A great debt is owed to Dr. Otto Creutz, once the councillor for Germany’s sleepy Eifel district. It was he who had the bright idea, some 90 years ago, to build a race track in his constituency.
The idea would require national government backing and Creutz achieved this through the offices of Konrad Adenauer, the then Oberbürgermeister of Cologne, who would end up as Chancellor after World War 2. With Adenauer’s support a budget of 15 million marks was amassed in order to construct Creutz’s 28.265km (17.58 mile) test track for the German motor industry – the Nürburgring.
The ‘Ring was not yet completed in 1926 when the inaugural Grosser Preis von Deutschland was due to be staged, so instead the event took place on the tree-lined duel carriageway of the AVUS in Berlin.
A road race within the Grünewald, right within the nation’s capital, must have seemed like a bright idea… but it was not a great success. The turn-out among non-German teams was small and the race was marked by a crash in which Alfred Rosenberger’s Mercedes ploughed off the circuit at the densely populated North Turn; demolishing the timekeeper’s hut and killing three people.
It did, however, bring victory to the precociously talented young man who had become the darling of the Mercedes squad: Rudolf Caracciola.
It was Caracciola who would lead Mercedes in to the second Grosser Preis a year later – and this time it would be held on the Nürburgring. On this occasion absolutely no concession was made to potential overseas entrants and the race was held for sports cars rather than thoroughbred grand prix machines.
It was also the case that Mercedes had just merged with Benz, with both factories closing their racing departments in the interim. This meant that a suitably competitive production car would have to be found – and it was.
The supercharged 6.8-litre Mercedes S, designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, was light years ahead of any comparable car. As a result seven of them arrived at the Nürburgring, dominating a field of 21 cars and putting the result beyond doubt in many minds even before the race began.
The action was to take place over 18 laps of the complete circuit for total distance of 509.4km or 316.5 miles (compared to the 308km of the modern Grosser Preis which is held over 60 laps of the little 5.1 km circuit laid out around the original start/finish straight). A total of 75,000 people arrived on the morning of 17 July 1927 to witness the spectacle and celebrate the almost inevitable Mercedes victory.
But which Mercedes? Caracciola was notionally the top dog but it was an all-star team and at the start it was Rosenberger who surged off the line from the second row of the grid and through to take the lead for the whole of the first lap while the rest of the squad battled in his wake.
Caracciola headed the chase but was soon passed by the sister car of Willy Walb and was soon under increasing pressure from Mercedes stalwart Christian Werner. On lap 5, after running neck-and-neck for the full length of the mighty run down from Dottinger Hohe, Caracciola suddenly pulled off into the pits claiming engine problems and retired from the event.
Walb meanwhile caught and passed Rosenberger, whose engine sounded off-colour and would let go completely on the ninth lap. By then Walb was coming under pressure from yet another of the Mercedes entries – this time that of Otto Merz.
The Swabian giant Merz, known among the team as Kolossus, was usually the reserve driver but he rose to the occasion in style. Despite repeatedly being forced to pit for new tyres, he was able to hold his team-mates at bay to the finish in a time of four hours and 59 minutes to enjoy the adulation of the crowd.
Three minutes behind Merz came Christian Werner and then Walb completed the longed-for 1-2-3 finish for Mercedes a further eight minutes later. It was a fine performance from a man with plenty of stories to tell outside the world of motor racing, whose position as reserve would remain despite taking the biggest prize in Germany.
Crossing the line in fourth place was the Bugatti of Franz Baader but he was disqualified from the results. Thus the popular Czech driver, Madame Elisabeth Junek, claimed fourth overall and first in the 3.0 litre class in her own Bugatti.
The first Grand Prix to be held on the Nürburgring was far from its most dazzling in terms of entertainment, but it nevertheless delivered exactly what Otto Creutz had envisioned: a challenge stern enough for motor manufacturers and drivers to show their class around the world.
Long may it remain so.