Motorsport history by Mercedes-Benz – Newsletter 3/2020

May 2020
  • 11 to 14 June 1895: Paris-Bordeaux-Paris was the world’s first motorcar race against the clock – cars fitted with Daimler engines won
  • 31 May 1915: Ralph DePalma won the 500-mile Indianapolis “Indy 500” in a Mercedes Grand Prix racing car
  • Successful since 2010: Ten years of customer participation in Mercedes-AMG motorsport

After the impressive anniversary celebrating 125 Years of Motorsport at Mercedes-Benz in 2019, the brand continues to celebrate further outstanding racing moments from its history in 2020. Highlights include the first motorcar race against the clock in France 125 years ago, Ralph DePalma’s victory 105 years ago in the Indy 500 race in Indianapolis in a Mercedes and, ten years ago, the introduction of the highly successful customer sports programme with the launch of the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3.

125 years ago: Victory in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race

The first motorcar race in line with modern racing principles assessed exclusively on a time basis ended with a triumph for cars with Daimler engines. 125 years ago, on 11 June 1895, a total of 19 cars and two motorcycles participated in the race. The starting order was decided by drawing lots. After the presentation of the vehicles at the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris, they drove to Versailles, where the timekeeping started and the competitors entered the race at two-minute intervals, starting at 12 noon. The race route to Bordeaux and back to Porte Maillot in Paris was a gruelling 1,175 kilometres. The daily newspaper “Le Petit Journal”, which had organised the first ever motorcar competition held as a reliability run from Paris to Rouen one year before, accompanied the race with daily reports.

Émile Levassor was the first to cross the finishing line on 13 June 1895. However, his Panhard & Levassor car with a “Système Daimler” engine had only two seats – and the regulations stipulated four seats, among other things. Nevertheless, Levassor did not end up empty-handed: He was awarded the second prize for his great performance. He had covered the distance in 48 hours and 42 minutes, and achieved an average speed of 24.1 km/h. This meant that he crossed the finishing line about five and a half hours before Louis Rigoulot, starting number 15 (started in Versailles on 11 June at 12:05, arrived in Paris on 13 June at 18:37). His car, however, also only had two seats and was therefore downgraded in the classification.

Paul Koechlin (starting number 16) was declared the winner of the race. After 59 hours and 48 minutes, he arrived in Paris on June 14 at 12:02 a.m. as the third fastest driver. He had set off about two and a half days earlier at 12:14 p.m. His prize money amounted to 35,000 francs. Koechlin’s Peugeot was also powered by an engine made under Daimler licence. The successful outcome of this race was therefore reminiscent of the fantastic success of Daimler technology a year earlier in the Paris-Rouen race.

All in all, the overall result in June 1895 was very encouraging for the engine technology made by German manufacturers: Six of the first eight vehicles to finish were fitted with Daimler engines and two were cars made by Benz & Cie. The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, organised by the Automobile Club de France, is regarded as one of the forerunners of the French Grand Prix, which was first held in 1906 and was, until 1967, officially called the “Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France”.

105 years ago: Ralph DePalma won the Indy 500, a 500-mile race staged in Indianapolis, USA

On 31 May 1915, 105 years ago, Ralph DePalma won the 500-mile Indianapolis race in a Mercedes Grand Prix car, despite the fact that three laps before the finish a connecting rod in the engine broke. The car continued to run and DePalma reached the finishing line after 5 hours, 35 minutes and 55 seconds with an average speed of 144.6 km/h. This was the last race over 500 miles in this classic event before it had to be interrupted due to the outbreak of war. In 1916, the distance was shortened to 300 miles; then the competition was put on hold until the end of the war.

Born in 1882, this American racing driver of Italian descent was one of the most successful racing drivers of all time. During the 27 years of his career, Ralph DePalma is said to have competed in 2,889 races and won 2,557 of them. Some of his most spectacular victories were achieved in Mercedes racing cars.

DePalma was just able to ship the Indianapolis winning car to the USA before the First World War broke out. At the French Grand Prix in Lyon on 4 July 1914, in which DePalma participated in a Vauxhall, he was able to experience the legendary triple victory of the Mercedes racing cars first-hand – three and a half weeks before the outbreak of the war. The racing car’s four-cylinder carburettor engine with a displacement of 4.5 litres and an output of 78 kW (106 hp) was an advanced design with an overhead camshaft and – for the first time in a Mercedes engine – four-valve technology.

Paul Daimler sold the car which Louis Wagner had used to take second place in Lyon to Ralph DePalma for 6,000 dollars. On 25 July 1914, DePalma drove his new competition vehicle himself to Antwerp, where the car was shipped to the United States of America on the German freighter “Vaterland”. DePalma himself travelled on the “Olympic” steamer from Le Havre and received the news at sea that the war had started in Europe on 28 July 1914. DePalma wasted no time and in August 1914 participated with his new acquisition in two races in Illinois, which he won. Further victories with the Mercedes followed – among them the victory in the Indy 500, which was particularly spectacular.

Ten years ago: Mercedes-AMG Motorsports started the customer sports programme

The enthusiasm on the part of private drivers for the sporting performance of Mercedes-Benz motorcars has a long tradition. In 2010, Mercedes-AMG Motorsport provided a new platform for this passion for competition with its customer sports programme. The first model produced was the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3, which was based on the first sports car developed independently by Mercedes-AMG. In its first full season in 2011, the car turned out to be the most successful newcomer, and HEICO Motorsport won the team classification with the SLS AMG GT3 at the FIA GT3 European Championship. In 2013, the Black Falcon Team with its drivers Bernd Schneider, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Sean Edwards and Nicki Thiim won the prestigious 24-hour race at the Nürburgring in the SLS AMG GT3.

Since 2010, Mercedes-AMG Motorsport has established one of the world’s leading customer racing programmes: Customer teams from all over the world have fielded almost 400 racing cars in over 120 series, winning 418 overall victories, 788 class wins and 171 national and international titles. For the 2020 anniversary season, Mercedes-AMG offers its customer teams the new AMG GT3 and the enhanced AMG GT4.

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  • 20C0149_019
    First victory of the SLS AMG GT3 at the Nürburgring-Nordschleife in 2010
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    Racing cars from the Mercedes-AMG Customer Racing Programme since 2010. From right to left: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 (2010), CLA 45 AMG Racing Series (2014), Mercedes-AMG GT3 (2015), Mercedes-AMG GT4 (2017) and Mercedes-AMG GT3 (2019).
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    Racing cars from the Mercedes-AMG Customer Racing Programme since 2010. From right to left: Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 (2010), CLA 45 AMG Racing Series (2014), Mercedes-AMG GT3 (2015), Mercedes-AMG GT4 (2017) and Mercedes-AMG GT3 (2019).
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    Panhard & Levassor with a Daimler-Phoenix engine, Paris–Bordeaux–Paris race from 11 to 14 June 1895. Emile Levassor (at the wheel) and René Panhard were first to cross the finish line. They were only to receive second place, however, as the two-seater vehicle did not fully correspond to the specifications. The endurance race in which only the driving time was assessed was, after the Paris–Rouen reliability race of July 1894, the first car race as we understand it today. Photograph from 1895.
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    The Paris – Bordeaux – Paris race, 11 - 14.06.1895. Emile Roger (start number 13) in a 4 hp Benz Vis-à-Vis. Roger finished in 8th place.
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    French Grand Prix near Lyon on 4 July 1914. The Mercedes Grand Prix racing car of the eventual winner, Christian Lautenschlager (start number 28), entering the Piège de la Mort (“Death Trap”), around three kilometres from the starting/finishing line. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft achieved a triple victory with its Mercedes Grand Prix racing cars, in the sequence Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer.
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    Five-hundred-mile “Indy 500” race in Indianapolis (USA), 31 May 1915. The subsequent winner Ralph DePalma in his Mercedes Grand Prix racing car. Drawing by Hans Liska.
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    Ralph DePalma at the Untertürkheim plant in July 1914 at the wheel of a Mercedes Grand Prix racing car. In the end, however, he did not acquire this car (which took third place in Lyon with Otto Salzer at the wheel), but the car that was driven to second place by Louis Wagner.
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    Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race from 11 to 14 June 1895. The enthusiastic audience saying goodbye to a participant at one of the control stations.