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Jan 23, 2008
- Member of the Mercedes-Benz teams of 1954 and 1955
- “Herrmann has without doubt natural talent and is a driver of enormous stamina.” (Alfred Neubauer)
- Lifelong attachment to the brand with the three-pointed star
On February 23, 2008, Hans Herrmann will celebrate his 80th birthday. His name is closely linked with the return of Mercedes-Benz to Formula One racing after the Second World War. The young Stuttgart-born driver was one of the great emerging talents of the post-war years and one of the drivers to line up alongside such famous names as Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling at the first Grand Prix to feature the new Silver Arrows at Reims in 1954.
The racing manager of the day, Alfred Neubauer, brought Herrmann into the team for the 1954 season, after the young driver had successfully acquitted himself in a series of preliminary test drives. Neubauer reported to the Board of Management at the time: “Herrmann has without doubt natural talent and is a driver of enormous stamina.” He was given the chance to drive one of the Silver Arrow cars (W 196 R) which had been developed for the company’s return to Formula One. In testing and practice Herrmann frequently provided evidence of his fast and safe driving style. He escaped lightly from a training accident at Hockenheim in May 1954; soon the great day was upon him.
July 4, 1954. The debut for the new Silver Arrows in their first Grand Prix came at Reims. Hans Herrmann started from the third row of the grid, his team-mates Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling from positions one and two on the front row. After just a few laps Herrmann had already left several drivers trailing in his wake – recording a fastest lap time in the process of 2:32.9 minutes, an average speed of 195.463 km/h. Eventually all three W 196 R cars were out in front. “And that’s exactly how we would have crossed the finishing line,” recalls Hans Herrmann. But on lap seventeen he suffered a stroke of bad luck: “The engine suddenly lost power before shutting down completely.” However, the cars driven by Fangio and Kling continued functioning flawlessly. Putting an ever greater distance between themselves and the rest of the field, they were a clear lap ahead of their nearest rivals by the finish – securing a one-two victory for Mercedes-Benz, with Fangio the winner of the French Grand Prix. Mercedes-Benz had emphatically announced its return to Grand Prix action and in so doing had breathed new life into the legend of the Silver Arrows. And to crown the nation’s sporting glory, that same day the German soccer team won the World Cup in Bern.
Hans Herrmann remained a member of the Mercedes-Benz team for all subsequent Grand Prix races and played his part in the team’s success, even though he would always stand somewhat in the shadows of Fangio and Kling. Nevertheless, although he was treated as the “junior” in the team, with an age difference of around 20 years, he never considered himself disadvantaged: “ I had no reason to complain,” he says modestly, “it was clear I was the youngest and I just used to tell myself I was still learning.”
Herrmann’s capacity to learn was evident at Monza on September 5, 1954. Fangio and Kling were given streamlined cars to drive, which were more suited to the fast circuit. Kling was forced to retire, Fangio took the victory. And Herrmann, driving a “less than suitable” monoposto, finished in a highly creditable fourth place.
Herrmann’s first podium finish in a Silver Arrow came at the Swiss Grand Prix in Bern on August 22, 1954, where he finished third. It was a typical monoposto race, with plenty of fast cornering. Fangio crossed the line in first place, with Kling’s car suffering engine failure.
The AVUS race on September 19 saw the Mercedes-Benz drivers take the checkered flag in a one-two-three victory in the order Kling – Fangio – Herrmann. All three drove streamlined W 196 R cars for the high-speed event. Kling also broke the record for the fastest race of the post-war era with an average speed of 213.5 km/h.
In the 1955 motor racing season, considerable significance was attached to the Mille Miglia. It was the first outing for the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W 196 S), a racing sports car packed with Grand Prix technology. Start numbers for the race were drawn. Fangio was the first member of the team to start (with the number 658, meaning a start time of 6.58 a.m., then Kling three minutes later (701), followed by Herrmann (704) and Stirling Moss with the number 722 – and all around them a field packed with vehicles from Ferrari, Maserati & Co. In all, there were 450 cars taking part.
“Pace yourself. Moss will probably go off at such a rate he’ll have no brakes left for the last third. If you keep your speed up but go easy on the car, you’ve got a chance.” Hans Herrmann well remembers the words of his navigator Hermann Eger. He recognized the benefits of a more circumspect driving style.
In the early part of the race all went well. He quickly advanced to second place behind Stirling Moss and was able to hold on to this position. Herrmann knew that if he could save his brakes he would be able to attack Moss on the last few miles, since by the end of the race his team-mate would have worn his brakes out. The car with the start number 704 was running beautifully. After a stop to refuel in Rome the breakneck pace continued. Then suddenly the car’s filler cap popped open, however, showering driver and navigator with fuel. As gasoline seeped into Herrmann’s racing goggles he was blinded to the corner ahead, collided with the rock wall and came to an abrupt halt. Immediately navigator Eger leapt out of the car to escape the potentially explosive situation. The pair’s Mille Miglia was over. “It is the only race result of my career that still haunts me today. We would have caught up with Moss,” he says with utter self-belief. “We were after him all the way. Moss’s brakes were down to bare metal by the time he crossed the finishing line. And he knows we were on to him.” By the last third of the race Moss had accrued a massive lead over Fangio of more than 20 minutes. He drove sparingly and still finished the Mille Miglia in a record time that remains unbeaten to this day. Fangio finished in second place, completing a one-two win for Mercedes.
The Mercedes-Benz race calendar for 1955 featured seven sports car races and ten Formula One events – an expensive season. Herrmann was to act as a standby for Fangio, Kling and Moss. In May 1955 he replaced Kling for the Monaco Grand Prix. In the practice session, at the end of the long climb up towards the Casino, Herrmann applied the brakes at around 180 km/h and locked a wheel. The car skidded, hit the curb and ploughed violently into a stone balustrade. Herrmann suffered serious pelvic and spinal injuries. After emergency first aid had been administered, he was taken to a specialist clinic in Munich in a plane chartered by Daimler-Benz. Although he was to spend several months there, he made an almost complete recovery and fully regained his ability to drive. But there were to be no further races for him with Mercedes-Benz. Early in 1955 the company had taken the internal decision to withdraw from motor sport at the end of the season in order to free up resources for passenger car development. The step was duly taken that October. It was the end of Herrmann’s official involvement with Mercedes-Benz.
In the years to come Herrmann drove for several different brands. He enjoyed numerous successes with Porsche and in 1970 drove for the brand in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Before leaving for the event, his wife – who had often suggested it was time for him to retire – asked if he would give up racing if he won. His reply was short and unequivocal: “Yes!” And so it was. He drove to victory in a Porsche 917 with the start number 23, his team-mates finishing behind him in second and third. Hans Herrmann kept the promise he had made to his wife. Le Mans was his last race as a professional driver – and the win was a magnificent end to a successful 19-year career in motor racing.
Herrmann soon found a new vocation, setting up a retail business for car accessories near Stuttgart. In this new walk of life, too, he demonstrated natural talent, frequently discovering niche products he was able to market successfully. Even now he spends most days in the office. And he continues to keep in close contact with the motor sport scene and current drivers. Nor has he ever lost touch with Mercedes-Benz, regularly attending classic events with undiminished enthusiasm to drive “his” Mercedes-Benz cars, those in which he turned in such brilliant performances in the 1950s – the W 196 R and the 300 SLR. He even expresses his personal attachment to the brand with the three-pointed star in his own company logo – a stylized Silver Arrow.