Mercedes-Benz made a sensational return to Grand Prix racing in 1954 to mark its debut in the Formula One World Championship. The seeds were sown early in 1953, when the then Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG – Fritz Könecke – set an ambitious target for the resumption of international racing activities; to capture both the Formula One and sports car World Championships the following year.
At the heart of the project was the W 196 R; an all-new concept with a raft of unique features that would combine to create an all-conquering racing machine. Two body shapes, three variants of wheelbase length, a lightweight frame and uncannily powerful brakes formed the base, while the engine – an eight cylinder, 2496 cc, in-line configuration with direct injection – produced more than 250 hp; powering the W 196 R to top speeds in excess of 300 km/h.
The second European race of the 1954 Formula One season – the French Grand Prix – saw the new generation of Silver Arrows take the start for the first time. The W 196 R had posted the fastest time in practice, but it was during its racing debut on 4 July in Reims that the newly reformed squad would exceed all expectations. 1951 World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio lined up alongside Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann; the combination of both car and drivers proving an instant success. Although Herrmann suffered an early retirement – having just set the then fastest lap of the race – Fangio and Kling dominated to claim an emphatic 1-2 finish; separated by just 0.1 seconds at the flag and with an advantage of a whole lap to the rest of the field. This sensational success had historic implications, for exactly 40 years earlier – on 4 July 1914 – Mercedes had won the French Grand Prix in Lyon.
In line with the Fritz Könecke’s lofty ambitions, the 1954 World Championship title became the focus. After the streamlined car struggled comparatively around the twisty Silverstone circuit, Chief Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut readied the second variant of the W 196 R; a more classic ‘monoposto’ Grand Prix car design, featuring exposed wheels. From this point there would be no halt to the Mercedes charge, with at least one Silver Arrows driver on the podium at the remaining races of the season. Fangio claimed victory in the German, Swiss and Italian Grands Prix and placed third in Spain, while Hermann finished third in Switzerland. Fangio's victory in Switzerland crowned him as World Champion, with 6 victories from the 9 race calendar.