Monday, 5 March 2012



Lethal handling; rear-engined monsters; killed von Delius; drivers sat so far forward that they could not tell when the tail was sliding; too much rearward weight bias; only ex-motorcyclist Rosemeyer could get the best out of the tail-heavy brutes, having had no experience of driving a car; drivers had to have exceptional reaction times to catch the vicous tail-slides...

Recently, esteemed ex-Brabham-McLaren design-engineer Gordon Murray dismissed the Auto-Unions for having “got the mid-engined concept wrong, with all the fuel and weight slung out the back.” These are just some of the many derogatory comments that continue to be bandied about ever since Dr Porsche’s revolutionary, mid-engined V16 Auto-Union appeared three-quarters of a century ago in 1934.

1936 Auto-Union C-Type which dominated the season, scoring six wins to Mercedes-Benz’s two and Alfa Romeo’s three

“Most grand prix races are won by the best cars” as Gordon Murray said. Second-best machines, those just a tenth or so off-pace, have usually only won when driven by really top-rate drivers. For instance, the Williams-BMWs and McLarens-Mercedes of 2000 -2004 managed few wins against the superior Ferraris: 10 for Williams, 15 for McLaren versus 57 for Ferrari. No-one ever suggested that those Williams-BMW models FW22-26A or McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15-19B were significantly deficient, ill-conceived or in any way bad cars. At worst they were criticised for being just off-pace. Their drivers Montoya-Ralf Schumacher and Hakkinen-Coulthard-Raikkonen were close-matched with the Michael Schumacher-Barrichello Ferrari duo. The 2010 -2011 McLaren-Mercedes cars won 11 races against the Red Bull-Renault’s 21. Despite scoring 52.4% as many wins, no-one would suggest that these McLaren-Mercedes models were bad or seriously deficient cars.

This, by way of placing the 1934-1937 Auto-Union performances in related perspective. No better test crucible for inter-car/team performance than grand prix racing, with its direct comparisons.

If the V16 Auto-Unions were as bad as the media and expert commentators have been claiming, one would expect their win and podium placing record to have been poor. Somewhere down with the much-maligned 1956-1958 BRM P25, the overweight 1967 Cooper-Maserati, or the resource-scarce Minardi and HRT team performances in more recent times?

1936 Auto Union C-Type which the brilliantr Rosemeyer drove to five wins, Varzi one

Between the Eifel GP in June 1934 and the Donington GP in October 1937, the Auto- Union and Mercedes-Benz rivals faced each other in 35 grand prix races. Of these, Mercedes-Benz’s trend-setting, front-engined, all-independently suspended, universally and technically-lauded models W25 A, B, C and W125, won 17 times, the unconventional, mid-engined V16 Auto-Unions Type A, B and C won 12. For the other podium spots, Auto-Union scored 13 seconds and 11 thirds to Stuttgart’s 15 and 8. The rear-engined cars managed 15 fastest laps and 9 poles to Benz’s 9 and 10. Surprisingly close-matched! Auto Union’s wins at 71% of Mercedes-Benz’s far outshone the 26% of McLaren-Mercedes and 17.5% of Williams-BMW against Ferrari in those first five seasons of the 21st century, and far better than the 52.4% wins achieved by the 2010-11 McLaren-Mercedes against the Red Bull-Renaults.

For a car with ‘diabolical handling traits’ to score so well, accepted wisdom and judgement could claim that Auto-Union’s drivers must have been exceptional.

Rosemeyer in the 1937 German GP, rounding the Karussel on his way to another victory

In 1934 Auto-Union, led by Hans Stuck with the far slower Leinigen and Momberger, were heavily outgunned by Mercedes driven by Fagioli, Caracciola and Von Brauchitsch. Driverwise the teams were close-matched in 1935 as Zwickau’s Stuck was joined by Varzi and Rosemeyer to face Stuttgart’s Caracciola-Fagioli-Von Brauchitsch trio. The two teams were well-matched again in 1936 when Varzi-Rosemeyer-Stuck equal-rated Caracciola-Chiron-von Brauchitsch. However for 1937 Auto-Union was really a one-driver team, as it was in 1934 with Stuck, now dominated and led by the precocious Rosemeyer.By now Stuck and one-timer Nuvolari were far slower, while other part-timers Fagioli, Hasse, von Delius and Muller even more off-pace. Mercedes had Caracciola-von Brauchitsch-Lang, all race-winners and far faster than the Auto-Unions drivers behind Rosemeyer. Clearly then, Auto-Union never enjoyed a significant driver advantage. The Auto-Union cars had to have been very competitive to almost even-score with the mighty Daimler-Benz concern. And on a fraction of the resources.

If the Auto Union’s handling had been ‘unpredictable, prone to sudden-oversteer, lethal’, there would have been many more spins and crashes than for the well-balanced, predictable, state-of-the-art, mainstream, front-engined Mercedes-Benz machines. In four seasons and 101 starts the rear-engined cars registered 9 such mishaps or 8.9%, against the Stuttgart cars’ 9 from 122 starts for 7.4%. Included in these statistics are the ‘misdemeanors’ of the very second-string drivers of both teams: Leinigen, Momberger, Sebastian, Burgaller, von Delius, Pietsch, Hasse and Muller for Zwickau and Geier, Henne, Zehender and Kautz for Stuttgart. All of whom raced far further from the front than every driver on the grids of 2007 and 2011. There was one fatality when tragically, a nervous Von Delius was unable to cope with Seaman’s overtaking Mercedes on Nurburgring’s long, undulating, narrow, hedge-lined, main straight. Two of Auto-Union’s other off-track excursions came from Rosemeyer. Trying so hard to beat the Mercedes team in 1937, he spun off at the Bremgarten and then struck a kerb on the bumpy, tortuous Masarykring, both times damaging the suspension. Just as such other greats as Chiron, Fangio, Gilles Villeneuve and Alonso were to do on occasion.

Varzi in the Auto-Union B-Type at Monza for the1935 Italian GP; he retired while team-mate Stuck won.  All four Mercedes-Benz cars retired

The V16 Auto-Unions must have been outstanding to virtually equal Mercedes-Benz for wins, podiums and poles, and outdo them in fastest laps over those four seasons, 1934 to 1937. If they had drivers of the calibre of Caracciola or Fagioli in 1934 or Von Brauchitsch or Lang in 1937, to back Stuck and Rosemeyer, they could well have won the first place battle. Dr Porsche and his team’s mighty V16s in Type A, B and C-forms were actually very successful forerunners of the mid-engined revolution. Others just took a quarter of a century longer to follow their trend.

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.



  1. I have read the content of the statements made by Giulio Ramponi about the incident of 10 September 1933 between Campari and Borzacchini. Statements you published a few years ago.
    In the interview, Mr Ramponi says Borzacchini asked Mr Ramponi to remove the brakes of the front wheels and Ramponi did this only because Borzacchini insisted.
    I believe that all this is not true, for these reasons:
    Ramponi in 1933, having participated in the project of Alfa P3 designed by Bazzi, had been recalled in Italy, through the Alfa Romeo, to increase the cylinder capacity to 2800 cc.
    With these cars, still to 2600cc, the Ferrari's Team, 10 September 1933, he joined the Italian GP: Campari, Fagioli, Siena and Chiron.
    Campari has also been entered in the afternoon of Monza GP.
    On the occasion of the Grand Prix of Italy and Monza, Giulio Ramponi was the crew chief of the Scuderia Ferrari. Him on 7 September he also tried on the track of the Alfa Siena.
    When the Monza Grand Prix was underway, Nuvolari and Borzacchini were not the Ferrari's Team drivers. Of their race have been entered as drivers of the Maserati Officine: Nuvolari at the GP of Italy and Borzacchini to that of Monza.
    At the time, as written by Hans Etzrodt sports journalist on the news that day, almost all participants cars at the track speed races were deprived of the front brakes, to lighten the weight.
    That said, while it remains understandable that Ramponi was able to remove the front brakes on 'Alfa Romeo Campari.
    It is hardly credible that has also been able to do on the Maserati of Borzacchini, where it is more logical to have done the mechanics of the Maserati.
    So I think the thought of Ramponi remains his statement .......... as well as the one where he says he Borzacchini was a little talent rider .........
    Even this is not true. In a few years, before he died, Borzacchini has participated in 114 races and finished on the podium 77 times. This is no small thing.
    I apologize for my English not very fair. I wanted with this I just wanted to bring a bit of truth and that Borzacchini was a champion, like all those in the running dead in the name of motorsport.

  2. Your comments are very interesting. Thanks very much for the information! Ramponi was a very kind person and knew Borzacchini well from their Alfa Romeo days. It is possible that Borzacchini asked Ramponi privately to remove his brakes to avoid paying Maserati. Ramponi rated Borzacchini lower than Nuvolari, Varzi, Chiron and Caracciola as a driver.