MPH: Mercedes has been a dominant grand prix force before — and will be again


George Russell drove a 1924 Targa Florio-winning Mercedes through Emilia Romagna streets this week, recalling an early period of racing dominance. The team currently finds itself struggling in F1 but, as Mark Hughes highlights, its return to form is historically a matter of when, not if

Mercedes George Russell Imola

Russell channels Mercedes form of old on his way to collecting illustrious Bandini Trophy

George Russell

On the eve of the Imola Grand Prix weekend, George Russell drove a 100-year-old Mercedes racer through the beautiful Italian countryside between Faenza and Brisighella, home town of the late Lorenzo Bandini.

Russell was picking up the Bandini Trophy — an award given to an F1 figure annually for a “commendable performance” — but also commemorating Mercedes’ victory in the 1924 Targa Florio, in this very car. It has been painstakingly rebuilt by Mercedes over the last two years to give as accurate a representation as possible of how it was on that day when Christian Werner defeated the pre-eminent Italians on their home turf.

Back in 1924 there were only four major international races and the Targa was one of them. Mercedes had ended the pre-WW1 period as the dominant force in grand prix racing but in the aftermath of the war was understandably lagging a little in getting re-established in the sport. The Italian Fiat company was dominant now and Mercedes technology had rather fallen behind. The car Russell drove represented the beginning of the comeback. It was based on the company’s 1923 Indy car – Indy and grand prix racing shared the same 2-litre formula – but had been radically reworked by a brilliant new recruit to the company, Ferdinand Porsche.

Mercedes 1924 Targa Florio 1924 George Russell

George Russell arrives in style behind the wheel of the 1924 Targa Florio


In the 1922 Targa race, Mercedes had introduced the supercharger to European racing, but not in a grand prix class car. The ’23 Indy car also used the new-fangled technology which dramatically increased power by compressing the intake air and which would be incorporated by Fiat in its continuing domination of grand prix racing. Mr Porsche had a plan to challenge the Italian dominance with a new eight-cylinder supercharged racer which would not be ready until late ’24. In the meantime, he set about preparing a car for the early season Targa, taking the four-cylinder ’23 Indy car as the basis. He added a bigger supercharger and mercury-filled exhaust valves as well as a road racer bodywork. For the Targa it was producing 126bhp. A later version nudged this up to 150bhp.

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It worked brilliantly well. Not as extreme in concept as the pure grand prix racer which would appear a few months later at Monza, but a more flexible, usable and adaptable road racer. Long term Mercedes employee Christian Werner – he’d joined the company as a mechanic and was by now an engineer – won the race after a tight battle with the sports racer Alfa Romeos of Count Giulio Masetti and Antonio Ascari. As a precaution against the locals impeding any non-Italian car, Werner’s car had been painted red rather than in the traditional German racing white.

This is the car, the M7294, which Mercedes has just rebuilt (in many aspects from scratch) and in which Russell made his ceremonial eight-mile drive. “It drove so nicely,” he enthused. “Considering it’s 100 years old. It was a bit difficult to reach the brake pedal because of how tall I am so I was having to use the handbrake as well. When I took some speed around one of the left-handers it was actually handling really nicely.

“I’m super impressed… I just couldn’t imagine racing this car on public roads like these, though. It took a bit of time to get used to the pedals, because the throttle is in the middle, the clutch on the left and the brake on the right.

“The car hasn’t been driven for over 80 years and it’s a car that you expect just to see in a museum and never be touched. To see how well it was driving – and it was so loud – sort of made the hair stand up on my skin. A real privilege and seeing the Mercedes star on the front as well, and knowing the history of that, it was pretty special.”

George Russell Mercedes

George played the part perfectly

George Russell

That Targa victory would be the highlight of Merc’s season, for the later Ferdinand Porsche-designed grand prix racer – the M218 – was not a success despite being the most powerful in the field, with 170bhp. Known as ‘the widow maker’ because of its difficult handling, it had a fairly modest career as Alfa Romeo took the baton from Fiat as the dominant grand prix force. Mercedes though would in time find its way back to dominance – in the 1930s, briefly again in the ‘50s and of course most recently in the hybrid era of F1.

It’s struggling at the moment, but at this level and the weight of expectation which comes with the name, it’s the pain of the struggle which energises the forces and leads eventually to a competitive rebirth. That’s how it’s always been. It’s just a question of how long it will take.