Glorious year 1955: Silver Arrows win a spate of victories
60 years ago, the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows were practically unbeatable throughout the entire racing season – in all the major classes of international motor sport: in 1955, the Stuttgart racing team with Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel of the W 196 R won the Formula 1 world championship for the second time running and achieved a triumph in the sports car world championship with the 300 SLR (W 196 S), while Werner Engel became European touring car champion in the 300 SL (W 198) production sports car. Major national titles were also won, for example victory in Class D of the US sports car championship.
The public and the motor racing world celebrated Mercedes-Benz for this uniquely successful season, as no manufacturer had previously dominated the international racing events of one year so comprehensively. This was due to a combination of innovative technology, a highly motivated team and meticulous planning and organisation. This attitude by the Mercedes-Benz racing team is aptly illustrated by one example: the legendary “Blue Wonder,” a 160 km/h fast racing car transporter developed by Mercedes-Benz in 1955 as a one-off for particularly urgent conveyance of racing cars between the factory, the racetracks, and for practice sessions.
1955: highlight of a glorious development process
The preparations for the triumphs by the Silver Arrows 60 years ago already began in 1952, when Mercedes-Benz re-entered the international racing scene with the 300 SL racing sports car and won numerous victories. The excitement grew dramatically in 1954, immediately after Mercedes-Benz had returned to Grand Prix racing, when Juan Manuel Fangio won the world championship by a wide margin at the wheel of the new W 196 Silver Arrow. In the 1955 season, Mercedes-Benz brought this development process to full fruition. Apart from Fangio it was above all Stirling Moss who shone in the new 300 SLR racing sports car.
The excellent results gave rise to great expectations for the 1956 racing season, however even before the 1955 season ended, the Executive Board of the then Daimler-Benz AG decided that until further notice, Mercedes-Benz would withdraw from motor sport after that season. The reason was the company’s accelerated development of new passenger car and commercial vehicle series. This meant that there was an urgent need for skilled personnel who were currently committed to the motor sport activities. After all, at the high point of the 1955 season the racing department employed more than 200 personnel and was able to call on other in-house specialists when needed.
The message was clear: the creativity, innovative strength and expertise of the engineers and technicians who had helped the Mercedes-Benz racing cars to achieve their victories were now to be devoted to development for series production. For the Silver Arrows, their drivers and the entire racing department, this meant saying goodbye to the world of international motor racing – at the height of their success and to tumultuous applause.
A mysterious new engine for the new Silver Arrow
It was already clear in mid-January that the 1955 motor sport season was likely to be a particularly successful year for Mercedes-Benz: improved even further since the 1954 season, the W 196 R competed in the Argentine Grand Prix in Buenos Aires, the first Formula 1 race in the 1955 calendar. Juan Manuel Fangio, world champion in the previous year driving a Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow, emerged as the winner of this hot, gruelling race in his home country after superhuman efforts. But Mercedes-Benz also had another appointment in Argentina: on 30 January, the Silver Arrows lined up at the start of the non-formula Buenos Aires Grand Prix. Fangio was the winner ahead of Stirling Moss, with Karl Kling taking 4th place.
In this race, the Silver Arrows were powered by a new three-litre engine which the engineers had developed from the 2.5-litre, eight-cylinder power unit of the Formula 1 racing car. This was the engine that came to be used in the new 300 SLR (W 196 S) racing sports car. However, this car with its muscular, streamlined bodywork, which was developed by Mercedes-Benz to win the battle for the world sports car championship, only had its official racing debut at the Mille Miglia three months later.
Series of world championship victories in Formula 1
In Formula 1 – as in the previous year – Mercedes-Benz placed its confidence mainly in classic racing cars with exposed wheels. All in all there were three different variants of the W 196 R body design for 1955 (the “R” stood for “Racing” to distinguish it from the sports car, which bore an “S” in its name). The major difference between them was the wheelbase. A fully enclosed racing car similar to the streamlined variant with which Mercedes-Benz had opened the 1954 racing season was not used until the Italian Grand Prix, the last Formula 1 race of 1955.
Following a moderate performance in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in Monaco (also the European Grand Prix), the Belgian Grand Prix began a breathtaking series of three double victories for Mercedes-Benz (each time with Fangio in 1st place) and a quadruple victory for the Silver Arrows in the British Grand Prix in Aintree, Lancashire, (Moss followed by Fangio, Kling, and Piero Taruffi).
This meant that after a disappointing start in Monaco, Mercedes-Benz won all subsequent Formula 1 races of the 1955 season. This is because the Grand Prix races in Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland were cancelled following the tragic accident during the Le Mans 24-hour race in June. Fangio won the Formula 1 driver’s title with 40 points ahead of Stirling Moss (23 points). This was the second world championship title in succession for the Mercedes-Benz racing driver and his W 196 R, and his third championship title overall.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR: the star of the 1955 racing season
The Mercedes-Benz brand itself did not win a title in the 1955 Formula 1 season, despite its outstanding success record (a total of five victories, four 2nd places and one 3rd place in seven races). This is because the drivers’ world championship title was awarded from the start in 1950, but the constructors’ championship was only introduced in 1958. This made the company’s commitment to the 300 SLR for the world sports car championship, where the title went to the most successful constructor, all the more important.
The new racing sports car, whose technology was closely related to that of the Formula 1 car, had its debut in the Mille Miglia. Stirling Moss with his co-driver Denis Jenkinson won probably the most gruelling road race of the era in the best time ever set in the Mille Miglia. It took the pair 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds to cover the distance of around 1,600 kilometres. This equates to an average speed of 157.62 km/h. Fangio, driving with no co-driver, crossed the finishing line in 2nd place just 31 minutes and 45 seconds later – likewise an outstanding performance. In this 1,000-mile race from Brescia to Rome and back, the Stuttgart-based brand also demonstrated that the sporting excellence of Mercedes-Benz cars extended from thoroughbred racing cars to regular production saloons: in addition to the overall victory by the 300 SLR, the production models 300 SL (W 198) and 180 D (W 120) were the winners in their respective classes.
After the double victory (Fangio ahead of Moss) in the International Eifel Race at the Nürburgring, the 300 SLRs were at the starting line for the Le Mans 24-hour race in June. Here the car driven by the blameless Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh was involved in the worst accident ever to have occurred in motor racing history. Out of respect for the victims and in consultation with senior management, racing manager Alfred Neubauer decided to withdraw the leading 300 SLRs from the race. This made the pressure to win the remaining races even greater.
Final decision in the last race
Indeed, in the International Tourist Trophy in Dundrod, Northern Ireland, the penultimate race of the world sports car championship, the 300 SLR triumphed by taking the first 3 places. What was still needed for the title were the points from the Sicilian classic, the Targa Florio. This was a heart-stopping final event, for Mercedes-Benz had only taken part in three of the five races conducted so far, and Ferrari was in the lead by a few points. The Mercedes-Benz team needed a victory to secure the title, and also needed to ensure that its competitors Ferrari and Jaguar only achieved a 3rd place at most. Even under this immense pressure, Mercedes-Benz was able to continue its series of victories and emerged triumphant with 1st place for Moss and Peter Collins, 2nd place for Fangio and Kling and 4th place for Desmond Titterington and John Cooper Fitch. This final success secured the title, and the Mercedes star of the racing department shone more brightly than ever before.