Monday, April 19

When Stirling Moss joined Fangio on the Mercedes dream team | Formula One


WWhat would it mean for an Englishman to drive a Mercedes, only 10 years after the end of a war that had killed so many millions? In 1937, Dick Seaman had joined the same team and saw the shadow of war fall over Europe. He stood his ground when Adolf Hitler inspected the cars and their drivers in Berlin and gave a reluctant Nazi salute on the victory podium at the Nürburgring. He had been killed while leading a Grand Prix in one of the Silver Arrows, just weeks before Britain and Germany went to war. Now former enemies were expressing unconditional admiration for Germany’s engineering prowess applied to the science of motorsports, skills that had only recently been used to make Tiger tanks, V2 rockets, and Messerschmitt engines. It was as if the two things had no connection.

Mercedes’ tentative comeback in 1951 with pre-war cars in Argentina, not exactly in a hostile environment, only proved that reviving outdated machinery was not the way to go. This was followed in 1952 by the development of new sports coupes that secured first and second place at Le Mans and in the Carrera Panamericana. That was more like the old Mercedes, and the company’s full-scale return to Grand Prix racing in 1954 saw them regain the kind of dominance they had enjoyed between 1934 and 1939. For Stirling Moss, just as it had been. For Seaman, the invitation to join this historic team was the highest compliment that can be paid to a racing driver.

For his new team, the acquisition represented more than just the capture of an enormously talented young driver – it also had public relations value. When Hitler endorsed Seaman’s inclusion in a team whose successes were meant to proclaim the superiority of German technology, he still hoped that his country and Britain could form an alliance. Bringing Moss into the squad could have been seen as a friendly gesture towards a recent enemy. It was also a reaching out to a potentially lucrative road car market with the same three-pointed star.

Stirling Moss sits in the cockpit of a Mercedes-Benz grand prix car he has just tested.
Stirling Moss sits in the cockpit of a Mercedes-Benz grand prix car he has just tested. Photography: Bettmann Archive

The news provoked a mixed reaction in the British press, but most understood why Moss was following Mike Hawthorn at the head of Ferrari by signing for a foreign team. “If it’s to be blamed,” declared an Autosport editorial, “then it will fall on the British car industry, which by its continued apathy towards the importance of large-scale Grand Prix racing has virtually forced our best drivers to look for it. their fortunes with foreign products. In Moss’s case, the foreign country is one whose cars represent a real challenge to British industry, judging by the number of cars that can now be seen in England. “

In the last weeks of 1954 there was an invitation to a special Mercedes test session at Hockenheim, organized just for Moss. He arrived with his father and his manager. A single-seater was ready and waiting, and one incident impressed him from the start: When he arrived in the pits with his face covered in dust from the internal front brakes, a mechanic was waiting with a bowl of hot water, a soap cake and a towel. . He discovered that at Mercedes he could have everything he needed. Or they would give you a good reason to refuse. “If you asked for square wheels,” he told journalist Maurice Hamilton, “they would look at the book and say, ‘We tried it in 1928 and they vibrated too much.’ They used four-spoke steering wheels, but I liked the three-spoke ones, so that’s what they did. “

With signature Mercedes thoroughness, the W196 was produced in short, medium and long wheelbase configurations to suit individual circuits, and with fully aerodynamic dramatic bodies for use on high-speed tracks. It was a large car, unattractive in a well-muscled way in its usual open-wheel form, quite heavy to drive and with an unusual arrangement of footwell – the brake and clutch pedals were separated by a very wide, which means that the driver’s legs were open. Moss found it easier to get used to than the gearshift pattern, which had first, third, and fifth at the back of the door and second and fourth at the top. It could also be tricky to handle in the wet, and even in the dry it was not a car that could be thrown in the same way as a 250F. But the power and torque of its engine and its overall robustness made it superior to anything Ferrari or Maserati could produce. At a price, of course: each W196 was estimated to cost the company around £ 50,000 to build, roughly 10 times what Maserati was asking its customers for a 250F.

The 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree with Mercedes Moss and Fangio at the helm.
The 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree with Mercedes Moss and Fangio at the helm. Photograph: Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

Moss was hired as Juan Manuel Fangio’s number 2, a position he happily accepted as it allowed him to spend a year closely following in the footsteps of the man he respected above all others, measuring his own performance with the best yardstick. possible. This was his final school: a clear hierarchy of teacher and pupil (although, as the season progressed, Moss noted with interest that Fangio often gladly accepted his suggestions on gear ratios and other mechanical adjustments). The bond between the two men was strong: neither spoke the other’s mother tongue, so they conversed in basic Italian. Moss never wavered in his belief that Fangio, 18 years his senior, was the greatest of all.

Moss and Fangio virtually cross the line together.
Moss and Fangio virtually cross the line together. Photography: PA

Their first race as teammates was in front of local Fangio fans, the temperature at the Buenos Aires racetrack exceeded 100 degrees at the start of the first round of the 1955 world championship series. Fangio won, driving alone, but it even took him a three-minute pit stop to cool off as he drank several gallons of lemonade. As for Moss and his other two teammates, Hans Herrmann and Karl Kling, they made use of the rule that allows more than one driver to share a car. Moss was in second place, with Union Jack stickers on either side of the head cowl, as he had requested, and additional vents cut into the bodywork, when a vapor lock in the fuel system brought the car to a halt on the circuit; he parked it, got out, and lay down on a shady patch of grass, apparently exhausted. Suddenly, before he could make himself understood, he was being taken to the medical center. Finally, getting him discharged, he returned to the pits. With the race still running, and seeing that he was fit and ready to resume, Neubauer sent him out in a car that had already been driven by Herrmann and Kling; together they were able to finish fourth, dividing the three championship points between them, as the rules allowed.

At Aintree in July there was a twist in the narrative. After five consecutive races at Silverstone since the opening of the world championship, the British Grand Prix was held for the first time on the three-mile circuit laid out within the Grand National steeplechase circuit, clockwise. clock, against the direction followed by the horses. He and Fangio had set the fastest times in practice, and Fangio pulled him off the line when the flag fell in front of a large crowd. In three laps, Moss had overtaken his team leader. When Fangio went over it, he had to take the lead once more. But a deft job of passing a marker when braking at a corner, forcing Fangio back, allowed Moss to build a cushion; This was a trick he had learned from Luigi Villoresi at Monza a few years earlier, while trying to follow the Italian’s Ferrari on his HWM.

When Neubauer put up signs telling them both to relax, Fangio moved closer. When the two silver cars crossed the finish line, Moss was just one stage ahead, leading a clean sweep of the top four for Mercedes. Shirt-stained with sweat, face blackened by oil, he accepted the victor’s laurel wreath and a kiss from the formidable Mrs. Mirabel Topham, a former West End Gaiety girl who had run Aintree since she married her owner. Before the war. He had become the first British driver to win his round of the world championship at home.

The W196 sold at Bonhams for a winning bid of £ 19,601,500
The W196 sold at Bonhams for a winning bid of £ 19,601,500 Photography: Bonhams

Moss always said that his teammate could have won the race with ease, had he thought about it that way. When asked in later years, Fangio invariably called Moss a worthy winner. What was the truth? With just one championship round ahead of Aintree, Fangio had already claimed his third world title. A victory for the young English hero would be of great publicity value. A year earlier, Fangio’s Mercedes had finished half a second behind German teammate Karl Kling’s car on the AVUS track at the non-championship Berlin Grand Prix, a popular home win for a veteran driver who By any measure, he was not in Fangio’s class. A conclusion could be drawn. But Fangio did nothing to suggest that either of the two victories had been gift wrapped. And Moss’s capture of the point for the fastest lap showed his speed on the day.

By the time they reached Monza, Mercedes had dropped a bombshell by informing its drivers that the team would be pulling out of Formula 1 racing at the end of the season. They were told that the luxurious and expensive project was being completed to focus the resources of the experimental department on the development of their road cars. Moss’ career as a Mercedes Grand Prix driver ended in the pits, alongside Kling, who had also retired, the pair watching as Fangio let Piero Taruffi come within half a second when they passed the checkered flag, the German team . giving the Italian crowd something to cheer on.

After that, the W196s were brought home and packed up, their job done and their place in motorsport history assured. In 2013, one of them became the most expensive car ever bought at auction. Donated by the factory to the Donington Museum, it was sold to raise funds and was lowered to a winning bid of £ 19,601,500.

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