Wild Beasts

The Tragic Queen

The Mercedes 300SLR that raced for just one year, dominating everything

Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz, Daimler

It is encouraging, when difficult times like this are upon us, to remind ourselves just how quickly we humans are capable of rediscovering the path of progress and well-being. In 1945, Germany was a pile of smouldering rubble. A mere ten years later, it dominated the circuits all over the world, both in Formula and sports categories, with cars so advanced they are extraordinary to this day. The first of these, in 1954, was the Formula 1 single-seater named W 196 made in both traditional, open-wheeled and faired versions. A year later came the sports car, with the 8-cylinder in line engine now enlarged from 2500cc to 3000cc.

The magnificent lines of the 300 SLR appear to be derived from the magnificent mechanics where every space has been optimized. You can see the front inboard brakes, the tilted engine with the air intake and direct injection system to the right, the fuel tanks and the large front radiator for cooling

Its name, linked to the SL acronym used by Mercedes on its Gullwing road car, was the 300SLR, where the R stood for racing. The car, best known for Stirling Moss’ heroic victory and his unbeaten record at the 1955 Mille Miglia, came with a magnificently low stance – as a result of mounting the engine tilted – with desmodromic valve actuation to avoid valve float, and direct injection.

The spectacular innovation introduced to help stop the car after the long straights at Le Mans, required the driver to manually open the top of the rear trunk to add drag and increase braking power

Not only that, the drum brakes were inboard to reduce unsprung weight and were assisted by a dynamic rear air brake (a kind of DRS used oppositely to how it’s employed today, or rather to assist braking) and a perfect weight distribution guaranteed by a transaxle system and the rear-mounted transmission block. An incredibly low weight, just 880kg, was obtained by using light metals and an ultra-light Elektron magnesium-alloy bodywork.

157.65 km/h average over the entire Mille Miglia on the roads in 1955 is a record that seems impossible to this day. Moss, behind the wheel, set it but the journalist Denis Jenkinson who sat next to him all the way while reading his hand-written notes to signal the most delicate points regardless of the danger, was a real hero too

As with the 300SL Gullwing, the most breath-taking aspect of this car is the elegance and originality of the bodywork. The design, created within Mercedes, is in itself the foundation of its success: harmony and compactness make it truly unique. Mercedes immediately dominated the circuits, With Fangio winning the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship in 1954 and 1955 and the World Sports Cars Championship in 1955. A tragic year for Mercedes due to the appalling Le Mans crash when Jean Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR flew into the packed spectator area in front of the grandstand, killing 83 spectators and the driver.

The epic run by Mercedes in the 1950s lasted less than two years: two World Titles for Juan Manuel Fangio in Formula 1 and the 1955 World Sports Championship with the 300 SLR. Then, after the horrific tragedy at Le Mans, the withdrawal from racing

But it also dominated with successes at the Tourist Trophy, Targa Florio and Mille Miglia. And so it was that this magnificent car competed for just one year: after initially dominating everything, Mercedes was hard hit by the horrific Le Mans accident, withdrew from racing and the 300SLR never raced again…

Final win: Stirling Moss with Peter Collins won races and the 1955 World Championship Title at the 1955 Targa Florio