Many, many books were written about Mercedes-Benz's involvement in motor racing, covering different periods of time. Atlas F1's Mark Glendenning picked one off his shelf, covering the period before and after World War II. His verdict? George Monkhouse's "Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955" is a must to any racing enthusiast, old or young
"I was in New York when I heard the news of the Mercedes offer, on 22 November 1954. I was on my way to drive a Sunbeam in the American Mountain Rally and I had just called into Rootes' New York office when Ken Gregory telephoned with the details. It was such a fantastic opportunity I couldn't sleep that night just thinking about it. One word in my diary tells it all - 'Wow!'" (Stirling Moss, 'My Cars, My Career', p.109)
During the decades that stood either side of World War II, Mercedes almost single-handedly changed the face of motorsport in Europe. Rarely in any sport does a team dominate to the extent that Mercedes-Benz did at the height of their power, and it is rarer still for such a level of success to be sustained across an extended period. The team contested 72 Grands Prix between 1934 and 1955. They won 45 of them; frequently consolidating their victory with a 1-2 or 1-2-3. (In fact, at the 1955 British Grand Prix, they managed a 1-2-3-4!)
Mercedes-Benz were by no means invincible - Auto Union trounced them in 1936, and the aging pre-war cars that the team took to Argentina in 1951 were unable to match the newer, more nimble Ferraris. These proved to be no more than blips on an otherwise awesome record, which was significant not just for extent of the team's triumph, but also for the way that they went about the business of winning motor races.
The team set about their tasks with a level of organisation and efficiency that was previously unseen in motorsport. Indeed, it has never really been matched since. Led by the renowned team manager Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes-Benz went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they were ready for every possible eventuality. Stirling Moss remembered his first test with the team thus:
"What really impressed me was that as I clambered out of the car, rummaging in my pockets for a handkerchief or rag to wipe my face, a mechanic suddenly appeared, bearing hot water, soap, a flannel and a towel! Out there in the middle of the desolate Hockenheimring this was forethought I could hardly credit. I thought then that to be associated with such an organization could not be bad..." ('My Cars, My Career', p. 109)
Journalist Denis Jenkinson, who also experienced Mercedes efficiency first-hand during his stints as Moss's passenger during the 1955 and 1956 Mille Miglia races, wrote:
"I know much has been written about the great Mercedes-Benz racing team, but they really did have things well weighed-up, whatever one might think. The number of times I heard a driver suggest that something was not right and they ought to try this, or they ought to try that, only to receive the polite reply that 'we have tried that and the results were...', turning the pages of the ever-present detailed log book of work and experiment." ('The Racing Driver', p. 56)
George Monkhouse, the man responsible for all the words and most of the photos in 'Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955' (published by White Mouse Editions), first came into contact with the team when he found his way into the pit area during the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in 1936. In the months that followed, he became friendly with the team principals, particularly Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who was largely responsible for technical development of the cars. (He also wrote the Foreword to this volume). Monkhouse went on to follow Mercedes-Benz with his camera through much of 1937, the same year that his friend Dick Seaman was enlisted as a driver.
The author's affinity with the team offers the reader a privileged insight into the workings of this great equipe. As the title suggests, 'Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955' restricts itself to the Grand Prix campaigns, so we miss out on Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, and the other categories of racing with which Mercedes was involved. Thankfully, though, the Grand Prix coverage is extensive.
Each year is traced through a race-by-race account of the team's fortunes, supplemented with special chapters exploring the drivers, the post-war recovery, and a particularly brilliant section that goes behind the scenes and sheds some light upon the day-to-day workings of the team during the 1930s. There are also photos and diagrams included to help the reader keep track of technical developments, including an x-ray drawing of each car that was driven in anger.
The extent of the technical information was quite adequate for someone like me, whose knowledge of such matters is fairly rudimentary, but I do wonder whether it will satisfy some of the more serious technophiles. Nevertheless, there are some charts that proved useful when comparing the technical elements of the various cars at a glance, such as a table that lines the technical specifications of each vehicle up side-by-side, and another that plots the various power curves.
Among the various bits and pieces included at the end of the book, my personal favourites were the period maps of the various circuits upon which Mercedes saw action. Besides early configurations of current Formula One mainstays such as Monza, Spa, Monaco and Silverstone, the reader is presented with the chance to explore the awesome Nurburgring (which shares little with the present circuit other than the name), Avus, Pescara, and Pau, among others.
Without doubt, though, the highlight of this book (and the element that justifies the cover price even without taking any of the other material, including the writing, into account) is the photography. The variety and quality of photographs in 'Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955' is impossible to fault. Everything is here - close ups of mechanical components, portraits of drivers and cars, candid moments captured both at and away from the circuit, and fantastic action shots. It's pointless trying to even pick favourites. I just wish I could afford three copies; one to keep and two to cut pictures out for framing.
The author recounts some absolute gems in the course of telling the story. I don't want to spoil the book by reprinting them all here, but I will indulge in a couple of particular favourites. The first concerns Alfa Romeo, who, having grown tired of being beaten by the Germans, decided to switch the emphasis of their 1939 program from Grand Prix to the 1.5 litre class. These voiturette races included some highly prestigious events, such as the Tripoli Grand Prix and the Ciano and Acerbo Cup. One can only imagine the mood in the Alfa pits when the following happened:
"...on May 7, 1939, barely six months after starting the design, two neat little silver cars shared the front row of the grid in the Tripoli Grand Prix with Luigi Villoresi's fully-streamlined Maserati and Farina's Type 158 Alfa Romeo. In all there were 30 1.5 litre cars, 28 of them Italian, the other two the unexpected and frankly unwelcome Mercedes-Benz Type W165s, driven by Lang and Caracciola. Outstripping the Alfa Romeos, which suffered overheating, and all the other Italian cars, the two Germans ran right away with the race..." (p. 87)
Things didn't always go the way Mercedes would like, though. Their visit to England in 1938 saw them beaten at Donington by Auto Union for the second year in succession.
"The organisers, the Derby & District Motor Club, gave a dinner party in Derby after the race, when Nuvolari 'ribbed' Mercedes, saying they would have to excuse him for beating them this time. 'Anyway, they have won quite enough and ought to be content. Perhaps if they made some new cars they would have more luck.' Neubauer practically choked with laughter at this, while Uhlenhaut leaned across to Dick Seaman and said 'Somehow we always have the best parties when we lose'" (p. 84)
Monkhouse is one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he makes no attempt to disguise his regard for Dick Seaman. That Seaman was such a close friend of the author's suggests that this should be no great surprise, particularly when one considers that there is probably a strong element of patriotism thrown into the mix for good measure. And certainly, the author's access to Seaman is responsible for some of the most engaging material in the book.
It's a shame, though, that the reader is not treated to the fruits of first-hand contact with some of the other drivers to the same degree. The author must, at the very least, have been acquainted with the other men behind the wheel. This is particularly true of the pre-war roster, which featured such names as Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Fagioli and Lang. Their thoughts on the events of the time would have made for brilliant reading; sadly, for the most part it is not to be, at least where this book is concerned.
It's only a tiny criticism, though, and measuring it against the quality of the rest of 'Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955' renders it virtually insignificant. This is a special book, and it is the perfect way to mark the special occasion of Mercedes's 100th birthday. For what it offers, it is also very attractively priced. Maybe you'll re-read the whole thing from time to time, more likely you'll just flick through for one more look at the superb photos. Either way, this is one of those books that you'll keep forever.