1954 French Grand Prix (Credit: Daimler AG)
On it's debut Mercedes' streamlined W196 against Ascari's Maserati (Credit: Daimler AG)
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F1 1954: Mercedes-Benz Rule In New Engine Era

Formula One’s history is punctuated by major rule changes. For the 2014 season the raft of changes is led by a move from V8 to V6 turbocharged engines. Sixty years ago the teams faced a similar off-season change.

Both the 1952 and ’53 World Championship seasons were not Formula One seasons, instead run to then Formula Two regulations. However, for 1954 the world title was to again be contested by cars fitting a new Formula One specification.

Under the new rules cars could either be powered by a non-supercharged 2.5 litre engine (of any configuration) or a supercharged 750cc engine – a hold-over from the two Formula Two seasons during which the engine options were either this 750cc unit or a naturally aspirated two litre motor.

The chassis regulations of the formulas, however, were almost identical, allowing many teams – including the works teams from both Maserati and Ferrari to remain with the same cars, only fitted with the newer engine.

Ferrari and Maserati – the Italian powerhouses of the World Championship during the Formula Two years – opted to evolve their older machinery to the new regulations. Lancia and Mercedes-Benz, the other major manufacturers, were building all new cars for the new era. Neither, however, was ready for the start of the season in Buenos Aires.

It was Giuseppe Farina who lined up on pole in Argentina, his Ferrari 625 a barely altered Formula Two car, the in-line four cylinder opened out to 2.5 litres.

While Juan Manuel Fangio waited for the Mercedes’ debut, he was put at the head of the Maserati team he had raced for the previous season. He was at the wheel of a Maserati 250F the new car produced from parts of the Formula Two A6CGM. The older car, fitted with a 2.5 litre engine created by enlarging the two litre unit, remained part of Maserati’s works team, Fangio’s fellow Argentine Roberto Mieres starting from eighth.

One man left behind by the change of regulations was Alberto Ascari. The man who had dominated his way to the 1953 world title had left Ferrari for Lancia. The company was rushing to prepare to enter Formula One for first time, the project only set into motion late in ‘53. The team’s new car was not ready for the start of the season – Ascari’s debut in the D50 wouldn’t come until the final race of the year.

The older Ferraris struggled against the power of the Maserati driven by the man who already had one World Championship to his name. How won on home soil by well over a minute, and won again at Spa-Francorchamps to give himself a comfortable advantage in the championship ahead of Maurice Trintignant, who finished second at Spa in his Ferrari ahead of Stirling Moss in a privately run Maserati, gaining his first career podium.

There was just two weeks between the race in Belgium and the French Grand Prix at Reims, but the landscape of the season would change irrevocably in that time.

When the trio of Mercedes-Benz W196 appeared at the French track they must have looked like alien entities alongside the rest of the entry.

The streamlined silver body that enclosed the four wheels was not a secret – pictures of the machine were well circulated by the early July date in Normandy. However, it was only the sight of the cars at the track that convinced the doubters than the team intended to race the design.

Unlike Ferrari and Maserati their car and engine was designed specifically for the new regulations. For the formula, and for a majority of tracks on the calendar, the W196 was the perfect tool.

In a time when many tracks on the tour – including the 8.3km track at Reims – were run on closed public roads and characterised by long, fast straights the streamlined machine was well suited. Despite Mercedes’ mastery of supercharging they – like all by one team during the life of the regulations – opted for the 2.5litre option, adding fuel injection for the first time ever in an F1 car. The straight eight cylinder engine tilted 53° to the right, helping to lower the body’s profile giving the W196 a wider, lower appearance than its rival, even when it shed the streamlined ‘Monza’ body for later races.

Once the body was shed, the outward appearance of the car had more in common with the roadsters of the Indianapolis 500 than its European rivals. The race was a part of the World Championship throughout the 1950s but was always open to cars fitting different regulations. Teams and drivers from the European racing houses seldom appeared at the Brickyard, Ascari’s 1952 trip almost the lone exception.

While F1 had been forced into new designs by the new regulations, the cars at Indy had evolved through the early 50s to a point where Kurtis Kraft ‘roadsters’ had come to dominate the race, replacing the ‘upright’ cars that came before them. Like the Mercedes the Offenhauser engine that was omnipresent in the KK500 was laid over – sometimes are far over as 90° – to reduce the height of the bodywork. Over the two previous two years Bill Vukovich had come to lead the roadster charge at Indy. The ‘Silent Serb’ had come close to victory in 1952, before dominating the race a year later, leading 195 laps from pole position to win the race.

Bill Vukovich, 1954 Indianapolis 500

Bill Vukovich won the Indy 500, as he had done the previous year.

The 1954 task for Vukovich was a little tougher, starting the ‘Fuel Injection Special’ from 14th. However, he went on to put his face on the Borg Warner trophy for a second time winning by over a minute.

At Reims, as was expected from the start of the season Fangio had left Maserati for the German team, and immediately put the car on pole position ahead of Karl Kling in another Merc, Hans Herrmann in the third car was sixth fastest. Farina had started his last championship race of the season, sidelined by burns sustained during a sportscar race at Monza the weekend between Spa and Reims. In Farina’s absence Lancia (of sorts) provided Mercedes’ strongest challenger in France – still working on their new car they loaned their drivers Ascari and Luigi Villoresi to Maserati, Ascari lining up third.

He was the man most likely to prevent a debut win for the Stuttgart team, but his race lasted less than a lap before the transmission on his 250F surrendered. From then on the Mercedes’ were dominant.

While Fangio and Kling ran nose to tail at the front, swapping the lead back and forth edging towards the full lap advantage they would have at the end of the race Herrmann moved up the order setting fastest lap in the process, briefly giving the newcomers a 1-2-3 in the running before falling back and then retiring with a blown engine. Jose Froilan Gonzalez, with whom Herrmann had diced for third, also retired, Villoresi battled a sick engine to finish fifth behind privateers Robert Manzon and Prince Bira.

Reims made Mercedes, and with them Fangio, look unbeatable. It was not the case.

Nowhere was the W196 more fallible than the next round at Silverstone.

Fangio started on pole position. However, on the sort of soaking 17th July that even modern regular British GP will be well acquainted with, the Mercedes was outclassed.

The streamlined body that had been a large part of the Reims success was now and big silver shackle on the airfield track. Though the Silverstone of the 1950’s, run almost entirely on the perimeter tracks of the RAF base that spawned it, was a far faster proposition than the modern track it was a slow, short track compared to its 50s contemporaries, negating the body’s aerodynamic plus points.

Instead the front wings proved a hindrance during. Three times over the course of the weekend Fangio hit the marker barrels at the apex of corners, unable to judge exactly where he needed to put the car.

Gearbox problems – the car having to be held into both third and fourth gears – further limited Fangio. He finished fourth. Gonzalez led Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari 1-2, Maserati works driver Onofre Marimon third, equaling the best result of his World Championship career.

Marimon, Fangio’s Argentine protégé he had left at Maserati, became an unwelcome footnote in F1 history at the following Grand Prix. In practice at the Nurburgring he crashed his 250F near the left hand hairpin above Breidschied and was killed. The 30-year-old became the first victim of a fatal crash in World Championship history.

Nurburging: Fangio's fourth win of the year, the first race for the 'monoposto' Merc (Credit: Daimler AG)

Nurburging: Fangio’s fourth win of the year, the first race for the ‘monoposto’ Merc (Credit: Daimler AG)

Both Fangio and Gonzalez were affected by the accident. Hawthorn had to relieve Gonzalez during the race while Fangio, though he won the race on the first appearance of the open wheel body on the Mercedes, showed little intention of celebrating a victory that – especially with Gonzalez receiving half point for his a Hawthorn’s combined second place – put him a large step closer to a second world title.

The battle for the championship had evolved into an all Argentine affair, albeit one with Gonzalez as the underdog, fighting Fangio in an inferior car.

The Mercedes was dominant again at the Swiss GP at Bremgarten, Fangio leading all 66 laps after Gonzalez had started on pole position. With only the best five results from the season counting towards the championship the Swiss win guaranteed Fangio the title before his rival’s best hope of catching him had ever materialised.

Ferrari had a new car – the 553 – built to the new regulations. It, like the Mercedes, debuted at Reims but unlike the Silver Arrows the Ferrari proved a problematic machine. Both Gonzalez and Hawthorn had retired from the race, the 625 pressed back into action at Silverstone, though powered by the 553’s more powerful engine.

The 553 returned to racing at Monza, though Gonzalez again retired the new car, instead Gonzalez took half points for third place, replacing Umberto Maglioli at the wheel of a 625 at half distance.

In front of the Italian fans Fangio won in Monza. However, the Italian track, specifically the Lesmos and the cobbled Porfido curves that predated the Parabolica, didn’t suit the Mercedes streamliner he was equipped with.

Instead it had been Ascari (loaned from Lancia to Ferrari) and Moss (promoted to the Maserati works team after Marimon’s accident) who led much of the race. Only an oil leak in Moss’ charge prevented a home win for the Italian manufacturer. After dominance at Reims, the Nurburgring and Bremgarten fortune had given Fangio a sixth win of the season, and Mercedes and fourth.

Juan Manuel Fangio: Champion for a second time (Credit: Daimler AG)

Juan Manuel Fangio: Champion for a second time (Credit: Daimler AG)

Fortune could do nothing at the Spanish Grand Prix that closed the season.

There the cars to beat were the Ferrari 553 and the Lancia D50 – finally appearing on the scene. Just like Mercedes the Lancia brought another revolutionary design to the F1 grid. It was a compact car, a fact allowed by the externally mounted pannier fuel tanks between the wheels on both sides of the car that would also aid with weight distribution. It was also one of the lightest on the grid, the engine a stressed component, removing the need for a full-length space frame as found elsewhere. The handling was further improved by the driver’s low seating position, as the driveshaft passed through the car to his left, taking the power rearwards from a V8 engine turned slightly diagonally in the chassis.

Ascari put his new car to good use, leading a mouth-watering front row of he, Fangio, Hawthorn in the new Ferrari and American Harry Schell in his privateer Maserati.

Both of the Lancias, Villoresi in the sister D50, would retire early in the race, Ascari after leading seven laps. The race then evolved into a battle between Schell and Trintignant in the second works Ferrari 553 in the race. Over the space of 13 laps of the 6.3km circuit they swapped the lead ten times.

The final lead change between the pair was hastened when Schell spun and damaged his car. His sparring partner would follow into retirement soon after, leaving Hawthorn and Ferrari to take the final win of the year.

Fangio was never a factor in the race for the victory, the champion’s race becoming a battle against the conditions as his Mercedes’ wide radiator grill became more and more clogged by rubbish whipped up by a strong wind. Nursing the car home he lost second to Maserati works driver Luigi Musso in the closing laps.

Fangio celebrated the title with the Mercedes team. The W196 was the story of the season, the start of another brief but bright glimmer by the Silver Arrows. However, it was Fangio’s two early season wins, in a 250F built from Formula Two components, that had sent him on the way to the championship.