1939: Double victory in Tripoli

  • The 1.5-litre W 165 “Silver Arrow” was developed specifically for Tripoli – in a record time of just eight months
  • Hermann Lang achieved his third Tripoli victory, just ahead of Rudolf Caracciola
The winner Hermann Lang in a 1.5 liter W 165 "Silver Arrow"

The winner Hermann Lang in a 1.5 liter W 165 “Silver Arrow”

Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola outclassed the competition with a double victory in the completely new Mercedes-Benz W 165 1.5-litre racing car at the Tripoli Grand Prix on the Mellaha circuit on 7 May 1939. The triumph in Libya was particularly significant because the Italian motor sports association, who were organising the Grand Prix, had intended to impede the successful German formula racing cars by changing the rules. Following three victories by the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows (Caracciola 1935, Lang 1937 and 1938) and a race won by the Auto Union (Achille Varzi 1936), they announced that the 1939 season Tripoli Grand Prix would be for the voiturette class of 1.5-litre racing cars only. Mercedes-Benz reacted with sporting ambition, developing the completely new racing car W 165 specifically for this class in less than eight months – and Lang and Caracciola seized victory.

German Grand Prix on the Nürburgring, July 23, 1939. From the left: Hermann Lang, racing director Alfred Neubauer and Rudolf Caracciola, who was to win the race

German Grand Prix on the Nürburgring, July 23, 1939. From the left: Hermann Lang, racing director Alfred Neubauer and Rudolf Caracciola, who was to win the race

When he sat in the new Mercedes-Benz W 165 Silver Arrow for the first time in April 1939 at the Hockenheimring, Hermann Lang was completely thrilled: “Goodness me, the little athlete could go! You’d hardly got into one gear before you were switching to the next,” the racing driver recalls in his autobiography „Vom Rennmonteur zum Meisterfahrer“ (“From racing mechanic to master driver”), published in 1952, as he reminisces on his premiere in the monoposto with its 1.5-litre V8 engine, which had been kept under wraps by its developers up to that point.

The seemingly impossible made possible

The two 1.5 liter W 165 "Silver Arrows" conquered the lead right from the start. Hermann Lang, who went on to win the race, with start number 16 ahead of the car with start number 24 in which Rudolf Caracciola finished in second place

The two 1.5 liter W 165 “Silver Arrows” conquered the lead right from the start. Hermann Lang, who went on to win the race, with start number 16 ahead of the car with start number 24 in which Rudolf Caracciola finished in second place

The engineers of the Stuttgart brand developed the vehicle in the record time of just eight months for a single race, the 1939 season Tripoli Grand Prix (Gran Premio di Tripoli), which took place on 7 May on the Mellaha circuit. Rudolf Caracciola, for whom Lang had become strong competition during the 1939 season, highlighted the racing and development division’s outstanding achievement in his 1958 memoirs, „Meine Welt“ (“My World”): “Engineers, mechanics, the entire technical staff, they all applied themselves enthusiastically to the challenge posed, and they rendered the seemingly impossible possible: within the space of eight months, they created a 1,500 cubic centimetre racing car!”

Hermann Lang won the race at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz W 165 racing car

Hermann Lang won the race at the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz W 165 racing car

The Stuttgart brand’s announcement that two Mercedes-Benz 1.5-litre racing cars would start at the Tripoli Grand Prix came as a complete surprise to the international public – and particularly to the event organisers and other competing racing teams. Even the racing world had not considered such an achievement possible.

Winning streak in Tripoli

Hermann Lang was considered a Tripoli specialist by Mercedes-Benz: in 1937 he started the race, the debut for the newly developed W 125, in 5th position and went on to win the Grand Prix ahead of Bernd Rosemeyer (Auto Union). Following the end of the 750-kilogram formula, Mercedes-Benz developed the W 154 Grand Prix racing car, with mechanically supercharged 3-litre V12 engine, for the 1938 season. Hermann Lang started the race in pole position in this vehicle and went on to lead the Mercedes-Benz triple victory ahead of his team mates Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudolf Caracciola.

Tripoli Grand Prix, May 7, 1939. Rudolf Caracciola finished in second place in a Mercedes-Benz 1.5 liter W 165 racing car

Rudolf Caracciola finished in second place in a 1.5 liter W 165 “Silver Arrow”

In 1939, Lang was again on the first row of the starting grid, although Luigi Villoresi, driving a Maserati, was the fastest in training. After a perfect start, the former racing mechanic from Stuttgart in the W 165 positioned himself at the front of the field. Halfway through the race he was already 1.5 minutes ahead of Caracciola in 2nd position, and the Mercedes-Benz racing drivers would go on to cross the finishing line in that order. Emilio Villoresi, driving an Alfa Romeo, attained 3rd place, finishing almost 10 minutes behind the victor.

Hermann Lang wins the Tripoli Grand Prix of 1939 ahead of Rudolf Caracciola in the newly developed Mercedes-Benz 1.5-litre W 165 racing car

Hermann Lang wins the Tripoli Grand Prix of 1939 ahead of Rudolf Caracciola in the newly developed 1.5-litre W 165 racing car

The double victory of rivals Lang and Caracciola marked the culmination of two strings of successes: Hermann Lang had won the Tripoli Grand Prix three times in three different Mercedes-Benz racing cars, and Mercedes-Benz had won the race with each of the four Silver Arrows, which dominated racing in Europe from 1934-1939. This series of successes was started by Caracciola in 1935, when he won the race in Libya, a former Italian province, in the Mercedes-Benz W 25.

The 1939 Mercedes-Benz W 165 Grand Prix racing car

Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix racing car W 165 of 1939, winner car of the Grand Prix of Tripoli on 7 May 1939

Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix racing car W 165 of 1939, winner car of the Grand Prix of Tripoli on 7 May 1939

Following the announcement of the rules for the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix in the autumn of the previous year, Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart made the decision to develop a completely new racing car for the 1.5-litre class. The development and construction of two vehicles took just eight months, from September 1938 to April 1939. The W 165 was similar in many of its design details to the Mercedes-Benz W 154, the 3-litre Grand Prix car that was introduced in 1938 and developed further for the 1939 season.

Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix racing car W 165 of 1939, winner car of the Grand Prix of Tripoli on 7 May 1939

Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix racing car W 165 of 1939, winner car of the Grand Prix of Tripoli on 7 May 1939

The new monoposto had a mechanically supercharged 1.5-litre V8 engine with a displacement of 1,493 cubic centimetres, which could achieve 187 kW (254 hp) at 8,000 rpm – the first V8 in the history of Mercedes-Benz. The short-stroke engine was configured for engine speeds as high as 9,000 rpm. The W 165, which achieved a top speed of 272 km/h (169 mph), was constructed on an oval tubular frame designed as a ladder frame with four cross-members. There were plans for streamlining, but in Tripoli the W 165 competed in its classic form with open wheels.

Mercedes-Benz racing driver Hermann Lang

Hermann Lang was born in Stuttgart on 6 April 1909. He began his career as a racing driver on a motorcycle. In 1927, whilst still a trainee mechanic, he won a race on the Solitude circuit in Stuttgart. In 1933, he was employed as a technician by the Mercedes-Benz racing and test division. Occasionally he was allowed to warm-up the brakes of the 750-kilogram formula cars, and this revealed his talent as a driver. In 1935, he started in the international Eifel race in a Mercedes-Benz W 25 and achieved 5th place. Following his promotion to reserve driver, he gained his first experience on the Mellaha course in training laps in Tripoli in 1936, although he didn’t take part in the race. In 1937, Hermann Lang won the two fastest races in the world, the Tripoli Grand Prix and the Avus race in Berlin. During the 1938 season, he continued to strengthen his position in the Mercedes-Benz racing division with a repeat of his success in Tripoli as well as a 1st place in the Coppa Ciano. Together with Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudolf Caracciola he made up the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows driving trio that was feared by the competition, seizing numerous victories and track records for the brand. In 1939, he secured the European Hill Climb Championship and was the most successful driver in the Grand Prix European Championship, although the championship title was not awarded in 1939 because of the outbreak of war. After the end of the Second World War, Hermann Lang continued his racing career. Lang celebrated his great comeback with the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing sports car (W 194). In 1952, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans together with Fritz Riess and was victorious in the Nürburgring Jubilee Prize for Sports Cars. He also achieved 2nd place in the Bern Prize and the Carrera Panamericana (with Erwin Grupp). Following the European Grand Prix in August 1954 in the Mercedes-Benz W 196 R, Lang ended his racing career and worked as a Mercedes-Benz customer service supervisor until his retirement. Hermann Lang died on 19 October 1987 in Bad Cannstatt.

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