Dominance and controversy

1937 Monaco Grand Prix

Last Sunday, Nico Rosberg won the second Grand Prix of his career, becoming the first son of a former Monaco Grand Prix winner to win in Monte-Carlo himself. Rosberg was dominant all weekend, topping all three practice sessions, pole position and leading every single lap of the race. It’s the sort of dominance that has characterized Mercedes-Benz throughout Grand Prix history. An example of that is the last victory for the Silberpfeile in the streets of Monaco, which surprisingly takes us back all the way to 1937.

The 1937 Monaco Grand Prix, held on the eighth of August, was the 17th Grand Prix of the 1937 season, the third (out of five) that counted towards the European Championship. The first two Grands Prix, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps and the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, had both been won by German car manufacturers: Rudolf Hasse won at Spa for Auto-Union (now known as ‘Audi’), while Rudolf Caracciola took victory two weeks later in the Eifel forest for Mercedes.

Monte-Carlo was set to be another battle between the German and Italian cars: Germany was represented by four Mercedes-Benz W125s (Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch, Christian Kautz and Goffredo Zehender) and three Auto-Union type Cs (Bernd Rosemeyer, Hans Stuck and Rudolf Hasse). Hermann Lang and the British driver Dick Seaman did not participate for the Germans due to illness and a broken nose respectively.

Trying to beat the silver cars were the red cars: Scuderia Ferrari, at the time Alfa Romeo’s works team, entered three drivers: Antonio Brivio and Giuseppe Farina drove the poor-handling twelve-cylinder type C and Carlo Pintacuda drove an older version of the type C with a straight-eight engine. Tazio Nuvolari did not enter the Monaco Grand Prix, as he was testing a new version of the type C (at Monza) with a lower chassis, aimed at improving the car’s handling – the Italian Grand Prix, naturally the most important race of the year for Alfa Romeo, was coming up in just five weeks’ time. Aside from the works team entries, six privateers entered the race: four Maseratis and two Alfa Romeos, one of which driven by the French driver Raymond Sommer.

All seven German cars managed to out-qualify the Italian cars: Caracciola took pole position, from Von Brauchitsch and Rosemeyer. Christian Kautz in fifth was lucky to start the race after a crash at Casino Square on Saturday. Nino Farina was the best non-Silberpfeile, qualifying his Alfa Romeo in eighth, a mere six seconds slower than ‘Caratsch’.

The Monegasque flag dropping set in motion a three-hour-long cacophonous display of dominance by the Germans, with Caracciola taking the lead from Von Brauchitsch and Stuck. Going through the tunnel for the first time, Hans Hesse lost control of his Auto Union and crashed, as seen in the video at the bottom. Fortunately the Saxon driver escaped with minor injury.

Lap 1: Rudolf Caracciola, leading Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hans Stuck up the hill towards Casino Square. Source:

Lap 1: Rudolf Caracciola, leading Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hans Stuck up the hill towards Casino Square. Source:

Caracciola was leading Von Brauchitsch, but the driver in second place was looking strong, beating the lap record on lap 21 of 100. The duel was cut short at half-distance when Caracciola was forced into the pit with an engine malfunction. His mechanics quickly replaced the spark plugs and he re-joined the track in second place.

Behind the leaders, Zehender was in third, from Kautz in fourth, which meant four Mercedes cars were now leading the race. Auto Union had had a dismal start to the race: Hesse crashed on the opening lap and star driver Bernd Rosemeyer, who was running as high as third, started suffering from steering issues, which caused him to crash at the Gazométre (Rascasse). Rosemeyer took over from the third Auto Union driver when Stuck came in to replace his spark plugs. Doctor Farina was doing very well in his inferior Alfa Romeo, running fourth at the halfway point. But he was soon caught by the much quicker Kautz, Zehender and later on in the race Rosemeyer.

But the battle for the lead, with more than 90 minutes of driving left, still wasn’t decided: Caracciola unlapped himself from Von Brauchitsch on lap 55 and set off in pursuit. After Von Brauchitsch’s pit stop on lap 69 of 100, he came out just a few seconds in front of ‘Caratsch’. Despite carrying more fuel and thus being much slower than his rival, Von Brauchitsch refused to give way. Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes’ racing manager, was waving frantically at Von Brauchitsch to let Caracciola through – the race leader replied by sticking out his tongue as he passed the pit.

Manfred von Brauchitsch, leading Rudolf Caracciola through the Station hairpin (Loews). Source:

Manfred von Brauchitsch, leading Rudolf Caracciola through the Station hairpin (Loews). Source:

Again, Manfred von Brauchitsch, from Rudolf Caracciola, just before the Gazométre hairpin. Source:

Again, Manfred von Brauchitsch, from Rudolf Caracciola, just before the Gazométre hairpin. Source:

Eventually Manfred von Brauchitsch let him past, knowing that Caracciola had to come in for fuel and tyres anyway. Von Brauchitsch then cruised for 20 more laps to take the chequered flag after 100 laps. Rudolf Caracciola and Kautz made it into a Mercedes 1-2-3, while the fourth Mercedes of Chris Zehender was passed just a few laps from the end by Hans Stuck, who had made a late surge to take fourth place for Auto Union. Best of the rest was Nino Farina in sixth, followed by Raymond Sommer, Hans Rüesch and Carlo Pintacuda, all driving Alfa Romeos.

Rudolf Caracciola did not complain about Von Brauchitsch disobeying team orders, but their friendship did suffer. For Mercedes, it was the latest cause for friction between drivers, as allegedly Von Brauchitsch and Caracciola had agreed to work as a team against Hermann Lang, the ‘poor guy’ who had started out at Mercedes as a humble mechanic. Rudolf Caracciola won the next two Grands Prix that counted towards the Championship, which meant that he won the 1937 AIACR European Championship.

Not only did this turn out to be the last Monaco Grand Prix before World War II, it also was Mercedes’ last Grand Prix victory at Monaco until last Sunday. The contrast between the 1937 and 2013 editions could not be bigger: in 1937 the Mercedes cars were vastly superior, but in 2013 Nico Rosberg had to drive as slowly as possible to nurse his Pirelli tyres. And there is no sign of inter-team tensions at Mercedes as there was in 1937: Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who have known each other for a long time, have been very respectful towards each other, notably in the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier this year. But a victory remains a victory, and Mercedes have finally done that again in the twisty streets of Monte-Carlo.

Small note to this video: the man who is standing on the pit wall at 0:29 is Alfred Neubauer, racing manager for Mercedes-Benz.

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