Mercedes W125 Silver star Telegraph

16 Feb 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »
Mercedes-Benz W125

Mercedes W125: Silver star

It took 40 years and turbo technology for any other Formula One racer to match the power of the 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125, seen by many as the greatest grand prix car ever built. The racing rule-makers of the day had made a mistake, thinking their imposed maximum weight limit of 750kg (1,653lb) would keep power and speed within reasonable bounds. They had no idea that German engineers had the ability to design a chassis that could cope with more than 600bhp, let alone a 5.6-litre supercharged straight-eight engine that produced such power.

But the engineers did exactly that, and this is the actual car driven by Britain’s ace grand prix driver of the era, Dick Seaman, in the 1937 Donington Grand Prix. For its 70th anniversary, it was brought over from Stuttgart to perform four demonstration runs at Donington for the VSCC’s SeeRed race meeting. I was asked to drive it and it proved to be an experience I shall never forget.

My feelings, waiting in a Donington pit garage, were of eager anticipation mixed with an appalling sense of responsibility. This thing is priceless. It is so precious that not even the directors of Mercedes-Benz are allowed to drive it, that privilege being restricted to the likes of Jochen Mass, John Surtees, Fernando Alonso and a certain Lewis Hamilton. And now me.

The W125 is tricky and it can’t be driven slowly, but I had previously tried it at the Goodwood Festival of Speed hillclimb, so at least its central throttle pedal, with the brake on the right, held no terrors. When the mechanics fired it up, with a hand-held external starter, the ear-splitting din drowned the noise of the unsilenced cars already on the track. It has to be warmed up on soft spark plugs, which are then changed for hard ones that can take the punishment of working at near-maximum effort. It has to be driven hard, however, or those hard plugs will foul up; and you can’t dither on and off the throttle either, as that will feed in too much fuel and drown them out.

With the track clear, I stepped aboard and sat down behind the large steering wheel, feet splayed out astride the transmission tunnel. This is a big car and I was comfortable in there, feeling quite small despite my 6ft 5in height. Gert Straub, the senior Mercedes-Benz engineer in charge of the car, asked if I was OK and I gave a thumbs-up sign as I raised my goggles, turned on the magneto switch and selected first gear. It fired up easily with a push-start and immediately the tail twitched out as the tall, narrow rear wheels spun instantly and the car blasted away down the pit road.

With as much power as many modern supercars but only half the weight, the performance is remarkable, yet my first feelings were of deep respect for the chassis. There’s more physical effort required than in most historic racing cars, but the steering geometry feels good and the basic handling of the car, with initial but not excessive understeer, gives a great feeling of security.

On those narrow tyres, its enormous Lockheed drum brakes give modest stopping power and it wasn’t long before I felt them locking for a split second, indicating that we were on the limit of braking ability. Outright stopping power wasn’t so important in 1937; what mattered with brakes was lasting the distance.

So far so good. I have braked, changed down with heel-toe action while double-declutching, and turned into a corner. Now I open the throttle, smoothly but deliberately: the engine roars, delivering a vicious mountain of torque, the wheels spin again and the tail slides out. It is violent and tricky, but the superb chassis is designed to handle all that grunt. Even so, it needs a bit of nerve to actually do it.

All that wheelspin is not wasted, however. You can overdo it, and wear out the tyres too fast, as Manfred von Brauchitsch did on the way to second place here in 1937, but if you put your foot down on the middle pedal at precisely the right moment, the W125 will rocket out of corners. The de Dion rear end and the tall tyres maintain enough traction to keep the throttle open and, gradually, the wheelspin dies away, the car straightens up and continues to eat up the road.

It felt immensely quick. I’m told I reached about 140mph on the straight before the chicane. When racing back in 1937, streamlined versions of the W125 achieved 211mph on the much longer straights of the Avus circuit.

Mercedes-Benz W125

Here at Donington, 70 years ago, Seaman was punted off into the trees on lap two. With no such threat behind me, I was able to coast back into the pits at the end, elated but immensely relieved.

Don’t mention the wall

How come a wretched journalist was allowed out in the W125? Well, it might be 70 years since this car first ran at Donington, but it’s also 30 years since Tom Wheatcroft reopened the circuit. I was then a works British Leyland driver, racing Broadspeed Triumph Dolomite Sprints in what is now known as the British Touring Car Championship.

Before its first 25-lap championship round, we hired the circuit exclusively and went testing there one Tuesday in August 1977. Late in the morning, descending through the Craner Curves at 120mph, I realised my experimental brake pads were overheated and not working.

When I hit the wall, made of two-ton concrete blocks, it hurt. The car stopped dead with the engine underneath it, hard up to the broken wall. My right shinbone had a couple of hairline cracks and it was six weeks before I could walk. But I could still drive just. A physiotherapist enabled me to win the race five days later.

Maybe they’d forgotten that accident when they let me out in the W125.TD

Mercedes-Benz W125
Mercedes-Benz W125
Mercedes-Benz W125

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