1939 Mercedes-Benz W165 Pilot: Hermann Lang Team: Mercedes-Benz Race: 1st place in the 1939 Tripoli GP Spark - S1033 (resin)
By 1938, the last time an Italian team won the Gran Premio di Tripoli was in 1934 (Achille Varzi, piloting an Alfa). In 1935 Mercedes won (Rudolf Caracciola), and in 1936 Auto Union won (with Varzi). For 1937 and 38, it was Mercedes’ turn again (Herman Lang). So it was a matter of national pride for the Italians to score a win. However, they also needed at least 30 cars in the grid, since at the time a yearly lottery occurred in Italy. Back then, Libya was still an Italian colony. And per lottery rules, to win the draw your ticket had to be “associated” to the winning car at Tripoli.
The problem was that there just weren’t enough GP cars to fill such a grid. And ideally, the cars should be all Italian. So on September 11th, 1938, just eight months before the race, a new rule came to be. Italian motor racing authorities announced that all major Italian races in 1939 would be restricted to the 1.5 liter category. That class was the voiturette formula. But why voiturettes? Simple, because there were plenty Italian voiturettes and the Germans didn’t have them. Mercedes-Benz saw the rule change as an attempt to lock them out. So three days later, in a special meeting at Daimler-Benz, the top brass issued an official order. Mercedes would build three voiturette cars and three 1.5 liter engines, the W165. Their experimental department at Untertürkheim got the job, with orders to work around the clock to get the cars ready.
At the time, Mercedes only had the W154, a full-blown three liter GP car. Consequently, they would have to start from scratch. Albert Heess was in charge of the engine and Max Wagner was responsible for the chassis. After frantic work, the first test car was ready for shakedown by Caracciola and Lang at Hockenheim in April 1939. Visually similar to the 1939 W154, the new voiturette looked like a scaled-down version of the big GP car.
The chassis was an oval tubular frame made of nickel-chrome-molybdenum steel tubes. Because of the drive shaft, the driver sat slightly to the right. And just like the chassis, the new M164 engine was almost a scaled down version of the W154’s V12. It was a 90º V8 displacing 1493 cm³ and with DOHC and 32 valves. With a large Roots blower it delivered 254 hp. Which was a pretty good output, since the car only weighed 905 kg with a full tank. And very importantly, the engineering team anticipated very hot race conditions. Therefore, to keep things cold, fuel pipes passed through tubular coolers.
Even with the round-the-clock work, only Caracciola’s car was ready. Lang’s W165 was only finished on the ship to Tripoli! On race day, May 7th, 1939, temperatures were at 35º C in the shade and 52º C on the track. Mercedes team consisted of Caracciola’s #24 and Lang’s #16. After the traditional Fascist pomp and grandeur, and after picking a lottery ticket for each car, the race was on. Right at the beginning there was a lot of confusion (2’09” video), since a flag and lights signaled the start. Lang, taking advantage of the confusion, jumped to first position and kept a manic pace until the checkered flag. Caracciola got up into second position behind him and hanged there to the end. Meanwhile, the heat was causing havoc for the Italians, and some drivers almost passed out. Emilio Villoresi, in an Alfa 158, managed third – seven minutes (!) after Lang.
Everybody expected that for 1940 the 1.5 liter formula would the norm, but because of the war that never happened. So the W165 only raced (and won) at Tripoli. However, part of its success is surely credited to the (really) bad preparations of the Italian teams. Therefore, the W165 isn’t exactly one of the great Silberpfeile. But with a backstory like that, of course I had to have one. Fortunately Spark makes a FANTASTIC version of it in 1:43, and I scored one. As expected, detail level is top notch, so I got a beauty of a model. A model not for everyone, certainly, but for my Silberpfeile collection a great add.
And what about the lottery? A lucky person in the little town of Busto Arsizio in northern Italy owned ticket Y-33884. That was car #16’s number, and the owner received 3 million Lire. Ticket G-55790, sold in Rome, was worth a million Lire because of Caracciola’s second place. And Villoresi’s third place ticket G-85667 made someone in Catania 445,000 Lire richer.
So, race results could determine who won the lottery? Well, about that, there’s a story…