1938: Rudolf Caracciola wins the European GP Championship

The starting line-up for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938. Three Mercedes-Benz W 154 formula racing cars in the first starting row, from the left: Hermann Lang (starting number 26), Manfred von Brauchitsch (starting number 4), Rudolf Caracciola (starting number 12).

The starting line-up for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938. Three Mercedes-Benz W 154 formula racing cars in the first starting row, from the left: Hermann Lang (starting number 26), Manfred von Brauchitsch (starting number 4), Rudolf Caracciola (starting number 12).

  • 3rd place at the wheel of a W 154 in the Italian Grand Prix assures the works racing driver of the European Championship
  • In all, he claimed five European Championship titles for Mercedes-Benz in sports cars and racing cars

Following on from his successes in 1935 and 1937, Rudolf Caracciola became European Champion of the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) for the third time in 1938. One victory and two 2nd places in three meetings brought the title within reach for Mercedes-Benz’s chief driver of the time. In the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, 3rd place behind Tazio Nuvolari (Auto Union) and Giuseppe Farina (Alfa Romeo) was enough for Caracciola to take the championship in his Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow W 154.

In the spring of 1939, Caracciola was awarded the German Sports Badge in gold after the 29th International Motor Show in Berlin in recognition of his success. “I won the European championship for the fifth time,“ Caracciola noted contentedly in his memoirs. Prior to the three Grand Prix championships which he won with the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow models W 25 (1935), W 125 (1937) and W 154 (1938), he had claimed the European Hillclimbing Championship in the supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSK and SSKL sports cars back in 1930 and 1931.

A hard-won victory

In contrast to the present-day Formula 1 ranking system, under which the winner of a race is allocated the most points and the highest total score decides the championship at the end of the season, the opposite points system applied in the European Grand Prix Championship in 1938: the winner received one point and the other drivers from 2 to 7 points, according to their placings. 8 points were allocated for a no-show.

Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938.Hermann Lang (starting number 26) in front of a Mercedes-Benz W 154 Silver Arrow. Drawing by Karl-Friedrich Leibach.

Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938.Hermann Lang (starting number 26) in front of a Mercedes-Benz W 154 Silver Arrow. Drawing by Karl-Friedrich Leibach.

Following his victory in the third meeting, the Swiss Grand Prix on 21 August 1938, Caracciola held a clear five-point lead in the European Championship table. While his rivals from Auto Union and the other makes no longer posed a threat, his team colleagues still represented a challenge. Caracciola fought his way through the Grand Prix, although the faulty exhaust of his W 154 heated up the pedals dangerously, leaving him with painful memories of the race: “Despite asbestos insoles in my shoes, the gas pedal burnt a hole through the leather sole, the asbestos insole and the sole of my foot.”

Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938. Manfred von Brauchitsch shortly before the start.

Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938. Manfred von Brauchitsch shortly before the start.

Manfred von Brauchitsch, who had dropped out of the race, took over from Caracciola’s W 154 for several laps. The rules permitted such changes of driver, with the points going to the driver who started the race in the car concerned. Caracciola then returned to the fray and continued the race with due caution: “I climbed back on board, pressing the glowing hot gas pedal only with the very edge of my sole,” he recalled in his biography.

Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938.Rudolf Caracciola (starting number 12) in front of a Mercedes-Benz W 154 Silver Arrow. Drawing by Walter Gotschke.

Italian Grand Prix in Monza, 11 September 1938.Rudolf Caracciola (starting number 12) in front of a Mercedes-Benz W 154 Silver Arrow. Drawing by Walter Gotschke.

Rudolf Caracciola finished in 3rd place. With only 8 points, he was now well ahead of his team colleagues Manfred von Brauchitsch (15), Hermann Lang (17), and Richard Seaman (18). The Auto Union drivers shared 5th place with 20 points each. This triumph made Caracciola the last European Grand Prix Champion before the outbreak of the Second World War.

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