• Rewind to ... 1954

A little bit of history repeating

Laurence Edmondson August 11, 2014
Juan Manuel Fangio cruised to victory at the Mercedes W196's first outing at Reims © Getty Images

Chests tightened and jaws dropped when Mercedes rolled its three streamlined W196s into the Formula One paddock at Reims in early July, 1954. The Germans' return to grand prix racing had been anticipated, but nobody had prepared for such a thoroughly radical design - indeed, Ferrari was still running a modified version of its Formula 2 chassis.

The comeback had been meticulously planned and it coincided with a new 2.5-litre engine formula that had been announced by the governing body back in 1951. The Mercedes engineers had two and a half years to build the car, allowing them to enter the sport on equal terms with the existing teams which also had to build new engines. Leading the return was the iconic team principal Alfred Neubauer, the same man who had overseen Mercedes' great rivalry with Auto Union before the war.

Although Mercedes skipped the first two races of the season, it was worth the wait as the car that appeared in France was unlike any other in the history of grand prix racing. The streamlined bodywork and space frame chassis made its rivals look like oversized Dinky toys; even the now legendary Maserati 250F looked inferior next to the W196. New fuel injection technology was taken from Mercedes' 300 SL sportscar and used to produce a high-revving, straight-eight engine that pushed out an impressive 257bhp - roughly 30bhp more than the 250F's straight-six.

The Mercedes power away from the field at the start of the 1954 French Grand Prix © Getty Images
On the long straights of Reims it dominated, with No. 1 driver Juan Manuel Fangio recording an average speed of 118.6mph on his way to victory by one second from team-mate Karl Kling. The whole operation was on a different level to its rivals and contemporary race reports said the Mercedes duo "looked as if they were on a demonstration run". The Daily Express resorted to using military analogies to describe the ruthless efficiency on display in the pits ahead of the race.

"The Mercedes team was run from the pits today with fantastic discipline and organisation," read the French Grand Prix report. "Under manager Dr. Alfred Neubauer, mechanics and drivers worked like a military unit. Up to the last minute, when the 23 cars roared away from the starting grid, the Mercedes pits sounded like an army barracks as order after order was snapped out and obeyed at the double."

But that's not to say the car was faultless. At the next race at Silverstone the streamlined bodywork made it difficult for the drivers to place the car in corners, and even the great Fangio found himself making mistakes.

"I sat so low I could not see my wings or how near I was to clipping the marker tubs," he said after the race. "So three or four times I did hit the tubs and dented both wings. Then, after about 50 laps, the gear lever would not stay in third and fourth gears. I had to hold it in with my right hand and drive with my left. All this held me back, but I am not making excuses, I lost the race."

Alfred Neubauer (wearing a hat) gives his new driver Stirling Moss some orders during a winter test at Hockenheim © Getty Images

Mercedes had already anticipated Fangio's problem and for the next round at the Nurburgring an easier-to-drive, open-wheeled W196 chassis was ready. Fangio used it to great effect, winning both the German and Swiss Grands Prix, before reverting to the streamlined chassis for the high-speed Italian Grand Prix at Monza which he also won.

By the end of 1954 the W196 had won four of the six F1 races it entered and Fangio was the world champion. But Mercedes wasn't content and immediately set about addressing the problems it had experienced in its debut season. It also employed British rising star Stirling Moss, making him a firm No. 2 to Fangio. Moss was immediately impressed with the Mercedes, which was being fine-tuned to be as reliable as possible.

"The car had drum brakes and in Argentina, which was our first race, we were told to warm them up before the first corner otherwise they would crack," he said. "Of course if a drum brake fails it locks on, which is usually very bad, but Mercedes had it covered. There were four buttons in the cockpit and each one went to one of the four wheels. You'd press a button for the corresponding wheel and it would let out a slight amount of oil to loosen the brake. It's not an ideal solution, but it's a hell of a lot better than having a locked on wheel. Things like that were so impressive. They were so efficient, so efficient."

Stirling Moss won the 1955 British Grand Prix in a Mercedes W196 © Getty Images

By 1955 the reliability of the W196 was unparalleled. Fangio retired from just one race all season (the Monaco Grand Prix due to transmission failure) and won in Argentina, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, while Moss won in Britain. Nothing was left to chance and every reliability issue was confronted and rectified, often in time for the very next race.

"The same problem would never happen twice," Moss explained. "For instance the tiny air deflector windscreen broke at Monza when a stone hit it, and going round the banking the force of the air meant I had to hold onto my hat - it was impossible to carry on. So the first thing I did was go into the pits pointing at a non-existent windscreen and 39 seconds later I went away with one fitted. That was pretty damn impressive, but even more impressive was that the next time I got in the car you could just push a button and a replacement screen flicked up. It was fantastic."

However, the W196 never raced in Formula One again. At the end of 1955 Mercedes decided to withdraw from all motorsports after its involvement in a horrific accident at Le Mans. As a result the W196 retired at its peak with a 75% win record over two seasons.