Featured: Reliving A Unique Piece Of Mercedes-Benz Racing History: Ayrton Senna's 190E 2.3-16

Reliving A Unique Piece Of Mercedes-Benz Racing History: Ayrton Senna’s 190E 2.3-16

Robb Pritchard By Robb Pritchard
April 1, 2020
1 comments

Photography by Dino Eisele c/o Mercedes-Benz Classic

The idea of 20 identical road-going Mercedes-Benz sedans racing together doesn’t sound all that interesting, even if was part of the inauguration of the newly opened Nürburgring GP Circuit in 1984. But with most of the living F1 world champions behind the wheel of said sedans, at least the first competitive event on the new circuit would be a high-profile PR exercise for the Stuttgart marque’s 190E 2.3-16.

The ’72 and ’74 F1 champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, couldn’t fill the seat with his name on it though, so a fellow Brazilian—just three races into his debut F1 season—was drafted in at the last minute to take over.

Without a single podium to his name at the time, let alone a championship title, Senna had even failed to qualify at the previous GP in San Marion. In essence, for the 190E demonstration race, Senna was brought onboard mostly to pad out the number of drivers. The absolute legends of the previous thirty years such as Alain Prost, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, and Jody Scheckter were the ones the crowd had come to see. But as many of you know, what actually happened on that soggy spring day in 1984 was a masterful display of car control in which a young Ayrton Senna out-drove an entire field of multiple and veteran world champion F1 talents.

Three of those 190Es from Mercedes are known to exist today, with a question mark over a fourth. John Watson’s car was converted back to a showroom-spec road car (the ones in the race were lightly modified production spec cars), while the second-place-finishing car driven by Lauda has survived in a nearly original state thanks to its private owners.

The prime example though is Senna’s winning car, which was retained by the factory and was wheeled into the collection the day after the race. More than three decades later, the cars that finished one and two were reunited on track for the very first time since their one race meeting, and I was privileged with the honor of taking the #11 for a drive alongside the #18.

It can’t be understated how important the W201 “190” model is in Mercedes-Benz’s long and illustrious history. Known in the preceding decade for their big luxury motorway cruisers, the executives in charge of the company’s direction wanted a smaller, sportier model that would appeal to a younger demographic than the businessmen and diplomats served by their current range. With such a departure from the vehicles they’d built, Mercedes’ launch of the 190 had to be done right to preserve their reputation, and with enormous resources funneled into the project, many innovations found their way into the all-new 190. The key to creating the ride quality that Mercedes enthusiasts had come to expect was the five-link rear suspension, something no other car like it could claim to have. Such was the level of complexity in getting the set-up right that 77 different variants were designed, with 40 of those made into fully working test beds, before they settled on the finished design.

As is usual, some time after the 190’s launch, upgraded and otherwise alternative versions were released, such as the 190D, so that a diesel model complemented the petrol cars that came either with a carburetor or fuel injection. But the most notable early variant was the range-topping 190E 2.3-16 with a motor developed in collaboration with the minds at Cosworth. Intended to demonstrate the performance potential of the 190 series to appeal to a younger target audience, it was also slated at one point to be Mercedes’ flagship racing car, in rallying no less. But with Audi’s Quattro re-writing the rules in the sport, Mercedes’ plan for the 190 race program was hastily focused on the new rules for the German national touring car series, the DTM, which the car eventually won in 1992 in its wild Evo II variation. First things first though, to be homologated, the race cars needed to be closely based on road-going variants.

The main improvement of the 2.3-16 was to be found in the Cosworth-developed lightweight aluminum head, which had duel overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, the height of performance technology of the day. This increased power output from the base model’s 136bhp to a much more sporting 185. Suspension was summarily lowered by 15mm, an LSD was integrated into the rear end, wider tires were fitted around bigger wheels, and extra body trim was added, including the front and rear spoilers as well as fender extensions and rocker skirts. Famous early on for a highly publicized feat of endurance at the Nardo test track, where among others the record for achieving continuous 50,000km was set, the 190 was well on its way toward building a competition component to its legacy. And in May 1984, a few months before being released to the public, Mercedes used the 2.3-16 for the Race of Champions at the Nürburgring.

Qualifying took place in dry conditions, but come race day, as it so often does in the Eifel mountains, a band of rain blew across the heavily wooded valley and the race started on a treacherously damp track. Prost had taken pole, with former Williams driver and 1981 F1 title runner-up Carlos Reutemann alongside, but the best start went to Senna.

From the row behind the leaders, he wasted no time in aggressively forcing himself ahead of the current F1 points leader into first place… a move that left the French McLaren driver both impressed and less than impressed. A few years later, these two would be locked into one of the most intensely fought rivalries the sport has ever seen. But their first clash was here, in a pair of metallic beige sedans. Incidentally, Prost had picked Senna up from the airport to drive him to the circuit that weekend. Apparently he didn’t drive him back.

Behind them, the 1984 season’s eventual champion, Lauda, starting from way down in 14th, drove equally as well in the slippery conditions and up to 2nd by lap four. He then spent the remainder of the race swapping the lead with the Brazilian.

Mercedes retained the car that Senna triumphed in, but the other nineteen 190Es were sold off to private buyers. The “Senna Car” has very rarely been brought out for public display, and the 2000kms on the clock are a testament to this. It would actually be interesting enough to just drive such an immaculate 190 “Cosworth,” but of course this car is so much more than that.

Amongst my company for the day is Daniel Iseli, a well-known Mercedes collector who bought the “Lauda Car” last year. In the wake of the Austrian three-time champion’s passing last year, MB Classic decided that it was appropriate to bring the two cars back together for the first time since that soggy day in 1984. And what a sight the beauties were, with their gently fading and peeling race numbers. With a simple blocky body, the cars have the perfect old-school stance of the Group A touring car era, and with the raspy exhaust notes, they were an absolute delight to listen to as the Mercedes test drivers ran them around in tight formation for the photoshoot. Apart from the roll cage, Recaro bucket seats, a kill switch in the dash, a shorter final drive ratio, and some minor changes to springing, damping, and the exhaust system, they are showroom standard. After the photos, it was time to trade seats.

Belts done up, seat pulled back as far as it would go, the engine fired on the first twist. The dogleg first gear was found easily enough, and with no slack in the clutch off I went down the straight. Acceleration is easy, the engine had plenty of pull, and it just felt, well, nice. It will be trounced by modern definitions of performance surely, but still put a huge smile on my face.

The test track in the vast Mercedes complex in Sindelfingen, a little bit southwest of Stuttgart, consists of two kilometer-long straights joined by two tight and steeply banked hairpins. It is not really the best place for enjoying the virtues and capabilities of performance cars of any era, but I wasn’t about to complain about the chance to drive this particular one. The first impression was how solid and generally “together” the car felt, probably because with such minimal use, for all intents and purposes it’s still brand new. And of course, it’s a Mercedes.

For a non-racing driver like me though, the sensation of having my right foot planted on the floor while looking at the fast approaching armco barrier was a little disconcerting. But on the back stretch, pushing it in fifth at 6200rpm and touching 170 km/h, it became apparent that even though it’s one of Mercedes’ most famous cars to go racing, this one is certainly not a racing car. The cross wind buffeted me left and right and with a narrow corridor of armco on either side, I was coasting well before the braking zone of the next banked turn.

But I also realized that although it seems it should be easier in a lot of ways, racing a road car is actually much, much harder than one prepared exclusively for the track. Long gears that will dump the revs if you change at the wrong time, humorously soft suspension that allows the car to wallow around corners, skinny tires and brakes that would soon overheat in the crucible of competition driving… It was actually no mean feat at all to manhandle these cars around 12 laps of a greasy Nürburgring GP circuit. Only the best of the best would do well in such conditions, which is of course exactly what happened. Watching the video of Senna with squealing tires fighting both understeer and oversteer in the same corner along with the tendency for the car to buck unpredictably over the curves, it was a masterclass in front of most of the living F1 champions who watched from behind.

While it feels like a normal 190 2.3, looks like a 190 2.3, sounds like a 190 2.3, and handles like a 190 2.3, it is so much more than that. Senna’s hands once gripped this steering wheel, the belts held him in the seat, and in this car he beat all the legendary house-hold names of his day before going on to become the motor racing legend that he still is. It wasn’t the performance of the car that kept the huge smile on my face, it was the privilege of being one of the very few people to drive it. 

After the race, Senna said, “Now I know I can do it,” as being pitted against such drivers in absolutely equal machinery any advantage gained in the race would be down solely to driver skill. Beating a grid of racing legends, that day the Senna star was born. In this car. Remembering that while my foot was planted on the floor in fifth (for a couple of seconds at least), was enough to send a thrill of real joy through me. It will be hard to look at the next tired, city-parked 190 Diesel to cross my path without cracking a smile.

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There must be a typo error, how can you be doing 6,200 rpm in fifth gear and only doing 170 kph (105mph)?