I was surprised that it took just ten minutes to elapse into their Formula 1 coverage this year for the BBC to make me shake my fist in dismay, and strangely, it had nothing to do with either the over exuberant Eddie Jordan or the staccato commentary style of Jonathan Legard.
Nope, the culprit was the much lauded anchorman Jake Humphrey, or at least whoever wrote the script for their ‘Return of Mercedes’ piece that featured in their pre-qualifying build up for the Bahrain Grand Prix (which UK readers can view here). I have no doubt that motor racing historians across the land were choking into their mugs of tea upon watching it, knowing there is yet more mopping up for them to do, thanks to the Beeb re-propagating one of biggest myths in motorsport once again.
You see, Mercedes-Benz have been sucking on a very good story for many years now, a story that has all the right ingredients of a legend – the legend of the “Silver Arrows”.
The legacy of the Silver Arrows goes back to the 1934 Eifelrennen when, on the eve of the race, the Mercedes-Benz W25 was deemed to have exceeded the maximum weight limit of 750 kilograms. So racing manager Alfred Neubauer and driver Manfred von Brauchitsch came up with the ingenious notion of scraping away all the white paint from the bodywork, leaving behind the silver aluminium beneath, and thus, passed scrutineering and went on to win the race.
This story has been published countless times and repeated by reputable journalists and authors all over the world. It truly has become legendary in German racing history, despite there being a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
It wasn’t until 1959, some 25 years after the supposed paint-stripping antics, that the story began to pick up precedence, when unexpectedly, the general public jumped upon it after Neubauer’s memoirs where serialised by Harvey T Rowe for mass publication in the German photojournalist magazine Quick.
In his book “Männer, Frauen und Motoren” (Speed Was My Life), Neubauer recounted the story of how they came up with the idea of removing the paint in order to shed vital weight and reach the necessary 750 kilogram limit.
“The evening before the race, the cars had been weighed and found to be too heavy,” recalled Neubauer. “Only 750 kilograms were they allowed to weigh – without fuel, cooling water, oil and tyres. But as the mechanics pushed the first car on to the scale, it showed 751 kilograms! What to do? Tomorrow is race day, I cannot remove any vital parts and everything is calculated to the nearest gram!”
“What about one of your famous tricks?” replied Brauchitsch. “Otherwise, we are the lacquered ones…” (German meaning: “otherwise we are fools.”)
“Lacquered?” Neubauer responded. And at that exact moment he had a brainwave: “Of course! Lacquer! The paint! That’s the solution!”
All sounds perfectly reasonable no? Yet consider that the often quoted Brauchitsch had released his own autobiography several years before Neubauer’s book, and whilst in the chapter “Sieg” he covered his first victory as a Mercedes-Benz works driver at the 1934 Eifelrennen in great detail, not once did he ever mention anything about certain weight issues, or a spot of night time paint scrapping action. Strangely, it was only in his second book, published in 1964, before he subscribed to Neubauer’s description of events.
Neubauer was renowned as a fantastic entertainer and an excellent story teller, a man who was able to spin a rollicking yarn and captivate his audience. The general consensus is that he was more likely to embroider than to outright lie, yet it seems that even Brautisch was convinced the story was true. In a TV interview he gave in his later years he believed that it was actually he and not Neubauer who came up with the idea of removing the white paint!
“Now you start with that scratching, with the guy who scratched the paint. I was present, and could tell you something different,” Brautisch told the film crew. “I had that idea, but the paunch liked to brag about it. So let him do so!”
At the time we are lead to believe that the international colours had not only been a sign of national pride, but had also been part of the AIACR sporting regulations for international racing events. If therefore, over the course of an evening the new and long-awaited race cars from Stuttgart had lost their national white, you would think that this may have been mentioned somewhere in the contemporary press? Surely the provisional exclusion of the Mercedes race cars at their debut race due to the supposed weight issues would have caused an outcry of indignation in the national press?
Yet research of motor racing journals of the time appears to draw a blank. No word about a surprising colour change, no mention about a possible disqualification, in fact both the Auto Unions and Mercedes cars were described as being “silver-glossy” on several occasions, as if this was the norm.
Most of the pictures from the era appear to have been retouched, so make it difficult in proving the exact colour of the W25. Yet look closely at the following photograph:
As you can see though, we have one nice silver race car, with its aluminium painted body shining in the sun. The photo shows Brautisch at the start of the Eifelrennen and indicates that the finish of the car is near faultless. No plain aluminium, nor any scratches or remain of filler?
Was it not also an awful coincidence for Auto Union to have befallen the identical weight issues requiring they too to abandon the traditional racing white, for silver? The first Auto Unions made their debut before Eifelrennen with, you guessed it, a silver finish.
And the killer blow in this tale? The race didn’t even have a weight limit as it was an Formula Libre event.
In my opinion, Mercedes-Benz had realised the brand-new silver paint of the Auto Unions was the way to go and subsequently took over the colour scheme for themselves. Not in a blind panic at the Nurburgring, but in the workshops of Stuttgart, and not for weight reasons, because silver paint was heavier than white, which at the time was produced with micronized metal particles – and often incorporated grinded fish scales.
It is very unlikely that the W25 machines were decked in white for the Eifelrennen – or were ever white for that matter, and there really is little doubt that the entire tale was simply fabricated by Neubauer who brought Brautisch along for the ride.
That the PR-machine in Stuttgart has dredged up this myth and used it for the recent launch of the Mercedes Grand Prix team was disappointing, but equally disconcerting are those that unquestionably retransmit the paint-stripping myth.
“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on,” said Winston Churchill during his first tenure as British Prime Minister, and as a stickler for all things factually correct, can we make a stand and not encourage this one to spread any further please?