Champion for the Ages

Karl Ludvigsen
Many gifted drivers perished in those dangerous decades before racing safety improved, but Rudolf Caracciola survived – if at times barely – to become a champion for the ages.

Mercedes racing manager Alfred Neubauer was in a quandary. “My problem was to decide which drivers to engage for 1934. My head was in a whirl. What was I to do? Caracciola was a friend. Reports from his home in Arosa, where he had moved from the hospital in Bologna, were encouraging.


“On the other hand, I had certain responsibilities,” Neubauer continued. “There was a great deal of money at stake. Millions of marks had been invested in new cars. One defective driver could cancel out the work and skill of a thousand people. There was Manfred von Brauchitsch, who had won his spurs on the AVUS. There was Luigi Fagioli, a driver with an international reputation. And Rudi?”


In January 1934 they agreed to meet at the Graf Zeppelin Hotel in the center of Stuttgart. Neubauer asked Caracciola to walk around the room. “He got up and took several steps up and down. I could see the beads of sweat on his forehead and the twitch of pain around his mouth when he put his weight on the injured right leg. I also noticed that he had a pronounced limp. What I did not know was that his thigh was still in plaster.”


The magnificent W25


While Caracciola was in Stuttgart he was invited by Neubauer to the secret workshop where the radical Mercedes-Benz W25 Grand Prix car was being assembled for racing in 1934. It was built to new rules that limited weight minus tires and liquids to 1,654 pounds while leaving engines free. The car was a sleek jewel with all-independent suspension, rear transaxle, supercharged straight-eight and a slippery shape by Josef Müller.


Still recovering from his injury at Monte Carlo in 1933, Rudi was impressed by the potential of what he saw. After talks with company chief Wilhelm Kissel he and Neubauer agreed on a contract for 1934 with one condition: it would only take effect after his first practice drive. Ever afterward the engineers gave Caracciola’s brake pedal a higher mechanical advantage than his team-mates enjoyed.


Persuaded by his friend Louis Chiron to drive a lap of honor at Monaco before the Grand Prix on April 2, 1934, Rudi was reluctant but acquiesced. It was painful. But his visit to the race awakened latent desires. “To see the circuit again had shaken me up more than I thought,” he mused. “This was my world. This was where I belonged! I had to drive again. It was the only way I could live. There must be a comeback for me. I had to master my body or life would become meaningless.”


These were Rudi Caracciola’s thoughts when he met Neubauer and Daimler-Benz chief engineer Hans Nibel in Berlin five days before the Avusrennen set for the 29th of May. Still using a cane to walk, anxious for his first racing-car drive to be confidential, he set the test for six in the morning. On his arrival “the car was there, small and white, it looked fast – a single-seater as I had always imagined it.” He completed eight long laps at a competitive speed: “I could still drive!” This meant that his new contract took effect. But with the new W25 not fully ready he was spared a tougher trial in the race proper. Rudi waved off participation in the Eifelrennen a week later.


Rudi showed that his speed was intact at the Klausen Pass hill climb in August, setting a new record 20 seconds faster than he had two years earlier. “In spite of the crippling injury he had suffered,” said Neubauer, “he had proved that he was still one of the world’s greatest drivers.”


September 1934 brought the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. “The evening before the race we sat in a bar in Milan and Neubauer discussed our chances. He always did this with extensive thoroughness. I could not stand listening to him any longer and went out. I had enough worries of my own. What good were his tactical tips if my leg let me down?”


Built in 1922, the famously fast Autodromo Nazionale di Monza circuit had been made more challenging with chicanes in an effort by the Italians to slow down the Germans. With 11 sharp turns per lap Porsche said it looked like “a hill climb without the hill.” “The circuit is murderous,” added Caracciola. “I worked out that I must change gear 2,500 times in 300 miles.”


The Monza Grand Prix took place in “a haze of heat.” Deep into the race, after gaining the lead over Hans Stück’s Auto Union “Rudi stopped at the pits,” Neubauer recalled. “He was almost fainting with exhaustion and could hardly keep his hands on the wheel. We literally had to lift him out of the car so that Fagioli could take over.” The Italian had retired earlier with an ailing supercharger. The pair of Mercedes drivers shared the victory – popular in Italy and a big step forward for Caracciola.


The impact of the new Mercedes W25 open-wheeler on the Grand Prix racing world was shattering. To The Motor‘s reporter at the French GP, “their streamlining, terrific exhaust noise and supercharger whine and astonishing acceleration were a complete surprise.” The exhaust note showed the engine’s similarity to its two-liter predecessor. The reporter from The Autocar remarked on the “characteristic high supercharger whine that is recognizable several kilometers away.”

The master at work


Late in 1934 two special versions of the W25 were deployed for record breaking. Motorcycle racer Ernst Henne, the team’s reserve driver, was chosen to drive. On a straight road at Gyon near Budapest a closed W25 was put to the test. Henne was not impressed, saying that “the aerodynamics were so bad that the car was drifting from one side of the road to the other as I approached 186 mph and the streamlined cover over the cockpit came loose and started shuddering violently!"


Neubauer made one of his quick decisions. He had the canopy removed and installed his reserve driver, Rudi Caracciola, in the now-roofless cockpit. This “obviously made the car much more stable,” recalled Henne, because Caracciola was able to set new Class C records for the flying kilometer and mile, the latter at 197.23 mph, breaking an Auto Union record. In December 1934, Rudy took an open version of this car to the AVUS to record a new flying-start mark for five kilometers at 193.86 mph. These were stunning speeds by any standard, the fastest anyone had yet driven on a normal road.


In 1935 the dominance of an improved W25 continued, helped by a healthy Caracciola. “We entered eleven races,” Rudi said, “and nine times Mercedes-Benz raised high the German flag.” At the final GP in Spain, Mercedes finished one-two-three, led by Rudi. Of the seven major Grands Prix, Caracciola won four and finished third in another to become European Champion.


Rivalry with Rosemeyer


“That trees do not always grow in heaven we learned clearly enough in 1936,” said Rudi. The new season’s Mercedes, an SSK version of the original W25, didn’t work. Auto Union’s Bernd Rosemeyer ran amok. The Star’s only success was Rudi’s in the opening race at Monaco, where he enhanced his Regenmeister reputation.


Enter Rudolf Uhlenhaut, a young development engineer who had brought the 170V to popular success. He was recruited to overhaul not only the racing car but also the organization. For the first time he created a discrete Racing Department to oversee car design and development. Still running the drivers and races was Alfred Neubauer, for whom Caracciola and von Brauchitsch were “organic inventory,” said Rudi.


Mercedes-Benz skipped taking part in some minor races while the 1936 car was reworked. After some two dozen alterations, Caracciola declared it fit to be raced at Berne in the Swiss Grand Prix. In fact, he put it in pole position for the race. “This was the first encounter between Rosemeyer and Caracciola for some considerable time,” said Neubauer. “No sooner had the starter dropped his flag than Caracciola took the lead with Rosemeyer close behind him. From then on it was an intriguing spectacle.


“On the all-too-frequent bends,” Neubauer continued, “Caracciola's experience and skill enabled him to draw ahead, but in the straight Rosemeyer with his powerful Porsche engine was able to reduce the gap. So it went for five laps. It looked as if Caracciola was deliberately preventing Rosemeyer from passing him. And yet when a blue flag was finally flourished to tell Caracciola to move over to the right he did so without a moment's hesitation. Even then, however, Rosemeyer made no attempt to pass him.


“The explanation was quite simple. Rosemeyer was only able to make up on the straight, and in full view of the spectators, the ground he lost on the bends.


The outcome of this unusual duel was decided very simply: in the twenty-ninth lap Caracciola had to retire with a damaged rear wheel. Rosemeyer carried on to win and to become European Champion after only two years as a racing driver.


“Sometime later,” related Neubauer, after Caracciola had overheard several remarks about his obstructionist tactics, he found himself in the same lift as Rosemeyer and his wife. Elly Rosemeyer, her eyes blazing, accused Caracciola of grossly unfair driving. Her husband, obviously embarrassed, said nothing. Several months later he decided to make his peace The two men shared a bottle of champagne in the Roxy Bar in Berlin.”


For 1937, Uhlenhaut built a brand-new car, the W125, with improved de Dion rear suspension and a 5.6-liter eight giving 580 racing horsepower. Its first tests at Monza showed, said Rudi, that “it is simply a wonder of power and roadholding.” With unmatched skill and sensitivity, his exceptional balance, restraint and experience, Caracciola was born to drive the W125. In the five main Grands Prix he was on pole for three, set fastest lap in two and won three for his second European Championship. He also earned the pole position for the Vanderbilt Cup race in New York.


The way of all things


A negative development for the career of Rudi Caracciola was the dramatic 1937 rise of Hermann Lang. From being one of the mechanics in 1934 Lang rose to parity in Neubauer’s driving squad. The attitude of Caracciola and von Brauchitsch was “Champagne for us, please, and a beer for Lang.” The two men formed an anti-Lang collusion. The fast Englishman Richard Seaman was also newly strong in 1938.


For Neubauer, Rudi was still the yardstick for excellence. He also had the ear of Uhlenhaut, who prepared experimental cars for Caracciola with different fuel-tank distribution to choose the best design. For the new three-liter-supercharged rules of 1938 Mercedes built its V12 W154, elegantly low and rapid.


Arch-rival Auto Union suffered doubly with delays in building its new cars and the death of its star Bernd Rosemeyer in a record attempt. Thus one-two-three finishes for Mercedes were not unusual in 1938. Finishing all four major Grands Prix, winning in Switzerland, second in two races and third in another, Rudi won his third European Trophy.


The 1939 season began with acrimony during and after the May 21st Eifelrennen in which Rudi’s belief that the team was favoring Lang prompted an unseemly display of petulance. Rudi had led the race but was finally third behind winner Lang and Nuvolari. Afterward he ripped off his helmet and flung it in a corner in front of Wilhelm Kissel, shouting “I’ve had enough! I’m finished. I refuse to drive any more in this damned circus. I’m not putting up with this sabotage.”


A clear-the-air meeting held the next day in Kissel’s conference room focused on Lang’s supposedly superior two-stage-blown engine, the only one entered, which Caracciola admitted he had abjured because he doubted its reliability. At his pit stop, Rudi felt, he was deliberately given too much fuel to make his car too heavy and hard to handle.


“But that was not the end of the story,” said Neubauer. “There was talk of bad tires, weaker engines, poor starting-positions. Rudi worked off the whole of his bottled-up wrath. He even went so far as to maintain that Lang was given preferential treatment because he was younger and came from a working-class family, whereas he had an Italian name and was resident in Switzerland.”


Pressure began to build for Rudi before and during the May 3rd Tripoli Grand Prix, for which Daimler-Benz performed the feat of designing and building two 1½-liter V8 racers after the organizers had changed the rules al the eleventh hour. In its wisdom Mercedes had given the cars different final-drive ratios because they couldn’t be sure which was best.


Neubauer’s strategy was for Lang to take the longer gearing to run more quickly in the race and extend the opposition, at a higher risk to his own engine, using partly worn tires and making a tire change, while Rudi ran right through on a single set of new tires at an easier pace, stopping only for fuel. The different approaches seemed to offer each driver a chance for success.


Caracciola was anything but thrilled with his undergeared car and the apparent preference being shown Lang, who could lap the fast circuit consistently quicker. Lang, on the other hand, recalled that “we both would have liked the lower ratio, which was better for acceleration, but Caracciola was the older man, so he got it.” Clearly, as Lang said, “We did not see eye to eye.”


The result was that Lang made “the start of my life” and led the field easily throughout the 245-mile race. He eased off during the second half, finishing almost a lap ahead of second-place Caracciola. Lang stated, “When I came up behind him with a few laps to go I said [to myself], ‘Hold on, you are not going to do this to this man.’ I backed off and took it easy until the finish, deliberately staying behind him.”

 The 1939 season


In the four Grands Prix of the shortened 1939 racing season, at the wheel of the improved version of the W154, Rudi retired twice and placed second and first in two of the major races. His victory in the German Grand Prix was his sixth – a record to this day. Hermann Lang, the 1939 star, later said, “Whatever may have come between “Caratsch” and me, there’s one thing I must admit quite frankly: he was always my ideal, the greatest driver of them all. There was a tremendous elegance in his driving that no one else ever equaled. I never stopped studying and admiring him.”


Personal tragedy


While skiing with friends in February of 1934, Rudi’s beloved partner Charly Caracciola had lost her life when she was swept away in an avalanche. The aftermath of this tragedy would bring Rudi closer to American-born Alice “Baby” Hoffman, Louis Chiron’s close friend and a follower of the sport. She and Caracciola were married at Lugano on June 19, 1937. Alice encouraged Rudi to move to Lugano’s elegant Ruvigliana quarter, where they settled in the Casa Scania high above Lake Lugano with magnificent views and a long wall that displayed many of his racing  trophies.


Last laps


After the end of World War II, Rudi Caracciola’s final racing success was fourth place in the 1952 Mille Miglia, driving the new 300SL that was the Mercedes comeback car after the devastation of the 1940s. He had recovered from a mysterious crash at Indianapolis in 1947, only to suffer fractures of his good leg from an encounter with a tree in a Swiss sports-car race in 1952. That marked the end of his racing life. He continued to represent Mercedes-Benz in many ways, including through the sale of cars to officials of NATO.


Suffering from advanced cirrhosis, 58-year-old Rudolf Caracciola died of liver failure on September 28, 1959 at Kassel in West Germany. His racing career covered two decades of the most dramatic technological change that the sport had ever witnessed. Caracciola set as high a standard for sportsmanship as any driver during his career.


But anyone foolish enough to think that they could take advantage of Rudi had another think coming. He won an astonishing one hundred first prizes in international races. They didn’t just give those away. Many gifted drivers perished in those dangerous decades, but Rudolf Caracciola survived –  if at times barely –  to become a champion for the ages.