Mercedes-Benz enjoys a sparkling finale to the 1955 racing season

Nov 30, 2009
  • Mercedes-Benz dominates international race events
  • The brand withdraws from motorsport at the end of the season
The Silver Arrows were unbeatable in 1955. Mercedes-Benz dominated both the blue-riband Grand Prix races and the exacting long-distance races, the year ending in a suitably impressive haul of titles for the motor sport department. Juan Manuel Fangio secured the Formula One World Championship, while the 300 SLR delivered the constructors’ crown for Mercedes-Benz in the sports car category. The Stuttgart-based brand also claimed the European Touring Car Championship and the Sports Car Championships of both Italy and the USA. No manufacturer had ever exerted such an iron grip on the different disciplines and classes of car racing, from Formula One to diesel sedan competition. At the end of 1955, and with the world of motor sport reeling from this overwhelming show of strength, Daimler-Benz AG pulled out of front-line motor racing. This was the final chapter in a story which started in 1952 with the first competitive success of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194 series). In the years after 1955, the company’s development engineers diverted their expertise from the racetrack to the road.
A new beginning
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Daimler-Benz AG had more pressing matters to attend to than achieving success on the racetrack. First on the to-do list was to reconstruct the plants destroyed in the war (Untertürkheim and Sindelfingenwere particularly badly affected) and restart volume production. Customer service and export activities also had to be reorganized. Truck production got back underway in 1945 and the first post-war passenger cars left the factories in 1946. The Mercedes-Benz 170 V, which had already been built between 1936 and 1942, got the ball rolling. In motor sport circles, meanwhile, there were rumours that the W 165 racing car might be on its way back to the track. This was the same 1.5-liter model which Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola had driven to a 1-2 victory in the 1939 Grand Prix of Tripoli. However, the speculation was to remain unfulfilled.
Mercedes-Benz’ former works drivers, mechanics and engineers turned their attention to vehicle repairs in that early post-war period. As the automotive historian Louis Sugahara recalled, a talent for improvisation honed over a number of years had equipped the racing team’s experts more effectively for the job in hand than their counterparts in production. It wasn’t until 1950 that the motor sport department was back in business – on the initiative of Daimler-Benz Chairman Wilhelm Haspel and under the proven leadership of Alfred Neubauer. Neubauer’s first task was to round up some functioning Grand Prix cars from the 1930s. Out of a total of four W 154 models (two of which the company purchased using a new Mercedes-Benz 170 V as bait) and six racing engines, the motor sport engineers built three operational race cars with four engines. The competitiveness of these freshly restored Silver Arrows, which had delivered Mercedes-Benz so many Grand Prix victories more than a decade earlier, was put under the microscope in two races in Argentina in 1951. Hermann Lang, Karl Kling and the local man Juan Manuel Fangio drove impressively in Buenos Aires, Lang and Kling recording second place finishes on February 18 and 24 respectively. However, the performance of the fast but heavy cars was no longer sufficient to secure race wins. Rudolf Caracciola, Mercedes-Benz’ most successful driver before the war, had suggested as much to Alfred Neubauer even before the team left for Argentina, and turned down the offer of a drive in the revived Silver Arrows. Initially, Neubauer also had his sights set on the 1951 Indianapolis 500 race, but pulled the plug on that idea on the back of the lessons learned in Argentina.
The same year saw the presentation of the 220 (W 187) and 300 (W 186 II) – the first new passenger car models of the post-war period. The Mercedes-Benz 300 gained widespread familiarity as, among other things, the car of choice for Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. However, the “Adenauer”, as the car became popularly known, also provided the nucleus for the brand’s motor sport success in the years that followed. For example, Rudolf Uhlenhaut developed the
300 SL (W 194) sports car on the basis of the W 186 II series. This model later provided the foundations for the series-produced W 198 Gullwing coupe (1954) and roadster (1957). Uhlenhaut, who had already held the post of Technical Director at the motor sport department before the war, took over as head of Testing in Passenger Car Development in 1949.
The first racing success for the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
Uhlenhaut designed a tubular frame for the new SL (“Sport Light”) model and added an aluminium body with distinctive gullwing doors. The car owed its door design to the (initially) extremely high entrance edges caused by the space frame, which left no room for conventional, side-hinged doors. This sports car variant of the Mercedes 300 hit the roads in 1952, powered by an engine developing 126 kW. The 300 SL celebrated its racing debut in the Mille Miglia, Karl Kling taking second place and Rudolf Caracciola finishing fourth. For Neubauer, this was a dream come true. “That was the day when my second youth began,” the racing manager later recalled.
Next up was a 1-2-3 (Kling leading home Hermann Lang and Fritz Rieß) in the Bern sports car race on May 8, 1952. However, it was 1-2 victories in endurance races that propelled the return of Mercedes-Benz to motor racing into the global consciousness. At the Le Mans 24-hour race on June 13 and 14, Lang and Rieß took the honours from Theo Helfrich and Helmut Niedermayr. In November, meanwhile, Kling and Hans Klenk crossed the Carrera Panamericana finish line ahead of Lang and Erwin Grupp in the second 300 SL, despite a now legendary collision with a vulture.
While the 300 SL was stacking up the wins, preparations were already underway in Stuttgart for the brand’s return to Grand Prix motor racing. In 1951, and with Daimler-Benz’ Technical Director Fritz Nallinger already expressing his interest in Neubauer’s vision, FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’A utomobile) announced fundamental changes to the Formula One specifications for the 1954 season. The regulations for this new blue-riband category of motor racing had actually been drawn up by the FIA back in 1948 and a Formula One drivers’ championship had been held since 1950. Up to 1954, racing cars with maximum displacement of 1.5 litres with supercharger, or
4.5 litres without, were eligible for the series. The new race formula for the 1954 season also allowed for two technical options, but with significantly reduced displacements. Supercharged engines were to be of no more than 750 cubic centimetres, naturally aspirated engines a maximum of 2.5 litres. This amendment presented Mercedes-Benz with an excellent opportunity to return to Grand Prix racing, as the new regulations required all participating brands to enter cars which were either totally new or at least heavily modified.
By the start of 1953 Fritz Könecke, Chairman of the Board at Daimler-Benz AG, had put the finishing touches to an ambitious masterplan designed to carry Mercedes-Benz works drivers to the world championship title in both Formula One and sports car racing. Chief Engineer Hans Scherenberg had the job of coordinating the brand’s efforts, and Technical Director Rudolf Uhlenhaut and racing manager Alfred Neubauer were in charge of turning the brand’s lofty aims into reality. To this end, the motor sport department recruited reinforcements across the board, with 200 employees eventually on the payroll and another 300 experts in other Daimler-Benz departments standing by to offer further assistance. 1953 was dominated by the development of the new Grand Prix car, with the company withdrawing from competitive races for the season to focus on this primary aim.
The return to Grand Prix racing
The new Silver Arrow W 196 R celebrated its premiere in 1954. The new model, which initially lined up with a streamlined body, was powered by a 2496-cc naturally aspirated engine. At the start of the season, this power plant developed peak output of 188 kW and produced a top speed of 260 km/h. Alfred Neubauer had recruited Juan Manuel Fangio to spearhead the brand’s return to Grand Prix motor racing. However, with the season about to get underway the cars were not yet ready for competition and the drivers had to wait until the season’s third race, the French Grand Prix, to sample the Silver Arrows in race action. The fully streamlined W 196 R wasted no time in setting the fastest time in practice for its debut outing on July 4 in Reims, before comfortably exceeding the expectations of public and rivals alike during the race proper. Fangio and Karl Kling recorded a stunning 1-2 victory – a sensational performance with a historical footnote. Mercedes racing cars had also won the French Grand Prix in Reims 40 years to the day earlier, on July 4, 1914. Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer filled the top three places in the race.
Following the sports car triumphs in 1952 and the development of the Grand Prix car in 1953, the motor sport department mounted a successful challenge for the world championship title in 1954 with Juan Manuel Fangio the man at the sharp end. The restricted visibility from inside the streamlined Silver Arrow had hindered the team’s progress in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone’s airfield circuit on July 17, with Fangio unable to finish any higher than fourth. However, Uhlenhaut had already commissioned a second, classical monoposto variant of the W 196 R. There were also the benefits of new tires to look forward to, which Continental had developed for Daimler-Benz. At least one Silver Arrow driver finished on the podium in each of the remaining races of 1954, Fangio winning the Grand Prix races in Germany, Switzerland – where Hans Herrmann took third place – and Italy and finishing third in Spain. Fangio clinched the 1954 Formula One World Championship crown with his win in the Grand Prix of Switzerland in Bern-Bremgarten on August 22.
Thinking big for 1955
In 1955, and having provided repeated evidence of their impressive performance over the previous few years, the racing and sports cars now had the opportunity to add the majestic finishing touches to a great racing adventure. Indeed, over the course of the season, it became clear that this would be the Silver Arrows’ last year in competition. Given the importance Mercedes-Benz had placed on the development of new passenger cars in particular, the company could simply not afford to allow the talents of superlative designers such as Rudolf Uhlenhaut to be focused almost exclusively on motor sport. In addition, the benefits gained from experience on the racetrack in the development of cars for volume production had, by 1955, long fallen short of those offered by the first-generation Silver Arrows of the 1930s.
The motor sport department vested its hopes for the 1955 season on an improved Grand Prix car and the 300 SLR (W 196 S) racing sports model. Neubauer had recruited Englishman Stirling Moss as the second star of the team alongside Juan Manuel Fangio. Moss reminded George Monkhouse – a chronicler of Mercedes-Benz racing history mid-way through the 20th century – of his friend Richard Seaman. Seaman, who was killed in an accident at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1939, had been Mercedes-Benz’ first ever British works driver. Fangio and Moss were joined in the brand’s driver line-up for various races during 1955 by a number of other drivers including Peter Collins, Werner Engel, John Fitch, Olivier Gendebien, Hans Herrmann, Karl Kling, Pierre Levegh, André Simon, Piero Taruffi and Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips.
The W 196 R had shown one or two weaknesses in the final few races of 1954, prompting the engineers to give the car a thorough overhaul in the close season. “Even after the start of the 1955 season, the cars continued to be modified between races,” observed the historian Louis Sugahara. That applied not only to the engine, but also to the chassis of the cars. In addition to the chassis with long 2350-millimeter wheelbase, 1955 also saw the introduction of a medium chassis (140 millimetres shorter) and the “Monaco” variant, which had a 2150-millimeter wheelbase. In the second half of the season, the racing car also lost 70 kilograms in weight but gained 22 kW in additional output. The W 196 R engine now developed 213 kW at 8400 rpm and maximum speed was bumped up to around 300 km/h. From the outside, the second-generation W 196 R could be recognized by the air scoop fitted on the hood to accommodate the modified intake manifolds.
Argentina calling
The 1955 season began with the Grand Prix of Argentina, a race that developed into hell on earth for the drivers. Temperatures approaching 37 degrees Celsius proved too much for one driver after another, but Fangio held on to win. The race lasted for three hours and theMercedes-Benz man was the only internationally recognized driver to complete the full distance without being replaced by a team-mate for at least part of the way. Only the local sports car driver Roberto Mières could match this feat, bringing his Maserati home in fifth. Stirling Moss, now driving for Mercedes-Benz, fell victim to ill fortune when, recovering by the side of the track from a brief bout of dizziness, he was carried off against his will by the emergency services, loaded into an ambulance and whisked away. Only on his arrival in hospital was he able to make himself understood and return to the circuit. Moss duly took over the car driven at various stages of the race by Hans Herrmann and Karl Kling and shared his fourth place finish with his two team-mates.
Neubauer's report on the Grand Prix of Argentina reads like a commentary: “The race became a torment for drivers and cars alike. They were dropping like flies and the engines also struggled to cope. Gonzales was spent, Farina could make it no further, Castellotti was suffering from heatstroke, Hans Herrmann collapsed exhausted, Harry Schell was cut down by sunstroke, Trintignant staggered into the pits exhausted and Roberto Mières arrived gasping for breath. But with 28 laps gone, Fangio was still in the lead.” And that is where the Argentinean remained on his way to victory in front of some 400,000 ecstatic local fans. Neubauer later called Fangio's victory “one of the greatest performances of his career.”
Fangio followed this up with victory in the Grand Prix of Buenos Aires only 14 days later. Four Silver Arrows lined up at the start for the race on January 30, with the W 196 R powered by a new engine. The motor sport department was using the opportunity offered by an open-formula race to test the three-litre power unit due to be fitted in the new 300 SLR under race conditions. After the rubber coating on the tires used for the first race proved to be too thick, the mechanics made adjustments for race no. 2 to deal more effectively with the hot weather – and Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss promptly completed a 1-2 victory in this high-speed test run. Karl Kling finished fourth.
The unbeatable record: Stirling Moss and the Mille Miglia
The 300 SLR finally made its race debut on May 1 in the Mille Miglia thousand-mile race starting and finishing in Brescia, Italy. Already the world's most popular and famous road race, the Mille Miglia celebrated its 28th running in 1955. That year Alfred Neubauer entered four racing sports cars. Although the designation and bodywork of the racing sports car were similar to the 300 SL of 1952, the SLR had a lot more in common technically with the Grand Prix Silver Arrow, a relationship confirmed by its internal designation W 196 S. In addition to the four new cars, the line-up of 520 vehicles for the long-distance race also included several Mercedes-Benz 300 SL cars and even three Mercedes-Benz 180 D diesel saloons. The 1597-kilometer route took the cars from Brescia via Padua, Ferrara and Pescara to Rome, and then via Florence, the Futa and Raticosa passes, Bologna and Piacenza back to Brescia. The race favourite in 1955 was Juan Manuel Fangio, who was bidding to become the first non-Italian since Rudolf Caracciola to win the Brescia thousand-mile race. Caracciola had taken the spoils in 1931 in his Mercedes-Benz SSKL.
The four Mercedes-Benz racing sports cars moved into the top four places on the route out to Rome. However, leading the way wasn’t Fangio, but the young Englishman Stirling Moss and navigator Denis Jenkinson. For Neubauer, though, this position was a bad omen: “There's an old rule, a kind of curse, that hangs over this race: the lead driver in Rome has never won the Mille Miglia. It's not looking good for Moss.” Karl Kling subsequently retired following an accident shortly after leaving the Italian capital, and Hans Herrmann and Hermann Eger were undone by a fault with the tank filler neck. Moss continued to turn the screw over the Apennines and through the Bassa, secured the Gran Premio Nuvolari for the fastest passage between Cremona and Brescia and romped home in a record time for the Mille Miglia, which remains intact to this day. The Mercedes-Benz driver needed only ten hours, seven minutes and 48 seconds to cover the race distance, equating to an average speed of 157.65 km/h.
Moss' victory can be traced back to a number of factors: the skill of the driver, the strategic genius displayed by Alfred Neubauer in the meticulous planning of his team’s fuel supply, the extensive practice runs, Jenkinson's roadbook and the outstanding Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, which laid down a powerful claim to supremacy in the sports car championship on its debut outing in Italy.
In addition to overall victory, Mercedes-Benz also took the honours with a trio of 300 SL cars in the over 1300-cc GT class, as well as top position in the diesel class in the shape of three Mercedes-Benz 180 D racers.
The W 196 R in Monaco
The glorious debut of the 300 SLR in Italy was followed by another premiere in Monte Carlo on May 22. The Monaco Grand Prix saw the first outing for the W 196 R with short wheelbase. The brake drums of the short monoposto model were fitted on the outside of the car – in contrast to the inboard drums in the larger car – due to the lack of space between radiator and engine. The omens for the race, which doubled up as the Grand Prix of Europe in 1955, were not good for the Stuttgart-based racing team – Hans Herrmann suffered a serious accident during practice and was taken to hospital with broken thoracic vertebrae and a fractured neck of femur. Alfred Neubauer drafted in André Simon to take Herrmann’s place, the French driver having already been pencilled in for a race in the 300 SLR later in the year.
Although the Silver Arrows dominated the race in the early stages, Simon was forced to retire on lap 24, Fangio’s W 196 R came to a standstill with only half the race gone and Moss trailed home a distant ninth. Ferrari’s Maurice Trintignant won the Grand Prix of Europe, a race otherwise remarkable for Alberto Ascari’s spectacular crash into Monte Carlo harbour. Fortunately, the Lancia driver emerged unhurt. However, only four days after the accident, Ascari was killed during a practice run and Lancia pulled out of Grand Prix motor racing.
1-2 victory for Fangio and Moss in the Eifel Race and in Belgium
The 18th Eifel Race on May 29 gave Daimler-Benz AG the opportunity to introduce the 300 SLR, which had enjoyed such a successful race in Italy, to the German public. At the same time, Alfred Neubauer was also looking to provide his drivers with some crucial practice ahead of the 1000-kilometer race on the Nürburgring in August. Fangio and Moss duly fulfilled the expectations of their racing manager by dashing to a 1-2 victory. Karl Kling finished fourth behind Ferrari’s Masten Gregory.
Juan Manuel Fangio ahead of Stirling Moss was also the finishing order in the Belgian Grand Prix on June 5. Eugenio Castellotti had recorded the fastest time in qualifying at the wheel of his former works Lancia, but in the race itself the two Silver Arrows with long (Fangio) and medium (Moss) wheelbase proved irresistible. The Mercedes-Benz drivers soon worked their way to the front of the pack over the 14-kilometer-long circuit at Spa-Francorchamps and maintained their positions through to the chequered flag. Karl Kling, who spent much of the race in sixth position, battled his way up to fourth place before a broken oil return pipe brought his race to a premature end.
The tragedy at Le Mans
Victory in the Le Mans 24-hour race was vital in Mercedes-Benz’ bid to secure the Sports Car World Championship title. However, Neubauer had reservations about the outdated nature of the Le Mans track. Most importantly, the Mercedes-Benz team boss felt that the pit lane was simply too narrow for the high speeds achieved by the latest breed of racing sports cars: "Imagine a tightly packed bunch of fifty cars flying past at 220 km/h and fifty racing managers all hanging out their boards. At that speed, it would be very difficult for the drivers to know which sign applied to them." Neubauer’s concerns were to be borne out in the most tragic fashion.
Mercedes-Benz’ two star drivers Fangio and Moss formed one of the three 300 SLR teams, while André Simon replaced the injured Hans Herrmann as Karl Kling’s co-driver. For the third pairing, Neubauer brought together the American John Cooper Fitch and Pierre Levegh. The French driver’s real name was Pierre Eugene Alfred Bouillon, but he competed under the pseudonym Levegh in memory of his uncle, the pioneering racing driver Alfred Velghe. Levegh caught Neubauer's eye in the 1952 Le Mans
24-hour race, when he came close to celebrating victory in his Talbot.
The classic Le Mans start – where the drivers first have to sprint to their cars – cost Juan Manuel Fangio valuable time, the Argentinean catching his trouser-leg on the gear lever on his way into the cockpit. Once in his seat, however, Fangio fought back with great intensity. By lap 15 he was in second position and snapping at the heels of the race leader, Jaguar’s Mike Hawthorn. The duel was to continue for one and a half hours and saw the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR make full use of its majestic roadholding and unique air brake, above all through the corners. On lap 35, Hawthorn was preparing to pit for refuelling. Still a few meters ahead of Fangio, the British driver overtook Levegh and Lance Macklin before braking suddenly and veering off to the right. The manoeuvre blocked Macklin’s path, and the Austin Healey driver was forced to move out to the left – directly in front of Levegh.
The Frenchman’s 300 SLR clipped the rear of the Austin and was catapulted into the grandstands. The engine and front axle splintered off in the impact, flying into the crowd and causing the biggest disaster in motor racing history. 82 people were killed and 91 injured. Despite the gravity of the accident, the race continued amidst fears that thousands of spectators streaming away from the circuit would impede the emergency services. Shortly after midnight, Daimler-Benz made the decision to pull its 300 SLRs out of the race as a mark of respect to the scores of victims. Race leader Moss and his team-mate Simon were duly called into the pits.
The tragedy overshadowed the remainder of the season: “It could have been a satisfactory year for Mercedes,” Alfred Neubauer later wrote of the 1955 season, “but
Le Mans is what sticks in the memory.”
Grand Prix of the Netherlands among Zandvoort’s dunes
The next race on the calendar, the Grand Prix of the Netherlands in Zandvoort on
June 19, took place with the Le Mans tragedy still fresh in the mind. Indeed, there was an audible sigh of relief around the motor racing world when the race passed off without further incident. However, Le Mans had cast a dark shadow over the whole season. The French, German and Spanish Grand Prix races were called off and Switzerland imposed a total ban on car racing. This meant a gap of almost a month after Zandvoort before the Silver Arrows again lined up for the start of a Formula One race.
Fangio drove his short-wheelbase W 196 R to victory among the dunes of the Dutch circuit (built in 1942), with Stirling Moss again in second. The hills of sand provided a unique backdrop for the latest Formula One race, but the fine quartz dust also gave the mechanics plenty to think about. Moss was particularly badly affected, spending much of the race caught in the abrasive cloud of whipped-up sand behind Juan Manuel Fangio’s car. After the race, the engine’s intake valves and cylinder walls bore the scars of this man-made sand-storm. Karl Kling, like Moss driving a car with medium wheelbase, was plagued by bad luck and crashed out on lap 22 after a driving error.
Clean sweep of the top four places in Great Britain
The BBC news captured the imagination of radio listeners across Britain: “Stirling Moss has won the British Grand Prix at the Aintree track near Liverpool – the first time an Englishman has triumphed in the race.” For listeners, this was the most significant piece of news, not that Moss beat Fangio to the chequered flag by just two tenths of a second.
The Daimler-Benz motor sport department sent four cars to contest the British Grand Prix at Aintree, with Fangio, Moss, Kling and Taruffi handed the driving duties. By now the short-wheelbase W 196 R had produced such impressive performances on the twistier circuits that the “Monaco” model was available to all four drivers for the fifth race of the season. Although Maserati’s Jean Behra relegated Kling and Taruffi to fourth and fifth places in practice, in the race on July 16 – which attracted a crowd of some 100,000 spectators – the Stuttgart-built cars made no mistake in sealing a clean sweep of the top four places.
Fangio roared into an early lead, but Stirling Moss responded emphatically to catch up with, and pass, his team-mate on lap 3. This signalled the start of a gripping duel between the Argentine and the Englishman, which saw them lap the rest of the field. In the years since the race, there has been much debate as to whether Fangio allowed his younger rival to win his home Grand Prix or whether team orders played a role in the outcome. Whatever the intricacies, there was no doubting the excellence of Moss’ performance that day at Aintree. The Englishman maintained his lead to finish ahead of the world champion and deservedly took the first grand prix victory of his career at his home event. Karl Kling finished third, with Taruffi completing a fantastic day at the office for Mercedes-Benz in fourth.
The minimal time difference of 0.2 seconds between the two leading Mercedes-Benz drivers was repeated at the Grand Prix of Sweden in Kristianstad on August 7, but this time Juan Manuel Fangio took the win. Moss was so close behind the Argentine’s
300 SLR that a stone thrown up by Fangio’s car broke through his goggles and injured his eye. Karl Kling drove a 300 SL to victory in the sports car class.
Also making an appearance in practice for the race in Sweden was one of the two coupe versions of the racing sports car developed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut. The 300 SLR coupes were originally earmarked for a place in the Carrera Panamericana, but the race was wiped from the 1955 schedules. The SLR Gullwing could often be seen out on practice runs, but it never actually made its race debut. Uhlenhaut later commissioned one of the two coupes as his company car.
Monza: the W 196 R waves goodbye
The Italian Grand Prix on September 11 brought the curtain down on the W 196 R Silver Arrows. With four events already cancelled that season and all the other races contested by open monoposto cars, Italy also represented the first outing of the season for the streamlined models. A comprehensive re-fit meant that Monza was now something of a high-speed track, and one which took the field past the main grandstand twice every lap. Acknowledging the circuit’s high average speeds, Neubauer sent Fangio and Moss out in long-wheelbase streamlined cars. Kling, meanwhile, was handed an open monoposto with medium wheelbase and Taruffi lined up with a likewise open, short-wheelbase car. The four Mercedes-Benz drivers dominated the race over the opening laps, before Moss was forced to retire on lap 19 and drive shaft damage ended Kling’s afternoon on lap 33. That left Fangio to complete a relatively untroubled last win at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz, with Piero Taruffi following him home only 0.7 seconds behind. At the end of the season, the Argentinean legend was crowned Formula One World Champion for the third time, with Stirling Moss 17 points adrift in second place.
The second of the motor sport department’s goals for 1955, however, was still far from being fulfilled, as Neubauer recalled: “There was only one fly in the ointment: the Sports Car World Championship, also known as the “constructors’ title”, was as good as lost. The constructors’ title was awarded for the first time in 1953 – not to the best driver but to the manufacturer who ran the most successful cars. Ferrari had a clear lead and was almost out of sight. It was going to take a miracle to turn the situation around.” The 300 SLR racers had already demonstrated their prowess on several occasions, but neither the Eifel Race nor the Grand Prix of Sweden counted towards the World Championship.
The Mercedes-Benz team had decided to miss out the season-opening Buenos Aires 1000-kilometer race on January 23 and the Sebring 12-hour race on March 13, preferring to wait until the SLR was totally ready before giving the new car its debut. Moss and Fangio’s 1-2 finish in the Mille Miglia appeared to vindicate Neubauer’s strategy, but then came the tragic events of the Le Mans24-hour race. The 300 SLRs had taken the lead, but were pulled from the race by the Mercedes-Benz management as a mark of sadness and respect after the accident. And that meant no points to add to their championship total.
Tourist Trophy: Renewed hope for the constructors’ World Championship
If Mercedes-Benz was to secure its second World Championship title of the season, the team could not afford to put a wheel wrong at the Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland and the Targa Florio in Sicily. Neubauer duly sent Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips on the journey from Stuttgart to Dundrod in the 300 SLR coupe, giving the team’s new driver time to get to grips with the car.
Three 300 SLRs lined up for the Tourist Trophy on September 17. First run in 1905, the race was held on a twisty and comparatively slow circuit, which meant that the racing sports cars had no need for the brilliant air brake which improved the car’s deceleration on faster tracks. The miracle Neubauer had hoped for came to pass, Stirling Moss and John Cooper Fitch taking the honours ahead of the 300 SLR of Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling. In third were Wolfgang Berghe von Trips – in his first race in an SLR after several outings in the 300 SL – and André Simon.
This outstanding performance convinced Neubauer that the team could win the constructors’ title after all – all they had to do was take a 1-2 victory in the Targa Florio the following month. By this time, the company management had already made the decision to enter the sports car in the Grand Prix of Caracas in Venezuela, citing the opportunity to promote the brand in the South American market. Neubauer and Uhlenhaut, however, urged them to reconsider and divert the cars to the Targa Florio instead. The racing manager and the Technical Director repeatedly underlined the prestige of a double World Championship triumph and eventually their compelling argument won the day.
Sicily or bust: the Targa Florio
The motor sport department set out for Sicily and the Targa Florio with a team of 45 mechanics and a fleet of eight trucks – preparations for the race on October 16, 1955left nothing to chance. Moss and Fangio alone completed more than one-hundred practice laps of the 72-kilometer-long circuit. Looking back on the race which would decide the championship title, Neubauer called it “my destiny.” The team boss was in no mood to go easy either on his drivers or his cars: “I had the boys out on the track from dawn till dusk – until their heads were spinning, until they could drive every corner, ever incline in their sleep.”
By way of respite, Neubauer – well known as a connoisseur of good food and wine – ensured his team enjoyed the finest in Sicilian cuisine. Each morning, he drove to the market personally to buy the necessary ingredients. On the menu was: “ coffee by the kilo, whole crates of cheese, salami, sardines and baskets full of eggs and tomatoes.” This exceptional level of support for the drivers had already impressed Stirling Moss during his testing for the team in the fall of 1954. Covered in brake dust, the Englishman had climbed out of the cockpit to be greeted by a mechanic holding a bowl of warm water, soap and a hand towel.
Neubauer, meanwhile, was working on the tactics for the race: “Never had I prepared for a race so thoroughly and planned with such meticulous care. I put all my experience, expertise, cunning and love into the 1955 Targa Florio.” Perhaps the strategist’s most important plan involved the driver change-overs. Rather than swapping after three laps, as was usually the case, the Mercedes-Benz drivers would complete a full four laps before handing over the wheel. Uhlenhaut also had the
300 SLR reinforced in response to the course’s reputation as a car-breaker.
The first car powered away from the start line at 7.00 a.m. on October 16. Stirling Moss quickly rose to the top of the standings, but fell back to third after an accident. The
300 SLR bore the outward scars of Moss’ scrape, but the racing sports car’s systems and components emerged unscathed. Peter Collins took over the wheel and wasted no time in setting a new lap record on his first lap in the battle-damaged
Mercedes-Benz. Having regained the lead, Collins handed over to Moss, who wrapped up the victory with an advantage of four minutes and 55 seconds over Juan Manuel Fangio. John Fitch and Desmond Titterington brought the third 300 SLR home in fourth behind the Ferrari 860 Monza of Eugenio Castellotti and Robert Manzon. The 1-2 victory Mercedes-Benz needed to win the constructors’ world title was in the bag – and the company’s final goal had been achieved.
The end of the road
Four days before the Targa Florio, Daimler-Benz AG made the decision to withdraw from motor sport lock, stock and barrel for several years. Levegh’s terrible accident at Le Mans gave the move an added impetus but, after such a stunning year on the track, the company’s decision to pull out of racing was more than just a reaction to what happened in France. The end of Mercedes-Benz’ involvement in Formula One had already been agreed early in the season, and only its participation in sports car races over the coming year was still in the balance.
However, there were simply too many arguments against pursuing activities on the track. The enormous costs involved – in terms of both the development and construction of the cars and the organization and coordination required for the races in order to meet the standards the company had set itself – were key considerations. Indeed, the know-how of the Daimler-Benz engineers and mechanics was more urgently required in the development of new passenger cars. Board member Fritz Nallinger underlined the point during the awards ceremony for the successful drivers on October 22, 1955: “When it comes to the further development of our product range, it is in our interests to allow these highly qualified people to focus exclusively on the area which is most important to our many customers around the world – namely the construction of series-produced vehicles. And they will also benefit, of course, from the knowledge and experienced they have gained in the construction of racing cars.”
Equally, though, the technical expertise developed through building racing cars no longer played the central role it had done before the Second World War. Racing manager Neubauer was well aware of the new demands placed on the passenger car development engineers: “Today’s designers have to concentrate much more time and effort on aspects such as improved visibility, more comfortable interiors, non-dazzling headlamps, in-car safety and sporty yet elegant design than was ever the case in years gone by.”
In any event, Mercedes-Benz had left the world of motor racing with its head held high and at the peak of its powers. The W 196 R racing cars had competed in seven races in 1955 – winning six of them, and taking five second places and one third. The
300 SLR racing sports car, meanwhile, lined up for six races, which yielded five Silver Arrow victories, five second places and one third place. Mercedes-Benz could hardly have achieved greater domination.
And that wasn’t even the full story of Mercedes-Benz’ success in 1955, with works drivers and privateers notching up a series of other impressive performances. American Paul O’Shea was crowned US Class D Sports Car Champion in his Mercedes-Benz 300 SL and went on to retain the title in each of the next two seasons. The same year, Werner Engel secured the European Rally Championship at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz 300 SL and Armando Zampiero won the Italian Sports Car Championship, also in an SL.
The era of the Silver Arrows gracing the world’s top racetracks had come to an end and it would be many years before Mercedes-Benz returned to the sports car championship and Formula One. It was a reflective farewell after a quite remarkable season, as Alfred Neubauer recalled: “We shook each other’s hands once again, then they went their separate ways – Fangio and Moss, Collins, Kling, Taruffi and Graf Trips. It was all over.”
The 1955 season is one of the most successful motorsport seasons for Mercedes-Benz. The brand from Stuttgart won the World Championship with the 300 SLR racing car (W 196 S). Between 30 April and 1 May 1955, Stirling Moss and his co-driver Denis Jenkinson won the Mille Miglia in Italy in the 300 SLR with the best ever recorded time.
Victorious: Juan Manuel Fangio in his Mercedes-Benz W 196 racing car after winning the Argentinean Grand Prix on January 16, 1955.
Argentinean Grand Prix in Buenos Aires, 16 January 1955. Winning driver Juan Manuel Fangio in the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R racing car. Fangio was the only top driver to go the duration of the race without being relieved and won easily.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194) racing car, start of the Le Mans 24-hour race, 1952. At the legendary Le-Mans start, the drivers run from their marked positions to the cars stood opposite them. The second vehicle from the front with starting number 21 is the later winner piloted by Hermann Lang and Fritz Rieß. Right at the front is the 300 SL with starting number 20 piloted by Theo Helfrich and Helmut Niedermayr, who finished second. Photograph from 1952.
Targa Florio in Italy, 16 October 1955. Peter Collins in Mercedes-Benz model 300 SLR racing car with starting number 104. Mercedes-Benz´s winning team: Stirling Moss/Peter Collins.
Targa Florio in Italy, 16 October 1955. Winner Stirling Moss (starting number 104) with Mercedes-Benz model 300 SLR racing car during a pit stop for a tyre change.
Targa Florio, 16 October 1955. Stirling Moss in Mercedes-Benz model 300 SLR racing car with starting number 104. Mercedes-Benz´s winning team: Stirling Moss/Peter Collins.
Juan Manuel Fangio, the winner of the Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort, June 19, 1955.
Quadruple victory in the anniversary Grand Prix for sports cars on the Nürburgring, August 3, 1952. Winner Hermann Lang (start number 21) ahead of Karl Kling (start number 24), Fritz Rieß (start number 22) and, on the left in the background, Theo Helfrich (start number 23), all driving Mercedes-Benz 300 SL sports racers.
Mille Miglia, 1952. Karl Kling/Hans Klenk (starting number 623) with a  Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing sports car finished second.
Grand Prix of Belgium in Spa-Francorchamps, 5 June 1955. Later winner Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 racing car (W 196 R) with free-standing wheels (start number 10).
Triple victory of the streamlined Mercedes-Benz W 196 R in the Berlin Grand Prix on the AVUS, September 19, 1954: winner Karl Kling (start number 4), runner-up Juan Manuel Fangio (start number 2) and Hans Herrmann (start number 6) in third place.
Third Carrera Panamericana Mexico, 1952. The winning team of Karl Kling and Hans Klenk in Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing sports car (W 194) are enthusiastically received.
French Grand Prix in Reims, July 4, 1954: Juan Manuel Fangio, who was to win the race, at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R streamliner (start number 18), next to him Karl Kling (start number 20), and behind them Hans Herrmann (start number 22).
Bern Grand Prix, 18 May 1952, start scene. Triple win for Mercedes-Benz sports cars. Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing sports car (W 194) in the first row: Rudolf Caracciola (starting number 16), subsequent winner Karl Kling (starting number 18) and Willy Peter Daetwyler (Ferrari 4102, starting number 26). Hermann Lang (starting number 20) takes second place from the second row of the grid, also in a 300 SL sports car. After an accident in this race, Rudolf Caracciola ends his driver career.
18th international ADAC Eifel race on the Nürburgring, May 29, 1955: Winner Juan Manuel Fangio with his Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W 196 S) racing sports car.
1955 Mille Miglia: Helmut Retter and Wolfgang Larcher won the class in a Mercedes-Benz 180 D (W 120). Photograph taken at a check point in Ravenna, 1 May 1955.
The 1955 season is one of the most successful motorsport seasons for Mercedes-Benz. Juan Manuel Fangio won his second Formula One world title in a Mercedes-Benz W 196 R. On 11 September 1955, Fangio (in this image leading ahead of Stirling Moss and Karl Kling) won the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
Talking shop in Le Mans, 1955: John Fitch (left), Pierre Levegh, who had a fatal accident during the race, und racing manager Alfred Neubauer.
Start in Le Mans, 1955: Mercedes-Benz entered several 300 SLR racing sports cars in this race.
Targa Florio 1955: The 300 SLR driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling.
Le Mans, 1955: Pierre Levegh at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR racing sports car (start number 20). He had a fatal accident later in the race.
Frying pan: Stirling Moss had to stop out of sheer exhaustion in the Argentinean Grand Prix on January 16, 1955.
The 1955 season is one of the most successful motorsport seasons for Mercedes-Benz. Juan Manuel Fangio won his second Formula One world title in a Mercedes-Benz W 196 R. On 5 June 1955 subsequent winner Fangio was leading the race at the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa-Francorchamps.
Three 300 SLR at the start of the 18th International Eifel Race on May 29, 1955. From left: Juan Manuel Fangio (start number 1) who was to emerge as the winner, Karl Kling (start number 3/4th place) and Stirling Moss (start number 2/runner-up).
Grand Prix of Buenos Aires 1955: Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz W 196. In this race, the Grand Prix car was powered by the engine from the 300 SLR.
British Grand Prix, 1955: Winner Stirling Moss and runner-up Juan Manuel Fangio on the winners’ podium.
1955 Mille Miglia: Mercedes-Benz senior engineer Ludwig Kraus (far left) with Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Denis Jenkinson, Stirling Moss and Dr. Hans Scherenberg (left to right).
Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort on 19 June 1955. Stirling Moss, who later finished second, in a Mercedes-Benz Formula One racing car W 196 R (start number 10).
British Grand Prix in Aintree, July 16, 1955. Winner Stirling Moss (start number 12) racing at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz W 196 R monoposto.
Tourist Trophy Race, Dundrod Circuit in Northern Ireland, September 17, 1955. The race was won by the team of Stirling Moss/John Fitch (start number 10) driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W 196 S). The photo shows Stirling Moss crossing the finishing line.
British Grand Prix in Aintree, July 16, 1955. Winner Stirling Moss (start number 12), pursued by Juan Manuel Fangio (runner-up, start number 10), both driving Mercedes-Benz W 196 R monopostos.
Third Carrera Panamericana Mexico, 1952. Winners Karl Kling and Hans Klenk at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL after the legendary encounter with a vulture.
Swiss Grand Prix in Bern, 1952. The winner: Karl Kling.
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The 1955 season is one of the most successful motorsport seasons for Mercedes-Benz. Juan Manuel Fangio won his second Formula One world title in a Mercedes-Benz W 196 R. On 11 September 1955 he beat his team mate Piero Taruffi to win the Italian Grand Prix in Monza..
Tourist Trophy Race, Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland, September 17, 1955. John Cooper Fitch with start number 10. The race was won by the drivers’ team of Stirling Moss and John Cooper Fitch driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports racer
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Le Mans 24-hour race, 1952. Theo Helfrich / Helmut Niedermayr (start number 20) driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL sports racer finish second.
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Winners: Karl Kling and Hans Klenk (hidden) won the third Carrera Panamericana Mexico in 1952 driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194).
French Grand Prix in Reims, July 4, 1954. Runner-up Karl Kling (start number 20) at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Formula One racing car with streamlined bodywork.
Double victory in the French Grand Prix in Reims, July 4, 1954. Lining up in the first row before the start: Juan Manuel Fangio (start number 18), the winner of the race, Karl Kling (start number 20) who finished in second place, both driving Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Formula One racing cars, and Alberto Ascari (start number 10) at the wheel of a Maserati 250 F.
French Grand Prix in Reims, July 4, 1954. At the wheel of streamlined Mercedes-Benz W 196 R racing cars: Juan Manuel Fangio (start number 18), the winner of the race, and Karl Kling (start number 20) who finished in second place. Behind them Hans Herrmann with start number 22.
AVUS race, 1954. Three Mercedes-Benz cars at the start – and the first three to cross the finishing line: Karl Kling in 1st place, Juan Manuel Fangio in 2nd and Hans Herrmann in 3rd.