Motor racing features heavily in my columns, mainly because
motor sport has been my passion for over 50 years. (I type that and suddenly I
feel old!) That passion, as well as covering the developments over five decades,
has also fostered an interest in the history of the automobile, and of course,
the racing of those automobiles.
Now the manufacturers will try and justify their position in
the sport by saying that racing improves the breed, but it is hard to see that
this has been the guiding force. The “race on Sunday, sell on Monday”
approach is probably much closer to the real truth!
If we look at the technical advancements for example, while
today’s F1 cars have automatic transmissions, they have been used in passenger
cars for many years, with the first being General Motors in their Oldsmobile of
Disc brakes are another motoring milestone, incorrectly
assigned to Jaguar, racing at the Mille Miglia of 1952. Not at all, disc brakes
were seen on the 1903 Lanchesters and hydraulically operated disc brakes on all
four wheels were offered on the top of the line Chryslers of 1949. Stars and
stripes does it again!
However, motor racing has brought out some technological
marvels and for me, the W125 Mercedes of 1937 was one of them. These cars were
built to conform with the 750 kg formula, but that was measured without fuel,
oil, water and tyres and the cars actually weighed around 1,100 kg on the start
line. Ultimately they produced almost 650 BHP and would do over 320 kph. Those
performance figures are much the same as today’s F1 vehicles, although the new
cars get to their top speed more quickly. But do not forget these vehicles were
built 66 years ago!
The engines were just over 5.6 litres in capacity and were 8
cylinders in line. Each cylinder had 4 valves (2 inlet, 2 exhaust) inclined at
60 degrees. The engines had twin overhead camshafts which were gear driven via a
train of gears coming from the rear of the crankshaft. From the front of the
crankshaft a Roots-type supercharger was driven, pumping at 12 psi and running
at over 16,000 RPM. Remember again, this was 67 years ago.
The cylinder block was no cast iron or alloy lump, but was
made up of forged steel barrels with integral cylinder heads welded together in
sets of four, with sheet steel water jackets. The one-piece counterbalanced
crankshaft had 9 main bearings - no slipper bearings, but every one roller
bearings in split housings. Dry-sump lubrication was used.
If you consider the specifications, you can see that these
were not modified production engines, or adapted fire pumps (as was the
Coventry-Climax GP engine many years later), but carefully designed race
engines, designed to do one job only - to win races. And they certainly did
Now these days, the GP teams all carry out testing and some
of the more well-heeled will even have a complete duplicate of the race team
that does nothing but testing and reporting back to the designers and engineers.
67 years ago, the W125 spent February and March at the Monza circuit, testing
every day, trying out two series of engines and two types of supercharging.
During that testing, drivers Caracciola and Lang logged 2,346 kilometres on the
track. The engines themselves had also spent much time in the experimental
engine department and exact horsepower figures were kept for each individual
engine. Reports still exist today to show that on the 3rd of October 1936 an
M125 F motor produced 455 BHP at 4,000 RPM, improving to 589 BHP at 5,800 RPM.
67 years ago, there was no ‘hit or miss’ technology in the Mercedes team.
Just for interest, and interest only, GM’s Chevrolet SS
Concept car exhibited at the Detroit Motor Show in January this year (2003) has
a 6 litre alloy engine developing 450 BHP, and don’t expect it to rev much
over 5,800 RPM either. And so much for technology and advances passed down to
the road going vehicle.
A race record analysis of the W125 was also kept, showing the
cars ran 46 times during 1937 and had a 76% finishing record. Considering that
the races were generally over three hours in duration this was a most
commendable result and better than some race records of the much vaunted
multi-million dollar GP teams of 2002, which only ran two cars in 17 events. The
W125 won seven of the GP’s that year, compared to the Auto Union’s five, so
can lay claim to be the most successful racing car of 1937. Its technology was
based on practical engineering and strict testing and production controls. In
its day, it was a technological masterpiece. Even now, there are lessons for
today’s up and coming engineers.
Yes, racing does improve the breed, but at a much slower pace
than today’s PR wallahs would have you believe.