Mercedes-Benz celebrates 60 years since it reached its best motor sport season ever. In 1955 the Silver Arrows have won every title in all the major classes of international motor sport. No manufacturer had previously dominated the international racing events of one year so comprehensively.
Juan Manuel Fangio won the Formula 1 world championship for the second time running and achieved a triumph in the sports car world championship with the 300 SLR (W 196 S). Werner Engel became European touring car champion in the 300 SL (W 198) production sports car while Mercedes-Benz also won major national titles, such as the victory in Class D of the US sports car championship.
The success story begins in 1952. Mercedes-Benz re-entered the international racing scene with the 300 SL racing sports car and won numerous victories. The excitement grew dramatically in 1954, immediately after Mercedes-Benz had returned to Grand Prix racing, when Juan Manuel Fangio won the world championship by a wide margin at the wheel of the new W 196 Silver Arrow. In the 1955 season, Mercedes-Benz brought this development process to full fruition. Apart from Fangio it was above all Stirling Moss who shone in the new 300 SLR racing sports car.
Oh, the irony! Mercedes-Benz brand itself did not win a title in the 1955 Formula 1 season, despite its outstanding success record (a total of five victories, four 2nd places and one 3rd place in seven races). This is because the drivers’ world championship title was awarded from the start in 1950, but the constructors’ championship was only introduced in 1958. This made the company’s commitment to the 300 SLR for the world sports car championship, where the title went to the most successful constructor, all the more important.
The new racing sports car, whose technology was closely related to that of the Formula 1 car, had its debut in the Mille Miglia. Stirling Moss with his co-driver Denis Jenkinson won probably the most gruelling road race of the era in the best time ever set in the Mille Miglia. It took the pair 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds to cover the distance of around 1,600 kilometres. This equates to an average speed of 157.62 km/h. Fangio, driving with no co-driver, crossed the finishing line in 2nd place just 31 minutes and 45 seconds later – likewise an outstanding performance. In this 1,000-mile race from Brescia to Rome and back, the Stuttgart-based brand also demonstrated that the sporting excellence of Mercedes-Benz cars extended from thoroughbred racing cars to regular production saloons: in addition to the overall victory by the 300 SLR, the production models 300 SL (W 198) and 180 D (W 120) were the winners in their respective classes.
After the double victory (Fangio ahead of Moss) in the International Eifel Race at the Nürburgring, the 300 SLRs were at the starting line for the Le Mans 24-hour race in June. Here the car driven by the blameless Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh was involved in the worst accident ever to have occurred in motor racing history. Out of respect for the victims and in consultation with senior management, racing manager Alfred Neubauer decided to withdraw the leading 300 SLRs from the race. This made the pressure to win the remaining races even greater.
The excellent results gave rise to great expectations for the 1956 racing season, however even before the 1955 season ended, the Executive Board of the then Daimler-Benz AG decided that until further notice, Mercedes-Benz would withdraw from motor sport after that season. The reason was the company’s accelerated development of new passenger car and commercial vehicle series. This meant that there was an urgent need for skilled personnel who were currently committed to the motor sport activities. After all, at the high point of the 1955 season the racing department employed more than 200 personnel and was able to call on other in-house specialists when needed.
The message was clear: the creativity, innovative strength and expertise of the engineers and technicians who had helped the Mercedes-Benz racing cars to achieve their victories were now to be devoted to development for series production. For the Silver Arrows, their drivers and the entire racing department, this meant saying goodbye to the world of international motor racing – at the height of their success and to tumultuous applause. Hat tip to these heroes!