PLAYING THE RIGHT TUNE

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By Stuart Grant with photography by Mike Schmucker

Mercedes-Benz has a proud motorsport history dating back to the very first race in 1894 and excelled during the 1930s and ’50s with single-seat and sports car formulae. But following a fatal accident at Le Mans, factory-backed racing was stopped and the tuning house AMG rose to prominence – steering away from Merc tradition by taking to the track in some monstrous saloons. With the ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ theory in full swing, Merc slowly warmed to the idea of a motorsport return and nearly three decades later, teamed up with Cosworth to release a homologation model ideal for teams like AMG to compete in the touring car categories. We spent time with a pair of locally built race cars that pay homage to AMG and Cosworth’s Mercedes-Benz tuning handiwork.

The Mercedes-Benz motorsport tale is well known but worthy of a brief recap. Its involvement goes back to the very beginning, with a Benz competing in the first-ever motor race – the 1894 Paris-Rouen. The company merger hadn’t happened yet when Mercedes built its Simplex in 1902, which is widely regarded as the first purpose-built racer. By the 1930s, the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows team was the one to beat in grand prix events and following the war, the advent of the Formula 1 World Championship again saw the team at the sharp end – Fangio won the ’54 and ’55 title in a W196 Mercedes-Benz. On the sports car front the 300SL was the initial weapon of choice, winning Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in 1952. For 1955, the 300SLR, sporting a chassis derived from the GP car, made its streamlined appearance and Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson etched its name in stone by winning the Mille Miglia at a record speed – thanks to their invention of pace notes.

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The SLR proved to be the car to have by scoring wins at the Dundrod TT and Targa Florio on the way to clinching the 1955 World Championship, but the lifespan was cut short with the Mercedes-Benz factory team withdrawing from the sport the same year. The cause of this shock announcement? The darkest day in motorsport history – the ’55 Le Mans 24 Hour. 300SLR driver Pierre Levegh tangled with the Austin-Healey 100S of Lance Macklin, and catapulted the Mercedes into the air and wall. Levegh was thrown from the car to his death, and 83 spectators perished as bits of the car and a fireball created by the magnesium body flew through the grandstand. Mercedes immediately withdrew the 300SLRs and curtailed its official motorsport involvement, banning it completely from 1965.

It was this ban that that led to the formation of AMG. Daimler-Benz Development Department employees Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher suddenly found their skills as race engine builders sidelined, but their passion for competition was so strong that they set out to build their own Merc competition car. Their first offering was an unlikely racer, a luxury barge Mercedes-Benz 300SE that they stripped, raising the power output from 170 to 283bhp. Driver Manfred Schiek proved successful, taking a few victories on the way to the 1965 German Touring Car Championship. Requests for faster road and track machines flowed in from the Merc fans.

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Aufrecht and Melcher heard the cries and took the plunge in 1967, tossing their jobs at Mercedes and setting up the company AMG in Burgstall. ‘A’ for Aufrecht, ‘M’ from Melcher and ‘G’ a nod to Aufrecht’s hometown of Großaspach. The bold move worked a treat and tuned versions of Stuttgart’s finest rolled out the shop at a rapid pace. Mercedes-Benz seemingly spotted that they’d missed a trick and responded with more powerful road vehicles. Rather than deterring AMG, this gave the relatively small workshop even more to work with and with the arrival of the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, Aufrecht and Melcher went back to the track. They bumped the 6.3-litre V8 up to 6.8 litres, and power made shifted from the standard 246bhp to 428. The debut at the 1971 Spa 24-Hour was met with disbelief, and the ungainly looks and red colour scheme saw the nickname ‘Rote Sau’ (Red Pig) quickly catch on. Who in their right mind would want to race a car that large? The disbelief quickly turned to amazement, however, as the massive AMG secured a class win and second overall – the team were on for a win, but a few more pit stops than the rest of the field to quench a serious petrol thirst dropped them down by the flag. After its racing career, the 300SEL was sold to an aircraft company, where its weight and speed meant it was perfect for testing aeroplane landing gear – by dropping it through holes cut into the floor. Sadly this treatment took its toll and the car was soon relegated to junk status.

AMG, in the meantime, kept tuning and upgrading Mercedes products for road users and the business grew through the early 1970s. By 1978, the idea of circuit racing was once again seen as the way to market AMG and the circus chosen for this was the European Touring Car Championship. Daimler-Benz was dipping its toe back into the motorsport world too, but this time using the World Rally Championship as a stage to display not only the Mercedes pace but also its reliability and robust build quality. The factory team chose the W107 SL as its weapon in the rough stuff, while AMG opted for the W107 450SLC for track time – reason for this being that a solid roof meant the vehicle could be classed as a Group 2 saloon and do battle against the likes of BMW and Jaguar. Sponsorship came from German liqueur manufacturer Mampe, who developed and supplied Lufthansa airlines with the Lufthansa Cocktail – first-class passengers had been sipping the signature apricot liqueur drink for years – and with a deal done to retail the cocktail, Mampe saw racing as an ideal advertising platform.

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Rules saw the SLC drop 465kg to 1225, AMG increased the output from 217 horses to 375, the body was suitably flared to house massive wheels, and various aerodynamic and cooling aids were added. Interestingly, the three-speed automatic gearbox remained because the manual five-speed AMG used in road versions hadn’t been homologated. The car was finished just in time for the opening round of the 1978 season at Monza, Italy, where Hans Heyer and Clemens Schickentanz came in fifth in the 4-hour race. The team repeated this at Salzburgring in Austria but then failed to finish the Nürburgring and Silverstone rounds. An attempt was made at Le Mans that year too, but the monster failed to qualify. 1979 got off to a good start, with second place at Monza, but this was again followed by poor results. A win did come eventually though when, in its very final European Touring Car Championship appearance, Schickentanz and Jörg Denzel finally scored the victory at Monza.

By this time touring car racing was changing its focus, with a move away from numerous capacity-based classes towards more standard Group A cars. And Mercedes-Benz had just the car 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…

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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).

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”.

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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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Today, the hot-production Mercedes-Benz offerings carry the AMG name. It’s more than just branding though, with power upgrades designed by the AMG arm and each engine completely built by a single person. Saloons make up the majority, but Mercedes-Benz AMG also manufacture some brutal sportscars; a nod to Merc’s racing roots.

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The pictured Senna 190E 2.3-16 and Mampe Lufthansa Cocktail SLC replicas were built by Colin Kean and Dawie Olivier. You can catch them on track during the various historic racing championships that take place in the Gauteng region.
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