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“Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results”

~Ernest Shackleton~

Twenty years before the “Space Race”, fueled by the chilly relationship between the United and the Soviet Union, there was the “Grand Prix Motor Race”. Hitler and Mussolini used Grand Prix racing as the stage in which to flaunt to all detractors the evidence of their rapidly increasing technological prowess.

The 1937 season had concluded with the last (albeit non-championship) race at Donington Park on October 2.  It was a gloriously sunny afternoon, and 50,000 spectators had attended, all eager to witness a supreme exhibition of automotive excellence. Race organiser, Fred Cranmer, had managed to entice the Germans to participate and it was the first bona fide international race ever held in England. Four Mercedes-Benz cars lined up against three Auto Unions on the 15 car grid. The quickest British entrant was Raymond Mays, 16 seconds slower than the pole setting Mercedes of Manfred von Brauchitsch, but the best of the five ERA Voiturettes (light-weight racing cars with engine size limited to 1.5 L).  The race was won by Bernd Rosemeyer in his formidable 520 bhp 6 L V-16 Auto Union and the first non-German car home was Prince Bira of Siam, piloting his Maserati to sixth place, two laps down on the seemingly invincible Germans.

Rosemeyer receiving the chequered flag at Donington, 1937

The sport had effectively been taken over by the German motor industry…Mercedes and Auto Union hell-bent on destroying each other on the track, leaving all those with fewer resources and less cutting-edge engineering struggling in their wake.  Neither had any regard as to cost as both were being bankrolled by what was being increasingly seen as a repressive regime. There would be a new formula for the 1938 season, and the German teams were preparing to steam-roll their opposition. The intended goal had been to level the playing field for those wishing to compete with smaller capacity engines.  The more modest your engine capacity, the more svelte your car was allowed to be, from a 4.5-litre un-supercharged (3-litres supercharged) car that had to be a minimum of 849 kg all the way down to a 1-litre un-supercharged (666 cc supercharged) car weighing 400 kg.  In the end, it made no difference. Everyone went for maximum engine capacity and maximum weight anyway!

Mercedes Benz had finished 1937 at the top of the table with Rudolf Caracciola winning three of the five championship rounds.  For the 1938 season, they had tested both a 4.5 litre un-supercharged as well as a 3-litre supercharged engine and had decided on a 3 litre supercharged V-12.  They modified their W125 chassis to make the W154 and ingeniously mounted their motor at an angle, their driver sitting along the propeller shaft which resulted in a ground-hugging frame. Their lead driver was Rudolf Caracciola and British driver Richard Seaman was their junior driver.

Auto Union were starting the 1938 season in disarray.  They had either fired driver Hans Stuck, or he had quit, depending on whose side you were listening to! Their chief designer Ferdinand Porsche had departed to VW and Bernd Rosemeyer, their World Champion driver from 1936, had tragically died in January while attempting a land speed record. Eberan von Eberhorst had stepped up to the plate and had constructed a 3 litre supercharged V-12.  He had also ingeniously tested their non-traditional chassis design, which included horizontal tail fins, in the wind tunnel of the German Institute for Aerodynamics – the first designer to introduce modern aerodynamic thinking into racing cars.  To give an idea of how radical a departure this was at the time, his concepts would later influence Ferrari engineer and designer Mauro Forghieri in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The Auto Union Type-D with its aerodynamic bodywork

On the first of January, 1938 Scuderia Ferrari dissolved and emerged as the Alfa Corse team.  Enzo Ferrari remained in residence as team manager, and Tazio Nuvolari was their lead driver. Attempting to hedge their bets they constructed three different 3-litre engines: a straight 8, a V-12 and a V-16. The downside to this widespread experimentation was the development of all three suffered, and in the end, none of them was competitive. They eventually used their 3-litre straight 8, but would only win two Brazilian non-championship rounds, neither of which had any other European drivers in attendance.

Maserati had struggled during the depression, and in 1937 the Maserati brothers sold their shares to the wealthy industrialist Adolof Orsi, and the factory moved to Modena. The brothers continued to work in engineering roles within the company. They built a 3-litre straight 8 engine, and although the car was swift and well able to challenge the Germans for speed, it was also incredibly fragile and struggled to compete against the relentless reliability of the Mercedes and Auto Union.

French teams Delahaye and Talbot both used regularly aspirated 4.5-litre engines for the 1938 season.  Delahaye had developed a new 4.5 litre V-12 with a new chassis.  Even though Talbot was given 600,000 francs from the Fonds de Course committee (a French government body that used public money to try to achieve success in motor racing) to develop a 3-litre V-16 engine,  the result of this bounty was never seen on the track as they raced in 1938 with an enlarged 4.5 litre variant of their 4 litre sports car engine. It was rumoured that the money was syphoned off to build a factory to fabricate Pratt and Whitney aircraft engines! Bugatti also received money from the Fonds de Course for further development (in their case 400,000 francs) and putting their endowment to good use they constructed a supercharged 3-litre straight 8 engine. Unfortunately, the only chassis they had to place it in was well and truly obsolete, severely limiting the impact of their new powertrain.

During the winter of 1937, English Racing Automobiles (ERA) began working on a Grand Prix car. However, it soon became clear that the car would not be able to compete with the pace of the German cars, so only one car was eventually produced – the R4D. White Mouse Stable bought a 1937 ERA-C for B Bira to race in the 1938 season.

The ERA R4DIt was during 1938 that German expansion escalated.  Hitler had always considered Austria as being a part of Germany (he was born in Austria), but the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War 1 had expressly prohibited the unification of Germany and Austria. Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg met with Hitler and was bullied into naming several top Austrian Nazi’s to his cabinet.  Schuschnigg eventually resigned, along with most of his ministry, on March 11 after Hitler threatened that he would devastate Vienna and turn it into the Spain of Austria. He was referring to the Luftwaffe bombers destroying Guernica in Spain on April 26 of the previous year. Following this intimidation, German troops marched into Austria and were greeted by an apparently enthusiastic crowd waving flowers and Nazi flags.  The rest of Europe chose to look the other way.

As a shakedown to the championship races of the season, Mercedes-Benz entered two of their new cars in the Pau Grand Prix.  Auto Union made the decision not to attend. Nuvolari’s new Alfa Romeo caught fire during practice due to chassis flex rupturing the saddle fuel tank!  He was furious and declared that he would never race for Alfa Romeo again. He then announced his retirement and immediately departed for some rest and relaxation in America.  As a precaution, the other two Alfa Romeo cars were also pulled out of the race.

Due to the twisty nature of the French street track, the non-supercharged Delahaye was able to take the fight to Mercedes Benz. Mercedes was thirsty and needed to pit for fuel. Later in the race, they were further disadvantaged when they developed plug problems. Dreyfus in his Delahaye was able to dominate the last part of the race, winning by almost two minutes, giving the French team a brief moment of triumph in front of a partisan home crowd before being tyrannised by the Germans for the remainder of the season.

Pau - 1938Three weeks later Auto Union showed up at the Nurburgring with four cars, two of which had their new aerodynamic coachwork, but the weekend sensation was that Nuvolari had returned and had signed on as their lead driver! This was no mean feat as the rear-engined Auto Union was an unwieldy machine for those whose only driving experience was with front-engined cars. Auto Union typically preferred to develop their own drivers from the novice level, favouring motorcycle racers who had fewer instinctive reactions to unlearn. Even a small mistake with the high powered but twitchy vehicle could have tragic consequences for car, driver or both. Despite this handicap, Nuvolari was the fastest Auto Union driver during practice but was fifth on the grid behind the four Mercedes. Mercedes had bought seven cars with them; four race cars and three spares.  This gave British driver Richard Seaman his first race of the year, and he put his car on the front row of the grid. The first Alfa Romeo was back on the fourth row, over 40 seconds slower.

The race started messily as the lights never changed from yellow to green and the drivers departed the grid in a haphazard fashion! By the end of the first lap, Mercedes held the top four places.  Von Brauchitsch pitted his Mercedes on lap 16 while in the lead, but a refuelling error resulted in his car catching fire in the pits. Seaman, who was parked behind him in the pits, managed to get away unscathed, and he took over the lead and held it until the end with  Lang in second trailing by over four minutes. Seaman became the first British driver to win a Grand Prix since Segrave in 1924.  He later commented, “I only wish it had been a British car.”

Von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes going up in flames

Fred Cranmer, race organiser of the Donington Grand Prix, was relieved when Auto Union and Mercedes turned up at Donington for practice on September 25, the Sunday before the Grand Prix.  There had been increasing tensions in Europe, and it was becoming clear to everyone that war was looming.

However, two days later, the teams received an urgent telegram from the German Embassy advising them to head homeward because of the risk of being trapped in Great Britain if war broke out. Within two hours Mercedes had packed their five cars and tons of equipment into their ten lorries.  The smaller Auto Union team loaded their vehicles onto international freight wagons at the railway station at Castle Donington. Both were hoping to catch an overnight boat to Holland. They were shortly intercepted by police who had been told to track them down and inform them that Major Adolf Huhnlein, head of Germany’s motorsport, had relayed the message that they were to return to Donington.

Diplomatic negotiations continued, but on Wednesday the two team managers again ordered their teams to leave Donington. Fred Cranmer desperately persisted in trying to salvage his Grand Prix but was unable to contact the Mercedes team manager at Harwich where they were waiting to board a boat for Holland.  Harwich was in a state of chaos with German students, businessmen, governesses and tourists all frantic to get home before the outbreak of war.

On September 30th, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from talks with Germany and proclaimed, “I believe it is peace for our time.” The negotiated Munich Agreement allowed the Germans limited access to the Sudetenland, beginning October 1st, but not a wholesale invasion of Czechoslovakia. Sudetenland was a region of Czechoslovakia that bulged into Germany and was inhabited by three million ethnic Germans who would, in theory at least, welcome unification with Germany.

Nuvolari piloting his Auto Union to victory at Donington

Fred Cranmer quickly requested a change in date for his Grand Prix, to be now run on Saturday, October 22, and the German teams promised to return.  Three weeks later, when the race eventually took place, Nuvolari took control at the start and left the cars behind him to fight it out for second place. After an early pit stop to change a problematic plug, he then proceeded to battle back from fourth, over a minute behind the leader. At 46 years of age his skill, bravery, and determination amazed the crowd, and they cheered him on, elated at his victory.

It would be 55 years before a Grand Prix would be held again at Donington Park. Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 officially began World War Two. On September 3rd Neville Chamberlain announced to the British public that “this country is now at war with Germany.” Later on the same day, Nuvolari would win the last race of 1939 Grand Prix season in Yugoslavia. After the race, the Mercedes-Benz manager tried desperately to get his cars and team back to Germany, with rumours that all fuel would be confiscated in Hungary. They did finally reach their factory gates only to have their trucks impounded by the German Army.  The glorious German Grand Prix teams were gone, friends were now enemies, and nobody would have been so bold to suggest that Grand Prix racing could perchance survive the war.

[37:05-45:29 – Donington 1937 to Donington 1938 – if you don’t have time to watch it all!]

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