Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, August 1, 1998

Mercedes' Formula One Chase Is Closing In

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The two McLaren-Mercedes cars again dominated Friday in the early practice for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. For Mercedes-Benz, which makes the team's engines, it promised a long-awaited victory in its home Grand Prix on Sunday.

Last Sunday, Mercedes-powered cars won in the world's two leading open-wheel race series: at the Austrian Grand Prix and the U.S. 500 in Michigan. McLaren-Mercedes cars lead the Formula One title race, while Mercedes won the manufacturers' title last year in the Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART, series.

Yet, last weekend was clouded by a tragedy that conjured up memories of one of the worst days in motor racing and Mercedes history.

In the U.S. 500, the Ford-powered car of Adrian Fernandez hit a wall; a wheel and other parts flew into the crowd, killing three spectators. More than 43 years earlier, on June 11, 1955, at the Le Mans 24-hour race, a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh flew off the track and killed more than 80 spectators.

The Le Mans crash caused Mercedes, whose involvement in auto racing began with the Daimler engine that powered the winning car in the first-ever auto race, the Paris-Rouen in 1894, to withdraw from racing for 30 years.

The company returned in 1985 as an engine supplier to Peter Sauber's Swiss-based sports car team. By 1989, with Sauber as its official factory team, Mercedes won the international sports car championship. The crowning achievement was a victory at Le Mans that season.

Now the McLaren-Mercedes team leads the race for the Formula One constructors' title. It is the only title Mercedes has not won since its return to motor racing. It is also the most important, Mercedes says.

''If you put together all the other categories of motor racing, they don't get the worldwide exposure and the audience that Formula One alone gets,'' said Norbert Haug, the head of Mercedes Motorsport.

Mercedes re-entered Formula One discreetly in 1993 (with a label on an Ilmor engine in a Sauber car), but did not taste victory until 1997, when David Coulthard won the Australian Grand Prix in a McLaren-Mercedes. Haug said the secret to that victory was in the paint job: after racing for two years in red and white the team colored the McLaren cars silver and immediately won the first race.

''We should have done that much earlier,'' Haug said. ''It was continuing the history of the Silver Arrows cars.''

In 1934, new Grand Prix rules required that cars weigh no more than 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds). Mercedes had to shed one kilo from its car, so it stripped off the paint, leaving only the aluminum body. The car won the first race and dominated the pre-World War II era.

In the 1950s, the Silver Arrows re-entered Formula One and won their first race. Juan Manuel Fangio won two of his five drivers' titles in the cars, in 1954 and 1955, before the season was cut short by the Le Mans disaster.

In those days a single car constructor could build a winning machine. Today specialists create practically every element, and few builders go it alone.

The Mercedes racing engines are designed and built by Mario Ilien, a Swiss engineer who directs a team of more than 300 workers, including Mercedes engineers, at Ilmor Engineering, whose headquarters are in England. The engines are tested on the Mercedes test bench in Germany.

Ilmor came to prominence in the 1980s building engines under the Chevrolet name for Roger Penske. The American businessman and CART team owner also owns a quarter of Ilmor, as does Mercedes.

In 1994, a Penske-Mercedes-Ilmor engine powered a Penske car driven by Al Unser Jr. to victory in the engine's first effort in the Indianapolis 500. But victory in Formula One remained elusive. Mercedes dropped the Sauber team after 1994 in favor of McLaren, but even with this top team it took two more seasons before that first Mercedes victory. For a time, the engine just kept breaking down.

''We pushed to the limit and created a huge acceleration process within the whole organization and that cost us some reliability,'' Haug said. ''But that's the only way forward. Being reliable and slow achieves nothing.''

A win at the German race would be the first there for Mercedes since 1954. It would also confirm that McLaren-Mercedes has returned to its early-season dominance. Its cars won five of the first six races, before Michael Schumacher won the next three in a Ferrari.

Some have wondered whether Mercedes-McLaren team's success is a revival of the Mercedes tradition or a continuation of the winning habits of McLaren, which builds the chassis and runs the racing team.

''I don't waste one second of my time asking how much is them and how much is us,'' Haug said. ''We are McLaren-Mercedes, and we are a team.''

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