From the First ‘Horseless Carriage Competition’ to the most recent, Mercedes was there
Racing is in quotes because what we’re talking about was not a pure who-finishes-first race, but a 79-mile run from Paris to Rouen, France, where judges also scored cars to be “easy to operate for the competitors without any dangers and not too expensive to run.” More fundamentally, it was the world’s first “Competition of Horseless Carriages,” and two of the 21 cars that started the race were powered by engines built by Gottlieb Daimler. Those two cars, a Panhard & Levassor and a Peugeot, went on to complete the competition. Judges deemed the cars tied as the winners.
That was July 22, 1894. And now, almost 125 years to the day later, the Mercedes F1 team dresses its cars (chassis name W10) in traditional white to celebrate. That team, based in Brackley, England, has performed quite well this season, winning nine of the first 11 rounds of the 2019 World Championship, seven times finishing first and second. It’s ironic and unfortunate that the chaotic German Grand Prix saw Mercedes finish ninth (Lewis Hamilton) and 15th (Valtteri Bottas), the team’s worst result this season.
This is a good time to point out that Mercedes still has a 148-point lead over second-place Ferrari in the 2019 constructors’ championship and its drivers, Hamilton and Bottas, currently reside at first and second in the drivers’ championship. If Mercedes carries on to win these championships, it will make six in a row, as the team captured each and every one since 2014. Not a bad position to be in when you reach a milestone like this. With that in mind, join me as I throw the vehicle of time in reverse and take quick peek at a few highlights of Mercedes-Benz’s last 125 years in motorsport to help see how we got to today.
For the modern era, it’s easy to first scale back 10 years, when Mercedes agreed to purchase the Brawn F1 team and start competing as a full factory effort in 2010. The first three years, Mercedes built a chassis that started well behind the dominant teams of the time, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren. But the team showed promise and improvement, with driver Nico Rosberg winning the Chinese Grand Prix in 2012 and both Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton taking wins in 2013. Michael Schumacher was with the team as well between 2010 and 2012 but could not break through for a win. His best result was third place at the 2012 European Grand Prix in Spain.
But now let’s go back an additional 110 years, right at the beginning of the 20th century. The competition in 1894 certainly struck a chord with its world audience. According to history.com, The Le Petit Journal wrote after the race, “How can you travel other than in a motor car?” And, in 1898, The New York Times said, “Horseless vehicles have undoubtedly come to stay.” Autoweek agrees, by the way.
In 1901, Daimler (before Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz connected) won a race in Nice, France, with the Mercedes 35 PS, which accounted for the 35 metric hp developed by the 5.9-liter, four-cylinder engine. The 35 PS is what some consider the birth of the modern car because it was low and wide, had a steel chassis and a much lower center of gravity than its predecessors. France proved to be the epicenter of early motorsport as it started the French Grand Prix in 1906, in which Mercedes finished 10th. In 1907, Mercedes repeated that result. But Mercedes brought a new car called the 140 PS in 1908 and won the French Grand Prix. At the time, competitor Benz (Benz & Cie.) finished second and third.
Daimler-Benz, known today as Daimler AG, formed in June 29 of 1926 when the two companies merged to build Mercedes-Benz cars. The Mercedes name for the cars came from the Daimler side when a prominent car dealer adapted the name from his daughter and convinced Gottlieb Daimler to call his new engines “Daimler-Mercedes.” After the merger, notable Mercedes cars included the S-series cars and the stupendous supercharged SSK, making almost 300 horsepower by 1931.
1934 brought a new set of rules for Grand Prix Motor Racing, what had become the top level of European motorsport at the time, and that attracted Mercedes to compete in it again. But another German company, Auto Union (founded in 1932 from Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer), became a fierce rival in that era.
Mercedes’ 1934 entry was the W 25, a supercharged, 3.4-liter, inline eight-cylinder powered race car with suspension for each wheel, instead of one per axle, and the transmission bolted to the rear axle. The W 25 also introduced the silver color to Mercedes, as the team stripped off the white paint to save weight. This is the foundation of the name Silver Arrows. Mercedes saw some success in 1934, but an upgraded W 25 with 487 horsepower engine went on to dominate the 1935 season, winning five of the seven rounds of the championship. In 1936, Mercedes won more races, but could not match Auto Union for overall pace.
New regulations in 1938 meant another new car for Mercedes, the W 154. To race, the car had to be no more than 1874 pounds, but also weigh at least 882 pounds. And the engine had to be less than 4.5-liters in size if naturally aspirated and 3.0-liters if using forced induction. As a result, Mercedes built a supercharged V-12 that made as much as 476 horsepower. Much of what was introduced on the W 125 carried over to the W 154, as did the winning streak, winning three of the four Grand Prix. The car did also compete in 1939, but war was breaking out at the same time.
After world war II, Mercedes re-established its racing department in 1950, entering races in Argentina in 1951, the Mille Miglia and 24 hours of Le Mans in 1952. Chassis code W 194, the 300 SL (Sports Light) gullwing entered these events, finishing second at the Miglia and dominating Le Mans, finishing first and second.
Mercedes delayed competing in Formula 1 until the 1954 season to align with rule changes, giving Stuttgart more equal footing with established teams of the time, like Maserati and Ferrari. In 1954 they entered chassis code W 196 R with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter making as much as 252 horsepower, which gave the W 196R a top speed of 171 mph, which is fast when you consider it didn’t include seatbelts.
The car made its debut in the fourth grand prix of the season in France with recent hire Juan Manuel Fangio driving. On Mercedes’ first attempt, he won the race. To race the Mercedes, Fangio left Maserati midseason. Mercedes went on to be very competitive for the rest of the season and Fangio secured his second championship, and Mercedes’ first, in 1954. Modified for 1955, the W 196 remained strong and Fangio again won the title with race wins in Argentina, Belgium, Netherlands, and Italy winning his third title and Mercedes’ second. Sterling Moss also won in the car in Britain. It was a dominant season for Mercedes, but also one of tragedy.
In 1955 at Le Mans, one of the 300 SLR’s entered was involved in what became the worst accident in motorsports history when an SLR collided with an Austin Healey, sending it hurling to the crowded stands. In the end, 83 spectators and French driver Pierre Levegh died. Out of respect to the fans, Mercedes pulled the remaining cars out of the famous endurance race. In fact, many major races scheduled after Le Mans were canceled as a result. This is the deadliest motorsports accident in history, known as the Le Mans Disaster.
Despite the tragedy, Mercedes did indeed win the Formula 1 championship as well as the Sports car championship that year. Daimler-Benz claimed otherwise, but the accident at Le Mans perhaps played a role for the tri-star brand to leave both forms of motorsports and as Technical Director of the time put it, “Given the growth in our product range, we believe the right approach now is to relieve some of the load placed on these highly skilled specialists and allow them to focus all their efforts on the area that is most important for our customers all around the world – production car construction. The skills and experience my staff have gained from making racing vehicles will be put to good use in this capacity.”
It was, ultimately a bittersweet moment, as clearly some folks wanted to continue racing. Head of the research and development department, Alfred Neubauer, put it this way as white cloth covers were placed on the racing cars one last time and he shook drivers’ hands good-bye, “We shook hands one last time – then they all went their separate ways – Fangio and Moss, Collins, Kling, Taruffi, and Count von Trips. The adventure was over.”
It took 30 years for Mercedes to step back into major sportscar and open wheel racing. But in the 80’s, Stuttgart executives made a deal with Peter Sauber, supplying 5.0-liter V8 engines for group C-class sportscar racing, which culminated in a sportscar championship in 1989 and again 1990. And only a few years after getting back into sportscars, Mercedes re-entered Formula 1 racing, continuing a relationship with Peter Sauber in 1994. Finishing eighth place in the constructor’s championship, however, Mercedes switched to a partnership with McLaren in 1995.
Using Ilmor as an engine builder, Mercedes provided McLaren 3.0-liter V10’s for its racing cars, which returned two driver’s championships from Mika Hakkinnen in 1998 and 1999, as well as a constructor’s championship in 1998. The partnership continued into the 2.4-liter V8 era and a young-at-the-time Lewis Hamilton won a driver’s championship in 2008. It was an extremely close championship battle with Ferrari driver, Felipe Massa, but the Brit eked just enough points with a last lap pass in the rain against Toyota driver Timo Glock for fifth place in the Brazilian Grand Prix — one of the most exciting championship finishes in Formula 1 history.
And that brings us back to 2010 and all the history that is, indeed, still in the making. These are but a few highlights of what Mercedes accomplished in the last century and a quarter. We barely touched on touring car racing, DTM, and all the rally and long-distance exploits that kept the Stuttgart busy throughout, I’m sure Heinz Neunzig, the savior of the G-Wagen, remembers at least one of those.
The fact that motorsport history only trails automotive history by eight years is telling. The fact the Mercedes was involved in both is impressive. More than anything, It shows just how closely aligned motorsport and production car advancement really is. And we’ll see the next chapter happen with the Mercedes EQ Formula E team for the 2019/2020 season.
Here’s to the next 125 years of horseless carriage competition!
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