The early '80s saw Mercedes-Benz launch an all-new compact sports saloon – the 190E. With its low-drag body and clever multi-link rear suspension, the German manufacturer decided the best way to market it was to take it 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).
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”.