Mercedes-Benz returned to Grand Prix racing after a 15-year absence in July 1954. It's hard to believe that almost 50 years have passed since that exciting weekend at Reims, when the Silver Arrows comeback marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Formula One. And what a chapter it was!
The weekend was also a first for me. I was a newcomer to Europe, and all I had to go on were the pictures and stories that I had seen earlier in the year in English and German magazines. Already there were reports of the serious testing going on at Hockenheim and other tracks by the Mercedes-Benz team, led by Rudolf Uhlenhaut and managed by the legendary Alfred Neubauer. The lead test driver was Karl Kling, who was to put in a very strong showing at Reims, where he finished only a second behind Juan Manuel Fangio at the end of the day.
I had driven to Reims from Paris in my Volkswagen Microbus, and I met up with two friends, one of whom was Maurice Rosenthal, a well-known French photographer who helped me obtain a photo credential that gave me complete access. After driving into the unpaved paddock by way of a narrow tunnel, I saw three streamlined W196 racers surrounded by curious and excited fans-including, of course, members from a few of the other teams, principally Ferrari and Maserati.
The Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix car was revolutionary. A beautiful aerodynamic body enclosed a space frame, a driver sitting midship, his legs spread wide apart over the transmission shaft. In front of him was a removable wooden-rimmed steering wheel like those on pre-war Mercedes racers, a tachometer showing an 8500-rpm redline, and a fuel-injected straight-eight 2.5-liter engine installed 20 degrees from the horizontal.
When the mechanics raised the hood, huge drum brakes dominated the scene, mounted in-board up front (at the rear they were placed on each side of the differential). Another unusual feature was the mechanically operated valves, but, no matter how groundbreaking were the details, the overall impression was of a beautifully crafted machine, poised to compete with Grand Prix racing's best. As Neubauer had correctly prophesied, "We are building cars to win."
Testing and development had been going on for almost two years prior to the Reims appearance, and so there was plenty of confidence in the Mercedes pits when Fangio produced a 200-kph practice lap. And Kling was not far behind. Reims was one of the fastest tracks in Europe, consisting of two long straights connected by a fast, sweeping right-hander at the end of the front straight. Karl Ludvigsen described it as a "vast triangle." At the end of the back straight was the main highway between Reims and Soissons, a slow corner at Thillois connected to the front straight.
Practice was held as early as Wednesday and continued through Thursday and Friday. On Saturday there was a 12-hour sports car race, which gave the F1 teams a break to catch their collective breaths and consider tactics. Fangio and Kling were impressive in practice and were applauded by the management and engineers from Stuttgart, who were eager to witness a successful debut of their new car.
The competition, however, was strong, and some predicted the German cars would be unreliable on their first outing. Ascari and Villoresi were in Maseratis, having been released by Lancia, while Hawthorn, Gonzales and Trintignant were in Ferraris. There were several privately entered Maseratis, normal for the period, and of these the most interesting was Prince Bira from Siam, whose Maserati had been painted in national colors, blue and yellow. The German cars looked sensational in their unpainted magnesium skins, and they sounded as exotic as they looked when the mechanics warmed the eight-cylinder engines at a steady 3000 rpm, their powerful roar in contrast to the violent "blipping" going on in the Italian pits.
Sunday, July 4, race day. The weather was warm and clear. A huge crowd lined one side of the main straight and had a clear view of the start as well as the back straight across the sweeping fields in front of them. The grid formed several hundred yards beyond the main grandstands. On the front row were Fangio and Kling, flanked by Ascari in his Maserati. Next came Froilan Gonzales in the Ferrari, Prince Bira, who had made an excellent showing in practice, and the third Mercedes, driven by Hans Hermann. There were 21 starters in all, and when the flag dropped Fangio and Kling raced off into the lead, leaving Ascari in their dust-he had muffed his start and was passed by the entire field.
I set off for the Thillois corner almost a half mile away, and as I walked through the grass at trackside, the sounds of the Mercedes as they roared down the backstraight was astounding. Gonzales was there among them as well, struggling to keep up with the German cars. He put up a strong fight but eventually spun at Thillois when his engine blew. Kling and Fangio exchanged the lead several times, and Hermann set fastest lap but then rolled to a stop at Thillois, pursued by a cloud of blue smoke.
Wrote Denis Jenkinson in the August 1954 issue of MOTOR SPORT: "Relentlessly the two Mercedes-Benz went round and round, never more than a few seconds apart, with Fangio in the lead most of the time but occasionally letting Kling set the pace...the whole race had fizzled out and it had become a Mercedes-Benz demonstration run, all the more remarkable as it was their first race with an entirely new car."