Model history: Shortly after the end of World War Two, motor racing was understandably not a priority for Mercedes-Benz. Thanks to the amazing economic turn around of the country, the German manufacturer could return to racing sooner than most expected. Their first effort was in the early 1950s with the production car derived 300 SL, which took a win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1952. Everybody knew that it was a matter of time when Mercedes-Benz would return to Grand Prix racing. There they did have to live up to impossibly high expectations as in the past they did not only dominate, but also won at their returns to the sport in 1914 and 1934. Exactly twenty years later Mercedes-Benz re-entered GP racing with the W196 and they did not disappoint. There was a more important reason for Mercedes-Benz to kick off their Grand Prix program in 1954 as it was the first year of the new 2.5 litre Formula 1 regulations. This meant that all active manufacturers also had to start with a clean sheet, giving them less of an advantage over newcomers.
In the past the Mercedes-Benz racing cars were not only the fastest, but also the most technologically advanced; a showcase of the company's advanced technical capabilities. The W196, especially its straight eight engine fitted right into that pattern. Considering the relatively small displacement of 2.5 litres, the German engineers' choice for the long straight eight engine was quite surprising. Like the great 1930s Alfa Romeo 'eight', the M 196 R was built up of two blocks of four cylinders with the dual overhead camshafts driven from the heart of the engine. This configuration meant the camshafts needed to be only half the length of the engine, preventing them from flexing under heavy loads. The valvetrain itself was a lot less conventional as it used 'Desmodromic' system, which uses the camshaft to both open and close the valves. Not needing fragile springs to close the valves meant the engine could rev considerably higher. A real novelty was the Bosch developed direct Fuel Injection system, which had already been used successfully on the 300 SL racing cars. The exceptionally advanced engine produced 257 bhp at its debut and continuous development saw that power hiked within a year to 290 bhp at an impressive 8500 rpm.
Also carried over from the 300 SL was the space-frame chassis, which consisted of a large number of small diameter tubes. It was a new approach to building chassis, which combined light weight with exceptional rigidity. Suspension was by dual wishbones and torsion bars at the front and swing axles with torsion bars at the rear. The massive drum brakes were installed inboard both front and rear to reduce unsprung weight and improve handling. To make sure the brakes were cooled properly the massive drums were equipped with fins for the so-called 'Turbo-cooling'. To lower the center of gravity and the frontal area, the straight eight engine was angled 37° on its side. Like the camshaft drive, the power take-off from the crankshaft was at the centre of the engine. Power was fed through a sub-shaft and a prop-shaft to the five speed gearbox, which was mounted in unit with the differential. Sparing no expense, the engineers developed a variety of track specific versions of the W196 with three wheelbases and two body styles. Harking back at late 1930s practice an all enveloping low-drag streamliner body was created for high speed tracks. For the more technical tracks a more conventional open-wheel body was fitted.
To ensure that the W196 would live up to its high expectations, Mercedes-Benz contracted one of the best drivers of the day; Juan Manuel Fangio. He was backed up by Hans Herrmann and Karl Kling. Still busy developing the cars, Mercedes-Benz missed the first three races; Fangio used a Maserati to win two of them. The belated debut came at the French Grand Prix in Reims, where the streamlined body was right at home. It was immediately obvious that the German no expense spared approach was too much for the Italian and British specialist manufacturers to match. Fangio helped Mercedes to continue a tradition by piloting the W196 to a debut victory, a few metres ahead of Kling. At the next round at Silverstone the all-enveloping body hampered Fangio to line up for a corner properly as he could not see the front wheels. He nevertheless finished second. For the next round the open wheel body was ready, which had an unusual square shape thanks to the heavily slanted engine. Fangio dominated the next three races, wining at the Nürburgring, Bremgarten in Switzerland and at Monza with the streamliner again. He was crowned champion well before the last round. In that race at Pedralbas in Spain, the W196 was really challenged for the first time by the brand new Lancia D50, designed by former Alfa Romeo engineer Vittorio Jano. In Alberto Ascari's hands it was the fastest thing out there, but still very fragile. Mike Hawthorn eventually won for Ferrari ahead of Luigi Musso in a Maserati.
For 1955, Fangio was joined by new team-mate Stirling Moss. The Argentinian started the season on a high by winning his home Grand Prix. For Monaco, Mercedes-Benz had developed a special short wheelbase version of the car with outboard drum brakes. The W196 was as quick here as on the high speed tracks, but had a rare day off on race day when all three cars entered were hampered by reliability problems. In the mean time Mercedes-Benz had also developed a sportscar closely related to the W196 with a two-seater body and a slightly larger version of the eight cylinder engine. Dubbed the 300 SLR, it was equally impressive and Moss drove it to a victory in the Mille Miglia. Sadly the sports racer was also involved in the sport's worst accident, killing over 80 spectators after Levegh's 300 SLR was sent flying into the grandstands. The many alloys and fuel in the car turned it into a fireball. As a result many Formula 1 races were cancelled that season. The four that were run, were won by Fangio and Moss, who managed to beat his dominant team-mate once. Needless to say Fangio was crowned champion again with Moss a distant second.
Shook up by the Le Mans accident, Mercedes-Benz called it quits at the end of the season and the W196 was retired after racing for just one year and two months. Scoring nine wins out of twelve Grand Prix starts, the versatile Mercedes-Benz has gone into history as one of the finest racing cars ever. Many of the technologies pioneered on the Grand Prix racer were later adopted by the competition. It did take very long until the direct injection was successfully used by another manufacturer; most prominently by Audi with the final generation of R8 Le Mans cars. Those hoping that Mercedes would return to Grand Prix racing in 1974 were disappointed. In fact it took almost another two decades before the Germans returned to Formula 1 and they could not continue the incredible debut win record.
Chassis: 000 08/54
Chassis 000 08 was the final W196 built in 1954 and did not debut until the final race of the year. At this, the Spanish Grand Prix, Juan Manuel Fangio drove the long wheelbase car to a second place finish. In the following season, Karl Kling placed it second in the Buenos Aires Grand Prix and Fangio added the only victory to its tally at Spa a few months later. Retained by Mercedes-Benz, this W196 is regularly shown and demonstrated at events around the world. It is seen here at several editions of the Goodwood Festival of Speed with the likes of Sir Stirling Moss, Mika Hakkinen and Jochen Mass behind the wheel.
Chassis: 000 13/55
The second to last W196 built, chassis 000 13 was called into service three times during the 1955 season, at each occasion sporting the shortest wheelbase available. On his way to his second world championship, Juan Manuel Fangio drove the not so unlucky '13' to second place finishes at Monaco and Aintree, while scoring a victory in the Dutch Grand Prix. It is seen here during the 2009 Goodwood Revival where it was one of the stars of Sir Stirling Moss' 80th birthday celebrations.