Like all great stories in motor racing, Mercedes’s dominating debut is a story of timing, innovation and resurgence, with a healthy sprinkling of treachery on top. It began on a November day in 1953.
It was at the conclusion of the fourth season of Formula One, a mere eight years after the war situation in Europe had developed not necessarily to Germany’s advantage. Dominated by Alberto Ascari in his tiny Ferrari 500, the young sport was about to go through its third major rule change in four years: the 1954 season would drop the Formula Two regulations in place for 1952 and 1953 and dictate a maximum displacement of 750 cc for supercharged engines and 2,500 cc for naturally aspirated ones.
Mercedes-Benz, on the heels of their successful victory with the 300SL Gullwing in the Carrera Panamericana, decided to enter Formula One. The old team which ruled the European Grand Prix Championship with the supercharged Silver Arrows was back. Team manager Alfred Neubauer—the man who invented pit signaling—returned with his hat, trenchcoat and stopwatches, while London-born technical director Rudolf Uhlenhaut was tasked with creating a new car from scratch, codenamed W196 R.
And what a car it turned out to be! The engine a straight-eight, fuel-injected, naturally aspirated 2.5-liter marvel, with power taken off at the middle of the crankshaft, running on a cocktail of benzol, methylene, gasoline, acetone and nitro. It was driven by desmodromic valves—only seen today on Ducati motorcycles—which enabled higher revs than allowed by 1950s springs. The whole assembly was canted 37º to the right to make for a lower hoodline and a smaller frontal area. The car was wrapped in sheets of Elektron, an ultralight and very flammable alloy of magnesium.
By the time Uhlenhaut’s team was done, the 1954 season was already underway, with Juan Manuel Fangio racking up wins in the brand-new Maserati 250F. But the lure of the new Mercedes proved too hard to resist for the Argentine, and after winning two of the season’s first three Grands Prix, Fangio swapped his Maserati for a seat in the W196. After a 15-year absence, the stage was set for Mercedes-Benz’s debut on July 4 at the French Grand Prix, held at the ultra-fast circuit of Reims-Gueux.
Tweaking and testing continued even after Fangio and teammate Karl Kling—who had taken a vulture through the windshield of his 300SL Gullwing two years before in Mexico at 130 MPH—secured the first two positions in qualifying. Fuel consumption was higher than expected, and in a wonderful move, technical director Uhlenhaut hopped in his own Gullwing and raced it all the way to team headquarters in Stuttgart to have expanded fuel tanks manufactured overnight for the W196’s. No vultures were encountered on the Autobahn and at 2:45 the next afternoon, off went Fangio and Kling to begin the 300-mile race.
It was a massacre. The streamlined cars outpaced the rest of the field by 4 seconds a lap. As Fangio took the checkered flag half a car length ahead of Kling, they were the only two cars on the leading lap. Two Maseratis, two Ferraris and a lone Gordini driven by Jean Behra limped in long after them, the rest of the field decimated in the grueling race.
Incidentally, it was on this very day that Germany’s national squad beat what was perhaps the greatest football team ever in the finals of the 1954 World Cup: the Hungarian Aranycsapat, stopped in its tracks after an unbroken string of 33 wins.
The W196 would go on to win 8 of the next 11 races it was entered in. The streamlined body was replaced with an open-wheel version for the more technical circuits, and a young Stirling Moss joined Fangio for the 1955 season.
Mercedes-Benz also entered the car in sports car racing as the 300SLR, with an engine bored out to 3 liters, producing 300 HP. This was the car that carried Stirling Moss to his famous victory in the Mille Miglia—and which, a few weeks later, got catapulted into the crowd at Le Mans, where it became all too clear just how flammable that Elektron chassis was. Over eighty people perished in the flames, including racing driver Pierre Levegh.
The accident spelled the end of the W196 and its brethren. Neubauer withdrew the 300SLR’s from the lead several hours after the accident. At the end of the season, with Fangio claiming the Formula One World Championship in the W196 and the team taking the World Sportscar Championship in the 300SLR, Mercedes-Benz withdrew completely from motor racing.
Fangio would become World Champion two more times. His victories came in cars he had defeated in his Mercedes: the Lancia-Ferrari D50, and for his final championship in 1957, the very Maserati 250F he had abandoned three years previously for the W196.
The 300SLR lived on as Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s daily driver. It was made into a street-legal coupé which Uhlenhaut commuted to work with.
A hyper-Gullwing, capable of reaching speeds of 180 MPH in a sad, gray, post-war Europe, blasting down empty highways at warp speed, forever chasing a racetrack it would never set wheels on again.
On the other hand, it must have made for a memorable childhood for Uhlenhaut’s son Roger:
Photo Credit: Daimler AG, Autocar