.”
On July 22, 1953, at the awe-inspiring Eifel circuit in a yearold 300SL, one of the sportscars that had swept the board in ’52, Herrmann emerged as the fastest of the bunch, outperforming his ‘competitors’ Hans Klenk, Günther Bechem and Frère. Klenk, who had been Kling’s co-driver throughout his 1952 Carrera Panamericana triumph, was sidelined by a serious accident on the first day of the test.
Despite Herrmann’s obvious potential, Neubauer wanted to play it safe. He wanted further proof. “On a second occasion, this time at Solitude on October 12,I was fastest again, quicker than Hermann Lang, Kling, Fritz Riess and Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who was in charge of the experimental and racing departments of Mercedes-Benz at that time and who could go as quickly as his drivers.” Nürburgring had not been a fluke. Hans was ready for the GP car — at least as ready as you can be.
He first drove a W196 in anger at the old Hockenheim on May 12, 1954: “You must put this into its proper perspective: the car had 257bhp and was more than twice as strong as the Porsche 550 Spyder I was used to. Everything was different: the seating position, the front engine, the five-speed ‘box as well as the gearchange pattern. But soon I began to enjoy the experience tremendously.”
It almost ended in disaster, though, when a pipe burst and spilled hot oil over his right foot and the brake pedal. Herrmann had to resort to an emergency exit at a corner appropriately named Cemetery Bend, crashing the precious car when he tried to avoid two little girls on bikes: “I was extremely lucky; Kling had insisted that a wire, which had been put up between two trees there, be removed. Had he not done so I would certainly have been decapitated.”
It would have been easy, too, for a youngster to lose his head when placed in the same team as Fangio; Herrmann got the balance just about right. Of course he deemed it a great honour, but his natural youthful cheekiness stopped the situation from entirely cramping his own style: “Obviously, Fangio was the greatest driver of his era and I held him in high regard. But there was a strong sympathy between the two of us from the outset, which I could still feel when we met again decades later.”
For the French GP Herrmann started from the third row of the grid, sandwiched between Prince Bira’s privateer Maserati 250F and the Ferrari Squalo of Mike Hawthorn, sensational winner at Reims the year before. On the row ahead were the Squalo of González and Onofre Marimon in another 250F. The front row was occupied by the other two W196s, flanked to their left by the reigning world champion Alberto Ascari, on loan from Lancia and at the wheel of a 250F. Pole position had been secured by Fangio at an average of more than 120mph, almost six seconds quicker than Herrmann.
At 14.45 Charles Faroux dropped the French Tricolore. Herrmann: “I was looking at Neubauer, who was standing beside Faroux and ticking off the remaining seconds with his fingers so that we had an indication of exactly when the start would be. Fangio and Kling just roared off into the distance whereas I was caught in a gaggle of red cars. In the next couple of laps I managed to find my way around most of them, setting fastest time of the day on lap three at an average of 121.46mph [3sec faster than he had been in practice]. I was awarded the Great Medal of the Town of Reims for that achievement, as the mayor told me in a letter dated September 17, 1954. But somehow it never reached me. Neubauer was a great collector of things…”
Herrmann passed Mieres (Maserati A6GCM) on lap two, Bira on lap three, Marimon on lap four and Hawthorn on lap five. Only González now lay between Mercedes and a 1-2-3. “The W196 Streamliner reached a top speed of about 178mph on the straights, 6-10mph faster than the Ferrari,” says Herrmann. “Eventually, he skidded on his own oil at Thillois hairpin and left the track, almost collecting me in what was a very close shave.”
All was now in order. Mercedes superiority had been restored after a 15-year absence. But on lap 17 came a blip: Herrmann had to retire at almost the same spot as González, his engine going off-song all of a sudden, possibly because he had asked too much of it during his fastest lap or perhaps because it had been the only one not to have been put through its paces on the dyno. He was disappointed, naturally, but heartened by his performance. He was not to know that only five more F1 championship outings for the famous German outfit were to follow.
Hans Werner, born in 1929, is Kling’s nephew. Like the Mercedes GP ace, he came from Giessen. However, not too much affection was wasted between the two men.
Werner joined the Mercedes Rennabteilung (race department) on November 1, 1953, after passing his final examination at the Karlsruhe Technical College. His specialist field, he relates not without a touch of self-irony, had been brakes: he once distinguished himself with a report that disc brakes were not suited for passenger cars. Chief engineer Hans Scherenberg employed him in the construction department.
“I was responsible for the workshop, chassis development and the assembly of the racing cars,” says Werner. “Many parts came from outside, such as the engine that was developed in the same department as the production vehicle units.”
After the Rennabteilung had been dissolved in 1955, Werner remained faithful to his illustrious employer, first as a development engineer and later as chief developer in the experimental department for the road cars, until he retired in 1991.
“It goes without saying that we appeared at Reims almost unprepared, apart from a useful test session we had had there on June 21-22,” he says. “Partly because of the data we collected on that occasion, an accurate profile of the circuit and further particulars, the Stuttgart calculation office provided us with strict parameters in terms of the set-up: gearbox, ratios and so on.”
Fangio, who had won the first two grands prix of the season in a 250F, laying the foundations for his second world title, showed up at the last moment, asking just for the weak points of the car.
While testing, the W196 had been equipped with four Weber carbs, whereas a mechanical direct injection had been installed in the meantime. “That’s why higher revs were achieved,” says Werner. “The cars went faster and needed more fuel, so a full tank would have lasted 292 miles rather than the complete distance of 315. As a consequence, Uhlenhaut raced to Stuttgart and back non-stop in his 300SL, picking up three small extra tanks.” These oblong additions were integrated into the pipe system to the left of the driver, between the large tail tank and the engine. They were still doing their job at Silverstone a fortnight later, but at the beginning of August, at the Nürburgring, where Herrmann again drove the streamliner, they had completely rusted through. Uhlenhaut returned to Reims quite late in spite of disregarding more than a couple of speed limits, so the extra tanks were still being installed on the grid.
“During practice it had been my job to implement the parameters mapped out in Untertürkheim,” says Werner. “But once the race was on I was busy keeping the lap chart for Neubauer, something that would be done by a professional company from 1955 on. Even the organisers of the race kept resorting to my notes. Neubauer, however, was a bag of nerves. ‘Lap time, Fangio?’ he would yell, for instance, and he was terribly agitated when I only dared to stutter a little.”
Neubauer was still an excellent organiser, but otherwise he was living on his pre-war fame, when a GP could be decided by pitstops and race strategies, something the burly team manager revelled in. “In the 1950s,” Werner says, “he was reduced to the part of figurehead. It was technology that decided the races and Uhlenhaut was the man in charge, though he had a noble way of concealing it. It was like winding up a watch and leaving it to its own devices. We engineers tried to equip the cars as well as possible, set them up and fill them up, and then they had to last for 300 miles without refilling and the changing of tyres.”