Magic moments in motorsport: the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows

Automotive history Motorsport
Mercedes-Benz W196 with open-wheel bodywork (The Car Expert)

For decades, in the motorsport industry, colours were given to racing cars based on their country of manufacture. For instance, here in the UK we had the classic British Racing Green while Italians raced in that instantly recognisable red colour Rosso Corsa, that they are still well-known for today.  The colour for all racing cars from Germany was white, not the better-known silver that is usually associated with Mercedes-Benz and other German racing cars.

Mercedes and Benz were once rivals

In November 1909, the famous ‘Blitzen’ Benz smashed speed records at Brooklands in the UK.  At the 1914 French Grand Prix, which is considered to be the last great gathering of racing cars and drivers from the Edwardian era, rival manufacturer Mercedes took the top three finishing positions. In the 1920s, Mercedes and Benz merged their companies together, although their racing cars were still painted the traditional white of Germany.  It wasn’t until 1934 that something happened to change this standard national colour-coding forever.

Mercedes-Benz W25 Silver Arrow

Mercedes-Benz W25

The birth of the legendary Silver Arrows is said to have come about by circumstance, when the international governing body of motorsport introduced a maximum 750kg weight limit for all Grand Prix cars. The new Mercedes-Benz W25 was placed on the scales at the famous Nürburgring before a race and allegedly weighed 1kg over the maximum weight.

To get the cars under the weight limit, the team manager had the idea to remove the white paint from the car, sanding it back to a bare matte aluminium finish. After an all-night battle to complete the job, the finished car just passed through the weight restrictions and went on to win the race.  The legend of the Silver Arrows was born.

Throughout its racing life, the Mercedes-Benz W25 was upgraded and developed, and the engine grew from a 3.4-litre to a 4.3-litre straight-eight, and even a V12-engined model.  In 1937, the W25 was replaced by the new W125, with a supercharged straight-eight engine producing over 600hp, which is about the same as a current Formula 1 car.

Mercedes-Benz W125 Silver Arrow

Mercedes-Benz W125

Tyre wear was just as big a problem back then as it is now, meaning that because of the cars’ extreme speed and the heat that they were often racing in, the teams needed to have a carefully formulated tyre strategy, just like today. The Mercedes-Benz drivers back then raced rather conservatively, aiming for just one tyre change throughout a race. Mercedes completed the 1937 Grand Prix racing season with the W125, winning 54% of the races and claiming the top four positions in the championship.  It has long been recognised that both Mercedes-Benz and the other powerful German team, Auto Union, enjoyed considerable financial support from Germany’s National Socialist government that allowed them to dominate this era.  Between them, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union won more than 90% of the races held during that era.

After the war, Mercedes-Benz returns

During the 1930s, the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows racked up a long list of Grand Prix wins. The German manufacturer’s involvement in motor sport was then curtailed due to the outbreak of the Second World War. But in 1954, Mercedes-Benz spectacularly returned to the world of Grand Prix racing with the new Silver Arrow called the W196, which featured advanced technology and sleek ‘streamliner’ bodywork.

Mercedes-Benz W196 Streamliner

Mercedes-Benz W196 Streamliner

The W196 featured a swing axle and repositioned brakes. It was also the first car in the history of Grand Prix racing to introduce Bosch direct fuel injection, which until then, had mainly been used in the manufacture of wartime aircraft engines like the Daimler-Benz DB 601. The W196 was presented to a number of journalists early in 1954, where it was clear that the new Silver Arrow was vastly superior to its competition. This proved to be true when the car debuted at the French Grand Prix that year, and thousands of people bore witness to one of the most spectacular performances in the history of Grand Prix racing. Following in the footsteps of the pre-war Silver Arrows, Mercedes-Benz claimed a double victory in France.

For two seasons, the Mercedes-Benz W196 dominated Formula 1. It was one of the greatest cars in motor racing history, and was driven by two of the greatest drivers in history, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. Fangio won both the 1954 and 1955 championships, after which time Mercedes-Benz withdrew from Formula 1 until returning as an engine supplier in the early 1990s and finally with its own Silver Arrows team once again in 2010.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-Benz W04, Hungary 2013

Mercedes-Benz W04

Hayley Reeve is the Editor of a popular UK motoring blog. She also writes content for a variety of commercial motoring websites. You can read her growing collection of Mercedes-Benz articles over at the DDR Surrey Blog.

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