75 years ago today, Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola outclassed the competition with a double victory in the completely new Mercedes-Benz W 165 1.5-litre racing car at the Tripoli Grand Prix: hosted the Mellaha circuit on 7 May 1939. The triumph in Libya was particularly significant because the Italian motor sports association, who were organising the Grand Prix, had intended to impede the successful German formula racing cars by changing the rules.
Following three victories by the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows (Caracciola 1935, Lang 1937 and 1938) and a race won by the Auto Union (Achille Varzi 1936), they announced that the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix would be for the voiturette class of 1.5-litre racing cars only. Mercedes-Benz reacted with sporting ambition – developing the all-new W 165 specifically for this class in less than eight months – with Lang and Caracciola seizing victory.
When he sat in the new Mercedes-Benz W 165 Silver Arrow for the first time in April 1939 at the Hockenheimring, Hermann Lang was completely thrilled: “Goodness me, the little athlete could go! You’d hardly got into one gear before you were switching to the next” he recalls in his autobiography: reminiscing on his debut in the monoposto, with its 1.5-litre V8 engine that had been kept under wraps by its developers up to that point.
The Impossible Made Possible
The engineers of the Stuttgart brand developed the vehicle in a record time of just eight months for a single race, the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix. Rudolf Caracciola, for whom Lang had become strong competition during the 1939 season, highlighted the racing and development division’s outstanding achievement in his 1958 memoirs: “Engineers, mechanics, the entire technical staff, they all applied themselves enthusiastically to the challenge posed. And they rendered the seemingly impossible possible: within the space of eight months, they created a 1,500 cubic centimetre racing car!”
The Stuttgart brand’s announcement that two Mercedes-Benz 1.5-litre racing cars would start at the Tripoli Grand Prix came as a complete surprise to the international public – particularly to the event organisers and rival teams. Even the racing world had not considered such an achievement possible.
Winning Streak in Tripoli
Hermann Lang was considered a Tripoli specialist by Mercedes-Benz. In 1937 he started the race, the debut for the newly developed W 125, in 5th position and went on to win the Grand Prix ahead of Bernd Rosemeyer (Auto Union). Following the end of the 750-kilogram formula, Mercedes-Benz developed the W 154 Grand Prix racing car, with a mechanically supercharged three-litre V12 engine, for the 1938 season. Hermann Lang started the race in pole position in this vehicle and went on to lead the Mercedes-Benz triple victory ahead of his team mates Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudolf Caracciola.
In 1939, Lang was again on the first row of the grid, although Luigi Villoresi, driving a Maserati, was fastest in practice. After a perfect start, the former racing mechanic from Stuttgart positioned himself and the W 165 at the front of the field. Halfway through the race he was already a minute and a half ahead of Caracciola in second position. The Mercedes-Benz racing drivers would go on to cross the finishing line in that order. Emilio Villoresi, driving an Alfa Romeo, finished third: almost 10 minutes behind the victor.
The double victory of rivals Lang and Caracciola marked the culmination of two strings of successes. Hermann Lang had won the Tripoli Grand Prix three times in three different Mercedes-Benz racing cars, while Mercedes-Benz had won the race with each of the four Silver Arrows which dominated racing in Europe from 1934-1939. This series of successes was started by Caracciola in 1935, when he won the race in Libya in the Mercedes-Benz W 25.
The 1939 Mercedes-Benz W 165 Grand Prix Racing Car
Following the announcement of the rules for the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix in the autumn of the previous year, Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart made the decision to develop a completely new racing car for the 1.5-litre class. The development and construction of two vehicles took just eight months: from September 1938 to April 1939. The W 165 was similar in many of its design details to the Mercedes-Benz W 154: the 3-litre Grand Prix car that was introduced in 1938 and developed further for the 1939 season.
The new monoposto had a mechanically supercharged 1.5-litre V8 engine with a displacement of 1,493 cubic centimetres, which could achieve 187 kW (254 hp) at 8,000 rpm – the first V8 in the history of Mercedes-Benz. The short-stroke engine was configured for engine speeds as high as 9,000 rpm. The W 165, which achieved a top speed of 272 km/h, was constructed on an oval tubular frame designed as a ladder frame with four cross-members. There were plans for streamlining, but in Tripoli the W 165 competed in its classic form with open wheels.