Rudi Caracciola - Part Two
by Ross Finlay (31 January 2001)
Caracciola's second season with Alfa Romeo, in 1933, ended very abruptly when he crashed in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix. Severe injuries to his right thigh and hip, needing hospital treatment and a long recuperation, kept him away from the circuits for the rest of the year.
In February 1934 he had to face personal tragedy when his wife Charly, a keen skier, was killed in an avalanche. Caracciola, deeply depressed, was cheered up only by his team-mate Louis Chiron and Chiron's friend Alice "Baby" Hoffmann, who was not only one of the most attractive ladies on the racing scene but also a top-class lap-scorer and timekeeper.
Mercedes was back that year, though, with the magnificent W25 Grand Prix car which made everything else on the circuits look like something from the Neanderthal era. Caracciola was brought back into the factory team, although he missed the W25's debut race because his damaged leg couldn't yet take the strain. He tackled the French and German Grands Prix, but his car broke down both times.
Then he began to get fitter, and the old pace returned. He demolished the opposition to win the Klausenpass hillclimb with a new outright record time, and in a car taken over from Fagioli won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, littered for the first time with chicanes, or "dismally slow wiggles", as one British observer remarked.
In 1935, Caracciola was right back on top form. He averaged 123mph on the phenomenally fast Mellaha road circuit to win the Tripoli Grand Prix, and then got down to business in the European races. His W25 won the French, Spanish, Belgian and Swiss Grands Prix (the Belgian race at Spa with that secret fuel mixture the drivers in other teams, because of the effect of the exhaust fumes, called "chloroform") and he took several second places as well.
Those performances made him European Champion for the first time.
The following year started well, when he won the Monaco Grand Prix, in a downpour on an oil-soaked circuit where several other drivers had spectacular crashes. By this time the uprated W25 had a 4.8-litre eight-cylinder engine producing nearly 500bhp. But it flattered to deceive, being so unreliable that Mercedes actually withdrew its entries for several events, including the Italian Grand Prix.
Some very hard talking by the Daimler-Benz board got the whole race organisation back on track for 1937. The W25 was replaced by the all-time classic W125 with its 600bhp 5.6-litre engine. Caracciola became European Champion for the second time. He also married Baby Hoffmann, after she became fed up with asking Louis Chiron if he had any plans to marry and settle down.
Before the 1938 season, when Caracciola won his third European Championship title with the new W154, he took part in a record attempt on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, closed as usual for the occasion. Mercedes and Auto Union were great rivals in these record runs, but the speeds involved were beginning to get too high for the aerodynamics. In October of the previous year, Mercedes had abandoned its programme when the streamliner it was running began to lift at the front end, approaching 400km/h.
Things weren't much easier during the January session. Caracciola persuaded his super-streamlined Mercedes, a very special car with a 736bhp 5.6-litre 12-cylinder engine, and bodywork polished to offer as little wind resistance as possible, up to 432km/h over both the flying kilometre and the flying mile - that's 268mph. He advised Bernd Rosemeyer, who was there for Auto Union, not to go out again, because of the condition of the road surface and the unpredictable wind. But Auto Union did make another attempt.
Rosemeyer's car, travelling at much the same speed as the Mercedes, was caught by a gust of wind and careered into a bridge. He died, thrown out of the wrecked car by the colossal impact.
The autobahn record attempts were never repeated, and Caracciola's figures remain, after more than 60 years, the fastest speeds ever officially timed on a public road.
In 1939, however, his race performances were overshadowed by those of his team-mate Hermann Lang, who gave Mercedes another European Championship. Caracciola was runner-up in several races, but he was still a hard man to outpace in the rain. He won his sixth German Grand Prix on a wet Nürburgring, and finished the season as German national champion.
One of the races in which Lang and Caracciola finished one-two was that curious Tripoli Grand Prix which the Italians (the colonial power) decided to run for 1.5-litre cars, knowing that the German teams didn't have any, while Alfa Romeo and Maserati certainly did. But Mercedes called their bluff, building two W165s with 1.5-litre V8 engines. Although hardly tested at all, the W165s flattened the Italian opposition.
Caracciola had been promised the two Tripoli cars, but war intervened. Afterwards, having been hidden for a time in an air raid shelter near Dresden, they were moved in a clandestine operation to Zurich, where he eventually located them. He tried to take one to the 1946 Indianapolis 500, but the British Zone authorities in Germany wouldn't give the car an exit permit.
So Rudi and Baby went privately to Indianapolis, where he raced an American car, the Thorne Engineering Special. Maybe he'd temporarily lost his touch, or the surroundings were too unfamiliar, or the car wasn't prepared to Mercedes-Benz standards. For whatever reason, he crashed heavily.
Mercedes still wanted him, however. By that time a Swiss citizen, he was invited to drive one of the pre-war W154s the company decided to enter in the Argentine races in 1951. He thought it was too outdated against the current Ferraris and Alfa Romeos, and declined. He was right, too.
But he was ready to answer the call to drive more modern Mercedes, and it came. He hadn't competed in anything that might be called a rally for 20 years or so, but he drove a works Mercedes 220 in the 1952 Monte Carlo. That was Sydney Allard's year, with Stirling Moss second, but Mercedes took the team prize in an event run in such bad conditions that there was actually snow in Monte Carlo itself.
Then Mercedes put him in its works 300SL team for the Mille Miglia, which he'd won 21 years before. He finished fourth - not bad for a man of 51.
But it didn't last. In the Prix de Berne race, on the Bremgarten circuit where he'd won the full-scale Swiss Grand Prix in 1935, 1937 and 1938, his 300SL locked a rear brake and crashed into a tree. He broke his left thigh and kneecap, and was out of racing for good.
He stayed with Mercedes, though, and was a very successful public relations representative for the company until shortly before his death in 1959.
Alfred Neubauer, the long-time Mercedes team manager, paid tribute to Rudi Caracciola as "the greatest driver of the twenties and thirties, perhaps even of all time. He combined, to an extraordinary extent, determination with concentration, physical strength with intelligence. Caracciola was second to none in his ability to triumph over shortcomings."
A World Champion in all but official title.