The power and the glory

Grand Prix racing drivers of the Thirties diced with death in 580bhp beasts on skinny tyres over potholed circuits.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Everyone needs heroes. And because racing drivers risk their lives, are youthful, and often good-looking (the main prerequisites for idolisation by the young), they are often venerated. My six-year-old son, for instance, adores Damon Hill, as do many of his school chums.

But for me the real racing heroes existed many decades earlier. None more so than the charming, handsome, Rugby-then-Cambridge-educated Dick Seaman, the greatest English racing star of the Thirties. I certainly didn't idolise Seaman as a youngster: he'd been dead 20 years when I was born. In fact, I knew little about him until I read Racing The Silver Arrows by Chris Nixon, 10 years ago. It chronicled, in an entertaining yet erudite manner, the most fascinating of all periods in motor racing - the late Thirties.

Seaman was then the English hero. The 6ft 3in blond Brit did a Jesse Owens to the local racing stars at the 1938 German GP, winning in front of various senior-ranking Nazis and more than 100,000 swastika-waving locals after German hero Manfred von Brauchitsch's car caught fire in the pits. Sure, he'd been driving a Mercedes. But, in those days, if you wanted to win, you drove German. Hitler saw motor racing as a way to prove German superiority. And Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union (precursor to today's Audi) were charged with delivering the goods. They swept aside the previously dominant Alfa Romeo team - run by Enzo Ferrari - from the 1934 season onwards, and then proceeded to dice with each other for another five years before the inevitable world war brought the action to an end.

They were awesome cars. In 1937, the 580bhp Mercedes GP cars were more powerful than any Formula One car for the next 50 years. And yet they drove around on spindly tyres, barely wider than bicycle rubber. They must have been impossibly difficult cars to control. Yet heroes such as Seaman, the German stars Rudi Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Hans Stuck and Bernd Rosemeyer, and Italian drivers Nuvolari and Varzi (the latter an aristocratic morphine addict) mastered these monsters at speeds of more than 170mph on broken, rutted, narrow roads surrounded by trees and hedges and buildings, in pursuit of glory. Many died going about their business. It was a hazardous occupation, like being a fighter pilot was just a few years later.

Seaman had wealthy parents who hoped he'd study for the bar and possibly stand for Parliament. They inadvertently bankrolled his early racing. But his father died from a heart attack, mistakenly believing that his son had been killed in a race. His mother continued to resist young Seaman's death-defying attempts to be a racing champion.

By this time, he'd been noticed by the then-dominant Mercedes team. They offered him a drive. Like all German factory drivers, Seaman had to be approved by Hitler. Once approval was given, Seaman started to taste success. But his greatest win was in Germany when, against the odds and very much against plans, he upstaged the local heroes to score a victory at the world's most challenging racing circuit, the Nurburgring.

Not long before, he had met a German girl, Erica Popp, daughter of the president and co-founder of BMW. They were married at the end of 1938, to great resistance from Seaman's mother, who detested the idea of her son marrying a German - never mind that she was beautiful, educated and rich.

In mid-1939, with war imminent, Seaman was leading the Belgian Grand Prix at the fast and dangerous Spa circuit, when he crashed at high speed in the wet. His Mercedes hit a tree, which broke his arm. Then the car caught fire. The 26-year-old Englishman was dragged from the blazing wreck by a brave young Belgian soldier, but he suffered awful burns. The following day he died.

He was buried in his father's grave at Putney Vale cemetery in south- west London. The entire Mercedes team attended, as did Erica and his mother, although there was no last-minute reconciliation. Hitler sent a huge laurel wreath, although it was not taken to the cemetery.

For me, the period of racing is so intriguing because the cars were objects of such extraordinary beauty and power; the cast of characters is so fascinating; and because of the political situation which so profoundly affected the lives of the drivers and their friends. It was also the start of the internationalisation of motor racing: the Mercedes and Auto Union teams performed around the world, from Europe to north Africa to the USA and South America.

Two things have recently rekindled my interest in Seaman, and the incredible Silver Arrows, as the Mercedes and Auto Union cars became known. The first is the re-issue of Chris Nixon's fascinating book. Second is news that Auto Union and Mercedes GP cars from the Thirties will thunder up the hill-climb course at this year's Festival of Speed at Goodwood. Hans Stuck's son, Hans Stuck Jnr, will drive an Auto Union. And Stirling Moss, just a boy when Seaman was killed, is likely to drive the same type of Mercedes in which Seaman enjoyed such success. It should be quite a spectacle, the stuff of which heroes are made.

Chris Nixon's book, 'Racing The Silver Arrows', is published by Transport Bookman, priced pounds 39.95. The Goodwood Festival of Speed will be held at Goodwood House, West Sussex, from 20-22 June. Information and tickets 01243 787766

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