Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor FatHippo
Authors Note: Over the winter you’ve seen the occasional Hippo’s rant in the news. Normally that was planned as a recurring feature of its own, but we ‘abused’ it to bolster the news at the time when often there were little to none. Now that F1 is coming alive again, it will become a weekly feature called ‘View from the Water Hole’. It will be a mix of things. It will be the occasional rant, a view from whats going on outside of F1 or a reminiscence of the olden days, like today.
The day when the Mercedosaurus Benz devoured the competition
In recent years engines in Formula One have taken a back seat when it comes to being in the spot-light. Clever aerodynamics gurus determined the fate of the teams as engine development was frozen. This of course changes with this year’s rule shake-up and while it is still a bit early to make too many observations, it isn’t a risky bet to say Mercedes seem to have gotten it right, while Renault have brought a knife to a gun fight. The thing is, I wasn’t really surprised, at least not by Mercedes.
If you want to go racing and are not inclined to build the engines yourself, you have quite a few options: If you want a big V12, ask Ferrari. For a boxer design call Porsche or Subaru. If you want a rotary engine, you should have Mazda on speed dial. Should it be a big honky V8? Ask them Americans and if you want something that’s crap – ask John Judd. But basically you can make your life a lot easier by just calling Mercedes-Benz.
After the Le Mans disaster of 1955 Mercedes-Benz all but disappeared from the big stage. Racing continued domestically, but it should take more than thirty years until the Mercedes logo returned to F1 and Le Mans. Their return to F1 was cautious to say the least. They didn’t jump into it with both feet: Although they were funding Sauber’s 1993 entry, the engines were Ilmor V10’s with a ‘concept by Mercedes-Benz’ title on the cars. Only in 1994 the team officially became Sauber-Mercedes as was evident by the markings having changed to ‘powered by Mercedes-Benz’. The reason behind that was, that in 1993 the design had been mostly done my Mario Ilien’s company, while from 1994 they had substantial input on design and engineering, continuing Mercedes’ policy of not calling something a Mercedes or any term associated with it if they hadn’t had enough control over it.
An good example of the latter quirk was the McLaren car. The MP4/11 of 1996 was the last car to run the iconic red-white Marlboro colours. When Marlboro buggered off to Ferrari Mclaren landed a deal with rival brand West and with that change came also a switch to the legendary silver colours of Mercedes. When the MP4/12 cars appeared in Melbourne for the first time in 1997, German media started to call them “Silver arrows” in reference to the all-conquering 1950s cars, but motorsport boss Norbert Haug was quick to issue a fatwa that prohibited the term ‘Silver arrows’ to be used before the car and with it the Mercedes FO110E had scored their first victory. David Coulthard duly obliged by winning the Australian GP and Haug’s ordre de mufti was rescinded.
The partnership with McLaren should prove to be a fruitful one and Mercedes-Benz quickly established themselves as a leading competitor on the engine market, to the point that Ferrari lobbied to have the very expensive Romulan beryllium alloys in the Mercedes engines outlawed. There was a short period of Mercedes being challenged for alpha status when arch rivals BMW entered, but basically one couldn’t do wrong by signing an engine contract with Mercedes-Benz.
Formula One wasn’t the only endeavour in Mercedes’ return to the big stage. The return to Le Mans again proved disastrous, as the cars were made famous for trying to kill Mark Webber and Peter Dumbreck. But apart from that the V12 engined CLK-GTR and the V8 engined CLK-LM had taken the titles in the FIA GT Championship with Bernd Schneider in 1997 and Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta in 1998. So, just in F1 and GT alone Mercedes was running 6.0l V12, V8 and 3.0l V10 later V8 engines, in addition to various smaller layouts in DTM and Formula 3, but it wasn’t the end yet. Their biggest coup was the 500I engine for the Indy 500 in 1994.
No other team has won the famous 500 mile noodle pot race more often than the crew of Roger Penske. That is in no small part because Penske is the Adrian Newey of Indycar racing, when it comes to exploiting the rules. In 1994 CART was running 2.65l turbo charged V6 or V8 engines. In a bid to attract more engine suppliers an amendment to the Indy 500 rules was made that allowed stock block pushrod engines to run higher capacity (3.43l) and higher turbo boost. While the pushrod engines were prehistoric technology in comparison to the multi-valve engines used at the time the higher capacity and boost were a potential game changer.
Despite Ilmor running the own-design 256C V8s in CART, the arrival of Mercedes money and expertise as part of their joint F1 project meant that Illmor would help to create a competitor to it’s own pre-Mercedes design. The result was mind-boggling. At about 1.000bhp the 500I had a 200bhp advantage over the multi-valve engines of Ilmor and Cosworth and the other two cretaceous era pushrod designs of Buick and Greenfield, which had tried to exploit the same loophole. Penske slapped the opposition from left to right and Al Unser jr. won the race with ease. Only a late-race accident of Emerson Fittipaldi prevented a devastating one-two by the Mercedosaurus Benz powered Penske PC-23 as at the time of the accident Emmo was one lap ahead of Little Al, who was one lap ahead of Jacques Villeneuve in a Reynard-Ford of Forsythe-Green Racing
Needless to say that the loophole disappeared from the rules quicker than a pizza at a weight watchers convention and the 500I ended up being a spectacular one-hit wonder. Penske and Mercedes-Ilmor had to pay dearly for the stunt as the channelling of so many resources into what should become a one-off design meant that Ilmor’s 256C engines, which provided the base for the Mercedes-Ilmor IC108 of 1995, were getting a bit long in the tooth and despite five victories for Penske at Long Beach, Phoenix, Portland, Mid-Ohio and Vancouver and one for Hall racing at Laguna Seca, the Mercedes engines were quite hopeless on the ovals in comparison to the Ford XB engines, culminating in a humiliating double-DNQ for team Penske at Indianapolis. The short oval at Phoenix was the only win for a Mercedes powered car, the other 5 oval races, including the Indy 500, were dominated and won by Ford powered cars. That Al Unser jr. and Bobby Rahal still managed to come 2nd and 3rd in the championship behind a certain Jacques Villeneuve was mainly down to their big experience and the better driveability of the Merc over the Ford, which helped tremendously on twisty street circuits like Detroit, Toronto Vancouver and Long Beach.
Mercedes continued to develop CART engines and especially the cooperation with Penske proved successful as the Penske chassis and the Mercedes engine proved to be a killer combination from 1997 onwards, although it should take until 2000 for someone in a Mercedes powered car to win the drivers title as not only did rivals Honda come to the fore they also happened to be partnered to the only team on the grid that could rival Penske – Target Chip Ganassi racing, who scored 4 titles on the trot with Jimmy Vasser (1996), Alex Zanardi (1997,1998) and Juan Pablo Montoya (1999). Gil de Ferran was the man to finally provide the Penske-Merdedes team with a title, 6 years after the Mercedosaurus Benz.