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75 years ago: triple victory for Mercedes-Benz in Tripoli

Triple victory ... Hermann Lang ahead of Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudolf Caracciola, all driving Mercedes-Benz W 154 cars

Triple victory ... Hermann Lang ahead of Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudolf Caracciola, all driving Mercedes-Benz W 154 cars


Stuttgart, 7 May, 2013

Stuttgart – A triple victory was secured for Mercedes-Benz and the then new W 154 twelve-cylinder racing car on 15 May 1938. Hermann Lang won the Tripoli Grand Prix, ahead of fellow drivers Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudolf Caracciola. This one-two-three win launched a season that saw Mercedes-Benz dominate European racing – a season in which Caracciola would also be crowned European Champion. Sand, heat and a dangerously fast route: the conditions faced by participants in the 1938 Tripoli Grand Prix, the first major race of the season. After 40 laps of the 13.1 kilometre course, Hermann Lang secured victory driving the new Mercedes-Benz W 154 racing car in 2h 33m 17.14s. The former motor racing mechanic earned the first starting place after achieving the fastest training time (3m 26.24s) and dominated the entire race. He lapped the entire field – even the two W 154 vehicles driven by his teammates, who finished the race 4m 38.50s (von Brauchitsch) and 5m 13.62s (Caracciola) later.

“I was the first foreigner to now have won the million-dollar race twice in succession,” reminisces Lang in his autobiography “Vom Rennmonteur zum Meisterfahrer” (From racing mechanic to racing champion). He secured victory in the Tripoli Grand Prix for Mercedes-Benz a total of three times, one year after the other: in 1937 with the W 125, in 1938 with the W 154 and in 1939 driving the 1.5-litre W 165 racing car designed specifically for the event – ahead of Rudolf Caracciola, who secured the double victory, equally behind the wheel of the W 165.

V12 racing car for the new Grand Prix formula

In 1938, there was a new formula for the Grand Prix vehicle: the cars with mechanical chargers were permitted a maximum of 3 litres displacement, no more than 4.5 litres with a naturally aspirated engine. These specifications called for a completely new vehicle and head engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut used them as a basis for designing the Mercedes-Benz race car with twelve-cylinder engine. The W 154 was capable of achieving up to 468 hp (344 kW), its V12 engine with 60-degree cylinder bank angle was supplied with compressed intake air via two roots type compressors. An aerodynamically efficient vehicle body protected the technology within. Racing manager Alfred Neubauer recalls the design of the W 154 in his biography: “It looked more like a silver ray than a silver arrow, it was more like the wing of a utopian jet fighter than an automobile.”

The new W 154 made its first appearance at the Pau Grand Prix on 10 April 1938. The main priority for the Mercedes-Benz racing team here was to sound out what exactly the new car was capable of. Hermann Lang described this Grand Prix as a “test run under racing conditions”.

The championship in sight

The actual season kicked off in Tripoli. The team travelled by land to Palermo, where they continued on to Libya by ship. “Tripoli is always an experience, despite the heat, the awful fine, dusty yellow sand and the particularly nasty midgets,” remembers Rudolf Caracciola. The 1938 race was a very difficult one; for the first time the Grand Prix vehicles were starting together with the Voiturettes. The various speeds made for some hairy encounters along the circuit.

Mercedes-Benz continued the successful streak started in Tripoli with the qualifying race for the European Championship. Triple victories were also secured at the French Grand Prix (3 July 1938) and the Swiss Grand Prix (21 August 1938). At the German Grand Prix (24 July 1938), the “Silver Arrow” from Mercedes-Benz secured first and second place. Third place in the Italian Grand Prix (11 September 1938) was then achieved by Rudolf Caracciola to secure the title.