So just put yourself in my shoes for a second as you sit on the start line in this car. It is really quite important to bear a few things in mind. First, the accelerator pedal is in the middle, the brake on the right. Second, the gearbox puts second directly below third and fourth directly below fifth, so if you do what comes naturally either changing up from third or down from fifth, you will blow one of only two such gearboxes ever created to smithereens. Third, the engine runs on a brew of nitro-methanol, methanol, ether and water and if it’s not kept running between 4,000-7,500rpm at all times, it oils its plugs and stops working. Fourth this little old pre-war 1.5-litre motor is also a quad cam, 32-valve supercharged V8 developing 275hp in a car that weighs the same as an empty bag of crisps. Fifth, to spare the transmission and keep the revs up, I am instructed to drop the clutch at 6,000rpm to make absolutely certain I spin the rear wheels. Sixthly and finally, the engine has been checked and rechecked over the years – but it has never been rebuilt. Every internal component is the same at that which powered Lang over the line in Tripoli almost eighty years ago. The only other parts that exist are in its sister car that has not run in decades.
What do I remember? The outrageous, deafening snarl of the engine, like I imagine a sabre-tooth tiger about to rip your head off might sound, the eye watering smell and taste of fuel made out of what seemed to be liquid dynamite, the utter terror of missing a gear or, worse, getting the wrong one, the absolute necessity to drive it fast because if you just hung onto high revs in a low gear it would overheat in an instant, and the sense of almost shattering relief when I got it to the top completely unharmed.
So while the most fun I ever had driving up the hill was in a Targa Florio-winning Porsche 908/3, the greatest sense of occasion in the ’88 Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9LM, my favourite Festival of Speed weapon has to be the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix-winning Mercedes-Benz W165. Even now, seven years later, if I didn’t have the photographs, I’d probably not believe it happened.
Tripoli image courtesy of Motorsport Images