Mercedes–Benz’s great Libyan racing swindleS

Before Libya became the recently killed Muammar Gaddafi’s silly desert kingdom for 42 years, it was an Italian colony which hosted the Tripoli Grand Prix, the fastest motor race of the 1930s. Fed up with four years of Silver Arrow dominance, the Italians changed the rules for the 1939 race to make sure an Alfa Romeo or a Maserati would win. Little did they know that Mercedes–Benz would take up the gauntlet in spectacular fashion.

There were essentially two classes of racing cars in pre-WW2 Europe: Grand Prix and voiturette. The former were the big Silver Arrows and Alfa Romeos, the latter competed in separate events and had 1.5-liter engines. After the Mercedes–Benz and Auto Union teams had won four Tripoli Grands Prix in a row between 1935 and 1938 on what was then Italian territory, the rules were changed to make the race a voiturette race. Alfa Romeo and Maserati had competitive voiturettes. The Germans didn’t.

As told on Dennis David’s Grand Prix history site, the lead time to build a new racing car back then was around 18 months. The rule change was made eight months before the race. Work began at both Mercedes–Benz and Auto Union in utmost secrecy, the two teams taking on the challenge, working around the clock and spying on each other. It was the Mercedes–Benz team who would succeed, as quoted by David from team principal Alfred Neubauer’s biography:

I was extremely pleased with the trial. I had just given orders to pack up when I saw a figure emerge from the bushes and recognized [Wilhelm] Sebastian [Auto Union’s technical racing manager].

“Good Heavens, man, you look as if you had just lost something”, I said.

“I’m afraid I have,” he replied with a wry grin. “The Tripoli Grand Prix.”

Mercedes–Benz’s great Libyan racing swindle

The new Mercedes–Benz was called the W165, and it was a scaled-down version of the W154 Grand Prix car. Its 1.5-liter engine was a 254 hp supercharged V8 and it would propel Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola to a 1–2 finish in the 244-mile race on May 7, 1939, with the Alfa Romeos and Maseratis dropping like flies in the 120° heat.

Like Gordon Murray’s cheeky Brabham BT46B, the Mercedes–Benz W165 was never raced again and was retired with a perfect racing record.

You can read more about the race on Leif Snellman’s Golden Era of Grand Prix racing site and hear Hermann Lang’s winning W165 in this video taken at the 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Photo Credit: Daimler AG