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The 1939 Championship mystery



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Hermann Lang


Mercedes-Benz W154 3.0-litre (chassis no.7)




1939 Belgian GP (June 25, 1939)


A known fact about Grand Prix racing is that some of the most bitter fights have occurred between members of the same team. Especially when the team has been dominating the season but there hasn't been a clear number-one driver, the result has been trouble and sometimes catastrophe. Williams even lost the championship twice (1981 and 1986) due to internal fighting. We remember Senna vs. Prost, Mansell vs. Piquet, Villeneuve vs. Pironi, Fittipaldi vs. Peterson, Jones vs. Reutemann. Then try to imagine a team with a dominant car and four drivers, each of them believing himself to be the fastest. Then you get some idea of the problems the Mercedes team faced during the 1939 season.

Back in 1903 the Mercedes drivers Werner and Hieronymus were denied an entry at the Gordon Bennett race by the Deutsche Automobil Club. As non-club members they could not be considered Hochwohlgeborene ("gentlemen") and had thus to be regarded as common riff-raff. While the situation had changed quite a bit in 36 years, Hermann Lang, with his background as a mechanic, was still just barely tolerable to Caracciola and von Brauchitsch, i.e. barely tolerable as long he wasn't winning!

For the Nazis, who wanted to turn GP racing to a Volkssport (an "all people's sport"), Hermann Lang however became their natural choice after Rosemeyer' had died. Caracciola had by now moved to Switzerland, Seaman was a foreigner and von Brauchitsch was the nephew of the Army Commander in Chief. While the German army had been "tamed" by Nazi intrigues in 1938 the Wehrmacht still remained the most dangerous enemy to the Nazis. Here to avoid any misunderstandings we must quote Alfred Neubauer: "...ein Nazi war der Hermann nicht" ("Hermann was no Nazi").

The 1938 season had been a good one for Mercedes-Benz with six major victories, two each for Caracciola and Lang and one each for von Brauchitsch and Seaman. At the end of the season there were signs that Auto Union had finally got their act together after the confusion in the team that had followed the death of Rosemeyer, Nuvolari winning the last two races of the season.

Mercedes-Benz was therefore looking for a way to improve the performance of their 3-litre W154 cars. The solution was multi-stage supercharging. A larger primary blower was situated to the right and a smaller secondary blower to the left, both running at a speed of 1.25 of the crankshaft.

The manufacturer also decided to built a completely new engine, the M163, using the experiences gained by the M154. The new engine had a stronger design that solved the M154's heavy oil consumption. The compression was higher and the fuel injection features that had been included in the M154 design were missing. Four of the new engines were built and used together with the older engines during the season. The M163 engine created confusion in the motor books, as the car after the war became incorrectly known as the W163. The correct name was still W154 as it was in 1938.

The 1939 cars also featured a new body on the old chassis making the car almost 100 kg lighter. The outer edges of the brake drums were redesigned so that they worked like fans blowing cool air through the brakes. The radiator was of a new design, giving the car a smaller front area. While the team made great efforts so fill the individual needs of each driver, some compromises had to be done. The saddle tank over the drivers legs got a volume of 185 litres and the rear tank 235 litres giving a total of 420 litres, A system of pipes, connected the two tanks. This was a configuration weighted towards Lang's wishes. Caracciola would have preferred a larger saddle tank, giving the car a lower moment of inertia, better fitting his type of driving. It is hard to know how much the decision influenced the results of the 1939 season but one can look at more recent events that show that changes to the cars can change not only the absolute performace but also the drivers' relative performance. For example, Prost could dominate over his teammates as long as the cars were constructed to understeer but faced with the neutral MP4/4 in 1988 he lost out to Senna. And rumours say that the changes in the McLaren drivers fortunes during this season had to do with changes in the balance of the car to compensate for the tighter engine software rules.

The season for Mercedes started off at Pau with three cars for their main drivers and Seaman as a reserve. Caracciola, von Brauchitsch and Lang dominated the early parts of the race. Then Caracciola was forced to retire with a loose oil pipe and short before the finish von Brauchitsch made an unnecessary pitstop for fuel due to a pick up problem. That gave Lang his first victory of the season.

The Tripoli GP was held to the 1.5-litre formula and Mercedes sensationally entered two W165 voiturettes for Caracciola and Lang. Lang was fastest during the first practice and the Mercedes team decided not to start in the last session to save the new cars, a decision not appreciated by Caracciola.

There was considerable tension between the drivers on the evening before the race as the cars had different gears and Direktor Sailer had to step in as he gave Caracciola first choice of which car to drive. Caracciola selected the car with better acceleration and went for a non-stop race. Lang was given the car with higher top speed and was asked to go flat with light fuel load to break the opposition, even with the chance that the Mercedes engine couldn't take the beating. Caracciola's choice proved to be the wrong one. Lang dominated the race, almost lapping Caracciola. After that race the Mercedes drivers were no longer on speaking terms.

For the Eifelrennen Mercedes-Benz was out in force with five cars, Hugo Hartmann driving the fifth car. One of the cars had the new two-stage supercharger engine ready and was used by Lang, as both Caracciola and von Brauchitsch distrusted its reliability. Von Brauchitsch preferred to give the new M165 engine its debut instead. The team decided that all their drivers should go flat-out and make one pit stop. Both von Brauchitsch and Seaman destroyed their clutches at the start, Seaman retiring, von Brauchitsch falling back. During the first laps Lang was really flying and soon opened up a 14-second gap. Caracciola answered the challenge and pulled back the gap to 8 seconds before taking over the lead as Lang went in for a 33s stop on lap 4. Caracciola's stop on lap 6 lasted 37 seconds and he returned to the track just behind Lang.

Nuvolari's Auto Union, on a non-stop strategy, was now leading but Lang was using his new engine to the limit. He caught and passed the Auto Union, breaking Rosemeyer's lap record from 1936 in the chase. Lang took his third victory of the season followed by Nuvolari, Caracciola and von Brauchitsch. After the race there was trouble as the relationship between team manager Neubauer and Caracciola broke down completely. On a meeting the following day with Mercedes manager Dr. Kissel and engineer Uhlenhaut, Caracciola accused the team of favouring Lang, sabotaging the pit stops, and filling the tank with 300 litres instead of just the necessary 100 litres during the stop, thus making Caracciola's car heavy. He also accused them of giving the best engine to Lang, and blamed them for bad tyres, grid positions and engines during the last seasons and so on.

Lang then took his fourth victory at the Kahlenberg mountainclimb in Austria, racing a special Mercedes with double rear wheels.

For the Belgian GP, the first championship race of the season, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams entered four cars each. The other Mercedes drivers were suddenly more than willing to use the two-stage supercharger and it was found on Caracciola's, Lang's and Seaman's cars, while von Brauchitsch again used the new M163 engine. Auto Union entered Nuvolari, Hasse, Müller and motor cycle driver Meier, who was making his GP debut. Two Alfa Romeos were also present for Farina and Sommer and the rest of the field consisted of Mandirola's private voiturette Maserati and two Delahaye sportscars for Mazaud and Gérard.

Lang was fastest during practice but as the grid was decided by ballot he found himself at the middle of the first row for the race. Belgium had not seen rain for 40 days but on race day the rain was pouring down. As the grid was lined up downhill the Mercedes team had put pieces of chalk in front of the wheels to hinder any false starts. Farina's Alfa however started to roll down towards Eau Rouge long before the flag was dropped. That did not hinder the German cars from soon catching the Alfa and pass it, Müller leading after one lap from Lang, Nuvolari, Caracciola, Farina and Seaman. At the front, Müller was running in the middle of the road and blocking any attempts to pass by Lang, seemingly unaware of the Mercedes driver's fist shakings. Lang was clearly faster but every time he tried to pass he was hit in the face by water thrown up by the Auto Union and had to back off as the face mask did not hinder the water from entering Lang's mouth, making him choke.

Neubauer's protests to the organizers only resulted in that the marshals started to show blue flags to Lang instead of Müller! Lang, who did not like racing in the rain, finally got enough and waved both Caracciola and Seaman by so that they could have a try. Caracciola was also blocked by Müller and got so frustrated that he made a mistake and spun in La Source hairpin and stalled, ending his race there and then.

On lap 11 Müller got problems and went into the pits, leaving the lead to Seaman, who immediately started to make some really fast laps, trying to open up a gap to Lang. But Lang was informed by Neubauer that Nuvolari in 3rd place was closing and answered by setting the fastest lap of the race. Both Seaman and Lang made their pitstop on lap 17. Seaman lost a few seconds with a jamming wheel nut and Lang came back to the track in the lead.

Now let us see the situation from Seaman's point of view considering that Seaman's only other start in the season so far, the Eifelrennen, had ended on the first lap. For over a decade Rudi Caracciola had held the status as Mercedes-Benz number one driver. Only Luigi Fagioli had seriously tried to challenge him but he had failed. But now in June 1939 it was clear that Lang had successfully done what had seemed impossible, taking over the status as first driver from Caracciola. With such major changes going on in the team, a young driver had nothing to lose but everything to win by trying to take a dominant victory over his teammates. So on the next lap Seaman was back in the lead and continued to pull away at an incredible rate. After 21 laps Seaman led by half a minute over Lang.

In those days somewhere near the place where the bus-stop chicane now lies was a fast left hander called the Club Corner. Coming into that corner Seaman suddenly missed his entry point and left the track sideways. The Mercedes car hit a tree and then wrapped itself around another tree. Seaman's right hand was broken and the driver was trapped behind the steering wheel. The fuel lines between the saddle tank and the rear tank broke and fuel rushed into the cockpit and over the exhaust and ignited. As the driver had taken some 420 litres of metyl alcohol, nitro benzol, acetone and ether on board just a few laps earlier, one can only imagine the inferno that broke out. After a minute of futile rescuing efforts one or two Belgian soldiers finally walked right into the fire and managed to release the poor driver.

Lang made an extra stop to tell Neubauer what had happened and asked if he could retire. Unaware of the seriousness of the crash Neubauer asked Lang to race on.

A carburettor error made Lang's car heavy on fuel consumption and with 3 km to go on the penultimate lap Lang's engine stopped, restarted and stopped again. Lang managed to cruise the last kilometers to La Source and then rolled down into the pits where the team quickly filled 30 litres of fuel into the tank. But the fuel lines were empty too and the car refused to restart. Lang's car rolled down the hill to Eau Rouge and finally just as he reached the uphill and was passed by Hasse the engine started. Lang went away at full speed to retake the lead and opened up a 17-second gap on just one lap to take a joyless victory.

After the race the drivers went to the hospital where Seaman had recovered consciousness for a short time and could explain that he in his eagerness to show that he now was the new rain master had simply run too fast and made a mistake. Seaman had suffered burns on 60 percent of the body and died soon afterwards, the first fatal incident for the team since Otto Merz at Avus 1933.

The superstitious Seaman always had 13 as his unlucky number. Afterwards GP historians loved to find multiples of 13 related to Seaman's accident. There had been 13 starters at the race. With 13 laps to go he crashed in car No. 26 after passing the 13-kilometre post after doing a 26-second pitstop. He was brought to room 39 at the hospital and died at an age of 26 and so on.

The season continued. At the French GP Caracciola, who clearly was out to beat Lang, overdid it, slid off the track and crashed into a house wall on the first lap. The fuel tank split, fortunately this time without any consequences for the driver. Lang was leading the race by over 2 minutes when the car started to smoke. He had to retire the race with a blown piston. Müller took victory for Auto Union.

At the German GP Lang led by 28s after the first lap and by 40s after the second before he encountered the same engine symptoms as in France. He decided to retire in the pits rather than to have his engine destroyed. Neubauer signalled junior driver Brendel to come in so that Lang could take over the car. But Brendel refused to obey and instead crashed the Mercedes on the next lap. Caracciola took victory, the last of his career.

Lang then won the Großer Bergpreis von Deutschland (German Mountain Grand Prix) mountainclimb in Großglockner, Austria. He also was victorious at a rainy Swiss GP, taking the flag 3 seconds in front of a charging Caracciola.

In the last race before the war, the Belgrade street race, Lang had to retire as a stone thrown up from von Brauchitsch's car smashed both the windshield of Lang's car and the driver's goggles forcing Lang into the pits with pieces of glass in one eye. As the news service broke down due to the war, rumours circled for some time that Lang in fact had had a serious or possibly even fatal crash.

There were never any official results of the 1939 championship as the season was interrupted and the AIACR could not meet because of the war. However, Lang was unofficially declared European Champion in December 1939 by NSKK-Korpsführer Hühnlein. So Lang became known as the 1939 champion and he never had any doubts about his championship himself. But later investigations show that Müller (Auto Union) would have been the rightful champion so Lang's 1939 title is strange and doubtful. Everybody agrees that Lang deserved the title as the best driver that year but rightfully the title should have gone to Müller.

Reader's Why by Don Capps

This was the event where Dick Seaman lost control at the former Club Corner - now "Seaman's Corner" - which is just past the 13-km stone on the circuit going towards the la Source hairpin. With the weather being worse than usual - heavy rain with periods of light or even no rain in some places while it was coming down in buckets elsewhere - the Briton was participating in his first real race of the season. At the Eifelrennen his clutch failed at the start and he was a spectator almost immediately.

At Spa, H.P. Mueller in the Auto Union shot off into the rain with all the others in pursuit. It was so bad that even Caracciola spun off! Seaman managed to get into the lead and was holding a solid lead in the unpredictable conditions. For some reason - the urge to win being an obvious one - Seaman didn't slack off his pace and got caught short at Club and left the road, smashing into some trees. The impact knocked Seaman out and broke his right arm - and also ruptured the pipe connecting the fuel tanks, Unfortunately for Seaman, the fuel ignited when it reached the exhaust pipes. According to Chris Nixon, a Belgian paper - La Meuse of Liege - credits a Lieutenant Hauman of the 1st Belgian Lancers for finally extracting Season from the burning machine. Alas, by the time Lieutenant Hauman had extracted Seaman, the driver was severely burned. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where they did what little they could. According to legend (Neubauer), Seaman took the blame for the crash saying that he was merely trying to show Caracciola who the new Regenmeister was. He died just before midnight.

But, the picture is of Lang, not Seaman. Lang was the racing mechanic who got the opportunity to make the team. In 1939, he was at the what was surely the top of his game, pushing team leader Caracciola to the maximum and getting the coolness of The Old Master in return. Going into the race at Spa, Lang was three-for-three having won at Pau, Mellaha, and the Eifelrennen. At the start, Lang was behind Mueller and Caracciola and then moved up when the latter spun off - but not after shaking his fist at Hermann-Paul…. Not being able to make headway against the Auto Union driver, Lang waved Seaman past and settled back to watch the action. Seaman couldn't get past, but assumed the lead when Mueller pitted. With Seaman obviously having a great day, Lang set back and concentrated on surviving the race since the on-off-on showers were making the circuit different virtually every lap. Then Seaman plunged off the track up ahead and smashed into the trees. Lang slowed and watched the rescue of Seaman by the brave Lieutenant Hauman. Lang then stopped at the pits to inform them as to what had happened. It was obvious that it was a bad accident.

Lang was asked to continue the race and did so, going through the motions as he circulated around the damp circuit. On the penultimate lap, the engine died going into la Source, just past the scene of the Seaman accident. Lang rolled into the pits almost completely out of fuel. The mechanics splashed litres of fuel into the tanks, but the car refused to start. The mechanics pushed Lang almost all the way to Eau Rouge before the fuel finally entered the system and the engine finally fired. And Hasse screamed past just as Lang started up the hill to take the lead. Lang put in an extraordinary lap and won the race, little consolation for such a sad day.

Although Lang was clearly the top driver of the season - at least in opinion, he did not win the European Championship that season due to a series of flukes that defy belief and Hermann-Peter Mueller actually carried off the crown, although that satisfaction was denied him over the years.