Mercedes has been the dominant force of Formula 1’s turbo hybrid era since 2014, but its pedigree in grand prix racing can be traced back over 100 years. KEVIN TURNER picks out its very best machines from the pre-war and world championship eras
Mercedes has a remarkable history in grand prix racing. Aside from its recent domination of Formula 1, it has tended to set the pace whenever it has appeared at motorsport’s pinnacle.
Despite the fact that it has spent long periods away from GP racing, such is its strike rate that there are plenty of candidates for the ‘greatest Mercedes’ list.
We’ve extended the usual remit beyond F1 to reflect Mercedes’ long history in motorsport but used the usual criteria: level of success, innovation and importance, and ‘X factor’.
The fact that both the 1908 French GP-winning Mercedes and the double title-winning W10 of 2019 narrowly miss out on making our list underlines the quality of the machinery that has come out of Stuttgart (and the current F1 base in Brackley) – and the longevity of an automotive legend.
One of the great motorsport stories. The Italian organisers of the 1939 Tripoli GP announced the race would be run for 1500cc Voiturettes (very roughly akin to Formula 2) rather than the usual grand prix rules mere months before the event.
That effectively banned the dominant GP Mercedes and Auto Union cars, in theory leaving the way clear for the Italian teams, chiefly Alfa Romeo with its new 158 – which would go on to become the first F1 world championship-winner in 1950.
But in complete secrecy Alfred Neubauer’s team developed the new 1500cc supercharged W165, a V8-engined, scaled-down version of the V12 W154 GP car.
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Two were taken to Tripoli – one of which was finished on the boat in transit – and they were the only non-Italian machines in the race. Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola duly finished 1-2, thrashing the field despite no testing, and the cars were never raced again.
That makes the W165 one of the few racing cars to boast a 100% competition record.
9. W06 Hybrid
Titles: 2 (2015 drivers’ and constructors’)
The 2015 Mercedes wasn’t quite as far ahead of the opposition as its similar predecessor, but it is still one of the most dominant F1 cars of the 21st century so far.
In the hands of Lewis Hamilton (11 wins) and Nico Rosberg (five), the W06 lost just three times in 19 races, defeated by a revived Ferrari challenge led by Sebastian Vettel. There were also 12 1-2 finishes.
Only in Singapore, where Mercedes struggled to make best use of the Pirelli tyres and lined up on row three, did one of the W06s not start from pole during the campaign.
Hamilton led a 1-2 in the drivers’ standings, while the team’s tally of 703 points was more than the totals of Ferrari and Red Bull combined.
Titles: 1 (1935 European drivers’)
With state funding from the new Nazi government in Germany, Mercedes made a return to the pinnacle of motorsport for the new 750kg maximum-weight grand prix formula.
Although the W25s and rival Auto Unions failed in their first international outing at the 1934 French GP, the silver cars soon stamped their authority over Italian and French rivals.
The European championship – the pre-Second World War equivalent of the world championship – returned in 1935. Mercedes remained on top with the W25B, Caracciola taking wins in the French, Belgian, Swiss and Spanish GPs as he took the first of his three Europe-an titles.
The W25 was developed throughout its three-year life, the engine in particular growing larger and larger, but handling deteriorated. Auto Union’s C-type gained the advantage in 1936, particularly in the hands of European champion Bernd Rosemeyer, though Caracciola managed one of his greatest victories in the appallingly wet Monaco GP.
Auto Union’s success encouraged Mercedes to replace the W25 with the W125, which is even higher up this list…
7. W07 Hybrid
Titles: 2 (2016 drivers’ and constructors’)
Even into the third year of the turbo-hybrid regulations, Mercedes maintained a sizeable advantage over the field with the W07.
For the second consecutive season, Mercedes elected to evolve its design from the previous year. And yet the car’s tally of 19 wins from 21 races gives it a better strike rate than any Mercedes of the modern era – and one of its two defeats came thanks to Hamilton and Rosberg crashing into each other on the first lap of the 2016 Spanish GP.
Mercedes scored more points in 2016 than it has done in any other F1 season yet – its final tally of 765 meaning that the W07 averaged a remarkable 36.4 points per GP across its 21-race career.
Hamilton might not be as much of a fan of this Mercedes because the occasional reliability issue – most notably an engine failure while the Briton was leading in Malaysia – cost him points. That, combined with some poor starts by Hamilton, was enough for Rosberg to beat his team-mate to the title by five points.
Titles: 1 (1938 European drivers’)
Often overshadowed by its muscular older brother, the W125, the W154 was probably the best grand prix car built before the Second World War.
A rule change for 1938 limited GP car engines to a maximum of three litres. The super-charged V12 W154 was therefore considerably less powerful (around 200bhp) than its predecessor but lap times were surprisingly close, perhaps because less power was wasted by the limitations in chassis, suspension and tyre technology of the era.
Nazi funding meant that no expense was spared, but Mercedes did face strong opposition from Auto Union. The Mercedes usually had the upper hand – Caracciola won the European title in 1938 – but the mid-engined Auto Union D-type had its moments.
Tazio Nuvolari won the 1938 Donington GP, while doubt has been cast over whether Auto Union’s Hermann Paul Muller or Mercedes driver Hermann Lang should be regarded as 1939 European champion – a title undeclared thanks to the outbreak of hostilities.
The 1914 French GP Mercedes wasn’t the firm’s first car to win what was then the world’s biggest race but the Paul Daimler design helped forge the legend.
Fresh regulations had reduced engine sizes to 4.5 litres and Mercedes developed a new four-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft and two inlet and exhaust valves per cylinder. It produced just over 100bhp, good enough for a top speed of over 100mph, and con-temporary reports praised the car’s roadholding.
As the automotive world would come to expect from Mercedes, preparation was meticulous. The 23.4-mile course was inspected and the cars were checked and tested repeatedly before the event.
Five cars were entered as Mercedes returned to GP competition and, despite a heroic performance from Peugeot’s Georges Boillot, Christian Lautenschlager led a Mercedes 1-2-3. One of the key advantages was the Continental-shod Mercedes runners being able to make just one scheduled tyre stop, whereas the Peugeots had to make several.
Ralph DePalma then took one example to America, winning the 1915 Indianapolis 500. Re-markably, a modified version also won the 1922 Targa Florio, driven by Count Giulio Masetti.
4. W05 Hybrid
Titles: 2 (2014 drivers’ and constructors’)
Any of the Mercedes F1 cars of the turbo-hybrid era could be included in this list but the one that kicked it all off has to feature strongly.
Mercedes had returned to F1 as a constructor in 2010 after buying the championship-winning Brawn outfit but it took a while to get into its stride. The 2012 and 2013 V8 cars won races while Mercedes poured time and resources into developing a powerplant for the hybrid era.
It paid off as the W05 was miles ahead of the rest in 2014. It was only beaten to pole once, Williams locking out the front row in Austria when both Mercedes drivers made errors, and led 86% of the racing laps during the season.
Hamilton and Rosberg won 16 races from 19 starts, only defeated by mishaps and reliability glitches, finishing 1-2 in the drivers’ standings. Mercedes also took its first F1 constructors’ crown, starting a run of success that has yet to end.
Titles: 2 (1954 and 1955 drivers’)
Aside from two off days in 1954 and atypical unreliability at the following year’s Monaco GP, the W196 was unbeatable.
Mercedes returned to the pinnacle of the sport (again) at the 1954 French GP and smashed the opposition, chiefly Ferrari and Maserati. The streamlined version was more striking but the open-wheeled car was more effective at most circuits.
Either way the W196, which had desmodromic valves (to allow higher revving) and mechanical direct fuel injection, won nine of its 12 championship outings before Mercedes withdrew from motorsport once more.
When Stirling Moss joined Juan Manuel Fangio for 1955 Mercedes created a superteam that finished first and second in the drivers’ standings. The Lancia D50 should have provided more competition, but Alberto Ascari being killed in a Ferrari sportscar accident and Lancia’s financial challenges severely dampened the threat.
The only reason the W196 doesn’t have more titles on its CV is because the constructors’ championship wasn’t inaugurated until 1958.
Titles: 1 (1937 drivers’)
One of the greatest GP cars of all time, Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s masterpiece crammed in a 5.6-litre supercharged straight-eight for the 750kg rules, producing more power (640bhp) than would be seen in F1 until turbocharging in the 1980s.
The W125 had a stiffer chassis than the W25 that preceded it and improved suspension. Combined with its impressive power output, that made the car a significant step forward.
Hermann Lang won on the car’s debut in the 1937 Tripoli GP and Auto Union struggled to match the W125 throughout the final year of the 750kg formula.
Mercedes won most of the major races, including the German, Monaco, Swiss and Italian GPs, and Caracciola took the 1937 European crown as the team’s drivers dominated the standings.
The W125 is not the most successful Mercedes or the most innovative but the monster’s sheer power, put through narrow tyres made of materials that struggled to cope, and stature make it one of motorsport’s iconic machines – and made heroes of its intrepid drivers.
Titles: 2 (2020 drivers’ and constructors’)
To maintain a place at the top of F1 is impressive but to extend an advantage so far into a regulations cycle is truly remarkable. Ferrari and Red Bull had run Mercedes much closer under the wider, more-aggressive F1 rules that arrived in 2017 than they had in 2014-16 – until the W11.
Stung by the pace of Ferrari in 2019, Mercedes threw everything into its 2020 design, including important rear-suspension changes and innovative dual-axis steering. As Ferrari fell back and the coronavirus pandemic provided the opportunity to iron out some problems found in testing, Mercedes was further ahead at the start of the campaign than any team had been for years.
Mercedes stopped developing the W11 after round seven and Red Bull closed the gap, but the W11 still took 13 wins and 15 poles from 17 races. It was only truly outpaced once – at the Abu Dhabi finale.
Hamilton clinched the drivers’ crown with three races to go and ended the year 124 points clear despite missing a round, while team-mate Valtteri Bottas completed a Mercedes 1-2.
It’s also a record-breaker. As well as being the machine in which Hamilton matched Michael Schumacher’s tally of seven titles – and surpassed the German’s F1 wins benchmark – it can also claim to be the fastest F1 car of all.
Hamilton’s 164.3mph record pole lap at Monza is likely to stand for some time.