How the 'Greatest Race of the Year' unfolded, with a masterful victory from Mercedes-Benz's Rudolf Caracciola at the Nürburgring

Prior to the inaugural season of the Formula One World Championship in 1950, there was the European Drivers’ Championship, held from 1931 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

After Alfa Romeo’s domination of the first two seasons, the series had a brief hiatus in ‘33 and ’34. When it returned, domination by Germany’s ‘Silver Arrows’ was the order of the day, with Mercedes-Benz's heroic Rudolf Caracciola winning three titles, and Auto Union (now Audi)’s Bernd Rosemeyer taking the laurel wreath in 1936.

The 1937 German Grand Prix at the 14-mile Nürburgring was one of Caracciola’s greatest victories, in front of some 300,000 adoring home fans. On 30 July that year, Autocar’s John Dugdale reported.

“Rosemeyer on Thursday, when it was dry, put in a lap in 9min 42.6sec (87.12mph average), a good six seconds faster than any other driver could attain, and an all-time record. This demonstrated his undoubted supremacy on the Nürburgring.

“On Sunday morning, therefore, the day of the race, twenty-six rennwagen, or racing cars, were lined up opposite the enormous grandstands, with Rosemeyer, Lang and Brauchitsch in the front. Practice times decided the starting positions, so that for once the acknowledged aces, Nuvolari and Caracciola, had to be content with the second row. Thank goodness, the sun shone on race morning.”

The start of the race was a far more thrilling display than it is today: “Half a minute before zero time engines are started and the collected cars make the ground vibrate with their concerted roar. A maroon fires and the smoke from spinning wheels and exhausts blows up to join the maroon’s white puff. The cars move off the line together, accelerating quickly to almost 100mph before the first bend.”

Our man did note that Nuvolari and Rosemeyer “were moving suspiciously before the general start”, however.

“Two Mercedes were first into the Süd-kehre, the banked loop which immediately follows the straight past the stands; Caracciola and Lang led Rosemeyer (Auto Union),” we described. “The rest could hardly be distinguished as they flashed down the narrow return road, the silver cars of Germany out in front, interspersed with the red of Italy and one lone green car bearing the British colour – Evans’ Alfa Romeo.

It was certainly a hair-raising first lap: “Then the unique atmosphere of the  Nürburgring really took a hold. The cars went diving off down the winding road far out into the country. Through the Hoheneichen, a wicked grass-lined S-bend, every corner taken in a dry skid, drivers cutting the leaves from the border hedges, clipping grass verges and making the white-painted wood kerbs black with rubber from the tyres.”

All the racers made it through the daunting Karussel banked hairpin, and some 10 frenzied minutes after the start, back onto the home straight to finish the first lap. “Lang’s Mercedes had a fifty-yard lead on Rosemeyer’s Auto Union. They were followed by Caracciola’s Mercedes; scarlet-helmeted Brauchitsch skidding nastily with his Mercedes,” followed by Auto Union’s three juniors, and Nuvolari in his Alfa Romeo.

We continued: “Rosemeyer, who knew the race was really his, was impatient to be in front. On the second lap he passed Lang, put in the fastest lap of the day (9min 53.4sec, 85.61mph) and came round with a good lead.

On the fourth lap, Caracciola, four times winner of the German GP, came round first, followed by Lang and Brauchitsch. Where was Rosemeyer?

“A fourth car appeared. It was his silver, bullet-like Auto Union, coasting into the pit, the nearside rear tyre throwing shattered rubber like sparks from a catherine wheel. The wheel took some time to change, as there was a doubt about the condition of the hub, but eventually all was ready. Rosemeyer, aching to be on with the chase, took a running jump into the cockpit, ripping the seat of his neat white overalls on the way. The sixteen cylinders roared into life, puffs of smoke shot up from the vertical exhaust stumps, and the Auto Union was away with over three minutes to catch up. How dearly the champion had paid for his opening laps at what evidently was too great a speed.”

Deeper into the field, things were even more enthralling. Richard Seaman came up behind Auto Union squabbling juniors, Müller and Delius.

“The three were well together on the west leg of the course going down towards Adenhau.

“The corners seem to go round and round – and then round just that bit more to catch the unwary driver. At a right-angle left bend, steeply downhill, Müller swerved head-long into an outside ditch, wrecking the independent front suspension and knocking himself badly against the steering wheel. Seaman went grimly after Delius. On the back stretches, he caught and passed him, thus moving up to fourth place. About now, the crowd woke up and appreciated Seaman’s terrific performance. In five laps den Englander had climbed from tenth to fourth place, and that takes some doing in the Grand Prix of the Year.”

Unfortunately, this spirited performance ended in disaster for the Sussex-born racer. With Delius and Kautz (“a fiery, determined little man”) chasing, it was almost three abreast down the long uprising straight.

“As they leaped over the second hump-backed bridge, Delius, passing on the left, was slightly ahead. As he landed he swerved to the outside – perhaps through landing crooked, perhaps because the cars touched – and just caught a fire-extinguisher post.”

At 130mph, he swerved right across Seaman, and “with a sickening leap, jumped the hedge on the left-hand side again. The flying car absolutely flattened a wire fence, was said by some to have cleared the head of two Nazis, and slithered, mowing down the grass, into the main Koblenz road which runs parallel to the course”. Seaman himself braked hard, skidded violently through the right-hand hedge, and “was hurled out onto the road”.

Both were injured. Seaman miraculously escaped with a broken thumb and severe cuts, but Delius sadly succumbed to huge head injuries early the next morning.

Up front, the race went on with “undiminished fury,” in the order of Caracciola, Brauchitsch and Lang. After the first round of pit stops, that order remained.

Meanwhile, privateer and Grand Prix debutant Kenneth Evans attracted spectators' attention, “driving the race of his life,” while the Alfa of Minozzi and the Maserati of Severi plunged into a ditch.

“Provided all went well now, Mercedes were in an almost unassailable position,” we continued. It continued with some dicing through various (32sec or so) pitstops between Caracciola and teammate Brauchitsch, showing “ after 200 miles, how closely the race was contested”.

“With five laps to go, Caracciola had the situation very much in hand with a 40sec lead. Even if he had a third tyre change, and the second man did not, he might retain the lead from Brauchitsch, who was driving somewhat fiercely.”

The race’s end showed Rudi’s supreme talent. Despite coming in to change a tyre (“in 23sec - surely an all-high record!”), he swept on in masterly style to cross the finishing line, the winner by 46sec.

Finishers:

1. Rudolf Caracciola (Mercedes-Benz W125)

2. Manfred von Brauchitsch (Mercedes-Benz W125) +46.2

3. Bernd Rosemeyer (Auto Union C) +1:01.3

4. Tazio Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo 12C-36) +4:03.9

5. Rudolf Hasse (Auto Union C) +5:25.0

6. Christian Kautz (Mercedes-Benz W125) +6:10.2

7. Hermann Lang (Mercedes-Benz W125) +1 lap

8. Hans Ruesch (Alfa Romeo 8C-35) +1 lap

9. Kenneth Evans (Alfa Romeo Tipo B) +3 laps

Join the debate

Comments
1

12 January 2017
In terms of fatality, quite an uneventful Grand Prix by 1930's standards.
Happy motoring

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK