It’s not something that anybody is proud of, but the simple fact is that motorsport in Germany really took off as a propaganda tool for National Socialism (as did, for example, the country’s most famous car: the Volkswagen Beetle).
Wars and supremacy are built on technology: Adolf Hitler as Chancellor wanted to prove throughout the 1930s that German technology (and therefore military potential) was superior to others, so the state subsidised a motorsport programme. As well as Grand Prix victories, Germany also built the first motorway network in Europe and used it to chase land speed records. The Frankfurt to Darmstadt autobahn was opened in 1935, and shortly afterwards Rudolf Caracciola set a world speed record on it of 432kph in a Mercedes-Benz Rekordwagen. Bernd Rosemeyer died trying to beat this record, in Auto Union: the German car that symbolized the pre-war era of Grand Prix racing like no other.
Auto Union was actually an amalgam of four brands, and effectively the predecessor to Audi. The beautiful supercharged silver racing cars they produced from 1934 onwards won 25 races, dominating grands prix with Hans Stuck Senior in particular, but it wasn’t just about German drivers: Tazio Nuvolari also joined the team just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The war effectively brought all racing activity to a stop until the late 1940s, when the world was a very different place. By then, the Italian constructors were dominating the racing scene: helped by the efforts of a certain Enzo Ferrari as well. As an independent constructor, Ferrari won his first grand prix at Silverstone in 1951 with Froilan Gonzalez, overcoming the might of Alfa Romeo.
But the German car industry was rebuilding itself. In sports car racing, Mercedes was making its name again, famously winning the 1955 Mille Miglia with Stirling Moss in the 300 SLR, as well as Le Mans three years earlier. Ironically, it was to be Le Mans that caused the company’s longest hiatus from motorsport, following the 1955 disaster during which Pierre Levegh’s 300 SLR was launched into the crowd, killing 83 people. This caused Mercedes to pull out of top level motorsport until 1989. However, other German constructors arrived to fill the void – although never at the very top levels of Formula 1. In the 1970s, Porsche was the reference in sports car racing and at Le Mans. In the 1980s, Audi moved the goalposts in the World Rally Championship. And by the 1990s, Mercedes was back: with the C11 that had won Le Mans in 1989 and was driven in 1990 by Michael Schumacher.
Formula 1, however, had been relatively quiet for the big German brands. At the forefront in the 1980s was BMW, which powered Brabham from 1982 to 1987, winning the title in 1983 with Nelson Piquet. Turbocharging (from a tiny 1.4-litre block) was the marque’s forte: it also supplied customer engines for ATS, Arrows, Benetton and Ligier at various points during the 1980s. Once turbos were banned after 1988, the programme died a natural death – until the 1990s, when it created a brand new V10 to supply Williams in 1997, following the departure of Renault.
Expectations were high but the project didn’t live up to expectations for a number of reasons, which led BMW to believe that their best chance lay in buying the Sauber team outright. The highlight of this new venture was probably in 2008: when Robert Kubica won the Canadian Grand Prix and led the drivers’ championship by one point. But by 2009 the economic crash had set in, the dream was over, and the team was sold back to Peter Sauber.
There were a few other false starts from German companies in Formula 1 – notably Porsche’s idea to come back as an engine supplier – but putting an end to all the question marks was the return of Mercedes in 2010. What happened over the next 10 years can only be described as a breathtaking demolition of all the record books. Which leads us to today, with German road cars being the most desirable in the world, and a German manufacturer hitting new heights in Formula 1. Everything happens for a reason.
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