When Michael Schumacher sits his 41-year-old self down in a Mercedes next year, it will not be for the first time. Twenty years before, he raced a 730 HP Mercedes prototype faster than any Formula One car ever made.
Mercedes has a peculiar way of competing in motorsports. They tend to enter the scene out of the blue with an utterly dominant car, win everything for a year or two or six, then disappear without a trace for decades.
They did this in the 1930s, beginning with the first Silver Arrow, the W25 Grand Prix car. With its successors, it won all championships save for one between 1934 and 1939, after which their main financial backer, a certain Austrian corporal, decided to wage expeditionary war on two fronts and the team’s parent company had to switch to making war engines. The war effort was rather less successful than the motorsport effort.
A reborn Mercedes racing team emerged from bombed-out then Marshall-planned Germany in 1954 with the W196 Formula One car and its twin, the 300SLR sports prototype. They would prove unstoppable for the next two years. Fate and the safety standards of motor racing in the 50s would, however, conspire to make their exit an unhappy one yet again: at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the 300SLR’s was launched into a mass of spectators, killing an incredible number of people, prompting their exit from the race and at the end of the season from motorsports altogether.
Mercedes would not return to Formula One until 2010, but they continued to keep a toe or two dipped into various fields of racing in ever-changing disguises, most notably as AMG but never as a factory team. This would all change in 1990.
The change was pioneered by a Swiss racing manager named Peter Sauber, the same man who sold his F1 team to BMW in 2005 and bought it back this fall. Sauber at the time were making sports prototypes for Group C, a fun, high-speed circuit racing formula resembling Can-Am in spirit. Group C cars were turbocharged ground effect coupés like the Porsche 956 and 962, the various Jaguar XJR’s and Sauber’s C6’s, 7’s and 8’s.
The early Saubers were powered by BMW engines but there was unhappiness over performance and reliability, so Sauber made contact with Mercedes to initiate a swap in engine suppliers and to get help with the aerodynamics. Mercedes happened to have just the thing for the small Swiss team: wind tunnels and a big 5-liter V8 which powered their late 80’s 500-series cars. Turbochargers were quickly added.
The resulting Sauber C9 was a factory Silver Arrow in all but name. While Mercedes at this point was still running a skunk works operation, the car had already showed what vast amounts of German corporate resources will do: it absolutely dominated the 1989 season, winning all but one race.
The C9 became the fastest car ever to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans—which it won—topping out at 247 MPH in the Mulsanne Straight (to compare: because of short straights on F1 tracks and of drag-inducing wings, Formula One cars rarely exceed 200 MPH). It is a record unlikely to ever be broken, as the Mulsanne Straight was neutered for the following year with two chicanes, ending 66 years of 3-mile banzai runs.
A year later, Mercedes decided to come out of the closet and formally take over the program. The C11 thus became the first Silver Arrow since 1955. It was a vast improvement over the already excellent C9, mostly in terms of its chassis: the C11 was built around an F1-style carbon fiber tub and its aerodynamics were honed in a rolling road wind tunnel. Domination continued, save for Le Mans, where Mercedes chose to not compete (it was not part of the World Sportscar Championship for that year).
It was the C11 that Michael Schumacher was plucked from Formula 3 to drive, a young talent mentored by experienced sportscar drivers Jochen Mass and Mauro Baldi. Curiously, his future technical director and team principal Ross Brawn was also around, but across the pits: after spending the 80s in Formula One, he was working for Mercedes’s great rival Jaguar, greatly contributing to the 1991 championship-winning XJR–14.
For 1991, Mercedes was back at Le Mans, but in a very un-Mercedes-like move, their successor to the C11 was a lemon, so they decided to race the old C11’s. Which, in another very un-Mercedes-like way, suffered mechanical failure in the form of broken alternator brackets. Michael Schumacher was driving one of the cars and came home fifth behind the winning Mazda and three Jaguars. Then, finally in a more Mercedes-like move, they abandoned their factory racing effort at the end of the year, becoming engine suppliers for Peter Sauber’s F1 team and later for McLaren, powering Mika Häkkinen to two F1 world titles and Lewis Hamilton to another.
Ross Brawn also left at the end of 1991 and became the technical director of the Benetton F1 team, winning back-to-back championships with Michael Schumacher in 1994 and 1995. A year later, both of them landed at Ferrari, the butt of every joke at the time. And you all know how that partnership turned out.
Photo Credit: Martin Vincent, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images, Europresse