Mercedes‑Benz has been in motorsport for 125 years
Blimey. Where to start? At the very beginning, one supposes: the first petrol-engined car to complete the 1894 Paris-Rouen trial was a Peugeot fitted with a Daimler V-twin built in France under licence.
To end? With the most efficiently dominant team in Formula 1’s history: 79 Grand Prix wins – 44 of them being 1-2s – since 2014, at the time of writing.
And in between? In no particular order:
- Belgian Camille Jenatzy, aka The Red Devil, winning the 1903 Gordon Bennett Trophy at Athy in Ireland aboard a borrowed car. A factory fire at Mercedes’ Cannstatt HQ had destroyed the more powerful works machines.
- Penske winning the 1994 Indianapolis 500 with a turbocharged pushrod engine, a.k.a. The Beast, that went from discussion to dyno via drawings in just 25 weeks. It whistled through a loophole and ground its rivals into the bricks.
- Blonde bombshells Ewy Rosqvist and Ursula Wirth overpowering 1962’s toughest race: the 2,900-mile Argentine Road GP. They set fastest time on all six stages and averaged 79mph – in a 220SE saloon – to win by six hours.
- Rudolf Caracciola’s 270mph on a two-lane concreted autobahnin 1938.
- A 1-2 in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana despite the victorious Gullwing’s dive-bombing by a vulture.
- A 1-2-3 in the 1914 GP de l’ACF at Lyon, the week after Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. Otto Merz, a chauffeur in that ill-fated motorcade, would win the 1927 German GP at the newly opened Nürburgring.
- A 1-2-3-4 in the 1955 British GP at Aintree. Did Juan Manuel Fangio let local hero Stirling Moss win? If he did, he would never say. Classy guy.
- Mercedes – the amalgamation of Daimler-Benz was not codified until June 1926 – introduced supercharging to Indy in 1923.
- Mercedes-Benz is the only non-Italian manufacturer to have won the Mille Miglia. It did so twice, in 1931 and 1955, courtesy of epic drives by Caracciola and, guided by Denis Jenkinson with his ‘loo roll’ of pace notes, Moss.
- Mercedes-Benz empowered and powered phoenix-like Brawn GP in 2009.
- A Daimler ‘Phoenix’ – aka the first Mercedes (named after the daughter of Austrian entrepreneur Emil Jellinek) – won the mile sprint, La Turbie hillclimb and 259-mile city-to-city elements of 1901’s Nice Race Week.
- Ralph DePalma’s 1908 GP Mercedes, aka The Gray (sic) Ghost, led a record 196 laps but fell agonisingly shy of victory at the 1912 Indy 500 because of a broken con-rod. Three years later, in a 1914 GP Mercedes spirited from Europe on the eve of WWI, he led 132 laps – the crucial last three of which were completed despite a broken con-rod.
Spend sufficient time in the sport and you will experience its good and bad. Mercedes-Benz has experienced its very best and absolute worst.
Count Louis Zborowski reputedly was wearing his father’s cufflinks when he crashed with fatal result in the 1924 Italian GP at Monza. His father Eliot had been wearing them when he crashed with fatal result at La Turbie in 1903.
Merz, a strong man who reputedly could hammer a nail through a wooden table using only the palm of his hand, was killed when he crashed his untested streamliner during practice for the 1933 Avusrennen.
Britain’s Dick Seaman, scorer of the most politically charged win – the 1938 German GP at the Nüburgring – was, on the cusp of WWII, at his brilliant best, leading the Belgian GP in the wet of Spa-Francorchamps, when a small error had the gravest of consequences.
And it was a Silver Arrows driven by a Frenchman nearing 50 – the selection of Pierre Levegh smacked of sentimentalism not immediately associated with this marque – that flew and detonated amid the Le Mans crowd of 1955, killing 83.
The Daimler-Benz board had already decided to end its GP programme at the conclusion of that season in order to concentrate on driving the German Economic Miracle. But now its sportscar programme would join it, too.
Mercedes had in 1908 agreed happily to a motorsporting truce in the aftermath of its GP de l’ACF victory at Dieppe; it could bask in glory while others licked their wounds.
Unwelcome in France in the aftermath of WWI, Mercedes sought competition elsewhere – and won Sicily’s Targa Florio twice: 1922 and 1924.
Forced to put motorsport on the backburner in 1930 in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, Mercedes-Benz as a works entity returned to GP racing in 1934 – with a blessing and partial funding from Adolf Hitler – and set benchmarks for proficiency, manpower, engine power and build quality unmatched for 50 years.
Its carefully planned 1-2 winning return in the 1954 GP de l’ACF at Reims, where the Nazis’ Maybach-powered tanks had recently rolled, was a display of supremacy leavened by empathy. The futuristic, streamlined W196 could only be admired so breathtaking was it: the application of science for the benefit of all.
Mercedes-Benz has got so many things right: its gradual return to sporting prominence with Switzerland’s Sauber in sportscars and F1 of the 1980s/1990s (when it would have been so easy to rush); its grooming of Michael Schumacher (okay, so his pomp slipped through its fingers); its taking the long-term view with McLaren despite early embarrassments; its ‘going it alone’ in F1 in 2010; and its finding space within that careful construct for the spiky spirit and genius of the late Niki Lauda (who it was that convinced Lewis Hamilton to join in 2013).
Throughout it has been meticulous and ruthless. Its sweeps are rarely gestures. Thus it’s not so obviously human as its great rival Ferrari.
It has used motorsport to suit its own ends. It races to win and often that has blunted the competition. But might can be right in every sense if its wielder ‘gets it’ – and Mercedes-Benz does.
It has been consistently sympathetic to its own competition history; more so than Ferrari. And though there are long gaps in that history, to stand next to a 1937 W125 GP car is to understand perfectly our sport’s lasting attraction. Even before its 5.6-litre supercharged straight-eight fires into life.
Formula E – eventually to become leader of motorsport’s silent majority – in 2019/2020 will be very different, of course. Except that all expect Mercedes-Benz to hit the ground running and start winning sooner rather than later. That vital spark is nothing new. It’s 125 years old in the case of Daimler/Benz/Mercedes.