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The British hero of the thirties



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Richard Seaman


Scuderia Torino Maserati V-8R1




1936 German GP


During the 1934 season Maserati built a new 3.2-litre 6-cylinder engine that fitted into the existing 8CM chassis. The combination was known as the Tipo 34. For 1935 the company built a totally new car, the V-8R1. The car was clearly affected by the new German cars of the era. The engine was a 4.4-litre V-8 with single camshafts per bank and 2 valves per cylinder. There were two carburettors and a single Roots-type supercharger giving an estimated 300 bhp. The chassis was of channel section type. The transmission was a copy of the Mercedes with the gearbox in the rear of the car. The front suspension with swinging links and torsion bars was influenced by Auto Union, a prototype had earlier been tested on Siena's Tipo 34. The front suspension was enclosed into the streamlined body, another part of the car influenced from the Mercedes. The rear suspension consisted of swinging half axles over semi-elliptic springs.

It was a car of great promise but unfortunately the V-8R1 was to become one of the least successful Maseratis because once the new car was built Maserati lost interest in Grand Prix racing and the car was never fully developed. The "works" entries were handled by Scuderia Subalpina. The new car made its debut at the Marne Grand Prix with Philippe Étancelin as driver. He finished second in the heat but retired in the final with a broken piston. The car failed to appear at the Belgian GP, then it was withdrawn from the Coppa Acerbo before Étancelin crashed it at the Italian GP. In the Donington GP Farina showed the potential of the car by leading the race in comfortable style until having to retire with a broken half-shaft. For 1936 the engine was increased to 4788cc (84x108mm) but otherwise little work was done to the car. Its greatest moment came at the Pau Grand Prix where Étancelin succeeded in bringing the car home in first position to its only victory.

At the German Grand Prix Dick Seaman got the chance to race the Scuderia Torino V-8R1. He retired after three laps with brake problems. Later in the race Seaman relieved Trossi at the wheel of a Maserati 4C, finishing in 8th place. It was Seaman's first acquaintance with Maserati which in the end turned out to be nothing but a brief love affair, for Richard John Beattie Seaman, known as Dick, made his name in ERA voiturettes and of course for Mercedes in their mighty W125s.

Born from a wealthy family on the 3rd or 4th (depending on sources) February 1913 in Sussex, Britain's fastest driver of the era started racing with a Riley sports car in minor trials, including an "adventure" into the Shelsley Walsh Hillclimb in 1931 where he finished second in his class, only beaten by Whitney Straight in a similar car. They met again soon, this time in Cambridge, at the Trinity College. In the following two years, both men managed to study during the week and race cars during the weekends. Seaman drove an MG Magna in several local races and trials and a Bugatti at Donington and Brooklands.

Then, by 1934, aged 21, he took the decision to leave Cambridge and dedicate his life to racing. The obvious first step was to join his friend Whitney Straight and his racing team, the Whitney Straight Stable, making his debut on July 22, in the second Grand Prix d'Albi for voiturettes. Against the usual mix of French drivers on a minor voiturette race, Dick Seaman placed the MG K3 3011 (the car Whitney Straight had campaigned in 1933) on pole position. The race was spoiled right at the start when the cars were held at the grid for too long. Seaman's car boiled and then stalled. He was given a push-start by some eager spectators, for which he was fined, and then retired after a few laps. Not quite a satisfactory debut.

A fortnight later, on the 15th of August, he entered in a cyclecar race, the sixth Coppa Acerbo Junior. We should remember that the MGs, due to the size of their engine (1100cc) were admitted as participants in both cyclecar and voiturette races. Starting from the second row, Seaman witnessed how his team mate Hugh Hamilton took the lead after also stalling on the grid to win the race in style, whilst Seaman himself managed a very creditable third place. Back then Barré Lyndon made these comments: "R.J.B. Seaman, who, although virtually a newcomer to the racing world, drove with considerable zest and was rapidly securing recognition as a man who might eventually be very widely known." For those who are sceptical about prophecies, this book was published in November 1935.

Ten days later, at the first Prix de Berne (the Swiss Voiturette Grand Prix), held as a support race to the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten, both Hugh Hamilton and Seaman started from the back row as a result of the grid being decided by ballot. An excellent race and a touch of luck led to Seaman inheriting the lead on lap 11 when Romano Malaguti's Maserati started misfiring. Seaman won his first international event (at only his third attempt) that morning. Unfortunately, this victory was going to give a short-lived happiness as, in the afternoon, Hugh Hamilton, driving Whitney Straight's Maserati 8CM for the main event, whilst lying sixth on the very last lap, lost control on a corner on the damp track and skidded into a tree, killing himself instantly. What should have been a wonderful day for the team ended tragically.

Unfortunately, this was not the end. The news came to England, but with a mistake, as Hamilton was quoted as the winner of the voiturette race and Seaman as the victim of the fatal accident. Unconfirmed legend has it that Seaman's father, aged 76, suffered a heart attack whilst hearing the news, and when the mistake was corrected it was too late for his recovery. We don't know if there is any truth to that but the fact is Seaman Sr indeed died around that time.

His son drove three further races in 1934. At the end of September, he entered the Masaryk GP for voiturettes at Brno where he finished fifth and, as soon as the race ended, he set off with his mechanic and towed the MG home to England where a handicap race which included a class for 1500 cc cars was being held just six days later. Seaman made it to the race. He was second overall to Raymond Mays' ERA and won his class quite easily. Then, finally, he decided to follow Whitney to South Africa for the final race of the year - and the first South African Grand Prix. We know Straight won, but did you know Seaman finished fourth with his K3?

Then came 1935 and, with Whitney Straight dismantling his team after promising his wife to quit, Seaman had to find an alternative drive. Following ERA's promising 1934 start, Seaman convinced his wealthy mother into buying him an ERA. Raymond Mays, always quick to spot talent (and a promotional opportunity for ERA) offered Seaman the chance to run as a team member. His car, the R1B, painted in black, started the season as part of the ERA team, but the first five races ended with five retirements (here Seaman is seen on pole at Dieppe) due to mechanical troubles. This led to Seaman's disenchantment with the works preparation and so he took the R1B away from the factory at Bourne. Preparation of the R1B was then entrusted to that great mechanic Giulio Ramponi (twice winner of the Mille Miglia with Campari and ex-chief mechanic at Alfa Romeo).

It finally started to come together. From August 4th to September 29th in 1935, Seaman and the R1B dominated the racing scene in Europe. They won the Coppa Acerbo Junior at Pescara, the second Prix de Berne at Bremgarten, and the Masaryk Grand Prix at Brno, also achieving 1st in his class and 2nd overall (to Stuck) in the internationally acclaimed hillclimb at Freiberg in Germany.

Whatever impressive these results, Seaman decided that his relation with ERA had proved disappointing, and he sold the R1B. That was the start of one of the most fascinating stories of that decade, when Ramponi - who had been in contact with Seaman from the days of the Whitney Straight Stable, as he was its chief mechanic - was able to convince Seaman of the fact that his best choice for 1936 would be a 1927 Delage! He was specifically talking about the one Lord Howe had been driving the previous year and was now for sale. We will avoid the temptation of getting into the full story of "The Black Delage", a car that in itself is deserving of a book, but the astonishing choice and the excellent work of both Ramponi and Seaman provided for an incredible 1936 voiturette season, in which the combination of Seaman and Delage proved to be unbeatable, taking the season by storm.

Thus, in July he was invited by the Maserati works to drive the V-8R1 at the Nürburgring. In August he was again invited to drive the same car in the Coppa Acerbo, in which he also retired. Incidentally, this race ended the incipient love affair between Maserati and Seaman, as in the junior race Seaman won eight seconds ahead of Trossi. Nothing new, actually, but Maserati filed a protest against Seaman's Delage, asking for a verification of its engine capacity. Not only that, but they also decided that the following weekend they would be withdrawing the Maserati works entries of Tenni and Trossi from the Bremgarten event. Of course, as it was expected, the sinister looking black Delage took another victory.

As for the reasons behind Maserati's invitation, we can only guess. The fact is that Trossi, his biggest rival in the voiturette series, was well aware of the Englishman's bravery and could have suggested his name. It's another fact that earlier in the season Seaman had rented Harry Rose's Maserati to participate in the BRDC Empire Trophy at Donington Park, actually winning it. Make up your minds...

As for the remainder of the 1936 season, things went downhill for Dick. Seaman began to overdrive the car, suffering two serious accidents within fifteen days, first in the Eifelrennen and then at the Picardy GP at Péronne. In both cases, excess speed whilst cornering ended with him off the track hitting things. So for 1937, Seaman sold the Delage, dismantled the team, withdrew his project with Dr Porsche to build a car with two Napier engines (in order to challenge for the world speed record) and went on to live in Germany.

What was the reason for that?

It was the infamous Mercedes Benz testing season that led Neubauer to select Kautz and Seaman as drivers for the squad in 1937. After an accident in February testing when he destroyed one of the cars, Seaman drove Mercedes' new and formidable W125 in nine races, scoring one second, two fourths, two fifths and a seventh, with two retirements and a crash that wasn't truly his fault. The power gap between the Delage (about 170/185bhp) and the W125 (about 646bhp from 5660cc) was enormous, and Seaman had done well to finish with such consistent results. By all standards he should have enjoyed an easier and more successful time in 1938-'39 and stood a good chance of proving himself in the formula's new 3-litre cars. As it turned out, he was allowed just four starts from nine races of 1938, which he put to pretty useful purpose with a win, in Germany of all places, a second, a third and a retirement.

At the end of the year, in December, Dick married Erika, a German girl he had met in Munich a couple of months before. Seaman's mother was extremely opposed to such a move, and not only she did not attend the wedding but also modified her will to exclude Dick as her lawful heir. Tough times...

By 1939 he was clearly feeling he was walking on political eggshells with the massive worsening of the European situation following the successive German annexations of Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states. Seaman decided to stick it out, largely on the advice of Lord Howe, who was a great support to him in those difficult times. He first wrote to Howe, chairman of the British Racing Drivers Club, submitting his doubts. Howe wrote back with a clear message: "Every personal contact in Germany should be kept alive for as long as possible. We are still keeping good relations with the Reich. It is our opinion, without any doubt, that you should stay in Germany driving for Mercedes." Seaman acknowledged: "I am very glad that your advice takes the form it does, for I have always thought that it would be better for me to remain with Mercedes in spite of political difficulties."

Despite a fastest practice lap at Pau he did not take the start. He retired in the Eifelrennen after burning the clutch on the grid. Then, at the end of June, Seaman went on to Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix. We all know he suffered a fatal crash when he was leading the race on lap 22. There are two details we would like to introduce at this point: first there was an offer from a Belgian industrialist to pay 50,000 francs to the driver making the fastest lap. Was Seaman tempted? Second, there was a technique consisting on putting your front internal wheel on the external part of the bricks surrounding the corners, thus forcing the car to turn. This driving technique was used in the dry, of course, and nobody dared to use it in the wet. Well, nobody but Seaman that afternoon.

His place in history is hard to assess. Of course he was by far and away the most successful British driver of his day, and after his win at the 'Ring in 1938 the German Automobil Revue was speaking of him as "the equal of Lang and Brauchitsch". His next drive, in the rain at Berne against Caracciola, did a great deal to solidify his position as "...one of the greatest racing drivers in the world". And then came his last race at Spa in 1939, where the weather was so bad that even Caracciola himself left the road for good at La Source on lap nine (of 35), though Seaman plugged relentlessly on, overtaking the cars ahead of him, until he led the whole race.

At that point, and with victory almost in hand, he surely had no need to hurry any more, but simply to concentrate on driving steadily to the finish without taking unnecessary risks. Yet this was just what he could not do. Then one thinks of the day in 1935 when he overdid things while practicing a Brno, later admitting to George Monkhouse that "There were times when he had the urge to take a corner much to fast... (and) ...found the urge quite irresistible". In this same line of thinking, his biographer, Prince Chula, added that "Dick was anxious to hide this during his lifetime, but now the fact can be revealed, as it has a strong bearing, possibly on the cause of the worst accident of his career" and, perhaps also on his two crashes in the Eifelrennen and Péronne in June of 1936.

What destructive devil had driven him to that last excess? For a start he was known to believe that "when in the lead, you must try to get at least one minute ahead". We must also not forget that he probably wanted to show both Mercedes and Neubauer that he was worth much more than the reserve status showed in 1939. One more thought, that William Court points out, is that in 1939 Seaman was "simply short of racing practice and, at Spa of all places, and in the wet, that was a massive recipe for trouble". Finally, there was his own driving temperament, highlighted over the years by two very astute and knowledgeable Italians: Ramponi, who had ridden or driven with so many of the great ones, counseling him in his Delage days: "Make you no exaggeration, Mr Seaman!" And Ugolini's description of him, back in 1938: "Fast, but a trifle to risky!"

Whatever the conclusions one might extract, it's only fair to acknowledge that Der Engländer had been an excellent ambassador for his country over his life in the sports arena. Without any doubt, the best British driver of the Golden Era, when no green cars were represented at the top, and all the responsibility of representing Britain on the highest level was thrusted on his shoulders. It was going to take Britain a couple of years to find a similar idol: when Seaman died, Moss was still a kid aged 8.

For a full race account take a look here.

Reader's Why by Robert Blinkhorn

In the history of Mercedes Benz, Richard Seaman holds the unenviable position as the only man to die while racing for the three-pointed star.

Born into a wealthy family in 1913 Seaman's love of cars began as a young boy and as soon as he was old enough his parents bought him a Riley sportscar. Like many wealthy young men he went to Cambridge to complete his education and it was here that that he met the American Whitney Straight. In 1934, to his parent's horror, he abandoned his education and embarked on a career as a racing driver. Running an MG Magnette, bought from Straight, he entered his first international event in the Grand Prix de l'Albigeois. It was not an auspicious start as young Richard stalled on the grid. His next outing proved more fruitful. In the Voiturette race preceding the Coppa Acerbo he managed to finish third. His first victory came in the support race for the 1934 Swiss Grand Prix although the weekend was soured by the death of his friend Hugh Hamilton who died during the main event.

When Whitney Straight quit racing Dick recruited his friend's mechanic Giulio Ramponi and with the Italian's help he was soon winning voiturette races. That brough him to the attention of the established teams. As a result at the Geman race of 1936 he made his debut on board a full-blown Grand Prix car for Scuderia Torino.

For the remainder of the 1936 Seaman ran a 10-year old Delage on the advice of Ramponi and the results were sensational. Stripped and heavily modified the car proved to be unbeatable in the 1500cc class and as a result Dick was invited to Daimler-Benz for a trial. He impressed and was signed for the 1937 season. There was some doubt as to the merits of driving for a German team, given the political situation in Europe, but on the advice of his friend Lord Howe, Dick considered it too great an opportunity to miss. He made his debut at Tripoli and ran second before mechanical problems dropped him back to seventh. Over the coming months he became a popular member of the team and was held in high regard by most of his colleagues, especially Alfred Neubauer, the legendary team boss.

In 1938 as the most junior member of the team Seaman had to wait for his car and although he attended the French Grand Prix it was as a reserve driver. In the next major event, the German Grand Prix, he was to make his mark in the biggest possible way.

He qualified third behind fellow Mercedes pilots, von Brauchitsch and Lang. The failure of the starting lights led to a messy beginning to the race but Dick managed to finish the first lap in second place behind Lang. On lap 7 he took the lead only to lose it next time round as he came in for his pitstop. During the stop he was ordered by Neubauer to hold his position and not challenge von Brauchitsch for the lead. Reluctantly he agreed although it seemed irrelevant as the German nobleman had by now established a large lead over the rest of the field. It looked like a German win was on the cards. However it all went wrong during von Brauchitsch's stop. During refuelling his car was splashed with petrol as were most of the pit crew and the driver. A fire ensued but that was soon brought under control. Incredibly von Brauchitsch elected to continue, despite having a car covered in foam and wearing heavily burned overalls. Not surprisingly the German's race did not last much longer and as he passed through the Flugplatz his car went off the road at more than 140 mph. He was fortunate to escape serious injury.

That left Seaman in front and he stayed there to register the first win by a British driver since 1923. His only comment was that he would have preferred to win in a British car. In the remaining three races of the season he finished second in Switzerland, third at Donington and was forced to retire from the Italian Grand Prix. He had done enough to secure his place in the team for the 1939 season.

The year started with Seaman as the reserve driver once more as only two cars were ready for the first race at Pau. In his first outing of the year, at the Eifelrennen, he suffered a clutch failure on the first lap. The season had not got off to the best of starts for Seaman and as he arrived for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, the first championship race, he was determined to do well. Start positions were determined by ballot and Dick found himself on the second row. As is often the case at Spa the rain was beating down as the cars took their places on the grid. Seaman made a poor start and at the end of the first lap he was running in sixth place. On lap three he managed to get past Farina and began closing the gap on the leaders. The leading Mercedes driver, Lang, was struggling to get past a very wide Müller in the Auto Union and having spent several laps chasing him he elected to wave his team mates through. Caracciola and Seaman were acknowledged experts in the rain and stood a better chance of passing Müller. Despite several serious attempts Caracciola made little impact on the Auto Union and on lap nine he made a rare mistake and spun off at La Source. Two laps later Müller made his scheduled pitstop and Seaman suddenly found himself in the lead.

On lap 18 having returned to the lead after making his own pitstop Seaman crashed his car on the approach to La Source. The Mercedes left the track, sideswipped a tree and burst into flames. The impact with the tree had deformed the cockpit and Dick was trapped in the burning car. Having broken his hand in the impact he could do little to save himself. Two Belgian officials came to his rescue but he had already spent more than a minute in the inferno. On arrival at the local hospital it was revealed that he had suffered major burns to more than 60% of his body. He briefly recovered consciousness later that evening, when the team came to visit, but by midnight he was dead.

In his honour all Mercedes dealerships were instructed to place his portrait in their windows. Britain's greatest pre-war driver had earned the respect of the best Germany had to offer.

In May 1999 Mercedes-Benz, now just another of the world's great faceless industrial combines, dipped into their impressive bank account and paid John Surtees, John Watson and Mario Haberfeld to show up at Donington Park. They also delivered a W154 machine for a demonstration run on what is certainly Britain's best circuit. The event was a memorial to Seaman, and was staged by the Vintage Sports Car Club. The cynics will say that funding the event was all part of Mercedes' plan of global domination and that it could be written off as a tax loss and even idealists have to admit that it is true that any public display will be of benefit to a commercial organisation.

Come forward a month, to June, when a large floral tribute was delivered, unannounced, to an immaculately maintained grave. Nothing unusual there you might think. However, every year since 1939 a similar tribute has been delivered on the 25th of June. The grave is maintained by Mercedes and marks Seaman's final resting place. Is there a PR value in the exercise? Maybe. Is that the point of it? Make up your own mind.