The great Mercedes champion Rudolf Caracciola accelerates away from the start of the French Grand Prix at the Reims-Gueux public road circuit on July 3, 1938. The talented German driver had completely muffed his start from the second row of the grid and was now back next to the mysterious SEFAC. He recovered to get into the lead, but would finish second to his teammate Manfred von Brauchitsch and ahead of the third Mercedes driven by Hermann Lang. Nevertheless, Caracciola would win the European Grand Prix Championship for the third time later in the year.
Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz was a W154 which used a 3-liter V12 supercharged motor which produced about 450 hp. This gave these prewar Grand Prix cars incredible straight line performance, but given the narrow and hard tires of the period the power made them a real challenge to drive fast, especially in wet conditions.
Auto Union also had two cars in this race, but neither one would finish. Indeed, there were only nine starters and four cars running at the finish. One of the more unusual cars was the SEFAC, somewhat financed by public subscription in France and driven here by Eugène Chaboud. It had been constructed four years before by the Société d’Études et de Fabrication d’Automobiles de Course, hence its name, and was intended to bring real competition to Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. However, the SEFAC was very short on power and did not last for more than a lap or two. It had appeared once before in 1934 and would make a further appearance at Pau on 1939. It was a fiasco.
In addition to his grand prix career, Rudolf Caracciola also engaged in land speed records for Mercedes-Benz in the prewar years, driving streamlined versions of their grand prix cars and achieved a record at over 270 mph on a section of autobahn. He spent the war years in Switzerland and returned to Mercedes to drive a factory 300SL in the 1952 Mille Miglia finishing fourth overall. He then had a serious crash in a 300SL in the support race for the Swiss Grand Prix at Berne in 1952 which ended his career. He would die in 1959 at the age of just 58. He was without doubt one of the best grand prix drivers of the 1930s.
Photo by Louis Klemantaski ©The Klemantaski Collection
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