GREAT RIVALRIES: Mercedes-Benz vs. Auto Union

GREAT RIVALRIES: Mercedes-Benz vs. Auto Union

Formula 1

GREAT RIVALRIES: Mercedes-Benz vs. Auto Union

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The Four Rings versus a Three-Pointed Star; East versus West Germany long before the Wall went up; freelance flexibility versus the solidity of staff; and invention versus nth-degree convention. The Silver Arrows of a golden era: Auto Union versus Mercedes-Benz.

The latter was shocked when Adolf Hitler split the financial pot in 1933. It wasn’t the money – the annual governmental stipend covered barely one-fifth of its anticipated budget – it was the loss of face that hurt.

Mercedes-Benz was the jewel in the crown. Its large, well-made cars exuded confidence born of a proud history as old as the industry and burnished by motorsport success. Although this veneer wore thin on occasion, it saw it through tough financial times. Auto Union – the grit in M-B’s oyster – was a band bound in late 1932 by the threat of bankruptcy – Audi and DKW, merged in 1928, along with “newcomers” Horch and Wanderer. Yet it was persuaded to think big by one of Mercedes-Benz’s “own.”

The “Star” had lured Professor Ferdinand Porsche from Austro-Daimler in 1923. A free-thinking free spirit, he slipped its leash five years later: monolithic, monotheistic Mercedes-Benz would never have accepted this polymath’s radical P-Wagen. Though beyond the human and financial resources of Wanderer (the subject of Porsche’s initial approach in 1931) it was, however, within the compass of the Four Rings, a combo yet to finalize a doctrine.

Porsche had played a role in the creation for 1934 of the 750 Kilogram Formula [1653lbs] designed to codify grand prix racing after six seasons of Formule Libre. The basic idea was to limit performance to that of Alfa Romeo’s dominant monoposto Tipo B – approximately 215hp and 160mph.

Porsche, however, had another idea: a challenger unfettered by the strictures of tradition or marketing and capable of resetting the sport’s parameters. Bold talk of a quantum leap was music to a certain newly elected megalomaniac’s ears. Thus Mercedes-Benz had a rival – Der Fuhrer dictated it.

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P-Wagen turned the sport on its head. By placing its engine – a low-revving, narrow-angle supercharged V16 of large capacity – behind the driver but within the wheelbase, Porsche reduced weight by simplifying the drivetrain. With the same sweep of the pen he also reduced frontal area and polar moment of inertia. Less drag, faster acceleration and a higher top speed would therefore be allied to improved maneuverability, made more consistent by a centralized fuel load.

The Mercedes-Benz W25, fantastical by all other measures, was staid in comparison: a fastidious synthesis of old thinking – a front-mounted supercharged straight-eight – and new ideas and processes. Ironically, not only was it based on a scheme by Porsche, but also it was finessed by Dr. Hans Nibel and Max Wagner, engineers who arrived at Mercedes-Benz on the back of the remarkable 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen. This Zeppelin-shaped machine introduced the behind-the-driver engine layout, wind tunnel-verified streamlining, independent rear suspension (by swing axles), the transaxle and inboard brakes to grand prix racing. Nibel and Wagner, too close to see beyond its lack of success, craved the more structured, conservative approach of Mercedes-Benz, whereas their colleague Porsche stepped back and stepped away.

Mercedes-Benz undoubtedly scored over Auto Union in terms of experience, finance and structure. Even so, it was close competition in 1934. Though both cars suffered teething troubles, they had by the season’s end underlined German superiority. Mercedes book-ended the season with a win-on-debut at the Nurburgring’s Eifelrennen, having sagely refused to race its unready car at Avus the weekend before, and victories in the Italian and Spanish GPs.

Auto Union, however, prevailed at the year’s most prestigious race: the German GP. Its number one driver Hans Stuck (LEFT), the man long ago promised a world-beater by Hitler, also claimed the Swiss and Czech GPs, plus the German Hillclimb Championship – think spectacular mountain passes and peaks. His P-Wagen, now called Typ A (sic), though an unusual beast, was far from unmanageable. It was, however, outflanked.

On the tracks at least, Auto Union was swamped in 1935 by the revitalized effort of Mercedes-Benz: more horsepower, more manpower. The return to full fitness of the great Rudi Caracciola – he’d bust a hip at Monaco in 1933 and lost first wife Charly to an avalanche not long after – provided Mercedes with much-needed focus and calm; teammate Luigi Fagioli, meanwhile, continued to be fast and furious.

Auto Union had signed Achille Varzi, another moody Italian, and he, too, would become an increasingly unsettling presence as he fell under the shadow of morphine addiction.

Caracciola was crowned European champion, thanks to victories in Belgium, Switzerland and Spain, and Mercedes-Benz also won at Monaco and Tripoli, the Avusrennen and Eifelrennen, and the French and Penya Rhin GPs. Auto Union won just four races. The last of them, however, held great significance.

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Any preconception as to how a GP car should behave was a factor beyond Porsche’s control. What he needed was an untainted genius. Bernd Rosemeyer, drafted directly from the two-wheeled arena, was the final piece of the jigsaw. In only his second car race, at the Nürburgring of all places, he came within a mistimed gearshift of defeating Caracciola. His first success admittedly was achieved in the absence of Mercedes-Benz, but the narrow, 18-mile Brno road circuit in Czechslovakia provided a welter of hazards capable of tripping the incautious or untalented.

There was another underlying theme. Whereas the shrill W25 was approaching the end of its developmental tether, the basso profondo Typ B possessed plenty of scope. Porsche designed his original 4.4-liter with reliability rather than revs in mind – most major races were of a minimum 500km [311 miles] – but he left plenty of metal on its bone. For 1936, it ran to six liters, 520hp and 200mph.

Mercedes-Benz panicked. Its proposed 5.6-liter V12 was too heavy and a radically shortened chassis had to be retrofitted with a revised version of the old engine. An evil-handling mongrel, it was no match for Rosemeyer’s “Elephant.” Unaware that the latter’s car now benefited from a ZF limited-slip differential, and unwilling to endure the shame of defeat, mighty Mercedes withdrew after the German GP in July. It returned in August, got whipped once more and called it a season thereafter.

From this self-imposed chrysalis emerged the sensational W125. Mercedes-Benz had found its “Ferdinand Porsche” in Rudi Uhlenhaut, a young engineer/driver of great insight and panache. His switch to softer springs with a longer travel, more consistently and compliantly damped by hydraulics rather than friction, plus a double-wishbone front suspension controlled by interposed, exposed coil springs that set a long-held trend, proved of huge benefit when combined with a more rigid chassis that followed Auto Union’s tubular lead. These improvements made the most of a new (although still straight-eight) engine that extracted more than 600hp from increasingly exotic fuel brews.

Auto Union could not match this commitment for a single season (the 750kg era had been awarded a year’s stay of execution). The poor relation throughout, it was by necessity a lateral-thinking, multi-tasking special force, whereas Mercedes-Benz was a remorseless, advancing army of delineated roles learned by rote.
The increased complexity of the replacement 1938 formula – 3-liter supercharged for the front-runners and 4.5-liter normally aspirated for the back markers – played into the hands of Mercedes-Benz: high tech, high octane, high rpm. Auto Union even considered following its rival’s front-engined V12 lead: Not every board member was convinced by Porsche’s theories. He was, remember, an outsider headhunted by a company with four bodies of opinion.

The eventual Typ D retained the keynote layout, however, while softening some of Porsche’s cutting edges. The driver was placed further back in its frame and between low-mounted fuel tanks, and de Dion rear suspension – following the lead of Mercedes-Benz on this occasion – provided improved stability, particularly in a straight line, at the cost of independence. Like W125 and its successors, it was a basic understeerer, albeit with oversteer only a flex of the right foot away.

Had Rosemeyer not been killed during a record attempt on a windblown autobahn in January – the first major event following Porsche’s departure – Auto Union might have given Mercedes-Benz a real run for its money. Not until the July arrival of the great Tazio Nuvolari – the only driver worthy of “replacing” Rosemeyer – was it able to do so, once the Italian had familiarized himself with the required techniques.

He remained with the team for 1939, but generally played second fiddle to an ex-mechanic who had finally usurped Caracciola as the number one at Mercedes-Benz. Hermann Lang in an updated W154 was undoubtedly the fastest driver of a curtailed season. As such, he was widely proclaimed the European champion.

That Auto Union’s consistent Hermann Paul Muller, winner of the French GP, had fewer points – it was a complicated upside down system! – and should, therefore, have been so awarded is indicative of this rivalry: Mercedes-Benz conclusively won the PR battle for hearts over minds despite only edging the on-track struggle. It did not, however, win the war. Its thoroughness, expertise and skill, organization and execution, were marvels. But although a global conflict and the airy assertion that Auto Unions were tricky on the limit held back motorsport’s natural progression for a further 20 years, the fundamental correctness of Auto Union’s approach could not be denied.

For this writer, Four Rings beats Three-Pointed Star.