For fans of historic Mercedes racing cars, this warm and muggy October day in the pits of the famous Austrian Salzburgring Circuit was a very special occasion. It was a veritable bonanza, where the handful of invited journalists could do more than just watch famous Mercedes-Benz racing cars go around the track. If a car had two seats, we could ride shotgun with a factory driver.
My ride of choice was a personal icon, the fabulous Mercedes-Benz 300SLR that Stirling Moss piloted to victory in the Mille Miglia, the punishing 1,000-mile road race from Brescia to Rome and back.
Sleek and purposeful, the 300SLR is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of the long line of Silver Arrows. To this day it remains a powerful statement of the marque's single-minded commitment to the conquest of so many famous motorsport events.
While it shared its basic tubular frame chassis with the road-going 300SL, the SLR actually had more in common with the single-seat W196 Grand Prix racer. Certainly this was true from a mechanical point of view, as the two cars used the same straight-eight motor, albeit enlarged to 3.0 liters in the SLR.
The W196 Grand Prix car and the 300SLR were the sharp ends of a two-pronged Mercedes-Benz attack on the prominent motorsport events of that era. The W196 dominated both driver and constructor's championships in 1954 and '55, while the SLR swept aside its rivals in the 1955 sports car series. It would have won the title if not for Pierre Levegh's tragic accident at Le Mans, which killed 80 spectators and resulted in Mercedes-Benz's total withdrawal from racing.
Although the crash was not the fault of the car or its driver, its involvement in the accident will always warrant a degree of infamy. That said, the SLR's competition record speaks for itself, and after the Mille Miglia victory, with Moss at the wheel and Denis Jenkinson navigating, the car was victorious in the Targa Florio. Other wins in the hands of Fangio, Karl Kling and Hans Hermann only embellished the legend.
The SLR often crossed the finishing line bruised and battered from physical contact with other cars and fixed bits of the scenery, but its immensely strong tubular frame chassis took the pace, and its mechanicals never missed a beat. If it has one weak point, it was simply that its drum brakes were no match for the discs fitted to the D-Type Jaguar, but its overall toughness still took it to the finish while rivals fell by the wayside.
The Mille Miglia was a unique and demanding event. For those unfamiliar with the rules of engagement, the number painted on the sides of each contestant marked the time it left the starting grid. In the 1955 race, this was 7:22 a.m. By the end of that 22nd Mille Miglia, 722, Stirling Moss and navigator Denis Jenkinson had become the stuff of legend.
At precisely 7:22 a.m. on May 1st, Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson blasted away from the start line in Brescia. After an early dice with Eugenio Castellotti's Ferrari, Moss set up and maintained a furious pace, completely reliant on Jenks' hand signals to warn him of impending dangers.
A complete lap of the event was an epic 922 miles. But as practice for the race was broken down into chunks, this was the team's first try at knitting it all together and putting their tactical ideas into action. At speeds often exceeding 160 mph, the SLR tore across the picturesque Italian countryside, eventually crossing the finishing line ten hours after it had left Brescia. Its average speed of nearly 98 mph was never beaten.