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German Grand Prix of 1938
by Cyril Posthumus
1939 Was the first year of the new 3-litre supercharged /
4½-litre unsupercharged GP Formula. Strictly this was a sliding scale Formula designed to
place cars of all engine sizes from 666 c.c. to 4,500 c.c. on a level footing, but only
Germany's blown 3-litre twelve-cylinder Mercedes and Auto Unions had the performance to
win, albeit at the cost of heavy fuel and tyre consumption. By the time the 11th German GP
came round the situation had settled down with Mercedes the dominant marque. Auto Union,
demoralized by the grievous loss of Bernd Rosemeyer in a record attempt, tagged along
behind, Maserati were an erratic threat with a fast new eight-cylinder 3-litre, and
France's V-12 Delahayes had proved slow but reliable and easy on tyres and fuel.
But Auto Union prospects brightened at
Nürburg with Nuvolari the Maestro joining the team to help combat the Mercedes might,
while Varzi and Trossi were entered with two works Maseratis and Wimille with a blown
single-seater Bugatti. Alas, these three all indexed, and the 20 remaining runners
comprised four blown 3-litre V-12 Mercedes (Type 154), four Auto Unions (Type D with blown
V- 12 units at the rear of a new frame with de Dion back end), two twelve-cylinder Type
312 Alfa Romeos, three eight-cylinder Type 308 Alfas, two 4.5 unblown Delahayes,
Englishman A. B. Hyde's old ex-Howe, ex-Cholmondeley-Tapper 3-litre Maserati, and four
1.5-litre Maseratis, all driven by independents.
The settling of grid positions by practice times was now accepted Nürburg practice, and the usual vast assemblage (1938 estimates were between 350,000 and 400,000!) saw an all-Mercedes front row with Britain's Dick Seaman (green helmet) on the left, Lang (white helmet) in the centre, and von Brauchitsch (red helmet) on the right, taking pole position after a tremendous lap in 9 min 48.4 sec - only 2.2 sec slower than Rosemeyer's absolute fastest on 6 litres, set the previous year. The weather was fine and warm as the usual Nazi parades unwound themselves, with preliminary national sports car and motorcycle races to leaven these martial proceedings until at last zero hour for the GP came round.
And this time the customary Nürburg efficiency was let down by the electric starting signal; the red and amber warning lights came on, but the green, due 20 seconds after, did not. Mercedes team manager Neubauer was, however, counting out the seconds for his drivers, ten fingers meaning '10 seconds to go - engage first gear'. Counting down themselves from then, Lang tore away from Brauchitsch and Seaman while Nuvolari in his Auto Union shot past both into a brief second place. Bursting out of the South Curve the order was Lang, Nuvolari, Seaman, Caracciola, Hasse, Brauchitsch, but before they vanished beyond the North Curve, Seaman was up into second place. At Brünnchen Mercedes became I-2-3, for Nuvolari, trying to steer and wipe a blob of oil from his screen at the same time, most uncharacteristically left the road backwards-Auto Unions were not Alfas! He got back into the race, but only to tour one more lap before retiring with damaged suspension. First A.U. out.
Three more cars-Comotti's Delahaye, Biondetti's V-12 Alfa and Berg's little 6C Maserati joined it in the dead park, and Alfa Romeo suffered further on lap 3 when Farina and Taruffi also dropped out. By then it was Mercedes 1-2-3-4, Lang suffering oiled plugs and holding up Seaman, while Brauchitsch elbowed past both. Further back, ex-Auto Union driver Paul Pietsch was going great guns in his silver 1.5-litre Maserati, holding off Dreyfus's 4.5-litre unblown Delahaye - a two-seater instead of the new monoplace, tried and found wanting during practice.
The air was filled with the rush of feet, the clack of hammers and the excited buzz of the crowd, then Brauchitsch's tank was overfilled, slopped over-and at that moment he switched on and a mechanic engaged the portable starter. The engine spat back and a collective gasp of horror arose from the packed stands as there came a vicious 'whoof!' and instantly the whole tail of the Mercedes became a mass of flames, rising swiftly above the two-tier pits. Brauchitsch, struggling to release his detachable steering wheel, was hauled bodily out of the cockpit by Neubauer and rolled on the ground to extinguish his burning sleeve, while the fire fighting squad went into action just as Seaman restarted, pulled out through the flames and smoke, and tore away into the lead.
The flames were quickly quelled; leaving three or four mechanics and the Mercedes well dowsed with thick white foam. Quickly it was wiped clean, when to a mighty roar of cheering Brauchitsch the pechvogel climbed back in, started up without mishap this time, and pluckily rejoined the race. But now Seaman was leading by over two minutes from Lang, Nuvolari and Stuck, Baumer in Lang's cast-off had given up, the English amateur Hyde, utterly fatigued by fighting his difficult Maserati round, had overturned and hurt himself badly, and Hasse, too, had retired after a fine drive.
Then Brauchitsch was missing also. Shaken after the fire, bitter at the loss, once again, of the Grosser Preis when it seemed within his grasp, he misjudged the Schwedenkreuz corner and the Mercedes vanished down a deep ditch. Poor Brauchitsch climbed out unhurt and started to walk back, black in face and mood, carrying his detachable steering wheel, which, he declared, had detached itself as he took the corner. His mechanic Zimmer stoutly denies the possibility to this day.
So Richard Seaman in No. 16 Mercedes-Benz sped on to victory by 3 min 20 sec from Lang, Stuck and Nuvolari. For the first time since 1924 (when Seaman's hero Segrave won at San Sebastian in a Sunbeam) a Bd won a major International Grand Prix; for the first time ever a Britishritish driver ha driver had won the German GP And in confirmation that Seaman was a worthy winner and not merely 'rather lucky' as he modestly declared in an interview, he changed tyres only once to Brauchitsch's twice, yet comfortably held his pace, while his sixth lap in 10 min 09.1 sec (83.76 m.p.h.) proved the fastest of the day, unequalled by any of the Continental masters.
All Seaman said was 'I only wish it had been a British car'