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The Donington Grand Prix - 1937


Volume 2

by Rodney Walkerley  
These were the fabulous machines which could top 190 m.p.h. on the long straights at Rheims and Spa and Pescara and which, on the twists and turns of the mountainous Nurburgring, scrubbed the tread from the tyres in 80 miles. On the starting line they weighed just over a ton, 75-gallon tanks filled to the brim to be emptied at the rate o 3 to 4 miles per gallon.

von Brauchitsch at Coppice CornerThis was the era of yet another Formula designed to reduce the speeds of road racing and which produced cars so fast that it has taken over 20 years to break their lap records. The size of engine was left to the designer's choice. His problem was to make a car, which weighed only 750 kg., about 141 cwt., with empty tanks and no tyres.

In their wisdom, the lawgivers, then as now, thought that such a maximum weight limit would reduce racing speeds by reducing the possible size of engines to something like 3 litres. That afternoon, four years after the Formula has been in operation, the Mercedes had eight-cylinder engines of 5.7 litres, developing not far short of 650 brake horse power, for a chassis weight of 141 cwt. and a total weight on the starting line of 21 cwt. The long stroke, supercharged engines, with four valves per cylinder, turned over at 5,800 r.p.m. By the way, that was the year the Mercedes had de Dion rear suspension for the first time, and set a vogue which has become a sine qua non on racing cars ever since.

The rivals, the Auto Unions, were the product of the German combine of Horch, Audi, DKW and Wanderer and were the un-orthodox design of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, whose name cropped up during the war with a less popular design, the heavy Tiger tank. The main feature of this remarkable car was a V-16 600 h.p., engine of just over 6 litres mounted behind the driver (who sat well forward in the nose) but in front of the back axle, behind which protruded the gearbox. The Formula I and 2 Coopers of today are rather like miniature reproductions, but the Auto Union of that year still retained swing axles at the rear. Both Mercedes and Auto Union used independent front suspension.

The deafening, deep-throated bellow of the 16-cilinder engines was like the sound of a diving aeroplane, sending a tingle down the spine.

Auto Union PitstopThat day the Mercedes team was led by Caracciola, already a hero in Great Britain because of his Tourist Trophy exploits and his battle at Le Mans against the Bentleys years before. During the war, no Nazi enthusiast, Caracciola retired to Switzerland and is now Swiss by naturalization. He abandoned racing after a bad crash at Indianapolis just after the war, at the wheel of an American car, the reason for which has never been truly explained, but he reappears as a spectator at many races and in 1958 drove a big 36-220 Mercedes open tourer in the event for historic vehicles at Le Mans.

No. 2 in the team was the ex-mechanic, squat, broadly built Hermann Lang, who was to become their most brilliant driver. He, too, returned to racing after the war with the Mercedes 300SL models, but the touch had gone. Their No. 3 was the ebullient nephew of a German general, young Manfred von Brauchitsch when last heard of, operating a transport business in Hamburg. Fourth man was the young Englishman Dick Seaman, who had accepted the invitation to join them after a meteoric series of successes with the 1927 1,500 c.c. straight-eight Delage. Dick was to win the German Grand Prix of 1938 and then, a few months after his marriage to Erica Popp, daughter of a B.M.W. director, he was killed while leading the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa the following year. The reserve driver was a young Swiss, but recently down from Cambridge, Christian Kautz. He, too, met his death at the wheel, driving a Maserati on the ill-fated Bremgarten circuit in his native Switzerland in the Grand Prix of 1948.