The Mercedes Simplex of 1902 was Mercedes’ first purpose built racing car. The model dominated motor racing for years. One hundred years ago just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the Mercedes 35 hp won the French Grand Prix finishing 1, 2, 3. These car were painted white to reflect the national racing colour of Germany. The First World War put a stop to Grand Prix Racing for the time being, but this pattern of total domination was to be repeated.
In the 1930’s with funding from the German government two German car companies Auto Union and Daimler-Benz dominated Grand Prix racing in Europe. In 1934 the first of many rules changes were made to Grand Prix racing to try and slow the cars down. Rather than worry about the capacity of the engine, or any limitation of the technology to be used, the rules makers decided that the best way to limit the speeds of the cars was to specify a maximum weight of 750kg. The idea being that the larger and more powerful engines would be too heavy for this new rule. The 75kg limit was for the cars dry (no fuel or oil) and without tyres. The story that is told id that the cars were so close to the weight limit that the white paint had to be stripped off the evening prior to the first race in order to make the cars legal. While a nice story, it is unlikely that both manufacturers would have had to resort to this trick, so it maybe that they had agreed beforehand to race in silver.
In 1934 Mercedes entered with the W25 (a car that was to remain in use until 1937). It won four major races that year (its debut Eifelrennen, the Coppa Acerbo, Spanish and Italian GPs). It’s rival Auto Union won three races (German, Swiss and Czechoslovakian GPs). However the German teams did not win every major race that year, at the French Grand Prix none of the German cars finished, and both teams withdrew from the Belgian race at short notice after the local customs officials demanded a duty be paid on the race fuel used by the supercharged engines of both Mercedes and Auto Union.
For 1935 the European Championship resumed with five championship events, with Rudolf Caracciola winning the title by winning three of the championship events. Other races were held during the year and the W25 won nine Grand Prix in 1935, with Auto Union winning all bar one of the other events. The exception was the German Grand Prix won by Tazio Nuvolari, but his Alf Romeo was massively outclassed by the German teams and this would prove to be the only non-German car to win in the European Championship until the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1936 Bernd Rosemeyer won the championship driving for Auto Union, the Mercedes was uncompetitive, and the team withdrew to concentrate on the following season. Mercedes returned to their championship winning ways with Rudolf Caracciola taking his second championship. The Mercedes W125 had a 5663cc supercharged straight 8 cylinder engine. It was the first racing car from Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who had driven the previous W25 after Mercedes stopped racing. He decided that the suspension was too stiff, and the chassis too flexible. The new car had a stiffer chassis and much greater suspension travel.
By 1937 the cars were producing over 600 bhp (a figure that wouldn’t be seen again in Grand Prix racing until the turbo cars of the early 1980’s). So for 1938 the governing body again introduced rules to try and contain the cars speeds. Now the capacity of the engine was limited, for supercharged cars the engines had to be between 666cc and 3000cc, for normally aspirated cars the engine size had to be between 1000cc and 4500cc. The cars had to weigh between 400kg and 850kg (the exact weight dependant on the engine capacity). To meet these new regulations, Mercedes introduced the W154. This used a similar chassis to the W125, but had a new body as well as a new 3000cc supercharged V12 engine, this produced 425bhp when introduced, and by 1939 a two stage supercharged version was capable of delivering 476bhp. Caracciola won the championship again in 1938 with Mercedes winning three of the four championship events.
In 1939 once again Mercedes won three of four championship events held, but the outbreak of the Second World War meant no champion was officially crowned.
Mercedes had to wait until 1954 before they returned to Grand Prix racing, using the W196 once again by Rudolf Uhlenhaut. The car was raced in an open wheel and streamlined (Monza) form. In 1954 Juan Manuel Fangio won the championship by winning six of the nine races (four of these were driving the W196, but he started the season driving a Maserati 250F as Mercedes didn’t enter until the French GP, the fourth race of the year.
In 1955 Mercedes won five of the seven events (and bearing in mind that in the 1950’s Indianapolis was part of the championship, there was only one championship race won by a non-Mercedes F1 car. Fangio was again champion with four wins to Stirling Moss’s one.
Following the Le Mans disaster in 1955, Mercedes withdrew from all forms of motorsport, they didn’t return to Grand Prix racing until 1994 as an engine supplier to Sauber (who had run the Mercedes cars in sportscar racing). It was widely commented at the time that as soon as Sauber won a race, the team would be painted silver, and the team name changed. Unfortunately that never happened, and it wasn’t until Mercedes supplied engines to McLaren that they started to see some form of success, with Mika Häkkinen winning back to back drivers championships in 1998 and 1999.
Another long gap followed until Honda pulled out and left Ross Brawn looking for an engine to power his car for 2009. Both Drivers and Constructors championships followed, and persuaded Mercedes to buy the team to enter once again as a full works outfit. Wins didn’t follow, despite the presence of the most successful driver in Grand Prix history in the team. However with the change of regulations this year we are again seeing a period of Mercedes dominance. The difference this time is there doesn’t yet appear to be a single dominant driver (Caracciola in the 1930’s and Fangio in the 1950’s), and despite Hamilton’s reputation as the fastest driver over a single lap, Rosberg has been the faster driver on a number of occasions this year. So far he has done enough to stay in contention for the championship (helped no doubt by Hamilton’s non-finish at the first race). While many have complained about the domination of one team, if you look at the history we can at least take some comfort that it has taken the team so long to dominate this time around.