I confess there’s not much that Lewis Hamilton and I have in common. He is an athlete with a God-given talent, a Pussycat Doll on his arm and 33 F1 wins under his belt whereas I’m not, I don’t and I haven’t. But there is something we share which may just be fractionally more important to me than him: we have both been works Mercedes racing drivers with a genuine driving God for a team-mate. It is true that my time in this role was a shade shorter than his and may not have been touched by quite such success, but it’s a story worth telling.
Three years ago Mercedes-Benz decided it wanted to encourage private owners to race their classic Mercedes. How better to do it than by example? So they took a Fintail 220SEb dating from 1963, turned it into a racing car and – please believe I’m as surprised by this as you – asked me to be the first person to race it. It would be a two-hour race not only on the fearsome of Nürburgring Nordschleife, but with one Klaus Ludwig to share the driving. As in the three times Le Mans winning, five times DTM champion Klaus Ludwig.
“Klaus’s flying lap was 30 seconds quicker than my fastest, a fact that thoroughly depressed me until I saw the on board footage and realised he was using bits of track I didn’t even know existed”
It was an opportunity not to be missed, not least because Mercedes would make sure the old girl went like no Fintail in history. Or so I thought. Mercedes thought otherwise. Indeed, and quite on the contrary, the last thing it wanted was to blow in, make everyone else look stupid and breeze out again. So they kept the car standard, so standard it still retained its colossal Bakelite steering wheel. As for the engine, they did admit to being proud to have found 138bhp from the 2.2-litre straight six, a whole 20bhp more than it would have had when new, an amount more than offset by a roll cage strong and big enough to be used as a structure for a small sports stadium. Otherwise it was on a control Dunlop race tyre, had stiffer springs, re-rated dampers and race pads. That was it.
Qualifying took place on a track that was part dry, part wet and part covered in ice, which was interesting. Even Klaus could not get us off the back of the 150-car grid.
I started, surprised myself by overtaking a few cars and actually remembering my way around a track I’d not raced at in eight years. Even so the Fintail was so slow I had to change down going up the hill to the Karussell, not because any corner commanded it, but because the engine wouldn’t hold top gear. My first flying lap took almost 15 minutes. By contrast Klaus has been round here in 6min 19sec, albeit in a Porsche 962C.
There was only one technique and that was not to slow down. For anything. The Fintail had no power, no brakes and no grip, indeed the only asset it could call upon was an utterly unflappable personality. Those soft springs, the long wheelbase and Mercedes engineering meant you could ask the impossible with your entry speed and, somehow, it would find a way of complying. I was still finding 20 seconds a lap by the time I had to swap with Klaus.
His first flying lap was 30 seconds quicker than my fastest, a fact that thoroughly depressed me until I saw the on board footage and realised he was using bits of track I didn’t even know existed. No wonder that around these parts he’s known only as King Klaus.
And then it was over. It seemed we’d come nowhere, but that was hardly the point: for the first time ever Mercedes had allowed one of its classic cars to be raced, and set an example both at the time and during the many races the Fintail went on to do which meant that, today, there are many more old Mercedes in club racing than before. Then, on the way to the airport, I learned we actually somehow won our class. So Klaus and I even came away with a victory of sorts. It may not have been an F1 world championship, but at the time it still felt pretty good. Still does in fact.