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.


A long time fan of Formula 1 and grass roots motorsport, I am interested in the engineering aspects not only of F1 but the 'men in sheds' who develop homemade specials to take on the products of the big racing car manufacturers.
  • Nice write up, thanks.

  • I love the Silver Arrows inception tale.

    Whether true or not, I’m sticking to the story that W25 was a kilo overweight, and Msr. Neubauer ordered the paint ground off. Imagine the notoriously precise Germans, debasing their beautiful new creation, yet lamenting they’d built a machine out of reg spec; so funny

    • MIE

      It is a nice story, but it only appeared around the time of Mercedes reappearance in the mid fifties. There is no contemporary record of the story in the thirties when the W25 appeared. Added to the fact that some of the speed record cars in the early thirties (before the W25) were painted silver, and referred to as Silver Arrows, it does throw some doubt on the story.

      • Don’t burst the bubble MIE! Santa IS real!

      • Looking at it from a heraldic perspective, white and silver technically are the same taint, so that would be yet another explanation for the origin of the silver arrows. Maybe they wanted to go from a heraldic silver to a literal silver.

        Another theory I’ve heard is that the bare metal look has been popular back then, because it alluded to the emerging field of aeroplanes that was absolutely high-tech back then.

        Still, the weight/paint story does come from Alfred Neubauer himself.
        In fact, the official story is sort of a word game. After finding out about their cars being one kilogram too heavy, Neubauer said out loud to his team: “Nun sind wir die Gelackmeierten!” which roughly translates to something in-between “Now we look the fools!” and “Now we’re left out in the cold!”
        However, the word “Gelackmeiert” is a composite word. I have no idea about the origin, or what it originally meant. Here it basically means “the ones left out in the cold” albeit with a slightly more humorous note. But it has the word “Lack” in it which translates to paint, varnish, lacquer, etc…you get the idea. If I had to make a wild guess regarding the origin of the word “Gelackmeiert”, I’d say that to me it sounds like someone was fooling around with paint and made a mess and then someone else called him “gelackmeiert” which then stuck around. That’s most likely completely false and it probably doesn’t even have anything to do with paint at all, but it certainly sounds like it.

        Also, even though it may not look like it, the word “Lack” really sticks out when you say “Gelackmeiert” as it’s the syllable that is stressed. So upon hearing this, Manfred von Brauchitsch (who won the AVUS race in 1932 in an unpainted silver customer Mercedes SSKL racing car which had a special aerodynamic chassis) supposedly had the idea that they could take off the paint.

        It kinda sounds contrived, but von Brauchitsch confirmed the story years later.

        So while it is true that there was the occasional silver car before, I’ve settled on accepting both as true. It could well have been a mix of reasons. So while 1934 was definitely not the year in which silver racing cars were born, it was the birth of the silver arrows.
        Also, Neubauer’s story goes further, he didn’t just mention the paint, but also that they drilled holes in the pedals, etc.
        Also, the fact that the story only appeared later on also makes a lot of sense. I mean this is not the kind of thing you boast about. I guess Mercedes was rather embarrassed that they couldn’t build a light enough car on their first attempt. So instead of admitting that it was only their second choice, they decided to wear the silver color with pride.

        So on a whole, it sounds believable and it’s still the official history according to Mercedes themselves.

        On a different note, the 1924 Mercedes “Targa Florio” racing car was actually painted red…it was a special paint job for the Italian race because by using the Italian racing color, Mercedes didn’t have to fear obstructions by the Italian fans…and it worked, the car won.

        I have to say, I really like the international racing color thing and I wish more teams would stick to it. Of course in these days where sponsors determine the liveries, it’s only a pipe dream and it does give us more variety after all…still, seeing a Mercedes, a Ferrari, or for a brief period a Jaguar in their correct racing color makes me happy ;)

        BTW, if you want to hear a similarly awesome story, I’ve got one for you.
        I don’t know if y’all know Ferdinand Piëch. If not, you certainly should. He’s a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche himself (the family is split in a Porsche and a Piëch half as his daughter married Anton Piëch) and today he is the overlord of the Volkswagen AG, the parent company that owns all the other brands, from Audi to Lamborghini.
        But in the early 1970s, he was still with Porsche and he headed their motorsports department (his PHD thesis was on an F1 engine). As such, he was the main force behind Porsche’s LeMans engagement and he also was responsible for the iconic and simply awesome Porsche 917.
        So when the first prototype was ready, the story goes that he (the head of R&D!) crawled underneath the car, equipped with a magnet, and wherever that magnet clung to the car, he ordered his engineers to replace that part with something lighter. His perfectionism was such, that he even personally made sure that the wooden knob on the gearshift lever was replaced with one made of a slightly lighter wood, something nobody else was thinking about as this would only have made a difference of a couple of grams.
        Also, according to the lore, for the qualification run, they removed the tank and the gas pump from the car and replaced it with sort of a rubber bladder that would automatically pump the gas towards the engine.

        Anyway, a couple of years later, the Porsche family decided to retreat from any operative positions in their company and Piëch had to go elsewhere…so he went to Audi, where as the head of R&D he once again kickstarted their motor sports division (he was responsible for the S1 rally car legend) but also crept up the corporate ladder. He took Audi from an also ran, to a new and successful luxury brand and when the parent company Volkswagen got in trouble, he was called to the rescue as the new CEO. Today he’s out of the operative business for good, but he still heads the supervisory board and through his networks he’s still the man at Volkswagen and probably the most powerful man in the entire automobile industry.

        • Dr. Piech… what a legend. I was at Geneva 2010; Piech stood imperiously over the crowd as Walter Rohrl drove the 918 prototype onto the stage. At this point, with the Vw/Porsche merger just settling in after previous friction, and Dr. Piech was like the benevolent ruler of a small nation, doing things because they interested him, and he could, like Veyron before.

          After the career he’s had, the accomplishments, I guess it’s okay for a man such as Piech to indulge flights of fancy; that they’re such engineering masterpieces as Veyron and 918 is a testament to towering technical brilliance, managerial elasticity, and forcefulness of personality and vision.

          We’ll call Phaeton a mulligan :D

  • Tom Firth

    Somehow missed reading this earlier but I really enjoyed it and the thread comments too. Thank you.

    • MIE

      We’re you too busy bring rain to the BTCC, and Le Mans?

      With all the motor racing series you watch, it amazes me you have time to read any of the articles on this site.