Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Rudolf Caracciola – The Original Meister

Well a new Grand Prix season is almost upon us and I for one am very excited. Many are asking whether anyone can stop the prodigiously talented German who has swept all before him over the past three seasons. This is, of course, a question that has been asked before in recent history but long before Vettel and Schumacher another German racer was regarded by many as the greatest of his generation.

Rudolf Caracciola 1901-1959

Rudolf Caracciola was born in Remagen in 1901. He began his career with Daimler-Benz as a humble car salesman but his passion was for racing cars rather than selling them. Thanks to his powers of persuasion he was able to secure modest support from his employers for his racing career and in 1926, by which time he was already a proven winner, he entered the inaugural Grand Prix of Germany at AVUS in a borrowed Mercedes M218 as a privateer. In spite of stalling on the opening lap and requiring a push start from his mechanic the 25 year old Caracciola nevertheless pulled off an incredible feat to fight his way through the forty four strong field in heavy rain to take the lead. Further drama ensued as Caracciola developed a miss-fire and was forced to pit for lengthy repairs. Back out on track he resumed his incredible progress and once more stormed into a lead he would hold until the end. With this remarkable victory Caracciola announced his arrival on the international racing scene and established a reputation for peerless driving in wet conditions.
Caracciola's 1926 German GP Win
Caracciola’s victory proved to be life changing in every way. With the prize money from the race he was able to set up his own business and also married his girlfriend Charlotte. He continued to race in hill climbs and road races, winning the inaugural race on the new Nurburgring but suffering mechanical failure in the 1927 German Grand Prix on the same circuit. He shared victory in the 1928 event in spite of pulling out of the race suffering from heat exhaustion as his team mate Christian Werner took over his car and continued on to win the race.

Caracciola remained a Mercedes stalwart, winning the European hill climbing championship in 1930 and competing in endurance racing. He competed at Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia thousand mile road race run on public roads between Rome and Brescia as well as continuing to win victories on the track.

By 1931 Mercedes had been forced to scale down their racing efforts in the face of global economic melt-down but they continued to support Caracciola and he did not disappoint; winning the German Grand Prix against the superior Bugattis of Louis Chiron and Achille Varzi by over a minute when the elements once more presented him with an opportunity to demonstrate his unrivalled ability to keep a racing car on track in the wet. Caracciola also triumphed in the 1931 Mille Miglia, becoming along with co-driver Wilhelm Sebastian the first non-Italian winners of the event. Driving his Mercedes SSKL at an average speed of 101km/h Caracciola won the race in record time.

Caracciola/Sebastian 1931 Mille Miglia

The Italians took note and with the complete withdrawal of Mercedes Benz from racing in 1932 Caracciola was snapped up by Alfa Romeo although he would compete initially as a semi-independent and with inferior machinery to the leading Italian drivers. After a number of impressive performances however Caracciola was offered a place within the works team and went on to win four Grands Prix for Alfa Romeo that year including another German Grand Prix victory.

In the following year Alfa Romeo too felt the pinch and withdrew from racing, leaving Caracciola without a contract. Undaunted, he set out as a privateer outfit again; racing customer Alfas along with his friend Louis Chiron. In practice for the Monaco Grand Prix however, Caracciola suffered a serious accident, slamming into a wall at the Tabac corner and shattering his femur. As he was carried from the wreckage a bystander reassured Caracciola that Monte Carlo had an excellent hospital and that many famous people had died there. It would take him a year to recover and he would be left with a limp for the rest of his life. Further tragedy struck him during his recuperation in Switzerland when his wife Charlotte was killed in an avalanche whilst skiing, plunging Caracciola into deep despair.

The rise of the Nazis breathed new life into the sporting programmes of Mercedes Benz and their rivals Auto Union as the party willingly poured funds into motorsport as an ideal theatre to showcase German engineering and sporting prowess on the international stage and Caracciola was persuaded to return to racing and public life. For the sake of their careers Caracciola and his German contemporaries were obliged to join the NSKK; the Nazi party’s motorsport wing, although Caracciola never joined the Nazi party itself.

In 1934 Caracciola was back in a works Mercedes Benz although he struggled at times with the pain from his leg injury and a second place finish in the Spanish Grand Prix was his best result on the track.

Caracciola 1935 Tripoli GP
In the following year however the German was back to his very best at the Tripoli Grand Prix which was a heavily wagered-upon race with starting grid positions being decided by lottery. The race was run to Formula Libre regulations and was not part of the more tightly regulated European Drivers Championship; forerunner of today’s World Championship. Caracciola drove a canny race on the rough and dusty desert track. Recovering from an early puncture just five laps into the race, Caracciola combined a blistering pace; at times lapping ten seconds a lap faster than his rivals, with an ability to look after his tyres that his modern equivalents would appreciate, to find himself in the lead when the Alfas of Nuvolari and Varzi struggled with tyre wear towards the end of the race.

The European Drivers Championship for 1935 comprised five races of which Caracciola in his Mercedes W25 won three. In the penultimate event, the Spanish Grand Prix, Caracciola was required to start from the back of the grid as starting places were decided by lottery. By the first corner he was in the lead having mistaken the throttle for the brake pedal but somehow still made it around the turn and went on to win both the race and the championship.

In 1936 the European title went to Caracciola’s friend and rival Bernd Rosemeyer who drove for Auto Union although Caracciola banished his Monaco demons by winning the race. Caracciola went on to win a further two European championships in 1937 and 1938; being the only driver to achieve this feat. In 1937 he also married his second wife Alice.

As the rivalry between Mercedes Benz and Auto Union intensified, their battle embraced the quest for the world land speed record. On January 28th 1938 on a stretch of newly constructed autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt the two manufacturers set out to fight head to head for the record. Rudolf Caracciola made his attempt first, driving a stream-lined Mercedes W125 at a speed of 268.9 mph (432.7km/h) over a measured kilometre; setting a record for speed on a public road which stands to this day. It was a bitter-sweet achievement however for Rosemeyer was killed attempting to beat the record for Auto Union when cross-winds swept his car into a deadly somersault. The death of his friend caused Caracciola to question the value and purpose of a racer’s life but in the end he fatalistically accepted that the risk-taking Rosemeyer had inevitably run out of luck.

Rosemeyer prior to fatal 1938 world speed record attempt

The advent of the Second World War brought such trivial pursuits to an end. Caracciola sat the war out in Switzerland and made plans to race in America at the war’s end. In 1946 he travelled to America and entered the Indianapolis 500 in a borrowed car, unfortunately hitting the wall during practice for the race in an accident which left him in a coma for several days.

In 1952 he made a return to racing in Europe, competing once more in the Mille Miglia but a crash in the Swiss Grand Prix of that year in which he hit a tree and suffered a serious fracture, this time in his other leg, proved to be a career-ending injury. Caracciola continued to work for Mercedes Benz, resuming his sales role and making use of his celebrity status. Sadly his health deteriorated rapidly and he died from liver failure in 1959, aged just 58.

He is remembered as one of the most talented and accomplished drivers of his own, or any generation; a three times European Grand Prix champion and a three times European hill climb champion; the fastest man on four wheels over a single mile or over a thousand miles, peerless in the rain and indomitable in the desert. A six time winner of the German Grand Prix; Rudolf Caracciola quite simply was the master.

Caracciola’s first Grand Prix victory

Caracciola wins in Tripoli

Caracciola and the land speed record

Caracciola wins the Mille Miglia

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