Sieg, Rekord, Meisterschaft: a glimpse into the pre-war racing world
On the eve of the return to F1, it is worth remembering that this is effectively the third incarnation of the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix racing team. The first and second were much the same: the second, a reincarnation of the first with many of the same figures, entered into the then-young Formula 1 championship in 1954, withdrawing a year later after the Le Mans disaster having dominated the series for the short time it had entered. Its record of 9 wins from 12 starts is unparalleled and one that may soon disappear from stats books and websites with the return of the famous name. But it is the first team that set the standard and introduced the famous Silver Arrows to the world, and only World War II could halt their dominance.
During the era of the Third Reich in Germany, many propaganda films were produced to ‘entertain’ and ‘enlighten’ the masses. One typical example of such a film is ‘Sieg, Rekord, Meisterschaft’ (translated as ‘Victory, Record, Championship’). Produced in 1939, it records the recent domination of motorsport by the Mercedes-Benz team. It was commissioned by their parent company, Daimler-Benz AG, and produced by Hans L. Minzloff. The film follows the team in the 1938 and 1939 racing seasons, documenting their successes in an almost poetic style. Mercedes had become one of the first well-established motoring brands by this time and had already built up a reputation for building quality road cars, as well as racing cars – the film opens by reminding the viewer of this heritage, stretching back to the early years of motor racing. The company’s motorsport activities were, by 1938, largely funded by the Nazi Party, who saw motor racing as a great opportunity to boost and maintain the reputation of German engineering and technology.
Thus, whilst the footage and results are accurate, it is heavily biased towards Mercedes and Germany as a whole. In particular, emphasis is placed on the seriousness and efficiency of the team, portraying them as dynamic, innovative and hard-working, with their work continuing even after the season has finished. The drivers and team members are portrayed as courageous, bravely meeting the challenges set for them. Record-setting, including a brief segment on speed record trials in the winter of 1939, is also frequently used, giving the impression Mercedes are a step ahead of other manufacturers. These rivals, many of whom competed in motor racing such as Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delahaye and fellow Nazi-funded manufacturer Auto Union, are rarely mentioned, whilst the race footage is generally made up of many shots showing Mercedes cars overtaking others, other cars crashing, or the pit crew at work on the cars, the latter a model of Mercedes efficiency, with the narrator stressing their record-setting 25 second (!) pit stops.
The only races covered, of which there are 13, are races won by Mercedes, giving the impression of total domination by the team in these two years. Indeed, at the end of the film, the narrator proudly states that Mercedes won 14 out of the 20 events it entered over the course of the two years. However, that means there were six events they did not win, which are ignored. But failure is not completely eliminated, even in the races the film covers. Instead, it is just brushed aside with little or no explanation, and when a reason is given, it is usually simply explained as ‘fate’ or bad luck. One example of this is when Manfred von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes bursts into flames in the pits during the 1938 German Grand Prix, where the narrator praises the team for acting bravely to put out the fire and the driver for getting back in and continuing in the race. His crash on the first lap after the fire, believed to be because he didn’t secure the steering wheel in properly after getting back in, is only briefly mentioned.
There is also great weight attached to Germany. It is constantly stressed that Mercedes is a German team and their victories are victories for Germany. German companies Bosch and Continental, who supplied the team, are name-checked, whilst the speed record attempt takes place on a newly-completed autobahn in Dessau, again showing off German technology and innovation. At no point does it mention that Mercedes had a far greater budget than the other manufacturers – instead it is put down to the hard work and skill of Mercedes’ German employees.
This included the drivers. Three out of the four shown in the film were German – some things never change. The only one that was not was Briton Richard Seaman, whose win in the 1938 German GP is played down, with emphasis on it being a victory for Mercedes – it had been planned before the fire that von Brauchitsch was to win the race and Seaman was under instruction not to overtake him, so a victory for a Brit in Germany’s biggest race was an inconvenience. His death in the 1939 Belgian GP, after a crash at Clubhouse corner where the pits are now located, is not mentioned at all. Instead, 1939 becomes focused on Hermann Lang, who won several events that season. Although it is not mentioned in the film, Lang was later declared 1939 European Champion by the German government. This despite the fact that Hermann Paul Muller of Auto Union had picked up more points than him. It just goes to show which team was considered the most valuable at the time.
However, there is no mention of Hitler or the Nazi Party, with only the occasional swastika seen. Despite the heavy focus on Mercedes being a German national team and the fact that the Nazis largely funded the team, it seems that the film has distanced itself from the regime. It is curious as you would expect the Nazis to have wanted to use this to showcase German technology during the early months of the war themselves.
But despite the fact that it is hideously biased, the film is a rare video record of 1930s motor racing, which makes it very valuable to racing historians. As you can imagine, there is little footage around today of racing from that era, so anything is treasured. And there is nothing fabricated here – Mercedes really was the dominant manufacturer of the era, and the team was one of the greatest motorsport has ever seen. Led by Rudolf Uhlenhaut and Alfred Neubauer, with Caracciola, Lang, von Brauchitsch and Seaman at the wheel, they were, as Mercedes historian W. Robert Nitske stated, ‘an outstanding combination. They had brought the intricate racing activities to the highest level. They were men of extraordinary ability in their respective fields.’