How Stirling got his Mercedes breakthrough
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas
- 8W Autumn 2001 issue
- 1957 British GP - Vanwall's breakthrough win, by Felix Muelas/David Fox
- 1958 Argentinian GP - The first GP win by a rear-engined car, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- 1961 Monaco GP - Moss bluffs the sharknoses, by Mattijs Diepraam/John Cross
- ERA G-Type - The crooked Silver Arrow from Britain, by Felix Muelas
- Rudolf Uhlenhaut - The Benz tech brain, by Leif Snellman
December 4, 1954
This clinched it for him! Having been a staunch supporter of British constructors for the early part of his career, new British sensation Stirling Moss finally decided he couldn't afford to miss out on this golden opportunity: joining Mercedes-Benz in its fight for utter dominance of the 1955 season. Well, 'fight' would definitely be overstating things, as Stirling found out at this paramount W196 test at the end of 1954. Convinced by his manager Ken Gregory to at least give it a shot, he tested a machine that was way ahead of anything he had driven before.
This was the time that Hockenheim was still known as the Hockenheimring, a fierce and daunting all-out oval track of the type that was very popular in pre-war Germany. In those days, the Germans - as the Americans still do now - liked their racing hard and fast and nearly all of their permanent or semi-permanent circuits, save the Nürburgring, were of the speed-bowl kind. Take the Grenzlandring, that was considered Germany's fastest circuit until Helmut Niedermayr's spectator-killing crash in 1950 spelled the end of the track. And then there were the numerous Autobahnspinnes and Schleifes spread out over the nation, especially in the Russian section of occupied Germany, most of them using parts of a motorway intersection (an Autobahnkreuz or Dreieck) to create various ingenious, sweeping layouts.
The Hockenheimring, still raced anti-clockwise like they do at Indianapolis, was another of the German superspeedways when Stirling Moss flew in to test the car that was the class of the field from the word go at the 1954 French GP. After a few laps he knew. And then there was that handsome offer made to Ken Gregory. Mercedes simply wanted Moss and the effort to get him was meticulously planned. It left Gregory gaping at the negotation table - as he readily admits in his highly entertaining 1960 book Behind the scenes of Motor Racing.
And still it almost went wrong - although knowing Neubauer cum suis a plan B and even plan C would have been rushed out of the Untertürkheim premises forthwith. The first thing Moss and Gregory noticed of the interest of Mercedes-Benz was a brief and factual telegramme by Daimler-Benz AG informing about the availability of Stirling Moss for 1955.
"CABLE WHETHER STIRLING MOSS BOUND FOR 1955 STOP. OUR INQUIRY WITHOUT COMMITMENT - DAIMLER-BENZ."
Stirling's gut reaction was no. He had a signed contract with Shell-Mex and BP for 1954 and the whole of 1955 and was sure of a sponsorship clash with Mercedes suppliers Castrol. Besides that, the contract was a done deal and he would not think of dissolving it so shortly after he had given his word - of which, in Stirling's view, the contract was merely a written confirmation. He didn't have time to think about it anyway, as he was due to leave for the US, to race in the so-called Mountain Rally.
Gregory thought otherwise, and after consulting Alfred Moss, decided to go Stuttgart on himself. On the advice of Stirling's dad, Ken armed himself with monstrous demands, to act like a tough British cookie and see what happens. It was a total shock to Gregory to find that Herr Neubauer, the long-time Mercedes boss, was infinitely better prepared for the meeting. Not only did the overbearing team manager come up with the most remarkable details of Stirling's career - he also came up with a figure that would amount to Moss' salary, a number that froze Gregory to the ground and left him gasping for air until he got on the flight back to England.
Before leaving, Ken did however manage to convince Alfred Neubauer of pairing Moss with Fangio in the new 300 SLR sportscar, and of giving Stirling a test run first before anything would be signed. The rest of the deal was ironed out on the spot. The Shell and BP matter was conveniently postponed until after Stirling's arrival.
On his return Gregory phoned Stirling in the States, having tracked him down in the Rootes building in New York. Initially an irritated Stirling reiterated his view on the contract with Shell and BP but then Ken told him about the contract terms - the sportscar pairing with Fangio, the permission to race his 250F in non-championship events - and, of course, the money involved. An honourable human being he may be, Stirling is only human as well. This was too good to be true.
According to Gregory his stance immediately made an about-turn. And this is where Stirling's own account of things takes off in his 1957 book In Track of Speed… "I was to receive the sensational and most encouraging news that the German Mercedes firm was ready and anxious to sign me as one of their official Grand Prix team for 1955. It is not easy, now, properly to analyse my feelings when the news reached in America. I had gone over there to compete in what was called the Mountain Rally, and had driven a Sunbeam in a trio of cars which won the team prize. When I heard of the Mercedes offer, I was a little awed, a little bewildered, and very pleased. With all my experience, I had not done a lot of real racing in the Grand Prix series on cars which stood a real chance. True, I had led the Maserati team for the latter half of the year, but to have a place in that all-conquering team - and I felt in my bones that it would all-conquering - was to give me a unique personal opportunity."
And this is the November 22 entry for Stirling's diary: "Up early, called on Jaguars, then to Rootes, where Ken called and told me of the fantastic Merc offer. Wow!"
Between November 22 and December 3 lay a couple of weeks that became a string of field days for the press. The latter date would be the day of Moss' return flight to London where he would meet up with his father and manager, the three of them flying straight through to Frankfurt for the planned test on December 4. In the meantime, Jerry Ames of Downtons, the British publicity agent for Mercedes-Benz did everything to alert his Fleet Street colleagues on the arrival of the important test, and this caused a flurry of reports on the Moss-Mercedes case. Did he have a verbal agreement with Maserati? What about the Shell/BP deal? How much would Neubauer be willing to fork out? And where were the principles of a man that had stated that he wanted to win the World Championship in a British car?
All of it was fairly benign, though. From the US, Stirling had already released a carefully worded statement about his ambition to win the Championship in a British car but that there was very little hope in doing so the following year, and that as a professional racer he really had no other option than to accept the offer. These words were generally accepted as sincere. On the day of the test, however, the press were dealt a red herring by a wicked Neubauer. Although the news of the test was carefully leaked by Ames, leading to Picture Post magazine sending their feature writer Trevor Philpots and star photographer Bert Hardy on a plane to Frankfurt the very same day, the two Brits were picked up by a Mercedes-Benz driver pretending to have no knowledge of English and driven off in the wrong direction. It left Neubauer in the safe knowledge that Moss would say yes to them first before the British press could get hold of a possible no. The Picture Post duo were only allowed onto the Hockenheim grounds by the time the serious business was long underway.
And so Stirling arrived at Hockenheim undisturbed to find everything thoroughly prepared for his test. And that's understating things to quite an extent - to Moss and his party thoroughness was redefined. Mercedes chief engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut (see above) had seen to it that the Grand Prix car had its every aspect modified to Stirling's build and style. So that was one excuse out of the way. Then there was Mercedes regular Karl Kling to set a yardstick - one that was set at 200kph just days before by the same Kling. But this time there had been a recent rainstorm, so that when Stirling did his reconnaissance laps on a 220A saloon, then switching to the 300SL gullwing sportscar, the track was still wet. These first laps soon created a dry-ish line on which Moss got his first hand on the W196.
He thought it was uncompromising, as any Mercedes driver would reveal. He admitted as such to a watchful Ken Gregory. "Stirling was not immediately home with the Merc, and while Kling was circulating he told me he thought it was a very difficult car to drive; it was 'fighty', inclined to oversteer, and much more sensitive to handle than the Maserati, though the power, he said, was 'fantastic'." Despite being confused by the peculiar transmission at first he felt confident that he could master the car. He got down to a 2.15 - comparing to an average of 201kph - a time that was later equalled by Kling on a track still drier. A previously nervous Uhlenhaut was by now beaming with pleasure. A short discussion followed with Alfred Moss and Gregory, after which Stirling concluded that he should take Mercedes up on their offer, assuming that the sponsorship clash between the oil companies could be solved - and indeed it was solved in a most gracious way, with Bryan Turdle, competitions manager of Shell-Mex and BP, not hesitating to release Stirling from his 1955 Shell commitments.
Then came another thing to be solved. During the test a telegram arrived for Neubauer. It came from Commendatore Orsi of Maserati, claiming he had a contract and that Mercedes should back off. The claim was understandable as Moss had quickly become the lead Maserati driver since his display at the 1954 Italian GP and Orsi wasn't particularly keen to see the second best driver of the world go off and team up with Fangio, doubling Maserati's task. But Moss Sr and Gregory were able to convince the Germans that Stirling had in fact not agreed to anything, not even verbally. And so Stirling Moss was announced as the number two Mercedes-Benz driver for 1955 shortly after.
Another man displeased with the contract was Alf Francis, Stirling's faithful Polish miracle mechanic. Alf loathed Germans and could not bring himself to make an exception. For him, 1955 suddenly stopped looking as promising as it did, as it wouldn't be Moss driving the family Maserati but a handful of rent-a-drivers. Even though Gregory had managed to sway Neubauer in hiring Francis as an interpreter and liaison between Moss and the Mercedes engineer, Alf himself would not think of it. It would mean working with Germans, speaking German with them. Compared to that, working on Stirling's private Maser and occasionally clashing with a Maserati factory miffed about the car's owner joining their Grand Prix rivals for next year seemed a better prospect.
For Moss, though, the choice was obvious. The British manufacturers were a long way from threatening the establishment, and the new Climax engine was still not ready. Mercedes-Benz by all means were. And they showed it at that December 4 test. It had been a test with a thoroughness previously unseen by British drivers. But also one with immaculate attention for the human being inside the driver. That was Mercedes-Benz too. By way of proof this is Stirling's own recollection of the comfort he was supplied with as soon as he got back to the pits: "What really impressed me was that as I clambered out of the car, rummaging in my pockets for a handkerchief or rag to wipe my face, a mechanic suddenly appeared, bearing hot water, soap, a flannel and a towel! Out there in the middle of the desolate Hockenheimring this was forethought I could hardly credit. I thought then that to be associated with such an organization could not be bad…"