MB Revisits Carrera Panamericana Rally 50 Years Ago

MB 300 SL & SL350
MB 300 SL & SL350

Eight stages take the cars over 3100 kilometres across Mexico

Press Release

  • Eight stages take the cars over 3100 kilometres across Mexico
  • Course record set at an average speed of 165 km/h
  • Some nerve-shredding moments and a collision with a vulture
  • Racing prototypes of the legendary 300 SL gullwing line up at the start
November 2002 sees the 50th anniversary of a landmark chapter in the motorsport history of Mercedes-Benz. In 1952 a pair of 300 SL sports cars swept to a one-two finish in the legendary Carrera Panamericana road race having completed the 3100-kilometre route across Mexico from the Guatemalan border in the south to Ciudad Juárez on the country's northern border with the USA. High mountains, thousands of twists and turns and searing heat were only a few of the challenges facing the drivers. The partnership of driver Karl Kling and co-driver Hans Klenk took the win, setting a sensational course record of 18 hours, 51 minutes and 19 seconds - averaging a quite remarkable speed of 165 km/h on hazardous and, for the most part, public roads with few serious safety measures in place. The second-placed SL team of Hermann Lang and Erwin Grupp crossed the finish line 35 minutes after their jubilant Mercedes colleagues. Since 1988, a road race for historic cars - "La Carrera Panamericana" - has again been staged in Mexico to commemorate the spectacular 1952 race. The 2002 edition unfolded over seven stages from 25 to 31 October, taking the international field from southern Mexico northwards to the border with the USA. The unpredictable nature of the 1952 race, which saw the winning car having to overcome a collision with a vulture as well as numerous punctures caused by the rough road surfaces, ensured that the Carrera Panamericana would be remembered as an unforgettable feast of motorsport. The 3113-kilometre-long route that year proved to be a real car breaker and a logistical marathon of service and tyre-change points. Spread over eight stages, some up to 1000 kilometres in length, the "Carrera" took the drivers from Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the tropical south of the country along the edges of plunging gorges and over high mountain passes as far as Ciudad Juárez in the north. Drivers and cars were forced to endure glaring sunshine, temperature swings from 5° to 40° C in the shade, climbs from sea-level to 3300 metres, countless roadside repairs and otherwise "life-threatening" course conditions - and they still managed to notch up speeds which seem unbelievable even half a century on. SL: two letters secure a place in automotive legend One condition which made possible Mercedes' glorious victory in this road race was the Daimler-Benz Board of Management's decision in the summer of 1951 to give the green light for the construction of a new racing sports car. On 13 March 1952, only nine months after the Board had made that landmark decision, the first one was ready for action. By the Mille Miglia road race in Italy, the Mercedes sports car was approaching peak condition, taking second place in the overall classification. Rarely has a sequence of letters before or since approached the charisma and glamour inherent in the model designation "SL". Originally conceived as merely an abbreviation for "sporty" and "light", the two letters have come to embody the tradition of the Mercedes brand, attaining the status of a living legend. The 300 introduced itself to the sporting arena in style. Although a lack of time and finances dictated that only the W 186 saloon - the famous Mercedes-Benz 300 - could be used as a technical basis, the sports car was an immediate success. As head of testing Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the driving force behind the development of the 300 SL, later recalled: "We took the series-produced engine from the 300 and built a tubular frame with an aluminium body around it." It was a concept which hit all the right notes - as an enviable record in top-class races testifies. After its second-place finish in the 1952 Mille Miglia, the Mercedes sports car further enhanced its reputation in the Grand Prix at the Bremgarten circuit in Bern by finishing in first, second and third places. Then, in June that year, the Lang/Rieß and Helfrich/Niedermayr driver teams notched up a spectacular one-two finish at Le Mans. Still the 300 SL was not finished, moving on to secure a clean sweep of the top four positions at the Nürburgring in August. This success in European race competition inspired the Stuttgart-based car manufacturer to widen its horizons and seek out ever more exotic challenges, even overseas: next stop Carrera Panamericana. Carrera Panamericana: an illustrious name for a legendary road race The Herculean task was complete, but scarcely anyone had noticed. By 1950, the flourishing state of Mexico had become the first country in Latin America to finish its part of the Panamerican Highway, a section of that fabulous road stretching across both North and South America and providing the first continuous land link between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. But this fact alone was not sufficient to focus world attention on Mexico and on the nation's most recent pride and joy. Something had to be done - but what? The answer, as the Mexican Ministry of Transport realised, was be found literally at their feet. The ministers had little difficulty persuading President Miguel Alemán of the merits of staging an international car race. This "Carrera Panamericana", he calculated, would turn the eyes of the world on Mexico. His calculations proved right. "La Carrera Panamericana" - that exotic and auspicious-sounding synonym for motoring thrills and spills - made not just the committed motorsport enthusiast sit up and take notice. The race was an instant hit in America. And in Europe, too, it unleashed an unexpected tide of euphoria. No wonder, given that everybody who was anybody in the world of motor racing was keen to get a slice of the action. That went for the drivers - including the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, Hermann Lang, Alberto Ascari and Giovanni Bracco - as well as for the manufacturers. Europe was represented by works teams from Ferrari, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Gordini and Porsche. And American representation was no less prominent, with interest shown by the world's largest carmakers Chrysler, Ford and General Motors and their Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile brands. Although there could scarcely have been a better time for Mercedes-Benz to get involved in the race, one prominent figure within the company remained sceptical. Director of motorsport Alfred Neubauer was also an experienced racing driver and he was well aware that the regulations for the first race in 1950 only permitted cars which were already in large-scale series production and which had at least five seats. This specification, rather curious from a European perspective and no doubt aimed principally at the vehicles built by Mexico's American neighbours, meant that the race was contested by a field of somewhat large and unwieldy cars, wholly unsuited to racing on such a fast and winding course. The winner of the first race was the American Hershel McGriff, driving an Oldsmobile 88. His time? Over 27 hours - eight hours longer than Kling and Klenk would take two years later in their 300 SL. The Board decides: Mercedes-Benz joins the line-up for the third Mexico rally In 1951, the organisers decided to water down the rule, before finally allowing cars which had been prepared specifically for racing the following year. The newly constructed 300 SL from Mercedes-Benz was the perfect answer to the demands of the Mexico race. With a kerb weight of 870 kilograms, a wheelbase of 2.40 metres, state-of-the-art drum brakes, an engine output of 180 hp, a low bonnet line, a quite sensational drag coefficient for the time of 0.25 and a top speed of 240 km/h, this was the right sports car in the right place at the right time. Neubauer overcame all reservations. Galvanised by the brand's notable achievements in European competition, he sensed success on the challenging terrain of Mexico as well. His ambitions were formalised after a Board meeting on 22 September 1952 yielded management resolution 4150, which set the seal on the participation of three cars in the third Carrera Panamericana scheduled for 19 to 23 November that year. Preparations: altitude testing in the Alps and the voyage to Mexico With minimal time remaining to complete the preparations essential for a road race this extreme in nature, Mercedes driver Karl Kling set off for the Alps within 24 hours of the Board of Management's decision to participate, in order to carry out the testing necessary to tune the 300 SL's ignition and carburettor jets in preparation for the extreme altitudes of up to 3300 metres - over 800 metres higher than any European mountain pass - that the car would experience in Mexico. In order to arrive in Mexico at the earliest possible date, the vehicles and service team left Hamburg on the "MS Anita" at the beginning of October 1952 for the Atlantic crossing to the Mexican port of Veracruz, which lasted several weeks. They were followed at the end of the month by Alfred Neubauer and his driver teams of Karl Kling/Hans Klenk and Hermann Lang/Erwin Grupp on board a KLM DC 6 aircraft. Their journey - a wearing two-day ordeal - took them to Mexico from Stuttgart-Echterdingen via Amsterdam, Gander, Montreal and Monterey. The driver of the third 300 SL - the young American John Fitch - had already arrived in Mexico to welcome the rest of the Mercedes party. Fitch was to tackle the race in an open-top roadster variant - in contrast to the coupés of Kling and Lang - and he later expressed his delight on coming face-to-face with the 300 SL for the first time: "This was one hell of a racing car! The air in the cockpit was heavy with that unmistakable odour produced by hard brake pads, mixed with a delicate waft of hot oil. The accelerator and brake pedal were arranged perfectly in relation to each other, allowing you to pivot your right foot over to the accelerator pedal at the same time as braking. The transmission was poetry in motion - with extraordinarily light and precise gear-change." Preparations on the ground called for great speed and concentration. Just three weeks remained for the three-dozen Mercedes motorsport specialists - drivers, assistants and mechanics - to prepare for the long, hard road race in the most exacting of geographical and climatic circumstances. Just enough time to tune the 300 SL to the extreme demands of the racing ahead. The teams had the added challenge of noting and committing to memory the countless corners, narrow bridges and other potential hazards which peppered the 3100-kilometre route and were often impossible to see when approaching at high speed. A single test drive of the mammoth course using a much slower borrowed Mercedes 300 Saloon meant that any such preparations were only partially possible. What caused the team the most concern was the extremely rough asphalt and its capacity for greatly accelerating tyre wear in the course of the thousands of corners which had to be taken during the race.
Source: Text and photos courtesy DaimlerChrysler AG
Published Mar 31st, 2004 2:40pm
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