Formula 1 and Mercedes in the 1950s

1024px-Großer_Preis_von_Europa_-1954_Nürburgring,_Juan_Manuel_Fangio,_Mercedes_(3)xFormula 1 is offered a brief moment of reflection and perspective, though sometimes in the most tragic of circumstances. In Russia, under a heavy cloud of sadness and shock, Mercedes began their dignified and eerily quiet celebrations. Whenever the team looks back on its first constructors’ championship, their pit-board message to Jules Bianchi will act as a constant reminder of the fine line between victory and danger.

It seems remarkable that this is Mercedes’ first Formula 1 World Constructors’ Championship under the name of the German manufacturers. Built on the foundations of 2009 champions Brawn and the then-ailing Honda team, the role of supreme tactician Ross Brawn cannot be ignored. With superior engine power, a strong driver pairing and a chance to rule a new era of technology, Mercedes has been the dominant force of 2014, wrapping up the title with three races remaining.

The German national anthem – which sounds after each Mercedes win as a tribute to the manufacturers -has become a regular soundtrack to the season. Not even inter-team battles and driver rivalries could prevent Mercedes from beginning their reign as champions, taking this coveted position from Red Bull. Their factories are separated by mere miles and the title sometimes by hundredths of a second each race.

Mercedes’ return under their infamous name was questioned; especially when McLaren prodigy Lewis Hamilton left for pastures new with the team. Indeed, their championship win will certainly help silence the initial critics.  Their return to prominence comes at a time of great technological innovation, the V6 engine era and the end of Red Bull’s dominance.

Their last, and infamous, period of dominance was back in 1950s, the decade Juan Manuel Fangio made entirely his own with five historic championship wins. They enjoyed limited success in the 1930s but came to prominence with their famed Argentine champion. It is important to note at this stage that the Constructors’ Championship was not valid until 1958 when Vanwell won with Sir Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks at the helm, thus making the original Mercedes team ineligible for title victory during their first incarnation.

The 1954 German Grand Prix was a classic for both Fangio and his new team. The Argentine had joined the outfit midseason, winning six out of eight championship races in his first months with them. A home race for any team is a special occurrence but the ease of Fangio’s dominance would bring a greater feeling of excitement to the engine manufacturers.

He led all but two laps after a brief trip to the pits, even surviving the gruelling three hour, fourty-five minute race – a time only since surpassed by the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. The 1951 champion was poised and lined up on pole position with team mate Karl Kling not far behind. It was a grid that largely resembles that of a 2014 Grand Prix. Not in terms of car design or team presence, of course, but because the ‘Silver Arrows’ have become a regular fixture to the front row.

Just ten of the 23 qualifiers finished with the stresses and strains taking their toll on many drivers. However, this did not apply to Fangio or his pristine Mercedes as they charged to victory. With a gap of well over a minute to the second placed drivers – note the plural – Fangio’s dominance would be a source of great celebration in twenty-first century racing.

Incidentally, Mike Hawthorn and Jose Frolian Gonzalez are both listed in second place after a driver exchange on the 18th lap. Onorfe Marimon’s death in practice had shaken Gonzalez, one of few legitimate threats to Fangio’s second reign as champion. It was Hawthorn who finished the race but it was not enough as the great Argentine extended his title advantage to nearly double that of his compatriot.

“It’s the perfect car. The machine which every driver dreams about their whole life long,”was his comment about his W196 at the time, gushing about its seven wins that year.

1954 was the year of Mercedes’ first championship win in both the drivers’ and constructors’ divisions and their success continued into the following year. Fangio was a dominant force again with Moss a characteristic second place. It is a time of great bliss in a team’s life, a moment all the mechanics and staff strive for but sometimes to no avail.

However, such is the painfully uncertain story of Formula 1; their joy would not last forever. After one of the most disastrous crashes in motorsport history – the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June of that year – the team quietly left all competitive racing. It was a race that would cost the life of Pierre Levegh and an estimated 80 spectators. It further led to the cancellations of the French, German, Spanish and Swiss Grands Prix that year, signalling the end of the road for the works team. Their departure was swift and sudden.

Mercedes has enjoyed great success in its numerous outings but the 1950s remains their most prominent. They have battled severe hardships to return to the top, under the guidance of the sport’s elite. In 2014, the silver car was back on top with a fast German engine powering its every move. Let us hope they spare a thought for Fangio and the achievements that originally made Mercedes a prominent name in racing.

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