Mercedes Benz is synonymous with luxury — some of the most comfortable cars of all time have come out of the factories of this German car giant. Mercedes has provided luxury transportation for the better part of 130 years — but that’s not all they’re known for. They’ve also made some of the most successful and spectacular race cars of all times. Let’s take a closer look at Mercedes, and the race cars that have helped them make history.
The History of Mercedes Benz
Mercedes Benz started out as two totally separate companies, both based in Germany. Carl Benz, of Benz & Cie patented what is widely considered the first automobile in 1886 — a three-wheeled car powered by a gasoline engine. It didn’t make its premier until 1900, as the Mercedes Benz 35 PS Model. They even introduced the world’s first electric car, with a battery powered motor, in 1906 — more than a century before modern companies like Tesla did the same.
In 1926, DMG (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) and Benz & Cie officially joined forces to become one of the biggest luxury car brands in the world. Today, they make more than 70 different models and market them under 12 different brands names to drivers around the world.
Today the company is thriving, with more than 300,000 employees worldwide. They’re working toward becoming the world’s number one selling car brand by 2020 – but we’re not here to talk about passenger cars.
The World’s First Car Race
The world’s first car race wasn’t anything like the races we’re used to today — the top speed for most of these early horseless carriages was only 12 miles per hour. Inspired by Le Petit Journal, a newspaper of the time known for staging massive competitions to boost their own sales, the Paris-Rouen race on July 22, 1894 is considered the world’s first car race.
Twenty-six early automobiles started the 79-mile jaunt from Paris to the town of Rouen, but only 17 of them actually completed the journey. While Gottlieb Daimler’s car didn’t cross the finish line first, it did receive praise from the judges, for the simple fact that it had turned gasoline into a practical fuel source for automobiles — something that no other horseless carriage manufacturer had yet managed.
The success of this race sparked a trend of city to city races, first in Europe and then later in the United States.
The Mercedes Benz Tropfenwagen and Silver Arrows
These unique mid-engine race cars started dominating the Grand Prix motor racing circuit in 1923. Their teardrop shape utilised a 6-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams and was capable of producing an impressive 80 horsepower. In spite of its power, which was unprecedented at the time, these cars didn’t create the success that the manufacturer was hoping for, unable to rise above 4th and 5th place in the Grand Prix and hill climbing races.
In the 1930s, a company merger allowed Benz to pair the teardrop-shaped design of the Tropfenwagen with their engines, creating the Silver Arrows. These race cars dominated the Grand Prix races of the era and quickly became legendary in the racing world.
Formula One and the W196
The next spectacular racecar on our list is the W196, which was used during Formula One races in the mid-1950s. The classic Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR was actually based on the W196’s design. This lead to a 1-2 victory for Mercedes at the French Grand Prix, and even the fastest lap with driver Hans Herrmann. Juan Manuel Fangio, another driver, switched from his Maserati to a Mercedes W196 mid-season and won the Grand Prix championship that year.
In 1955, Fangio won six of the nine rounds he participated in. He and Stirling Moss, who also drove a Mercedes, finished first and second in 1955’s championship race.
Unfortunately, that was the end of Mercedes racing for nearly 40 years. The Le Mans Disaster of 1955 (Warning: graphic content), which killed Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh and up to 130 spectators marked Mercedes’ last race — they withdrew from all racing participation until 1994.
AMG and the European Touring Car Championship
While Mercedes didn’t directly re-enter in racing until 1994, AMG which later became a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz entered a 300SEL V8 sedan in both the Spa 24 Hours and the European Touring Car Championship. With the enlarged 6.8L V8 engine, the vehicle could manage 420 horsepower and finished 2nd in the Spa 24 Hours race in 1971.
This particular model wasn’t ideal for endurance racing through — in spite of its 2nd place win, it wore through tires much faster than its counterparts, and required more frequent refueling. Only five of these models were made — three for racing, and two for testing — and only one still exists, living out the remainder of its life in the Mobilia Automotive Museum in Finland.
Sauber and the Return to Le Mans
This might not strictly be a Mercedes race car, but they did have a big part to play in the creation of the Sauber C8 and C9 race cars that were used in the late 1980s. The C8, unfortunately, didn’t work very well. That didn’t discourage Mercedes from continuing to supply engines for the C9 version, even entering one in the Le Mans race in 1989 under the Sauber-Mercedes name. The C9 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1989, as well as five other races. That same year, the C9 won all but one championship race, resulting in the team being renamed Mercedes-Benz instead of Sauber-Mercedes.
The C9 was later replaced by the C11 for the 1990 season, winning every race except for one that season. 1991 wasn’t a good year for these cars through — the C291 had a horrible season and ended up causing Mercedes to withdraw from racing once again.
Speed Records and Indy Car Loopholes
A Penske-Mercedes racecar for the Indy 500 might not look like much, but for one race in 1994, it definitely turned heads — thanks to a long-forgotten loophole in the engine build rules. Most race rules require four valves per cylinder. The Indy 500, on the other hand, allowed stock blocks — pushrod powered engines with only two valves per cylinder.
The Mercedes 500i engine, designed for this single race, was able to increase engine displacement from 2.65-litres to a stunning 3.43-litres, and increased the turbo a full 10 inches, from 45 to 55. While it doesn’t sound like much, it enabled this single engine to crank out over 1,000 horsepower. This allowed the Penske PC-23B not only to take the victory in the 1994 race but to lap nearly the entire field. Only one other driver managed to finish on the lead lap that year, because of this massive powerhouse of an engine.
While the loophole was something that most teams were aware of, it wasn’t something that most of them could manage simply because of the exorbitant cost of building an engine like this for a single race.
Mercedes and McLaren
McLaren race cars are among the most iconic in the industry. In 1995, Mercedes replaced Peugeot in supplying engines for the McLaren Formula 1 race cars. During the first year of this partnership, the McLaren-Mercedes team managed two podium finishes and a total of 30 points throughout the season. They also managed a victory in the opening race of the 1997 Formula One season. That same year, the race cars were repainted silver, drawing parallels with the Silver Arrows of Mercedes’ first race seasons.
Mercedes Benz is probably the most prolific engine supplier for Formula 3 racers. Their first engine, the M271, made its debut in 2002 and managed to claim a victory in Nürburgring that year. Between 2003 and 2012, cars with these engines managed to claim seven out of the nine possible Formula 3 Driver’s Titles.
The 414 engine, which premiered during the 2014 season, only has four cylinders, but it has a larger air restrictor, allowing it to generate an impressive 200 horsepower. In spite of the 2014 regulation changes concerning Formula 3 engines, Mercedes brand engines continue to dominate these races, earning the Formula 3 race car an honorable mention on our list.
Changing Allegiances – Brawn GP
In 2009, Mercedes and McLaren went their separate ways, with Mercedes instead procuring a controlling stake in Brawn GP, the team that had won the 2009 championship year. This is the team that continued to win races for Mercedes for the majority of the last eight years.
In 2012, AMG rejoined the team, creating the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, allowing Mercedes to take a victory in the China Grand Prix for the first time since 1955. 2013 brought them world championships and 2015 brought 19 1-2 finishes and another world championship. 2016 was probably their best year so far, with 19 wins, 20 pole positions and Nico Rosberg becoming the world’s 3rd Silver Arrow champion in all of Formula 1 History.
Mercedes Benz race cars are some of the best in the world — and they’ve got more than a century of experience and innovation backing them up.