Mercedes' illustrious racing past 21 Dec 2004
McLaren engine partners Mercedes have experienced the highs and lows of Formula One racing and not just during the 2004 season. The German firm can claim one of the longest running associations with Grand Prix racing of any automobile manufacturer.
The Mercedes brand's association with motor racing is one steeped in history. Indeed Mercedes claims to have taken part in the very first car race, all the way back in 1894 between Paris and Rouen in France, and its relationship with Grand Prix racing is as old as the sport itself.
Racing became increasingly popular after the First World War, as cars became progressively more powerful and tracks were created, normally on closed public roads. Daimler was among the first companies to develop supercharged engines for racing, the supercharger (which forces air into the engine) having proved its worth in aircraft and marine applications. The power of these cars rapidly began to grow, and by 1928 the mighty 6.8 litre SSKL took victory at the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring with a 1-2-3 finish, Rudolf Caracciola taking the top step of the podium.
By the early 1930s the Nazi regime in Germany had recognised the propaganda value that racing offered, and both the Mercedes and Auto Union teams were encouraged to build the fastest and most exciting cars possible to race against each other. A new weight formula for Grand Prix racing was brought into force in 1934, intended to end the development of ever heavier and more powerful cars (which overwhelmed the ability of existing tyre technology to control their power), the so-called '750 kg' formula.
Mercedes' elegant entrant into the class, the W25, was to become one of the most famous racing cars in the world when, on the night before the first race to the new formula at the Nurburgring, the racing manager Alfred Neubauer discovered his cars were one kilogram overweight, and ordered mechanics to scrape off the white paintwork, leaving exposed shining alloy, and the legend of the 'Silver Arrows' was born. Power levels continued to increase until, most recently, the cars were racing with around 500 hp, and in 1935 Caracciola took both European and German Championships with victory in nine out of ten races.
It was a period of intense, dramatic and incredibly dangerous racing. The speed and performance of racing cars was completely unmatched by any safety provisions beyond the occasional straw bale. It was a highly symbolic tragedy when, on the eve of war in 1939, Mercedes' British ace driver Richard Seaman was killed in a horrible accident at Spa.
Racing was suspended during the war and, with Germany's industry devastated, it took some time for Mercedes to return to the fray. Alfred Neubauer kept his faith during the dark days and after the end of hostilities found three pre-war race cars, which were entered in the 1951 race in Argentina. A full return was made to the new Formula One category in 1954 with the beautiful W196, adapted from the 300 SL sportscar and powered by a fuel injected eight cylinder in-line engine. Drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling scored a commanding one-two victory in the car's very first outing at the '54 French Grand Prix, and Fangio went on to take the World Championship.
But dominance was short-lived, in 1955 Mercedes withdrew from motorsport following a massive accident at the Le Mans 24 hour race when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh somersaulted into a stand at over 150 mph after a collision and 79 spectators were killed. The company only returned to motorsport again in 1984, entering Touring Car and then sportscar racing.
The company returned to Formula One racing as an engine supplier for Sauber in 1994 and then McLaren the following year. Mercedes' engines powered Mika Hakkinen to his two Drivers' titles and also brought the Woking team the 1998 Constructors' Championship. The ongoing relationship now includes Mercedes owning a share of the McLaren team.