How a rookie won motorsport’s Champions’ League
Could you imagine Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc all taking part in a touring car race, racing identical machines, on a rare weekend off from their regular Formula 1 duties. Just for fun?
And what if they were joined by former champions like, say, Nico Rosberg, Alain Prost, Mika Häkkinen and Damon Hill? The young and the old celebrating the opening of a new circuit by racing flat-out in a special invitational race…
Once you’ve stopped dreamily smiling, we’ll join you in admitting it’s simply inconceivable.
Yet, that is exactly what happened on the second weekend of May in 1984, when the newly-built Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit was opened – amid great fanfare and a special invitation race for F1’s latest and greatest.
The new ’Ring gets a spectacular opening
In 1984, the ‘new’ Nurburgring was set to host its very first Formula 1 race – October’s European Grand Prix. The old ’Ring, the mighty Nordschleife, had last hosted F1 in 1976; and while it was still used occasionally, had finally dropped off the international calendar after the previous year’s ADAC 1000km event for sports cars.
Its demise prompted the construction of a new state-of-the-art facility. Constructed as an appendage to the original track, but purpose-built for modern events, its grand opening was schedule to take place just before the market launch of Mercedes-Benz’s new 190 E 2.3-16.
The 190 E was a more powerful version of the original 190 – lovingly called ‘Baby Benz’ as it was the smallest car from the Stuttgart-based brand at the time. Just a few months earlier, in September 1983, the car had been unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Mercedes had famously pulled the plug on its factory race effort in the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans tragedy. After that, it still contested the occasional rally – but that was the legendary brand’s sole motorsport involvement for almost three decades. Any other activity, such as the participation of the famous red 300 SEL 6.8 in 1971’s Spa 24 Hours, were purely private affairs run by tuning companies, such as AMG.
However, the arrival of the 190 also heralded the start of a new era for Mercedes; and the 2.3 litre version with its 16-valve engine made some people sit up and start thinking about its potential for track use.
When somebody came up with the idea that Mercedes could showcase 190 E 2.3-16 with an invitational race to celebrate the opening of the new Nürburgring, it didn’t take long for the idea to come to fruition.
The prospect of some on-track fun with identical cars allied to a good time on a non-F1 weekend quickly persuaded many of the current grand prix stars to sign up for the event.
Mercedes had good contacts in the F1 world thanks to a special arrangement that enabled active or former drivers to acquire Mercedes cars at favourable rates. Ambitiously, it targeted every living world champion for the event – and while that didn’t quite happen (see below), the brand nonetheless attracted a star-studded field for the invitational race as the first competition at the new circuit on May 12.
In addition, a brand new production car was promised as the prize for the winner. And all expenses would be paid. Lovely.
The new Mercedes-Benz 2.3-litre 16-valve 190 E was the star at the circuit’s prestigious opening event
A star-studded field
From the active Formula 1 drivers of the day, McLaren pairing Niki Lauda and Alain Prost joined the field, as did Williams drivers Jacques Laffite and Keke Rosberg.
Italian Elio de Angelis, driving for Lotus, was in as well, and there was this young Brazilian, Ayrton Senna, straight out of Formula 3 in which he had won the British title the previous year, yet still largely unknown to the general public.
The youngster had contested just four grands prix – for the Toleman team – and was still a month away from his ‘breakout’ performance at the waterlogged Monaco Grand Prix, where he drove mightily to finish runner-up behind Prost.
In fact, it was Senna’s manager, Domingos Piedade, who used his good relationship with Mercedes to secure a slot for his young protégé.
Former drivers also joined the ever-expanding fold. Three-time world champion Jack Brabham participated, as did fellow title winners Phil Hill, John Surtees, Denny Hulme, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter and Alan Jones. Originally, five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio had planned to participate as well; and while the Argentine made the trip to the Eifel, he opted not to race following previous health issues.
Ex-Mercedes factory drivers Hans Herrmann and Stirling Moss also joined the field, as did Carlos Reutemann, John Watson and Nürburgring experts Klaus Ludwig, Manfred Schurti and Udo Schütz. In every respect, it was quite the sensational line-up.
Gerhard Lepler, an experienced Mercedes engineer who was responsible for special projects, was given the onerous task of overseeing the preparation of 20 cars for the special event. They were all fitted with a roll-cage, fire extinguisher and a race seat, as well as a ‘kill switch’ for the engine. The exhaust mufflers were removed, the body lowered by 15 mm, and various other minor changes made. As for the rest, the cars were absolutely identical to the production version.
Getting set in the wet
Unsurprisingly given the Eifel locale, the race was held in the damp. But it didn’t deter the thousands of attendees: indeed, much prestige was involved –with the race also being broadcast live on German television.
The drivers enjoyed throwing their cars around the new state-of-the-art grand prix circuit
“It was the kind of event that I really loved,” said Prost in an interview with British journalist Adam Cooper. “It was fantastic to meet all these guys. We had fun, but even with the fun and the fact that we met all together, it was unbelievable how the competitive spirit was here. Everybody, even the older guys were really serious!”
For Prost, it was also the first time that he really got to know Senna, the man who would not only become his team-mate at McLaren in the years to come, but also his greatest rival. Having arrived at the airport almost at the same time, the Frenchman took the Brazilian along for the drive to the ‘Ring.
Any chance of an early indication of the rivalry to come, however, was quickly lost: despite starting from pole, Prost’s chances in the race were blown at an early stage after Elio de Angelis hit the Frenchman’s car on the opening lap. Alan Jones led the field for a while, but was forced into the pits with a mechanical issue.
Senna takes control
That enabled Senna to slot into first place, and he went on to win in a controlled manner, nursing his car along on the damp track and staying away from the slippery, freshly painted kerbs.
Despite being a regional touring car race, in many ways it was the most important win in Senna’s short F1 career
Some of the other drivers had markedly less to prove, and were far keener to put on a spectacular show than secure a good result. Behind Senna, Lauda and Reutemann rounded out the podium, with Rosberg and Watson fourth and fifth.
The race proved to be a spectacular success – not only paving the way for Senna to build his reputation in Formula 1, but also showcasing the speed and agility of the Mercedes 190 E. Even now, the 2.3-16 is highly sought after by collectors – particularly in the metallic champagne paintjob that Senna and Lauda car sported in the race.
Senna’s 190E with metallic champagne paintjob is particularly prized by collectors
The actual winning car is still on display in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
Paving the way for Mercedes to return to competition
Alongside, Senna’s driving skills, the race also amply demonstrated the suitability of the Mercedes-Benz 190 for competition.
As a result, it didn’t take too long before a 190 made its DTM debut; and its initial good results achieved by privateers eventually led to Mercedes-Benz’s full return to circuit competition with a factory team.
As it rose to prominence, and became the most successful manufacturer in the DTM, the rest quickly became history.
Nurburgring Champions Mercedes-Benz Cup – May 12 1984
1 Ayrton Senna 26m57.780s (121.286km/h)
2 Niki Lauda 26m59.160s
3 Carlos Reutemann 27m01.470s
4 Keke Rosberg 27m01.980s
5 John Watson 27m02.250s
6 Denny Hulme 27m04.130s
7 Jody Scheckter 27m04.900s
8 Jack Brabham 27m11.250s
9 Klaus Ludwig 27m16.270s
10 James Hunt 27m17.460s
11 John Surtees 27m23.170s
12 Phil Hill 27m29.840s
13 Manfred Schurti 27m34.780s
14 Stirling Moss 27m35.430s
15 Alain Prost 27m37.120s
16 Udo Schütz 27m45.910s
17 Jacques Laffite 27m48.890s
18 Hans Herrmann 28m34.880s
19 Elio De Angelis 27m14.080s + 2 laps
DNF Alan Jones