The mechanic that became the best of Mercedes-Benz
- Leif Snellman
- 8W May 1999 issue
- Hermann Lang - The 1939 Championship mystery, by Leif Snellman/Don Capps
- Stirling Moss - How Stirling got his Mercedes breakthrough, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
1954 German Grand Prix
To the modern F1 enthusiast the name Lang doesn't say much. Looking into a book of F1 statistics he will find that Lang did 2 GP starts collecting 2 points for a fifth place in the Swiss GP 1953 with a Maserati and retiring from the German GP 1954 with a Mercedes. And the young enthusiast will turn over the page and look for some more interesting driver.
End of story.
Well, let it now be known that just before the second world war Lang was actually the top racing driver of the world, the Schumi or Häkkinen of his era.
Born in Bad Cannstatt near Stuttgart 1909 Hermann Lang was the youngest of four brothers. When he was 14 his father died and Hermann had to start working as a motorcycle mechanic. With an old motorcycle he bought and worked upon on his spare time he won the first race he entered, an amateur class at the Solitude GP. He was soon advancing to become a works driver before turning to the sidecar class. In 1931 he became German sidecar mountain race champion. But then came the economic crisis in 1932 and the end for German motor racing. After having worked as a locomotive driver Lang finally got a job as a mechanic at the Mercedes factory. In 1934 Mercedes returned to racing and Lang soon advanced to be head mechanic for Fagioli's car. By chance engineer Krauss, head of the bodywork section, found out that Lang had been a motorcycle racer and arranged for a test drive. The tests worked out good and at the Eifelrennen 1935 Lang made his first Grand Prix start, finishing 5th. The first victory came at Tripoli 1937 followed by another victory at Avus.
Lang was the poor guy whose dream came true; after his first victory he and his wife actually locked themselves into the hotel room as they owned no evening clothes for the winners' party… While immensely popular by his mechanic friends, to the other drivers he remained just a mechanic. Von Brauchitsch's "Champagne for Caracciola and me and bring a lemonade for the kid" says much about their attitude.
Sadly for them Lang went on winning and winning. In 1938 he took two more victories and then he dominated the 1939 season with 7 victories to become the European Champion. Then came the war and Lang wrote in his autobiography: "My world disappeared." It would take 7 years before he again sat in a racing car but 21 July 1946 Lang raced von Hanstein's BMW, winner of the 1940 Mille Miglia, to victory in the first post-war German race at Ruhestein in the French zone.
Then there was a long pause while Lang was trying to find a competitive car for himself, but in autumn 1949 he was back. He finished second behind Kling at the Eifel sportscar race but retired in the German GP (run that year as a Formula 2 race). Mercedes-Benz took their pre-war GP cars to South America in February 1951 and there Lang finished second in the Peron Cup and third in the Eva Peron Cup.
In the early 50s Mercedes concentrated their efforts on sportscar racing with their new gull-winged 300SL car. The team won a joyless triple victory with Kling, Lang and Riess in the Swiss GP as Caracciola in the fourth car had a crash that ended his racing career and put him in a wheelchair for a year. 1952 was a good year for Lang and Mercedes 300SL. He won the Le Mans 24 hour race when the leading driver 'Levegh' had to retire after having raced for 23 hours single-handedly. Then Lang won the Nürburgring sportscar race and finished second behind Kling at the Carrera Panamericana. In 1953 Lang made a guest appearance for the works Maserati team replacing the injured Gonzalez, who had crashed in a sportscar race at Lisbon.
In 1954 Mercedes-Benz returned to GP racing and they made it with full commitment and a more or less open ended budget setting new standards to the Formula 1 racing teams. Their new W196 model was a mix of novelty and tradition. The car featured such "oldies" as drum brakes and a straight-8 engine but also revolutionary things as multi-tubular spaceframe, desmodromic valves and a streamlined body. As drivers Mercedes signed Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann. The team took a double victory at the French GP but at the British GP tyre troubles struck and Fangio finished in a disappointing 4th position.
For the German Grand Prix Mercedes Benz made a major effort. Three new open wheeled cars were built to be raced by Fangio, Kling and Lang, who made a guest appearance, and a streamliner was entered for Herrmann. Fangio took pole position while Lang was 11th fastest, ending up on the fifth row of the grid. During practice Fangio's friend and protégé Onofre Marimón had a fatal crash with his Maserati, the first driver to die in a Championship event. Fellow Argentinians Gonzalez and Fangio were shocked and very reluctant to race but once persuaded to start they got on with the work as pros.
Gonzalez made a tremendous start from the third row to lead from Fangio but soon the Mercedes driver took over the command. Lang had also made a good start and was 4th during the early part of the race advancing to third when Moss had to retire his Maserati. After 7 laps Lang, who was making a good and consistent work, had passed Gonzalez for second place and Kling followed suit making it into a Mercedes 1-2-3 just as in the old days. Unaware to the other Mercedes drivers Kling had a fuel pickup problem and had decided to go flat out to make up time for a pitstop. He passed Lang and closed in on Fangio. Trying to follow his teammate Lang overdid it, spun at Flugplatz and had to retire as he was unable to restart. Kling actually managed to take the lead but was soon after out with a broken rear suspension and Fangio went on to win.
The 1954 German GP turned out to be Lang's final race. Before the Italian GP Lang had an internal match with Hermann to see who would get the third Mercedes car and the younger driver got the place by being marginally faster. Then Lang decided that it was time to call it a day. After all, he was 45 years old and it had been over 20 years since his GP debut.
Reader's Why by Michael Ferner
You can easily recognise the face of "Hermännle" as he powers the W196 towards the Nordkurve. This was his only GP for Mercedes-Benz after the war although he was entered as a reserve driver for both the French and Italian GPs. One of the "lost generation" due to WW2, Lang was at the height of his powers in 1939. He is often quoted as the European Champion of that year but this is only due to a fake statement by SS Korpsführer Adolf Hühnlein. In reality the war had stopped the championship and no title was awarded at all. Lang resumed racing in 1950 and soon experienced success, culminating in his triumph at the 1952 24 Heures du Mans. A year later he accepted an invitation by Maserati to sub for the injured Froilan Gonzalez at the Swiss GP, but could only finish 5th after a spin, three laps down. In 1954 Mercedes-Benz returned to the GPs but decided to rely on younger blood to support their new lead driver, Fangio. However, a fourth car was entered for the home race and Lang was drafted in. Although he gave a good account of himself and lay second for most of the early stages of the race he eventually spun, stalled and retired for good. He returned to his "daytime job" at the Mercedes factory, where it all had begun 20 years earlier. There he had worked as a mechanic on Fagioli's W25 before being given a chance for a test ride. Imagine Nigel Stepney stepping into Eddie Irvine's shoes at Ferrari...!