Reflections at Silverstone on legendary Mercedes racing
When I was a kid, Eddie Rickenbacker was a boy’s perfect hero—World War I fighter pilot (America’s Ace of Aces), prewar racing hero, postwar owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The moment in his life that still lingers with me, though, was November 11, 1918. At exactly 11 a.m., the instant WWI ended. Against orders, he flew his SPAD above the Western Front to watch as the German and Allied soldiers slowly climbed from their tired trenches, hesitantly intermingled, and finally embraced. He was the War to end all wars’ only aerial witness. And I’ve been fascinated by people who’ve had a rare view of the world ever since.
So when the middle-aged gentleman next to me introduces himself, I glance through his thin-framed glasses into his eyes. “Good to meet you. I’m Bernd Mayländer” he says. “Good to meet you, too,” I smile.
For 20 years, he’s been Formula 1’s Safety Car driver, belted in and ever-ready to roar out of the pits to buy time for corner workers to sweep up scattered carbon fiber or crane away a wounded car. For the last three years, his view—which is usually of the befeathered front wings of Hamilton’s or Sebastian Vettel’s nosecones surging in frustration—hasn’t been on any TV monitor. It’s reflected in his AMG-Mercedes GT R’s rearview mirror. Nobody sees Formula 1 quite the way Bernd Mayländer does.
We chat at one of the tables in Exhibit Hall 1 at Silverstone for Mercedes’ blowout, 125 years in motorsports. Surrounding us are a mix of journalists and prominent Mercedes-Benz figures; Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG Petronas CEO Toto Wolff are in back. White-haired Hans Hermann—at 91, Mercedes’ oldest living driver-icon—is regaling his tablemates. An announcer regrets that Stirling Moss isn’t here, but everybody’s thinking about him. I’m sensing that this really isn’t so much a PR program as our simply tagging along to a multigenerational family reunion.
At a table somewhere behind me is five-time DTM champion Bernd Schneider. Two days before and 600 miles (965 km) to the east, it was Schneider’s eyes that were watching me through the rearview mirror of a very different GT R. Before Silverstone, Mercedes let us sample the super coupe’s latest, screwballiest incarnation, the AMG GT R Pro, in its native Hockenheimring habitat. At one point, Schneider keyed his walkie-talkie with one hand while steering with the other, and, of course, watching in that mirror, too. “I’m taking an unusual line to avoid the puddles. Try to follow me.” How about I just see you? I was half-blind in his plume of mist. My car’s stability control was on, but the car was still wagging its tail anyway on the exit’s glistening wet curbs. You literally couldn’t be too delicate with the throttle; if your right foot’s big toe presses its shoe’s insole, the tail hopped sideways.
If the AMG GT R is Mercedes’ 911 Turbo, the Pro would be its GT3 RS. Although its powertrain and unit body are the same, Mercedes engineers have shaken the Champagne bottle to pressurize its performance with adjustable shocks, a hollow rear anti-roll bar, a carbon-fiber front one (both adjustable), squirmless Uniball bearings on the rear upper A-arms, a carbon-fiber stiffener bolted under the rear floor, and carbon-shell seats. The cockpit’s appropriated several modernized features of the AMG GT 4-Door, including its 12.3-inch instrument and 10.3-inch infotainment displays, a sweet new center console of touch-sensitive buttons, and its elegant steering wheel with touchpads and performance mode switches. And it’s all gift-wrapped in a big chin splitter, fender air extractors, stripes licking over the top and sides, and as its bow on top, a dandy rear wing (complete with a Gurney lip). A lucky 150 recipients will receive these track-day terrors at a mere $240,000 USD a pop. Order yours now.
As our dinner plates are placed before us, I ask Mayländer which are his favorites Grand Prix venues. “Here, Silverstone—because it’s so fast. Suzuka. Interlagos. Spa.” I’m surprised by Interlagos and expected Spa to be the very first one he’d mention. Surrounding all our tables is a pocket museum of Mercedes’ crown jewels of racing history. Team manager Alfred Neubauer’s famous pit boards. Nearby, the helmet Juan Manual Fangio wore as he splashed his Mercedes W196 Formula 1 car to victory at the 1955 Argentinian GP hangs like a religious relic. Through its plexiglass visor, Fangio’s gun-metal eyes saw racetracks reel by faster than anyone of his generation. El Maestro—The Master—won an unbelievable 46 percent of the Grand Prix he started. Nearly every other race.
Over there, near the corner of the room, is a gigantic 1909 21.5-liter Blitzen Benz. A tall, white, ancient tombstone of a car, with huge chain sprockets and exhausts like four black elephant trunks reaching down its left side for peanuts somewhere behind it. This one was assembled in the 1930s from parts from two cars, so its story is a puzzle of pieces of forgotten origin. However, its nickname, “Blitzen Benz,” is known to have been coined by Americans as a carnival barker come-on to attract crowds to its popular speed runs. Barney Oldfield did 131.4 mph (211.5 km/h) at Daytona Beach in 1910. Eddie Rickenbacker’s eyes saw 134 mph (216 km/h) a decade before his hawklike stare would watch 26 enemy aircraft fall out of the sky after crossing the path of his machine gun’s sites.
Farther along are eerie artifacts of engineering brilliance from an era of human darkness. On January 28, 1938, Rudolph Caracciola’s eyes probably didn’t have their usual happy arcs as they strained within the tiny plexiglass bubble atop his W125 streamliner as it projectiled down the closed A5 autobahn. Wind thundered around the canopy as Caracciola’s eyes saw 268.9 mph (432.7 km/h) through a measured mile—a public road record that would stand for another 80 years. Later that same day, his rival, Bernd Rosemeyer, tried to beat it in his mid-engine Auto Union but was brushed by a sidewind and fatally tumbled off the road at 250. For such a giant car, the W125 has only two small nostril air openings because its engine was actually cooled by ice; its absurdly long and tapering tail is now extending out from behind the table of guests to my right.
At the table ahead of it, Hans Hermann sits grandly. When you can, Google his name. Your screen will fill with black-and-white images from one particular second of 1959. Hermann is on his hands and knees on the AVUS race track’s surface (part of another autobahn, near Berlin), his goggled face looking up at the BRM he’s just fallen out of as the car disintegrates overhead. Has anyone else ever seen their own crash like that?
And corralled all around us are examples from Mercedes’ three epochs of Grand Prix cars. As lore has it, the famous color of the 1930s “Silver Arrows” originated when a car’s white paint (Germany’s original racing color) was sanded down to the aluminum to meet a race’s minimum weight. These cars’ shapes are iguanalike, heavily louvered, with snaking exhausts that slither out of the engine compartment and low along the side. The intimidating red numbers on their flanks only adds to the menace. As two of them lapped Silverstone earlier today, they looked like giant-caliber bullets, sirening to 8,000 rpm gearshifts and crackling repeated downshifts into the corners.
The 1950s Fangio and Moss–era W196s are aluminum skinned, too, but now painted silver, with engineered air ducting instead of those prewar cars’ louvers that simply leaked hot air through their bodywork. These are flatter, square-shouldered cars—masculinely handsome—powered by straight-eights with desmodromic valves, its block canted over to lower their center of gravity. In 1976, I was among a handful of people watching Fangio shake down a W196 at the defunct Ontario Motor Speedway in preparation for an exhibition race at the first Long Beach Grand Prix (for Formula 1). As he climbed in, tanned and fit at 65 in a polo shirt while positioning his goggles, he and the W196 seemly made of the same DNA. Both dense and compact, neatly tailored and supremely confident. Lewis Hamilton did some laps in the W196 at Silverstone, and it was a time-warp contrast—another dominating five-time World Champion, tattooed with earrings. I wonder what Juan would have thought.
Along the wall of glass windows overlooking Silverstone’s pits are the modern-era Formula 1 Mercedes. In fact, an example from 10 consecutive years, 2010 to 2019, all in a row. The first one, driven by Schumacher, was painted a dull gray. Niki Lauda insisted on painting them silver; the painters said that would weight too much (here we go again), then Lauda insisted again (he owns 10 percent of the team). So they came up with a lightweight paint what they’ve ingeniously named Sterling Silver. If the 1930s cars have the primal intimidation of wartime weapons and the ’50s cars are sunny and Cary Grant classy, our eras are plumb ugly to my eyes: chaotic messes of insect snouts and arthritically twisted airfoils imposed on the cars by tight rules and the imperative of aerodynamics.
During a tour of Mercedes AMG Petronas factory in Brackley, England, we came across a mechanic assembling the current car with its drivetrain—the heart of Mercedes’ Grand Prix domination—exposed and half-apart. Wow, the mighty Mercedes on an operating table, its guts for all to see. I positively blanched peering into it. If these cars are praying mantises on the outside, here within is astonishing sculpture. Its gleaming, delicate tendons of structure spear through the cam covers; the surfaces of the tiny, intricate block are 1.6 liters of artwork. Engineering can have its unique style. Release the clamps of the bonnets, and the engine bays of those Mercedes ’30s and ’50s cars look like jumbled, industrial plumbing. The parts have dull finishes because their only intention is horsepower-making on their insides. Nothing else matters. This looks like the gleaming structural delicacy of a space probe at JPL.
The next day we were back at Silverstone and quickly divided into groups. Mine was directed down into the garage and its cacophony of mechanics rapping air guns and revving engines to warm them for hot laps. I’m handed a driving suit and shoes. “Go in there and put these on,” I’m told. I don’t know what’s going on, but I close the dressing room curtain and change. Coming out, I’m handed a helmet. “Let me help you with the HANS device.” I’m getting very nervous. “Get in that car.”
That car is a Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM machine—externally, a slammed and aero-modded C-Class coupe, inside, a carbon-fiber tub powered by a 4-liter AMG V-8. I rope my way through its rollcage into the tight passenger seat. Arms reach in and start yanking down hard on shoulder belt straps. “Tell me when it’s hard to breath.” There’s already a driver in the car, but my HANS device limits my twisting to see him. I hear disconnected voices in my helmet’s communication system, but who’s saying them? “Ready?” I’m asked. “Yep,” I say and give a thumbs-up, too, just to be sure.
As the car grapples for traction out of the pits, I’m glancing over at this guy. White driving suit with two lime green stripes. Silverstone is famously fast, and the g’s from this car’s downforce are seriously pushing me around, but I try to lean to my left some more. His shoes are moving fluidly over the pedals like a ballet dancer’s feet in slow motion. The car is slightly understeering, but his gloved hands are twisting the wheel calmly and certainly. “You OK?” he asks. Despite seeing the braking point coming, I’m still jerked into the belts, my helmet embarrassingly tilting down. “Yes, ah, great.” I know that voice. Christ, this is Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 driver, currently leading the World Driving Championship. I make a mental note to remember all this stuff the next time I figure eight a car around our parking lot traffic cone course.
We veer off the racing line, thread into the pits, and stop. Those hands reach in and release me from the belts that weren’t too tight after all. I twist toward Bottas. “Thank you. That was really great!”
“You’re welcome!” his blue crystal eyes are genuinely friendly.
Last year, they watched his teammate clobber him in an indistinguishable car, winning 11 Grands Prix to his goose egg. My guess is that over the winter break, Bottas’ eyes spent a lot of time staring into a mirror. So far this season, he’s won two out of four.
The cars crowded all around Mayländer’s and my table are museum pieces, yes, but very different than anything in the Louvre. They’re touched by human stories and sometimes tragedies, can be described as engineering genius, seen as object beauty, and when fired up can animate our imaginations with their sounds and motion to bring us closer to years like 1910 and 1938, 1955 and 2019. But to me, maybe they’re really windows for our eyes to see life through. In the case of Rickenbacker, Caracciola, Fangio, Mayländer, and Bottas, the windows made by Mercedes-Benz have been like no others.