FROM SUBSTITUTE TO SUPERSTAR

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As the 1970s wound down, saloon car racing and rallying started changing its focus with a move away from numerous capacity-based classes towards more standard Group A cars. Mercedes-Benz had not competed on a large scale since the 1955 Le Mans tragedy and wanted back into motorsport and had a perfect Group A machine sitting in the pipeline: the all-new compact W201 190E.

With its low-drag body and clever multi-link rear suspension, Mercedes-Benz decided to take the 190E rallying. But to beat the dominant BDA-powered Ford Escorts and the Talbot Lotus Sunbeams, it called on the legendary engine development operation, Cosworth. The 2.3-litre four-cylinder block remained, but the English firm designed a twin-cam 16-valve head to replace the standard 8-valve. A Getrag five-speed gearbox, limited-slip differential and revised aerodynamic appendages were added, and enough road-going production units were built to homologate Cossie-Merc for competition.

And then Audi arrived on the rally scene with its Quattro…

Just like that, without really turning a wheel, the rear-wheel-drive Merc rally car was dead in the water. Nonetheless, Mercedes-Benz followed through with the launch of the production 190E 2.3-16V in 1983 and kept dreaming of it as a competition vehicle. This dream took a step toward this reality when a fleet of identical road cars (fitted with a rudimentary roll cage, bucket seat, and harness and shortened springs) took part in a one-make race to celebrate the opening of the new Grand Prix circuit at the Nürburgring in 1984. Behind the wheels were grand prix greats like James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Jacques Laffite, Alain Prost, Carlos Reutemann, Elio de Angelis, Stirling Moss, Jody Scheckter, Keke Rosberg and John Surtees – as well as F1 newcomer Ayrton Senna (da Silva).

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Senna wasn’t originally down for the drive but took over fellow Brazilian Emerson Fitipaldi’s seat at the last moment. The 12-lap race took place under damp conditions and Senna immediately took to the front and drifted the twitchy Merc into first, ahead of Lauda and Reutemann. Having beaten the best of the best, he was quoted after the race as saying: “Now I know I can do it”.

By this stage, four-cylinder touring car racing was all the rage and the DTM (German Touring Car Championship) was the place to be for any manufacturer intent on making a sporting name. The 190E 2.3-16 made its first appearance in the German series in 1986 and scooped two race wins that year, and a 190E campaigned by AMG helped Helmut Marko secured second in the title chase. What followed was a decade or so of the world’s best saloon car racing as the Cosworth 190E and BMW’s M3 bumped and bruised their way to victory. Those of us growing up in the 1990s, when local TV still showed international motorsport, quickly became either BMW or Mercedes fans – but never both.

AMG’s efforts in running a number of 190E touring cars, combined with tastefully modified road cars, were rewarded in 1990 when Mercedes-Benz bought some shares in AMG and allowed the tuning house to sell its products through Mercedes dealers with full factory warranties. This in turn led to both companies having input into future product design, and eventually Merc took full control of AMG in 2005 by buying the remaining shares.

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