Our Blog 4/2023

The Donington Grand Prix in 1937

The Donington Grand Prix in 1937. The first chance the British public had to see the Mercedes and Auto Union cars racing and, what a spectacle it proved to be! Though the reputation of the machines preceded them, no-one was prepared for that first lap.

21-Apr-23 historicracing.com

The Mercedes team with their 650bhp W125s, capable of speeds of 190 mph on the fast straight at tracks like Rheims, Spa and Pescara, were led by Caracciola, with Lang as the number two. Manfred von Brauchitsch was in the third car and a young Dick Seaman (stop sniggering at the back) the fourth driver.

The Mercedes reserve driver was the Cambridge educated Swiss driver Christian Kautz. The Auto Union team only fielded three cars, the fearsome 600bhp V16 Auto Union C types requiring more than a fair degree of courage to get the best out of them. Bernd Rosemeyer, who had never driven a racing car before he first sat in the Auto Union two years earlier was their number one. Their number two was Hermann Paul Müller and Achille Varzi who was due to drive the third car but failed to turn up. He was thus replaced by Rudolf Hasse. The rest of the field was made up of sundry ERAs, Maserati 8CMs, an Alfa Romeo Monza and a Riley driven by Percy Maclure.

As practice began Raymond Mays in his 1.5 litre ERA and Bira in an 8CM Maserati took to the track and everything seemed normal. Then von Brauchitsch, followed by Caracciola, pulled out of the pits and things were suddenly no longer normal. When qualifying was over von Brauchitsch was on pole with a time of 2:10.4 next was Rosemeyer in the Auto Union a second slower. You had to go down to eighth to find the first non German car, Bira in the 8CM some 15 seconds slower than von Brauchitsch, with Mays another second back in the first of the ERAs. Maclures unsupercharged Riley brought up the rear in a time of 2:35.2. It was going to be a long day for the home contingent.

60,000 fans turned up on race day to witness the spectacle. The Mercedes had been clocked on Starkey's Straight at 170 mph yet the bookies (yes there was on track betting back then), displaying an uncharacteristic lack of knowledge, had Mays at evens with Caracciola at 3 to 1 and Rosemeyer at an attractive 5 to 1.

When the flag dropped the Mercedes and Auto Unions shot off the line and by the time they disappeared into the woods the ERAs were already visibly outclassed. At the end of the first lap Lang led from Caracciola with von Brauchitsch in third. They were followed in quick succession by Seaman, Rosemeyer, Müller and Hasse. Some time later came Bira, Charles Martin, Mays and Earl Howe. The crowd were stunned, never before had speeds like that been seen on British shores and it took some time to sink in. On the third lap, Muller ran into the back of Seaman, sending him up an escape road, rejoining with damaged suspension. After ten laps, Lang led by 3.4 seconds over von Brauchitsch with Rosemeyer third another 4 seconds down. On lap 13 von Brauchitsch passed Lang for the lead and a lap later, 14 of 80, the first four had lapped all the British drivers!

Meanwhile, while the crowds watched in awe, behind the stands the bookmakers slipped away unnoticed as the German mechanics had placed large sums of money on their drivers to win. Only two remained, (presumably the only ones who stood to make a profit) to pay up at the finish.

And it wasn't just on the track that the Germans outclassed the rest of the field. In the pits the Mercedes and Auto Union mechanics, using pressurised refueling gear, filled up and changed all four tyres in around 30 seconds, while typically the others were taking well over a minute.

After 22 laps, Rosemeyer led from Caracciola and von Brauchitsch. Lang and Seaman both retired with suspension problems and when Rosemeyer pitted on lap 32 Caracciola moved into the lead. However six laps later von Brauchitsch was back in front of Caracciola with Rosemeyer's Auto Union third.

Caracciola pitted on lap 40 and Rosemeyer moved into second and on lap 52 von Brauchitsch made his second stop. Rosemeyer now took the lead and was pulling away from both von Brauchitsch and Caracciola. Then on the 61st lap while flat out on Starkey's Straight one of the rear tyres on von Brauchitsch's Mercedes burst. Amazingly he managed to control the car and get it back to the pits and was back out after a stop of 28 seconds. But now Rosemeyer had a comfortable lead and even had time to make a second wheel change without loosing the lead.

With the positions sorted von Brauchitsch put on a fine display over the closing laps, smiling and waving to the crowds as he drifted the W125 through the corners.

In the final standings Rosemeyer took the win with von Brauchitsch second and Caracciola third. Müller and Hasse were fourth and fifth. The only other classified finisher was Bira two laps down, all the others were out of time! No-one present would ever forget that first lap.