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1954 FRENCH GRAND PRIX—AND MERCEDES DOMINATION

WHAT WITH LEWIS HAMILTON’S winning ways, we’re accustomed these days to Mercedes-Benz domination of Formula One. Indeed, nor is this a first time for this German firm. It and Auto Union came to be known as the Silberpfeilen (Silver Arrows) in Germany’s Third-Reich-supported participation back in the 1930s. And 67 years ago at the 1954 French Grand Prix, Mercedes began a two-year streak, winning nine of the twelve races it entered.

Here are tidbits as seen from the perspective of the October 1954 R&T together with some Internet sleuthing.

The 1954 Grand Prix Season. There were considerably fewer Grands Prix than in 2021’s 23-race schedule: The 1954 World Championship of Drivers had only nine races. It opened with the Argentine Grand Prix, January 17, followed by the Indianapolis 500 on May 31. 

Yes, back in those days, the Indy 500 was included in the Grande Epreuve schedule; this, despite its contrasting technicalities and driver roster. 

The Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort was not held in 1954; the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa was the next event, June 20; the French Grand Prix followed on July 4. 

Remaining GPs that year were at Britain’s Silverstone, July 17; Germany’s Nürburgring, August 1; Switzerland’s Bremgarten circuit, August 22; Italy’s Monza, September 5; and Spain’s Pedralbes circuit, October 24.

Grand Prix of France, Succinctly. R&T wrote in October 1954, “The history of Grand Prix racing has seldom provided a more stunning triumph for a factory team than that of the Mercedes-Benz Formula I cars which led, almost unchallenged, to the first and second place victory in the 41st running of the French Grand Prix at Rheims, France, on July 4th.”

“The accomplishment,” R&T  continued, “was all the more remarkable because the new Mercedes cars were in competition for the first time.”

“The race in two photos,” an R&T caption read. Above, the first turn after the start. Below, the finish, with Juan Manuel Fangio leading Karl Kling by (a team-mandated) one yard. Photos by Corrado Millanta.

R&T had two European correspondents at the time, Corrado Millanta and Bernard Cahier. This particular race report carries neither’s byline, though both provided photos.

The Mercedes W-196 Streamliner. The W-196’s enclosed wheels were rare among Formula One cars. (Today’s regulations on bodywork, comprising 36 of 111 technical pages, seem to ensure open-wheeled Formula One cars.) Back in 1954, Mercedes deemed its W-196 Type Monza optimal for circuits such as Monza and Rheims, high-speed straights interspersed with relatively slow corners. 

The Reim-Gueux circuit, 5.2 miles of public roads just west of Reims (aka Rheims), 88 miles northeast of Paris.

By contrast, even Maestro Fangio couldn’t avoid banging corner-defined oil barrels on Silverstone’s high-speed corners. And an open-wheel W-196 was introduced for twisty Nürburgring.

Underpinnings of the W-196: inclined inline-eight, direct fuel injection (evolved from the Messerschmidtt Bf-109’s), inboard oversize drum brakes. Image from Daimler-Benz. See also Mercedes-Benz W-196 Ex-Fangio.”

Mercedes Not Utterly Invincible. By quarter distance of the 1954 French Grand Prix, “The Mercedes team now held the first three places…,” R&T noted. “Then at last it was learned that at least one of the German cars was not utterly invincible. On the road to Thillois, Herrmann’s Mercedes met its end in a loud explosion and went out trailing smoke.”

Shortly after breaking the lap record, Hans Herrmann retired his smoking W-196. Photo by Bernard Cahier.

Fangio’s Victory. “Juan Fangio’s winning time,” R&T reported, “was 2 hours, 42 minutes, 47.9 seconds for an average speed of 115.98 mph. To Argentina’s greatest driver goes credit for a brilliant achievement in the new German car, and to the Daimler-Benz factory goes the admiration of the racing world for demonstrating more clearly than ever that the ‘knack’ of winning is a result of thorough preparation, high quality, and an almost dedicated determination.”

Team manager Alfred Neubauer and his watches are satisfied. Photo by Bernard Cahier.

An Immense Crowd. R&T reported, “The largest crowd ever to come to Rheims cheered with delight before the race as the brilliant band of the ‘Chassuers Alpine’ marched by, followed eventually by a parade of the beautifully-turned-out cars with their drivers and entourage.” 

Though R&T didn’t mention it, the crowd was also noteworthy because the Grand Prix was held on the same day as the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final in Bern, which took place later that day. 

Germany did just fine in Bern as well: The German team beat a heavily favored Golden Team of Hungary 3-2. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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