This 1954 Mercedes Formula 1 Documentary Is Full Of W196Rs And Vintage Racing Stars
Photos courtesy of Bonhams // Film courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
Wracked with nerves for an exam one day, my father offered some sage advice: turn up 15 minutes late and ask for more paper 10 minutes later. It was an old trick he used to use when sitting for exams at his university. The idea was to put off the competition by strolling in calm and collected to reinforce their fear that they hadn’t revised enough to be certain of a top grade.
This is pretty much what Mercedes-Benz did in 1954, when the German marque made off with the championship with the help Fangio, and, coincidentally in that same year, my father walked away from his exams with the best marks in his college. What is the basis of this comparison? Well, Mercedes didn’t space out its “studying”—their effort, after a long absence from Grand Prix racing, was more like a successful cramming endeavor the night prior.
This hour-long video documents Mercedes-Benz seemingly effortless return to Grand Prix racing after a delayed start of several years. While Ferrari and other Italian marques were revving their engines to get back to it after the war, by 1950 Mercedes in effect had a 15 year hiatus from racing. And while their wunderkind the 300 SL was chiseling its name into the history of sports car racing at the beginning of the 1950s, Stuttgart had the heart palpitatingly short timeframe of nine meager months to develop a car of Formula 1 calibre.
What they came up with was the W196R: a 2.5-liter, 260hp beast that had a top speed edging close to 190mph. One—if you can call a car that Fangio used to win two Grands Prix with during an F1 season in which he’d be the champion, “one”—sold 59 years later on for a record breaking $29.6 million at Goodwood.
Why the fuss? The W196Rs used direct fuel injection and had inboard-mounted and “turbo-cooled” brakes—in the ‘50s. But the new bit of kit that Mercedes-Benz was really trying to excite the car-buying public with was its new swing axle with a low pivot, helpfully illustrated in the film with some attractive paper cutouts and some friendly floating hands. It’s about as good as you can get in making cutting edge engineering simple enough for a child to understand.
Half of the charm of this Mercedes production is its mix of clear and varied cinematography and its illustration using special effects. A split screen within the Mercedes-Benz logo shows us three aspects of their work (always be advertising!). A pretty map of Europe gives the viewer a better scale of exactly what is meant when they say that their racing team has travelled 2,500 miles to different circuits over the course of one season. And real-world examples of the forces involved in F1 racing (an equivalent force to stopping an F1 car is lifting a weight of 660kg from the bottom to the top of the Eiffel Tower) are memorable, informative, and most importantly, entertaining. If you like vintage video production techniques and want to learn about Formula 1, you’ve found a trove.
Then there’s all of the other accoutrements in the film to make you feel calm and sort of pleasantly lulled: the clipped English accent of the narrator; the perfect musical score; views of the leafy Nürburgring with its laissez-faire attitude towards safety; a show of front pages headlining Fangio’s success in small text.
Fangio had no compunction about leaving teams for better cars, even after successful seasons. Or even halfway through a series for that matter. In 1954, Fangio had been racing for Maserati until Mercedes-Benz joined mid-season. This point isn’t covered in the film, and neither is a sense of how grueling these races were—the offensively charming music covers up the spectacular blow-up of Mike Hawthorn’s car at Reims, the fact that only six cars finished the French Grand Prix, the death of Maserati’s official driver Onofre Marimón at the Nürburgring, and countless other life-threatening and life-taking events. A few offhand remarks are made about how two nights before the start of the French Grand Prix, parts were still being designed and manufactured in Stuttgart, but these points aren’t stressed. The narrator gives the impression that not having your race car ready on time wasn’t inducing the sort of screaming matches between designers and engineers that one would imagine but were, instead, merely hiccups, slight inconveniences. Nothing to worry about.
Instead, the film focuses on the glamour of racing and uses false modesty to heighten Mercedes-Benz’s sense of cool, but we can’t help but be drawn in all the same. At one point, the narrator says that the car was “Not designed to look good.” Pull the other one—the Monza body (as it was nicknamed after the Italian Grand Prix) is as sexy as a car can get.
The views of the understated elegance of Mercedes-Benz’s success in 1954 reminds me of that morning my father tried to bestow a little bit of coolness to my painful geekiness. Watch this film and add a touch of (well-prepared) cool to your day too.