Charles Dickens could have written the story of the 1955 racing season. It was the best of times and, almost beyond comprehension, the worst of times. Iconic automotive inventor and engineer, Gottlieb Daimler’s ancient and prophetic words “The best or nothing…” resonated through the Rennabteilung, Mercedes’ racing team, in 1955. Mercedes-Benz, as a matter of company policy, left nothing to chance. Gottlieb Daimler’s declaration wasn’t some frothy slogan ginned up by a clever marketing department. To this day it remains inviolate company policy. And the Rennabteilung was utterly ruthless interpreting and enforcing the founder’s unblinking philosophy of constant excellence.
In 1955, business was good for Mercedes-Benz. The company had entered not just the Formula 1 title chase, but the World Sports Car Championship as well. They signed the two greatest drivers of the age. Their team leader was Argentinian grand master and reigning two-time World Champion, Juan Manuel Fangio. The “new guy” was the young Londoner, Stirling Moss. They would both contest the Formula 1 and the World Sports Car Championships for Mercedes.
Their new grand prix car stunned the Formula 1 circus the previous summer in its 1954 debut in the French Grand Prix. When the checkered flag waved a pair of sleek, full-bodied Mercedes “silver arrows” were a full lap ahead of the field; something that had happened only twice before in the history of the Formula 1 World Championship.
Over the winter of 1955, the World Champion Formula 1 Mercedes was refined and perfected and tested even further. With the 1955 debut of the new 300SLR sports cars, built for the world’s best drivers, raced by the world’s best team and backed by a real auto manufacturer with a platinum resume, Mercedes-Benz was at the height of its considerable powers.
Against the standards set by Mercedes-Benz, the rest of the competition looked like a loose collection of precocious hobbyists. One British wag suggested it was as if Martians had invaded Earth and decided to go motor racing instead of starting a war of the worlds.
From the perspective of the 21st Century the 1955 Championship calendar looks like a fantasy league of sports car racing’s golden era. The series started in the heat of the Argentine summer. The European teams stayed home. Then came March and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Mercedes wasn’t ready. They were occupied elsewhere. Then, May and “The Thousand Miles”, one lap of Italy, on public roads. Now, Mercedes-Benz and the new 300SLR sports car were poised for the starting line.
Over 300 cars started the 1000 mile lap of Italy alone, from an elevated ramp in Brescia. Each car wore its starting time as its racing number for the 1955 Thousand Miles. Mercedes driver Stirling Moss and his navigator, 1949 motorcycle sidecar racing champion and journalist, Denis Jenkinson left Brescia at 7:22 AM in their 300SLR. They were one of the last cars to start. Moss’ teammate, the two-time Formula 1 World Champion, Juan Fangio, was already 24 minutes away at 7:22 AM, driving alone in his 300SLR, wearing race number 658. It was Mercedes first race of the 1955 Sports Car World Championship season. The romantic and deadly 1000 mile lap of Italy is a race equal in importance and prestige to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Maiden voyage or not, much was expected of the 300SLRs.
The Ferraris, with larger displacement engines, were first into Ravenna, over 300 kilometers from Brescia. Moss was second in car number “722” –first of the Mercedes– as they aimed for Pescara on the Adriatic, just over 200 miles away. Moss closed the gap to the big red cars and left Pescara for Aquila, only 62 miles south. He let the straight-eight three-liter Mercedes engine take long strides, while Jenkinson made certain his driver was never surprised. Thirty-seven minutes later – still many hours from the finish in Brescia – Moss, “Jenks” and “722” were in the lead.
Rome was the halfway point of the race. Since the founding of the Mille Miglia in 1927, the Italians have said, “He who leads at Rome is never first home.” Moss, Jenkinson and car “722” arrived in Rome in just over five hours averaging over 107 mph on Italian public roads; roads that favored, or so local wisdom held, only Italians. And for three decades they had been right. But Moss, “Jenks” and Mercedes had planned and practiced and worked without respite for three months just for this one race. The best or nothing.
In Rome Moss leapt from “722”, dashed behind the pit counter and relieved himself. A note was passed to Jenkinson sitting in “722”: “Moss, Taruffi, Herrmann, Kling, Fangio.” He who leads at Rome…
Moss, Jenks and “722” led in Siena, Florence and Bologna: eight hours, twenty-eight minutes from the start in Brescia, now averaging 93.6 mph, passing race traffic, dodging stray animals and even spectators in the road. Now “722” was over 27 minutes ahead of the second place driver, Mercedes-Benz teammate Fangio driving alone in 300SLR #658.
Then, disaster was barely averted. Gasoline from the freshly filled tank sloshed onto Jenkinson’s neck. He missed a turn on his rolling pace notes. Moss, after three months of intense training, recognized the turn and hauled “722” down to make the sharp curve just in time.
They climbed the Radifocani Pass. Moss felt one of “722’s” huge front drum brakes grab just enough to be a warning. Then it grabbed hard: “722” spun, ending up tail down in a ditch. A fast shift into first gear and “722” escaped disaster again.
As they wound through the Raticosa Pass, a teenage Italian boy watched it all with great interest. Many years later, Mario Andretti told a surprised Stirling Moss that he had seen the silver 300SLR with the Union Flag on its headrest on its way to victory over the Raticosa that Sunday afternoon on May Day.
Unknown to Moss or Jenkinson, Piero Taruffi’s Ferrari had failed him. The man who knew the Mille Miglia best, the “Silver Fox”, was out. Fangio in #658 was delayed for a minor repair: “722” still led.
There was a special prize for the final leg, the 134 kilometers – 83 miles – from Cremona to Brescia. It took them 39 minutes and 54 seconds. The duo in “722” won the prize but didn’t know they’d just won the fastest Mille Miglia in history: 10:07:48 – 98.519 mph – over ten mph faster than the existing record.
After the Thousand Miles, after the victory banquet, after everything, Moss, winner of the fastest Mille Miglia of all time, was in top condition. He mounted his Mercedes-Benz 220A sedan and departed for Stuttgart for a lunch engagement with the Mercedes-Benz Board of Directors the next afternoon.
The mighty “722” was in fine fettle as well. Upon its return to Stuttgart, the Mille Miglia winning engine was lashed to a dynamometer. It made 296 bhp at 7,400 rpm: more than when it began the Thousand Miles. “The best or nothing…” echoed through the dyno room at Mercedes-Benz.
There was no time for celebration. Europe’s first Formula 1 race of the young 1955 season was less than three weeks away in glamorous Monaco. Then the Grand Prix of Belgium, just two weeks after that. Only to be followed by the 24 Hours of Le Mans less than a week later.
Two brand new cars were built for the tight and twisty Monaco race. Fangio and Moss were assigned to the new short-wheelbase W196s. In Monaco the joy of Italy was all but erased. After 50 laps the improbable happened. Fangio’s W196 broke something small in the engine. Now Stirling Moss, the hero of the Mille Miglia, led the Grand Prix of Monaco. With fewer than 40 miles to the checkered flag, Moss’ W196 suffered exactly the same ailment as Fangio’s; a small adjusting screw broke, jamming under a camshaft. Victory went to Ferrari by default. It was the only time in 1955 that a Ferrari driver would wear a Formula 1 winner’s wreath.
While preparations were underway for Belgium and Le Mans, word came from Italy that two-time World Champion Alberto Ascari, whose Lancia had plunged into the harbor during the Monaco Grand Prix just days before, had perished testing a Ferrari at Monza. The man who had bested Fangio race for race for practically two seasons was dead and nobody knew how or why.
The Belgian Grand Prix was two weeks later on the high speed Spa road circuit in the Ardennes. It was also the final Grand Prix before the entire racing world stopped for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Fangio and Moss scored Mercedes’ first European grand prix victory of the season in Belgium with a one-two finish. The third place Ferrari driver managed to stay on the same lap, but had not been able to keep the flying Mercedes twins in sight.
Then more bad news came through the wire, this time from America. Bill Vukovich had died trying to win his third straight Indy 500. Another tragic loss of a great master to the racing world.
The Rennabteilung digested the ugly news quietly and packed for the trip to France’s Loire Valley. They loaded three 300SLRs, all equipped with the new air brake to slow the cars from nearly 200 mph. Mercedes had prepped as carefully for Le Mans as they had for the Mille Miglia. The best or nothing: the words won races and that won championships.
Legendary Mercedes race team manager, Alfred Neubauer, had paired his aces in 300SLR chassis #0003 for the 24 Hours. Oddly, he assigned Fangio, 18 years Moss’ senior, to make the running Le Mans start. It confused the experts: Moss was the acknowledged master of the Le Mans start. As Fangio vaulted into the #19 300SLR, his trouser leg became snared on the gearshift lever. He was late away from the pits. What followed was another Fangio master class, as the reigning World Champion fought a relentless duel with Jaguar-mounted Mike Hawthorn. It lasted just over two and a half hours. Then the world of motorsport changed forever.
A pit stop triggered a chain of events that caught Pierre Levegh in the #20 300SLR in a position with no options. Running at over 150 mph, Levegh slammed into the rear of an Austin-Healey that had swerved into his path to avoid Hawthorn’s rapidly decelerating Jaguar. Levegh managed to raise his arm. For decades Fangio, who was closing at over 150 mph in the #19 300SLR, said he was never sure if Levegh was trying to warn him or was saying goodbye.
Levegh’s 300SLR was launched into the air as though it hit a ramp. It flew and began to rotate. Levegh died when his body hit the road. The car continued upside-down into the crowd opposite the pits. There was an explosion. Fangio barely managed to avoid the carnage. The scene looked like an aircraft accident. The eight-cylinder engine and transmission scythed through the crowd killing at least 80. A tunnel under the front straight became a temporary morgue.
The organizers let the race continue. They feared a mass spectator exodus would clog the local roads and prevent the arrival of rescue vehicles.
The Rennabteilung carried on with two cars. Moss relieved Fangio and Fangio relieved Moss. And so it went. At the ten-hour mark – near 2:00 AM – the reigning World Champion and his English heir apparent were nearly three laps – over 25 miles–ahead when the call came from Germany. The terse conversation contained words of sympathy and dignity for the deceased. Mercedes would withdraw with respect for the dead. Neubauer hung out his flag and Fangio pitted 300SLR #19 for the final time. The moment was the opposite of the heroic Mille Miglia.
Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar won the 1955 24 Hours because Mercedes had surrendered certain victory. The Grands Prix of France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain were cancelled. Six decades later, racing is still banned in Switzerland because of the events of June 11, 1955. One look at the winners list of Le Mans shows two glaring omissions: the names Fangio and Moss, two of the greatest racing drivers in the long history of motorsport, the two best racing drivers of the 1950s, are missing because of a decision made far from Le Mans that June night.
The Rennabteilung went home where preparations were already underway for the next weekend in Holland. Fangio and Moss started the Dutch Grand Prix one-two and finished the same way. It was Belgium all over again. This time, a bit more somber and much slower.
Formula 1 took a much needed break after the Dutch Grand Prix. The British Grand Prix became the penultimate round of the 1955 F1 World Championship season. Mercedes took four cars. The #12 W196 Mercedes wore a Union Flag on its headrest for Stirling Moss, who was obviously happy to be home.
By lap 26 Moss was in the lead; by lap 50 he was 12 seconds ahead of grand master Fangio. The great champion suffered a momentary and unlikely lapse, when he left the road for a few seconds just after the Melling Crossing corner. Fangio claimed that a photographer who he had been using as a reference point had moved to change film. By the final laps, Fangio had again closed the gap and was just behind the young Britton.
With two laps to race, and a light fuel load, Moss recorded the fastest lap of the race. Under the checkered flag Moss and Fangio were together; this time the Mercedes with the Union Flag on its headrest finished first. Racing equal cars, Moss had beaten the greatest racer of the age. It’s hard to know who was happier when the victors’ wreaths were presented. Fangio was obviously pleased for his much younger teammate. Moss’ first World Championship Formula 1 victory had been a clean sweep: pole position, the fastest lap, victory…all on English soil. Perfection.
Moss’ British victory took some of the curse off the benighted 1955 racing season. For Mercedes-Benz, the British triumph was unprecedented: the new Silver Arrows finished one-two-three-four: Moss, Fangio, Karl Kling and Piero Taruffi. Mercedes had led every lap.
The Mercedes-Benz racing department had nearly two months before the next world championship race: the final F1 round, Mercedes’ last F1 appearance, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 11th. Then the RAC TT, the penultimate round of the 1955 World Sports Car Championship, at Dundrod, Northern Ireland on September 17th, which was coincidently Stirling Moss’ 26th birthday.
Now the very real possibility of a double World Championship was within Mercedes’ grasp. It would be a reward, a reckoning for the 200-plus hard working souls of Neubauer’s Rennabteilung; the best revenge for the horror and aching disappointment of Le Mans.
The final race of the 1955 F1 season came on the reconfigured Monza banked oval and road circuit. Moss led the Italian GP early but retired after 28 laps with a bizarre piston failure. In the end, it was another Mercedes-Benz one-two with Fangio as World Champion, his English teammate second in the title chase. The silver World Championship-winning cars went home to Stuttgart. Time to prepare for Ireland.
The Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland is nearly 7.5 miles around; 84 laps equals 1000 kilometers. It was another Mercedes one-two-three sweep. Moss, celebrated his 26th birthday by winning the TT in a forceful come-from-behind drive in the rain with his glorious Mille Miglia winner, chassis #0004. But it was no walkover. Jaguar fought very hard until the penultimate lap, and still Ferrari led the title chase. But yet tragedy struck again in Ireland. Two crashes had claimed the lives of three more racers in the TT. The cruelty of the 1955 racing season persisted.
Now, with a Mercedes 1-2-3 and maximum points won in Ireland, the World Sports Car Championship was tantalizingly close. Strangely, there had been no decision from Mercedes headquarters regarding the final round of the championship; the punishing Targa Florio, 13 laps around the 44.739 mile public road circuit in the mountains of Sicily.
Stirling Moss was vacationing on the French Riviera when the word from headquarters came to “…proceed to Sicily.” So the man who had won every Mercedes victory of the 1955 World Sports Car Championship season headed for the championship showdown with Ferrari on Italian soil.
The rules and the math were simple: six races, with only the best four finishes counting. Jaguar and Mercedes had each won twice. Ferrari scored maximum points just once, in Argentina. Mercedes sweeps at the Mille Miglia and Dundrod had won points for the Rennabteilung and denied points to Ferrari and Jaguar. The others were simply outrun and outgunned.
Moss got the flu and received a new teammate prior to the race. Countryman, Peter Collins was hired by Mercedes for the Targa on Moss’ recommendation. The handsome young Englishman would prove he was made of very tough stuff that October afternoon. So would their mount: 300SLR chassis number “0004”, the only 300SLR to win World Championship points for Mercedes-Benz would again be raced by Stirling Moss.
His flu symptoms began to retreat on the starting line. Like the Mille Miglia five months earlier, the cars started at intervals. Trusty “0004” wore race number “104”. After the first lap Moss and his 300SLR were in the lead. Gino Castelloti’s Ferrari was second and Fangio was third in his 300SLR.
Moss stretched his lead to over five minutes. Mercedes-Benz’s first double World Championship was now just over 400 miles away.
It might have been mud, or, perhaps, gravel. Whatever it was Moss’ 300SLR skidded suddenly. The car’s tail slammed a dirt bank and bounced over a hill. But the plunge was mercifully short, and #104 was about ten feet below the road surface with the engine still running. A squad of locals appeared and, with Moss as foreman shouting orders in English, they managed to haul #104 back on the road. The whole episode cost a dozen minutes and #104 – the car that had won the Mille Miglia in record time, the TT winner – dropped to fourth place overall.
A very fast inspection in the pits revealed no major damage. Now it was Peter Collins’ turn for heroics. The rules were still on their side. No driver could race more than five consecutive laps. Moss had done five. Collins would do three. Moss would race the final five.
When Collins surrendered #104 to Moss for the run to the finish, he admitted he had hit a wall during his stretch. It wasn’t a very good wall, according to Collins, who said it just crumpled on impact after leaving its ugly signature on the nose of “0004”. No matter. Collins had done his job with speed and style, restoring #104 to first place in just three laps. Moss’ confidence in his countryman had paid off.
Moss set and reset the lap record during those final five laps. At the finish Moss and Collins had won from the Fangio/Kling sister ship 300SLR with teammate Mercedes John Fitch –the only American to race for Mercedes-Benz –and Briton Desmond Titterington fourth. One-two-four. Mercedes came away from Sicily with maximum points. The best Ferrari could do was third. Mercedes-Benz won the 1955 World Sports Car Championship by one point.
That was the end of the benighted 1955 championship season. Fangio had won his third Formula 1 World Championship racing Mercedes’ W196. Moss was second in the F1 championship chase in his Mercedes, and he had won his first World Championship Grand Prix on home soil.
In the final tally Mercedes-Benz raced the 300SLR sports car six times, won four races and won the World Sports Car Championship, even after ignoring two World Championship races and withdrawing from Le Mans. In Formula I, Mercedes won five of the six World Championship races in 1955.
There is a whiff of the immortal about it all. Stirling Moss set a record for the Mille Miglia that still stands; a record that will stand for all time.
Reflecting on that horrible, glorious summer of six decades ago, it could be said that Daimler and Dickens had it right. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. For Mercedes-Benz, double World Champions, it was as Gottlieb Daimler had commanded nearly a century earlier, “the best or nothing…”