Mercedes’ proud history in Formula One

Nico Rosberg’s impressive victory in the Chinese Grand Prix was a hugely significant milestone for Mercedes-Benz. The company made a big investment in Formula One three years ago at a time when other car manufacturers were exiting the sport, and this victory helps justify the decision to focus their Grand Prix efforts as a constructor.

It was also an important historical landmark for Mercedes who have always been keen to promote their racing heritage. The German manufacturer has been winning Grands Prix since 1914 and dominated two World Championships in the 1950s with one of the sport’s most revolutionary cars. Those efforts, combined with legendary racing names such as Juan Manual Fangio and Stirling Moss, ensure Mercedes has a proud and popular history in Formula One.

The presence of the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time in the modern team compliments Rosberg’s well-deserved victory and gives Mercedes a fresh link to its glorious past.

Given the potent Formula One heritage associated with Mercedes, it’s incredible to think this is just their fifth season as a constructor. Prior to purchasing Brawn at the end of 2009, Mercedes had only entered two seasons in the Formula One World Championship. That’s only twelve races more than HRT.

Despite this, they are still one of the sport’s most evocative brands.

The early years

The Mercedes name was first used in 1901 by Daimler (then known as DMG) and the first racing car to carry the brand was built a year later. The early Mercedes cars, designed by Wilhelm Maybach, were entered in the first Grands Prix from 1906. Mercedes sponsored some privately entered experimental Grand Prix cars in 1913 before launching a very successful factory assault the following year. The company ceased racing in Europe during World War One but returned in 1934 to create one of motor racing’s greatest episodes.

Mercedes and Auto Union received Government funding throughout the thirties to ensure German teams dominated the world of motorsport. The result was some of the greatest racing cars ever built and, as previously detailed on, the two manufacturers completely revolutionised motor racing. Mercedes had the upper hand in its battle with the smaller Auto Union squad but was pushed hard to create cars that had more power and a higher top speed than those raced today and featured technology that took decades to replicate. The 1930s gave Mercedes a reputation for building supreme Grand Prix cars.

It was a reputation Mercedes cemented in 1954 when they entered for Formula One World Championship for the first time.

The World Championship

World War Two put an end to all international racing and even after the fighting had finished it was a long time before most German manufacturers returned to motorsport. However, Mercedes was in a surprisingly strong financial position in the early fifties and started entering some top level races with their old 1930s machinery.

In 1954 F1 bosses introduced new technical regulations to encourage more manufacturers to the sport and Mercedes jumped at the opportunity. They entered the World Championship with the spectacular W196 – one of the most incredible Formula One cars ever conceived.

The amazing W196

The Mercedes W196 was instantly striking and was unlike any other F1 car before it or since. If you look at any old black and white photos of a 1950s grid featuring the W196, you will recognise it instantly.

The car’s most distinctive feature was the beautiful streamlined body. Aerodynamic design was still in its infancy but Mercedes had previously spent a lot of time developing land speed record machinery and understood that closed wheels offered significantly less drag. The team exploited the rules that allowed this particular design.

Although the car’s appearance was totally unique the most revolutionary features could be found under the skin. The W196 was the first Formula One car to feature fuel injection. Mercedes had successfully used this technology in fighter planes during World War Two and transferred that across to their Formula One program. Nowadays fuel injection is standard across the entire motoring industry since it removes the need for carburettors whilst improving the engine’s horsepower and fuel efficiency.

Another remarkable development in the W196 was the introduction of desmodromic valves. These are piston valves that are closed by levers as opposed to metal springs, and are significantly more reliable than the springs which broke under heavy strain. The levers were lighter, but crucially allowed for higher revs which give Mercedes a notable power advantage.

Championship success

Mercedes made its World Championship debut partway through the 1954 season having missed the first three races developing the car. The team enjoyed instant success. Two of the three cars they entered in the 1954 French Grand Prix qualified first and second, and went on to finish the race in those positions with Juan Manual Fangio and Karl Kling behind the wheel. The third car driven by Hans Hermann set the fastest lap before retiring. It was a crushing victory on debut, a whole lap (more than eight kilometres) ahead of their nearest rival.

The W196 was so strong that it dominated the sport for two full years, winning both World Championships and nine of the twelve races it started. It was not just impressive thanks to its looks or its technology, but also thanks to the huge effort that Mercedes made developing the car.

The second Grand Prix for the W196 was held at Silverstone in 1954, and although the team was competitive, Mercedes did not win the race. The car suffered from handling difficulties and the drivers complained they could not steer accurately through the hay bale markers without being able to see the front wheels.

This was the only race the W196 failed to win due to outright speed alone. Mercedes acted fast and threw their resources into a new updated specification for the very next Grand Prix in Germany. They built an open-wheel version of the car to ensure they had a more versatile machine at their disposal.

Mercedes continued this rampant development and obsession with victory in 1955. The team knew their large powerful car was not well suited to the Monaco Grand Prix so built a new version of the W196 especially for that race with a shorter wheelbase. The revised design proved quick enough to win but was ultimately let down by reliability.

It’s amazing that Mercedes had such a dominant car, but still continued a massive rate of development. Their performances and results matched those from their dominant period in the 1930s.

Mercedes looked set to continue their run of victory long into the future before the team was struck down by the events of June 11 1955.

Motorsport’s darkest day

During the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hour race, Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes crashed into Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey sending the silver car skyward. Large parts of the Mercedes, including the engine and axle, broke free of wreck and sliced through the large crowd killing 82 spectators and injuring hundreds of others. The magnesium used in the car’s construction resulted in a huge fireball that also killed Levegh.

Racing drivers in the 1950s were expected to die but it was deemed unacceptable by many that large numbers of the innocent public were put at mortal risk. There were calls for motor racing to be banned outright and in many countries it temporarily was. The next four Grands Prix were cancelled as a result. Mercedes reacted to the disaster by withdrawing from all circuit racing. Their cars took part in one final Grand Prix, the only championship race that wasn’t cancelled in 1955 following the accident, after which they were locked up forever.

Mercedes-Benz’ incredible two year spell in the Formula One World Championship was over.

Nico Rosberg’s victory in China has been the first triumph since.

Modern Mercedes

Mercedes started an ongoing partnership with McLaren in 1995 which has given them a strong Formula One brand. However, the German manufacturer has gone to great lengths to promote its Grand Prix history since rejoining the sport as a constructor in 2010. The current Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team regularly makes reference to the ‘silver arrows’ moniker used throughout the thirties and fifties. The cars still carry red numbers on a white background, and the designation is the W03 – a homage to the traditional naming convention. Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher have also taken part in a wide range of promotional duties in the historic Mercedes fleet.

Nico Rosberg’s victory gives Mercedes a further chance to promote its proud history, which is remarkable for a constructor starting just its fifth season.

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