The Mercedes-Benz Brand Centre goes up on historic soil
The world’s oldest racetrack opens in 1907
Oval circuit with two banked corners
When Mercedes-Benz opened its Brand Centre in Brooklands
in 2005, it did so on historic ground. Seldom had a single site brought together so much sporting and engineering tradition as here outside the town of Weybridge, 30 kilometres southwest of London, England. Brooklands was quite simply the mother of all racetracks, for cars and motorcycles alike, a famous world record arena, and the cradle of the British aviation industry. To ensure that such glorious history would never be forgotten, elements of what still remains of the imposing track were even integrated into part of the modern townscape. And two other attractions serve to remind visitors of past glories – the Brooklands Museum, which houses a large collection of exhibits in the original buildings, and, since 2005, a Mercedes-Benz presence. For just outside the large display windows of the new Mercedes-Benz showroom the historic racetrack disappears into the distance. New car customers can also experience at first hand the vehicle dynamics of a Mercedes-Benz vehicle on a newly laid out handling circuit.
Flashback to June 7, 1907, and the opening of the world’s first racetrack – Brooklands Motor Course – after a nine-month build period. Even though the circuit was still incomplete, the name Brooklands immediately became synonymous with speed and the home of British motor racing.
The idea of providing the nation with a racetrack to enable British manufacturers to keep up with their international competitors was the brainchild of an idealistic Englishman, Hugh Fortescue Locke-King. Automotive manufacturers lacked suitable test facilities where they could push their vehicles to their performance limits. Legislation of the day restricted speeds on public roads to 32 km/h (20 miles per hour) – a limit not raised until 1930 – and since road racing was prohibited the only solution was to build a private circuit.
For this purpose, Locke-King made available a part of his own sizeable real estate near to the small town of Weybridge, about 30 kilometres southwest of London. He financed it from his own private fortune in order to ensure it was completed as quickly as possible. The track was named after the family’s manor on whose premises the circuit had been built. It was decided to build the circuit in the form of an oval with two banked corners, one of which had a longer radius and higher banking than the other. The building site was colossal. Construction of the track involved 2,000 labourers and left onlookers with a memorable image of this period of technological transition, in which the power of the steam engine could be seen smoothing the path for the internal combustion engine.
The overall length of the circuit, including finishing straights, was 5.2 kilometres (3.25 miles), 3.2 kilometres (two miles) of which was unbanked track, all approximately 30 metres (100 feet) wide. In addition to offering 5,000 seats, the circuit could accommodate 250,000 standing spectators. In 1909 it was extended to include the Test Hill, on which car manufacturers tested the climbing ability and braking efficiency of their vehicles. The narrow concrete track was 107 metres (352 feet) in length and climbed at various gradients ranging from 1:4 to 1:8, with an average gradient of 1:5.
A further addition was the Campbell Circuit built in 1937. This branched off from the Railway Straight of the main circuit and followed a winding course inside the oval until it crossed the finishing straight. By this time spectators had begun to lose interest in pure oval circuit racing on account of the high speeds. For them greater excitement was to be derived from watching drivers pit themselves against slower but more varied courses involving plenty of cornering. Moreover, the Campbell Circuit was Brooklands’ answer to the competition created by the opening of other circuits in Britain, at Donington Park in 1933 and Crystal Palace in 1937.
Vehicle design and technology had also moved on in ways that no longer favoured the “classic” racetrack. Put simply, with cars getting faster year by year, car design in the 1930s had gone beyond the physical limits of the banked oval circuit. The raised track was no longer sufficient to counter the enormous centrifugal forces produced at very high speed and keep the cars on the asphalt. The Brooklands circuit fell into decline.
Let racing commence
Racing at the first official event held at Brooklands on July 6, 1907 failed to create much in the way of excitement, however, since few vehicles were capable of speeds in excess of 145 km/h (90 miles per hour) and denuded of most of the bodywork the standard-built chassis looked as if they were moving at a very leisurely pace around the broad concrete track. Spectators also complained about a lack of catering facilities and the pebbled pathways proved less than ideal for ladies’ shoes. The slip road used by the race cars to exit the circuit was so steep that many failed to get up the hill at all and some even burst into flames. Lap times and speeds were not announced. All in all, the inaugural race on the world’s first racetrack was a big flop.
But the organizers boldly went ahead with the event as planned. In the race for the Gottlieb Daimler Memorial Plate over a distance of 25.5 kilometres (16 miles) the field was initially led by a yellow 35 hp (26 kW) Minerva, while behind it a Daimler and an Ariel-Simplex contested a hard-fought duel. Eventually the Minerva and the Ariel-Simplex were forced to retire with technical problems, leaving the reliable Daimler with a comfortable winning margin of more than a lap over its nearest rivals. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘rival’, since the runner-up – and only other car to cross the finishing line – was a Darracq.
The principal event of the afternoon was the inaugural staging of the Montague Cup, raced over 48 kilometres (30 miles) and with a purse of £1,400 sterling. With several Mercedes contesting what turned out to be an tense race, the first car to cross the finishing line was a 120 hp (88 kW) Mercedes. Although no official time was given, it is thought that the average speed must have been around 132 km/h (82 miles per hour). Second place also went to a Mercedes with 120 hp (88 kW) engine.
Prize money in this first season of racing was unusually high. During the first three days of racing Mercedes vehicles won £2,800, Napier £1,760 and Darracq £1,000. Mercedes vehicles were therefore the most successful in this opening season and went on to achieve similar successes throughout the 32-year history of Brooklands. So the history of the racetrack has always been closely associated with the racing triumphs of the German car manufacturer.