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Fangio's Mercedes roars to £17.5m record

29 July 2013Written by Tom Derbyshire

In 1987 the BBC interviewed Daimler-Benz’s former chief engineer, Rudi Uhlenhaut, and asked the 81-year-old about the firm’s post-War return to serious motor racing in the 1954-55 period.

He said: "...our directive was to be the best, and to win both the Formula 1 Drivers' Championship and the Sports Car Championship. We did that and, while we could have done better, when our board took the decision to withdraw we were the best."

Nearly 60 years after those triumphs, it is perhaps a fitting tribute to such achievements that the Mercedes-Benz car which powered five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio to the second of his Formula 1 world titles took pole position when it comes to the world auction record for a motor vehicle.

The 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 Formula 1 single-seater sold for £17.5m (£19,601,500 including buyer's premium) at the Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed sale on July 12, nearly double the previous highest (premium-inclusive) sum of £10,086,400 set by a 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa Prototype at Gooding and Co's August 2011 auction in Pebble Beach, USA.

It was offered "in remarkably unspoiled, almost 'barn-find' condition, its super-sophisticated mechanicals believed to be complete and runnable after proper presentation". A Bonhams spokesman told ATG: "We had over 1000 people in the marquee. There was a total of 11 bidders I believe, from four continents. Two were at the sale and the rest on the phone. It finally went to a buyer on the phone."

Streamlining

Fangio's victories marked the comeback of Daimler-Benz and seized the reins from the Italian powerhouses of Maserati and Ferrari after the Second World War ended the 1930s run of success.

A lot of that was due to the new, streamline-bodied W196 cars which contested 12 world championship-qualifying grands-prix from 1954-55, winning nine of them.

But on October 16, 1955, team manager Alfred Neubauer received a letter from Fritz Nallinger, Daimler-Benz AG's main board director of research and design, informing him they had decided to absent themselves "...irrevocably from motor racing for several years". They were pulling out after a crash involving a Mercedes 300SLR killed 80 people at the Le Mans 24-hour race. The firm did not return to motor racing until the 1980s.

The world-record car - model 00006/54 - is the only surviving W196 to have won not just one but two world championship-qualifying grands prix and is the actual car in which Fangio clinched the second of his five Formula 1 titles overall. It was also the only W196 survivor not to be preserved within Daimler-Benz or an international museum.

'Treble-oh-oh-six' had a fairly nomadic life since being consigned to the Daimler-Benz exhibitions department on December 22, 1955, including time spent at the reconstituted National Motor Museum in Beaulieu from 1973, before they sold it to help pay for a library and lecture-hall complex. It then went through private hands - including those of Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB - but, after being sold by German businessman Friedhelm Loh, it disappeared from public view for many years before being sold at Bonhams.

That July 12 sale also set a new world record at auction for a Maserati, taking £3.6m for a 1955 300S Sports-Racing Spider.

The buyer of 00006/54 remains anonymous - perhaps it will be seen back in working order next year to mark the 60th anniversary of Fangio's first Daimler-Benz Formula 1 win?

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