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The open wheel and closed wheel versions of the Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix cars. (Mercedes-Benz/Mercedes-Benz)
The open wheel and closed wheel versions of the Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix cars. (Mercedes-Benz/Mercedes-Benz)

Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix cars

Silver Arrows' aim is true Add to ...

Mercedes-Benz motorsport machinery has taken more than a few checkered flags during the last half dozen decades, but it has taken the “works” Silver Arrows team 57 years to add victory number 10 to its tally, chalked up when German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg crossed the line ahead of the field in the Chinese Grand Prix on April 15.

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The previous nine post-war wins were recorded in the 1954 and 1955 seasons with Juan Manuel Fangio marking up eight and winning a pair of World Driving Championships and Stirling Moss scoring a singleton. Once again, and still shining brilliantly, the Mercedes Silver Arrows racers that had become legendary in the Grand Prix battles of the 1930s, were back.

But sadly, not for long. After little more than 12 months and that last victory in the 1955 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Mercedes withdrew from racing, swept up in the backwash of a tragic crash at Le Mans.

Mercedes engines have powered other teams to Grand Prix wins, but Rosberg's was not only his first but also that of the factory-backed Mercedes AMG Petronas team created in 2010. And it was celebrated in unique style this past weekend at the opening round of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (German touring car championship) event at Hockenheim with Rosberg putting in demo laps in Fangio's 1955 racer and teammate Michael Schumacher driving a 2011 F1 car.

Looking at these cars, the contrast between Formula One machines separated by almost 60 years is huge in hardware (not to mention software, which had yet to be invented in 1955) although each represents the cutting edge of their times' racing technology.

Mercedes decided to return to Grand Prix racing after a 2.5-litre formula was introduced for 1954. Other than displacement there were few other restrictions, including no weight requirements. And a loophole allowed the use of all-enveloping sports-car style bodywork, which Mercedes was to take advantage of.

Today's multi-megabyte F1 rulebook requires teams of scientific types (and likely a few lawyers) to wade through but the displacement limit is a similar 2.4 litres, although only V-8 engines are allowed. The 2012 Mercedes W03 must meet a minimum weight of 605 kilograms with fluids and driver. The W196 of 1955 weighed in at 730 kg, without a considerably less-than-svelte Fangio aboard.

The 2.4-litre V-8s are lightweight wonders of condensed technology and magic metallurgy that rev to 18,000 rpm and produce 700-plus hp. To which the driver can add an 80-hp electric jolt from the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System).

The race engine Mercedes created in 1954 was an inline-eight-cylinder comprised of two individual four-pot blocks, with four cams working two-valves per cylinder through a “desmodromic” system of mechanical actuation. It was also fitted with fuel injection and tipped on its side to reduce hood height and lower the centre of gravity.

But it was a lump, weighing 204 kg and produced 290 hp at 8,500 rpm. Today's F1 cars use seven-speed sequential gearboxes that swap ratios in an eye-blink, Fangio had to manually manipulate his five-speed unit's cog-swapper.

The W196 structure was made up of tubing welded into a spaceframe lattice-work with double-wishbone front suspension and a swing-axle (that gave it tricky handling) at the back. Today's F1 cars are built around strong and lightweight carbon-fibre structures into which engine and suspension are incorporated.

The W196 made do with massive aluminum-finned inboard drum brakes that Fangio would likely have had to treat with care. The W03 employs carbon fibre composite discs that, with the wide tires now used versus the tall seven inch wide ones of 1955, produce a prodigious four Gs of stopping power that's available all race long.

The closed wheel version of the Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix car.

The W196 single-seaters were constructed with various wheelbase lengths and with open-wheel alloy bodywork and in “stromlinienwagen” or streamliner form, that owed as much to intuition as the science of aerodynamics. It also got in the way on tight circuits, Fangio finishing one race with the bodywork battered by clipped trackside markers.

Aerodynamics are ultra-critical in the W03 as they produce the “downforce” that presses the car onto the track generating up to three Gs of cornering force. Little more than a stone chip can affect lap times.

No acceleration times for Fangio's Italian GP winner can be found but they'd have looked pretty slow compared to blindingly quick modern F1 cars, which get to 100 km/h in two seconds, to 200 km/h in about four and to 300 km/h in about 8.5. The W196's top speed was 186 mph or 300 km/h though, which isn't far short of the 320 km/h or so top speeds reached at most modern F1 circuits. But unfettered F1 cars have reached more than 400 km/h.

Which brings us to the guys behind the steering wheels in 1955 and 2012.

Argentinian Fangio began rough-and-tumble racing in 1936 in a converted Ford taxi and turned up in Europe to race with the pros in 1948 in his late 30s, finishing second in the World Championship in 1950 driving an Alfa-Romeo. He won the championship in the Alfa a year later, the first of five, a number that wouldn't be topped until Schumacher tallied seven, and the nickname “El Maestro.”

Rosberg, as the son of 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg, grew up in racing, starting with karts and working his way up to a GP2 title before joining the Williams team for 2006. The 26-year-old drove in 110 GPs before winning at Shanghai in a 300-km race he dominated after driving away from a pole position start.

Fangio was no less a force in 1955 at a Monza circuit boasting two new and bumpy banked curves. The team had tested no less than eight cars, but eventually brought two open-wheelers for Karl Kling and Piero Taruffi and a pair of streamliners driven by Fangio and Stirling Moss. Fangio took the pole and went on to win, followed home after 500 km of racing by Taruffi after Moss and Kling retired.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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