The Return of Mercedes

French Grand Prix Reims-Gueux Mercedes-Benz

In July 1938 Mercedes-Benz won the French Grand Prix on the Reims-Gueux circuit which was run over public roads near the city of Reims in the Champagne area. At that time Mercedes was dominant in Grand Prix racing, with only their German rival Auto-Union as a possible competitor. Now they were about to reappear…

By 1954 the war had been over in Europe for nine years and Mercedes was once again thinking about a return to racing. The German firm had designed a radical new car with a highly sophisticated and powerful in line 8 cylinder fuel injection motor and all independent suspension. They also had obtained the services of the superbly talented Juan Manuel Fangio, the 1951 World Champion, to lead their new team.

Mercedes decided to make their return at the French Grand Prix at Reims on July 4, 1954. The race was held again at Reims-Gueux, which had been made even faster than it had been before the war. Mercedes brought three of their new W196 Formula 1 cars with fully enclosed bodywork for better straight line speed on this high speed circuit which was laid out in a rough triangle with two very long, very fast straights. Fangio and his teammate Karl Kling qualified fastest and shared the front row of the grid with a Maserati driven by the 1952 and 1953 Italian World Champion Alberto Ascari. Ascari’s race was short as he experienced transmission failure on the first lap. Thereafter, Fangio and Kling circulated as if tied together, far faster than any of the other cars. At the finish they were separated by only 1/10th of a second and had lapped the entire field. The third Mercedes, driven by Hans Herrmann, a new German driver, retired with engine failure during the race.

The photo above was taken at the exit of Thillois corner, a hairpin right hand turn which connected the two longest straights. This was a favorite spot for photographers who could see the cars braking hard on the approach to Thillois and then cornering at slow speed and taking off again. The race fans liked it too, with an open grandstand along the exit of this corner. Here Fangio is leading Kling as they accelerate downhill toward the start/finish area, the pits and the main grandstand.

Juan Manuel Fangio won his second World Championship with Mercedes in 1954 and repeated it again the next year. Parts of the Reims-Gueux circuit have been preserved (the last car race there was in 1969). The pits and the main grandstand are still in place as memories of past glories.

Photo by Alan R. Smith © The Klemantaski Collection

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