Mercedes-Benz and its drivers will be taking a long, hard look at themselves and each other after the smoke and mirrors – that lock-up at Mirabeau – of Monaco.
Niki Lauda has his hands full if this civil war is to again be civil. Yet his is a sinecure compared to that of Alfred Neubauer in 1937.
The ‘Fat Controller’ of the Silver Arrows risked limb and quite possibly life in his bid to restore order at August’s Monaco Grand Prix. Waving a ‘flag of peace’ with increasing vigour, he was forced back as his charges, blind to blandishment, thundered past side-by-side: 1200bhp on a track already deemed unsuitable.
Eventually Manfred von Brauchitsch (above), the intended recipient, acknowledged Neubauer’s message – by sticking his tongue out and keeping his foot down. Twice team leader Rudi Caracciola – Neubauer’s obvious favourite – attempted to slither down the inside at Sainte Dévote, already the only recognised overtaking spot, and twice von Brauchitsch maintained his devil-may-care defence.
Yet these two had supposedly agreed a secret pact just a fortnight before.
Neubauer had no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when fiery Luigi Fagioli was signed off after 1936. The experienced Italian had served a useful purpose – leading the team while Caracciola recovered from a 1933 Monaco practice crash – but was now surplus to requirements. Latinate tempers could not be allowed to interfere with the efficient exploitation of a performance advantage handed the team by a car that reset the parameters: designer Rudi Uhlenhaut’s W125.
Ah, the best laid plans of Mercs and men.
Caracciola at the 1937 German Grand Prix
Not only did a frustrated Fagioli, now driving for rival Auto Union, throw a wheel hammer at Caracciola after the Tripoli GP in May, but also M-B’s newcomer Hermann Lang – the spanner-man in the works – won the race.
Patrician Prussian von Brauchitsch did not take kindly to being beaten by an ex-mechanic, and his simmering resentment rose when Lang won the prestigious Avusrennen in Berlin. It boiled over when Lang outqualified him at the German GP.
Caracciola (below at Monaco in 1936), more calculating in every respect, saw his chance: an ally against a thruster would be useful. Von Brauchitsch’s feud with Lang was melodramatic; Caracciola’s liaison with von Brauchitsch was pragmatic.
But with Lang absent from Monaco because of influenza, and Auto Union’s only genuine hope Bernd Rosemeyer in the sandbags by the Gasworks Hairpin – the glamour! – all bets were off after fewer than 20 (of 100) laps.
Von Brauchitsch increased his pace – he always believed that he had the speed – to harry Caracciola for the lead. “Von Brauchitsch was driving superbly and seemed to be putting more effort into his work than all the others,” saidMotor Sport.
Cue flag, tongue and foot.
Neubauer at the 1937 Donington Grand Prix
Neubauer had torn a strip from reserve driver Christian Kautz after the Swiss ignored an ‘In’ sign and crashed on an extra lap of practice. But he forgave his inexperience (and was rewarded with an excellent third place). He expected better of his longest-serving drivers. Perhaps he should have known better.
The pressure told when Caracciola’s engine went off song at mid-distance and he spent 3min 15sec in the pits while a new set of spark plugs was added to the usual list of fuel and rear tyres.
Von Brauchitsch now led by a lap. Confident of success, he breezily waved Caracciola back onto the lead lap.
This backfired when a scheduled but tardy pit stop – some reports say that a front brake jammed on, others that a furious driver believed he had been deliberately hampered by a meddlesome management – saw von Brauchitsch re-emerge only a few car lengths ahead of his wicked-up pursuer.
Von Brauchitsch European Championship results
1937 Monaco Grand Prix*
1938 French Grand Prix
1935 Belgian Grand Prix
1937 German Grand Prix
1935 Spanish Grand Prix
1937 Swiss Grand Prix
1938 Swiss Grand Prix
1938 Italian Grand Prix*
1939 Belgian Grand Prix
1939 Swiss Grand Prix
* Shared drives
Ten laps of all-out war ensued as the W125s revealed the true scale of their advantage. On lap 76, Caracciola set a fastest lap almost 12sec better than that of 1935. (It had rained in 1936.)
At last, on lap 80, Manfred handed over the crown of the road and let Rudi by.
Was this a change of heart or a trick of the mind?
Von Brauchitsch tended to race for the moment, whereas Caracciola nursed tyres, eked mpg and won more races as a result. On this occasion, however, their roles were reversed: Rudi pitted two laps after assuming the lead.
Some reports state that this was for a splash of coolant. If that was the case, surely von Brauchitsch could not have known this would occur.
Other reports, however, state that the stop was for fuel and tyres, and that von Brauchitsch had known such was inevitable given the caning that his team-mate had dished out to his car in chase and dice.
But how could he have been so sure and calm – especially given his supposed anger and tendency for impetuosity?
Neubauer suspected a fifth columnist.
Suave Monégasque Louis Chiron (below in the 1934 Monaco Grand Prix behind Carlo Felice Trossi) had been a long-time friend of Caracciola’s. Not only did they co-found a team for 1933, but also, three seasons later and at Rudi’s recommendation, Louis joined Mercedes-Benz – as a useful ally and bulwark against Fagioli, no doubt.
Chiron’s Stuttgart stint began with an impressive pole position at Monaco – unfortunately, he crashed on lap two, on oil poured on water – but a huge accident at the Nürburgring caused him to rethink and retire from GP racing.
Perhaps now he would settle down with long-term partner Alice ‘Baby’ Hoffman.
Their ceremony was held on 19 June 1937. ‘Baby’ and Rudi’s that is.
Although Chiron had turned down Hoffman’s offers of marriage, he was furious at this public snub. It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, the spurned lover standing insolently on the promenade side of the narrow pits to keep his ‘new best friend’ informed of the treacherous Caracciola’s movements, actual or intended.
A relieved team congratulated von Brauchitsch upon a rare victory, and both Manfred and second-placed Rudi were all smiles – beaming from brake lining-blacked faces – at the awards ceremony. This was, however, but a brief and probably phoney respite for Neubauer.
Mercedes-Benz’ awkward ménage à trois resumed when Lang recovered from illness. First, he was the meat in a Caracciola and von Brauchitsch 1-2-3 sandwich at the Swiss GP. Then he refused to cede the lead to Caracciola, who was on the verge of becoming the European Champion, at Livorno’s Italian GP. Only after a bollocking from Neubauer during a pit stop did Hermann comply – albeit by an unsubtly narrow margin.
Lang, unlike von Brauchitsch, who was almost four years his elder, had sufficient speed and time on his side to play the waiting game.
There are just a few months – and a tenth or two – between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
But at least there are only two of ’em, Niki.