Quality versus clamour: why Le Mans and Indy remain as giants

Last week, The Guardian newspaper ran an interesting bit of speculation – a week-long series entitled ‘Sport 2.0’ based upon the premise that, across the board, major sports are dying.

This rather dramatic prognosis was based upon evidence that TV figures are falling, revenues are down and crowd sizes have dwindled.

It’s a universal problem, it would seem. If the editorial of ‘Sport 2.0′ is to be believed, the only cure is to reduce the length of any event down to a maximum of five minutes and to surrender one’s soul to the great new god of ‘shareable content’.

According to one of these stories, international football matches will soon be played within a grid of some 200 cameras capturing every detail of the scene that can immediately be reproduced as a hologram in other stadia. So if a game is being played in Rio, for example, you can pop into your local stadium in Dundee to see an exact 3D version of the match on your home pitch.

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No holograms or gimmicks: just a thumping crowd and a traditional spectacle that lasts a week

Nobody’s yet asked: ‘why?’

If people aren’t going to watch their own teams playing in their own stadia, will they really turn up in droves to watch a hologram of Norway vs. South Korea?

Apparently, the Japanese bid for the 2022 World Cup included using exactly this technology. The problem was that they could have promised a genuine alien invasion and a comeback concert by Elvis Presley because nothing was ever going to keep the gentlemen of FIFA away from Qatar’s billions.

Another point missed by The Guardian: even if there was a way for sports to break new ground and touch new hearts, it is pretty well guaranteed that an immediate influx of dollars will win the day. Have they not heard of Formula 1?

The Olympics once again provided cause for depression. When one thinks back upon the money lavished upon each and every Games, let alone the social changes enforced upon the host populations in order to sell Big Macs and fizzy drinks, it was galling indeed to read the architect and cheerleader for London 2012, Sebastian Coe, admit that athletics will never rank among the top three or four sports in Britain.

Elsewhere throughout the week, there was a fixation upon all of the ‘urban’ sports like BMX, Parkour, Skateboarding, Quidditch and the like, which the experts in sports marketing tell us have a greater appeal among the under-25s. Adapt or die was the message, or else all will be doom and gloom.

But throughout the period in which these stories were being put out, the Le Mans 24 Hours was taking place. Rather than a five-minute blast, we had practice on Tuesday, Qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday, a day of public jamboree on Friday and then the race from Saturday through to Sunday.

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The battle for GT glory went down to the last lap

More than a quarter of a million people were at the track to see the start and the Internet was groaning with traffic as what seemed like every sports fan from Scandinavia to the Outback started talking about the race. An event lasting a week held us in its thrall right up to the last lap battle for GT honours was resolved in Aston Martin’s favour.

There is a reason why this level of fervour takes place every year: Le Mans is the world’s greatest motor sport event. In fact, according to no less an organ than National Geographic magazine, Le Mans is the greatest sporting event of any kind anywhere in the world based upon such factors as the scale of the challenge, the number and diversity of its participants, the size of the crowd and the heritage of the event.

In motor racing terms, only the Indianapolis 500 compares to Le Mans – and it compares very well indeed. Again, Indy brings no ‘urban sports’ element, it would be recognisable to competitors of a century ago and, where Le Mans lasts a week, Indy consumes an entire month!

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Fernando-Alonso-Indy-500-Finish

Indianapolis pitches heroism and tradition that can be seen, heard and smelt

The Guardian offered no recognition that the only people who are truly obsessed by sports seven days a week are the people trying to rinse every available penny from those sports: the promoters trying to sell their pay-TV subscriptions, the venues trying to sell tickets and billboard space, the newspapers trying to sell advertising space around their reports and the creative agencies trying to sell ideas to the sponsors and the advertisers that make them stand out from the crowd.

Society has other things to worry about. We have less time and less money with every passing year, so when we want to pay attention to something, it has to be special. And if the past few weeks of fervour around Indianapolis and Le Mans have taught us anything, it’s that we, as an audience, can be optimistic. Because these events truly do remain special.

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Human drama is served by the bucketload in 24 fraught hours at Le MansScreenshot 2017-06-20 12.15.08

It’s not something that can be synthesised. It’s not the result of some tremendous promotional idea. It’s simply recognition of all those reasons listed by the National Geographic – and none of the frankly Orwellian language from The Guardian.

If one could bottle and sell what makes these events special, the status of a minor god might be accorded (although the thought occurs that perhaps Lord March has got closest to doing so at the Festival of Speed). But nobody has or will, and a hologram won’t do much better. Let’s allow the over-hyped, over-worked and over-valued clamour for our attention drift away on the tide, and savour what has always been right in the first place.

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Long may the great races continue their fine traditions – and long may the wider world enjoy them

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Heads-up for hydrocarbon heritage

BP-Castrol’s return to Formula 1 as a partner to McLaren-Honda has been announced.  This news has got the F1 community rather excited – let’s face it, any new sponsor announcement is a novelty in F1 these days – but it’s perfectly simple and logical step to have taken.

Castrol is arguably the most prolific partner to motor manufacturers in competiton, attached to Ford in GT racing, V8 Supercars and the World Rally Championship; Volkswagen Group in the World Endurance Championship, World Rally Championship*, World Rallycross Championship, German Touring Car Championship and European Rally Championship; Volvo in the World and Swedish Touring Car Championships and Kia in Global Rallycross.

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Kia is among the multitude of brands supported by Castrol

It is also partnered with Honda teams in the World and British Touring Car Championships, MotoGP and World Superbike championships.  Adding Honda’s F1 programme to the roster comes as Audi withdraws from Le Mans and, crucially, allows partner brand BP the chance to produce high-tech superfuels, which it couldn’t in sports car racing because arch-rival Shell is the official fuel provider.

Is all of this going to generate excitement in the grandstands?  Probably not.  Fuel and oil are distress purchases, even to the die-hard motoring enthusiast.  The key to selling more product is therefore either to have more filling stations, which are costly to maintain, or to have lots of motor manufacturers bulk buying your products at the source.

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Castrol and Honda have a history dating back to the 1959 Isle of Man TT

Ultimately, then, BP-Castrol is moving the chips around in the high stakes game of its commercial relationships with the motor manufacturers.  If the contract to supply lubricants to Honda’s customers worldwide comes up for renewal in a year or two, it’s rather handy to have already agreed three years’ sponsorship of the crown jewels, is it not?

Nevertheless, the drums are already beating with heritage stories, so let’s have a little look, shall we?  Charles Wakefield founded his lubricants company in 1899, and in 1906 developed new, lighter products for the growing number of cars and aeroplanes by adding castor oil – hence Castrol.  Meanwhile, BP began as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909.

Wakefield Castrol Motor Oil, Vintage Land Speed Record poster. S

During World War 1, Castrol was vitally important to many of the engines being put to work in the world’s first fully mechanized conflict, with rotary aero engines needing liberal amounts of castor oil to operate at altitude.  Shell cornered the market on high quality fuels for aviation and Burmah and Anglo-Persian produced the heavy oils needed for shipping.

After the war, Castrol focused upon motor sport to sell its brand: witness the world record breaking aeroplanes and cars and the associated advertising, be it Amy Johnson’s flight from London to Australia or Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird on Daytona Beach.

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Ever since those times, the scrap between Castrol and Shell for hearts and minds has been played out through promoting the sporting successes of their partners.  On balance, Shell has held the upper hand in motor sport thanks to 60 wins at Le Mans plus a heritage of Grand Prix wins with Auto Union, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and McLaren-Honda (amongst many others).

Castrol’s strongest associations have often been in rallying; a legacy of having former BMC and Ford team principal Stuart Turner heading up its communications programmes.  It has also focused on the Land Speed Record (although many of the cars and aeroplanes have been fuelled by Shell). In contrast, BP has only played a minor role in developing successful competition fuels.

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Since the merger of BP and Castrol in 2000, there has been BP branding for its Ultimate branded premium fuel on Ford’s World Rally Championship cars and the BMW and latterly Audi DTM cars but little real technical endeavour.  It is certainly going to have to work hard and fast to get up to speed in developing the sacred 1% difference between pump fuel and race fuel permitted in modern Formula 1.

The fuel and oil brands are undoubtedly going to trumpet their heritage of success in the months and seasons ahead, which should at the very least make for some interesting diversions at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Le Mans and the more important Grands Prix of the year. It’s all part of the game, and means that there should be plenty to look out for at the S&G when it comes to historic hydrocarbons!

*Edit: Since this post was published, Volkswagen has announced its withdrawal from the WRC, effective from the end of the year.

Heineken and the classics

Crikey! In terms of bringing some excitement and prestige back to modern Formula 1, Heineken’s ‘groundbreaking’ announcement fell flatter than a witch’s proverbial, did it not? Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo’s involvement was non-existent and James Bond never showed up.

Instead, the waiting world was promised that Heineken will deliver ‘innovative content’ to online consumers – which is what anyone who delivers online advertising promises. The S&G would love to see someone offering ‘derivative content’ because, as a policy, that would be truly groundbreaking.

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Apparently watching ‘content’ can be an agreeable experience

Heineken has pledged to create promotional pushes in cities in the weeks before races (as several of the races already do), shop floor campaigns in bars, cafes and supermarkets around the world (as several sponsors already do), worldwide ticket promotions and competitions (as many sponsors already do), and social media campaigns to engage the ‘millennials’ of the online generation (as all sponsors attempt to do).

So what’s the point? Heineken is already positioned as the aspirational brand of choice among lager drinkers: the BMW of beers. What it wants to do is reinforce this image among the markets of Asia and the Middle East by using Formula 1’s ubiquity in these ’emerging markets’.

As a serious bonus from the Heineken deal, however, it appears to have played a key role in ensuring that Monza remains on the Grand Prix racing calendar. By ‘key role’ we do of course mean ‘bank roll’. No wonder Bernie looked so chirpy as he clutched his bottle of lager in Montreal.

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The roll of honour at Monza is an elite group – long may it remain

 

What this means is that Formula 1 may yet retain the one venue that has not been completely neutered by the passage of time.

Despite the silly run-off on the Parabolica, Monza remains a truly, regally, magnificently scary anachronism among the modern Grand Prix venues. Yes, it has chicanes but the difference between the guys who are vying for a seat among the legends of the sport and the guys who are paying for a seat anywhere from the third row of the grid backwards can never be more pronounced than it is beneath the trees of the Villa Reale.

And on that note, the S&G will join 007 in toasting the hope that Monza will continue to offer Formula 1 its annual reality check for many, many seasons to come. For now, however, the time has come to up sticks and head to another wonderful and terrifying venue of enormous historical significance – the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Watch this space for some ‘content’ from the greatest motor race in the world – and for starters, here is a bit of testing at Monza with the chicanes removed. You will seldom see such might!

Advertisement feature: S&G’s book

Did you know that Ronnie Peterson agreed terms with Ferrari to fill Niki Lauda’s seat after the Austrian’s fiery crash in 1976?

Or that Lauda himself fully expected the whole field to pull into the pits behind him at Fuji?

Or that James Hunt’s deal to drive for Ferrari was scuppered by Vauxhall?

Or that one of Ferrari’s senior designers was kidnapped and, sadly, murdered in a story that could have been ripped from the pages of an Inspector Montalbano mystery?

Not for the first time, the S&G has written a book. It is the latest in the series of Haynes Manuals for enthusiasts of the most iconic cars in motor sport history – in this instance, the Ferrari 312T series. So if you like pretty red things and are looking for something to leaf through on holiday this summer, here’s the sales pitch:

This manual contains a guide to owning, restoring and enjoying one of these iconic 1970s Formula 1 cars.

If you happen to have a spare couple of million dollars that you don’t know what to do with, there is guidance on owning a 312T, T2, T3, T4 or T5. Even a T6, if you will… although not the fictional T8. There is also expert advice how to tackle an auction from the chaps at Bonhams and insights into ownership and maintainance from Hall & Hall.

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If you want to get under the skin of this little beast, there’s now a book for you

This book won’t follow Haynes tradition and give you a step-by-step guide to replacing the wiring loom but then we are talking about a Formula 1 car and not a Morris Ital. If you can afford a 312T then you’ve doubtless got a man in a mews garage with grubby fingernails who can handle that sort of thing.

Alternatively, you might want to give it back to Ferrari, where Gilles Villeneuve’s former crew chief, Pietro Corradini, will tend to its needs in the Corse Clienti workshops. He is also a prominent contributor to the book.

But for those who want to revel in the history of the 312T there is, we hope, plenty to enjoy. Lots of pictures. Quite a few words. Many of those words came from the mouth of Mauro Forghieri, designer of the breed and of pretty well all things Ferrari from 1962-82. That interview, ladies and gentlemen, was a good day’s work.

Forghieri also had plenty to say about the storied summer of 1976 and the epic battle for the Formula 1 world championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. And if Forghieri had plenty to say then the team manager from that fateful season, Daniele Audetto, was a positive Vesuvius of information that had been bubbling away unseen by anyone for decades.

Certainly unseen by anyone in the English speaking world. The story of that summer of ’76 is often told but much of Audetto’s version of events was news to your humble scribe as it will be to any of you in the English speaking world because, let’s face it, the coverage at the time was rather patriotic in tone.

Unsurprisingly the Italian version of events is significantly different to the ‘official story’ as told by the Anglo-Saxon contingent and benefits from a whole host of scandals and intrigues never before mentioned in polite society.

This was all somewhat exciting to be told, but then it was rather an exciting project to be given. The 312T belongs to an age of unalloyed heroism exemplified by Lauda’s return from the Nürburgring, the likes of Hunt, Scheckter and Reutemann wrestling with their considerable fears about surviving each and every race weekend and Gilles Villeneuve’s devastating speed. Revisiting those days with such expert guides was a joy.

The making of the movie Rush and the cars that starred in it is also a feature. So too are those vital ingredients to the true story of 1976 that Rush missed out like the British Grand Prix riots – as reported by someone who was there lobbing beer cans onto the track.

The Ferrari 312T Owners’ Manual marks the second time that Haynes has offered the S&G an opportunity to write about the red cars. Almost 14 years ago your scribe was allowed into the inner sanctum at Maranello to document Ferrari’s resurgence under Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. This resulted in the book Cavallino Rampante, which was one of the few times when life offers the chance to create something that will last a good deal longer than you will.

It’s been a pleasure to revisit that sort of territory again and one hopes that some of that enjoyment is passed on to the reader. So if all that tickles your fancy, please do dive in with both feet.

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There are a few handy hints for those awkward plumbing and wiring jobs

Manufacturers, privateers and balderdash

Some fatuous nonsense is being spouted at present regarding a perceived requirement for Formula One to encourage low-rent engines to keep under-funded teams on the grid. “The power must again be put with those people who support the independent teams, because they are the backbone of the sport,” said former privateer, Eddie Jordan.

Au contraire, Eddie. Looking back over 110 years of Grand Prix racing, it is the brief superiority of the ‘garagistes’ that is anomalous. The real backbone of Grand Prix racing has always been, and should long remain, the motor manufacturers.

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Racing cars develop technology that sells road cars, requiring manufacturers to invest pride and hard cash to improve the breed

 

From the first Grand Prix of 1906 until Cooper’s first world championship in 1959, the racing departments of motor manufacturers exercised almost complete dominance over the sport.

We are talking about industrial giants here: the likes of Renault, Fiat, Mercedes, Peugeot and Auto Union. The specialists who rose up in their wake such as Ferrari, Vanwall and Lotus never whined about inequality; they simply engineered their way to the front. Others tried, failed and faded away. Such is the nature of the sport.

It is of course true that, after Cooper, a generation of ‘garagistes’ came and went thanks to the brilliance and ubiquity of off-the-shelf engines like the Coventry-Climax and Cosworth DFV – but those days died at the onset of the turbo era. In the 33 seasons since then it has been imperative for teams to form an alliance with a major motor manufacturer if they dare to dream of winning the title, be they McLaren, Williams or even Jordan.

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Jordan was saved by Yamaha’s largesse rather than a ‘spec’ motor

 

Eddie Jordan’s team enjoyed brilliantly competitive debut season in 1991… but it needed free engines from Yamaha to help shore up the team’s perilous finances in 1992. By the time that Jordan came closest to winning the world championship, in 1999, he was firmly cosied-up with Honda, but for some reason Eddie is choosing to overlook this at present.

Yet it is the manufacturers whose investments have always made the sport what it is. They have created the amazing technology that was driven into legend by men blessed with other-worldly skill – and eventually handed down to us, the consumers.

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Mighty manufacturer efforts have bestowed much magic upon Grand Prix racing

 

Sadly, modern Formula One is little more than an unashamedly a gilt-edged revenue stream. Those who scoop up the proceeds that it generates require little more than for 22 cars to be on the grid and then tootle round for 60 laps or so while they count the cash. The sport’s owners appear hell bent on pushing out the manufacturers – the real backbone of the sport – and are heedless of the cost.

Perhaps, rather than waddling through Baku airport next June with their wallets groaning under the weight of manats that have been harvested, the great and the good of Formula One should take a weekend off and go to Le Mans, near where the first ever Grand Prix was staged. Here at the 84th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours they will see motor racing in the grand tradition of encouraging manufacturers to build amazing cars.

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Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Sir Philip Green, Eddie Jordan and Donald Mackenzie at the Monaco Grand Prix.

They will also see that there is an incredible appetite to witness it – 260,000 happy campers in the stands, tens of millions seeking out the fairly arcane TV coverage and nine manufacturers basking in the glow of excitement about the wondrous technology that they have produced.

Compared to that little lot, surely, even the attractions of joining 25,000 bewildered Azerbaijanis to sit through a chorus of disapproval about nations buying respectability through hosting Grands Prix might seem rather anaemic. With or without customer engines.

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Audi, Porsche, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, Aston Martin, Dodge and Ferrari will all be represented at Le Mans in 2016

 

1956 and all that…

A lot is said and written about British leadership in motor sport. About its value. About its importance. We speak in terms intended to summon up the blood in a manner that would have delighted Henry V at Agincourt.

‘Twas not always thus. Brooklands may have been the world’s first permanent race track and a few pioneering marques such as Bentley, Napier and Sunbeam may have successfully raided the most prestigious races in Europe but, before World War 2, Britain was hardly smitten.

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Indeed, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was moved to prohibit the display of racing machinery within its annual Motor Show – stating that competition was ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

All that was changed by the Second World War. In its wake a tide of bright young engineers and hard charging drivers was unleashed. That tide grew in depth, strength and experience until Britain became the motor racing capital of the world.

The year of British ascendance was 1956. If the primary measuring stick of motor sport is Formula One, then this was the first year when the number of British teams outnumbered those from Italy or France. It is also the first year in which British drivers won more grands prix than any other nationality – with Stirling Moss and Peter Collins claiming two victories apiece.

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio close in 1956

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio (right) close in 1956

Of course this was also the year in which Collins famously missed out on the world championship after handing his car to his title rival and team-mate, Juan Manuel Fangio, in the final race of the year. Clearly the British still had to develop the killer instinct in these situations!

Neither Moss or Collins were driving British cars, but there was plenty of success outside Formula 1 for British manufacturers. Leading the way was Jaguar, which maintained its dominance at the Le Mans 24 Hours with a fourth victory in six years – with Aston Martin and Lotus winning class honours.

Jaguar's fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

Jaguar’s fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

In rallying, Jaguar also the Monte Carlo Rally with its vast Mk.VII saloon and Aston Martin won the RAC Rally with its rather more obviously sporty DB2/4.

Meanwhile, back on the tracks, the Owen Maddock-designed Cooper T41 dominated in Formula 2, establishing the template for rear-engined simplicity that would carry the Kingston firm to world championship glory by the end of the decade.

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

If that wasn’t sufficient to set the seal on British dominance then Stirling Moss – that man again! – set new class speed records at Monza in a streamlined Lotus Eleven.

It was a year that would define so much for so many people: the year in which the remarkable community of engineers and adventurers showed exactly what they were capable of. The achievements of 1956 set in place the foundations for a huge and vibrant industry.

This week the great and the good of that same industry gather for their annual jamboree – the Autosport International show in Birmingham. Doubtless there will be much bullish talk about the state of the nation… but how much of it is justified?

One thing is clear – the age of British leadership in motor sport that arrived with such a tour de force in 1956 has, in fact, passed.

At the end of last year Britain lost 25% of its F1 production in the space of a fortnight. If a quarter of the Premier League teams vanished there would be rioting on the streets – but the disappearance of more than 400 jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds owing to suppliers has merited barely a raised eyebrow.

This misfortune is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. For example British Formula 3 – the series that was the making of virtually every F1 driver from Stirling Moss to Jenson Button, including the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen – has ceased to exist, after drawing only half a dozen entries in recent seasons.

The Le Mans 24 Hours and World Endurance Championship are currently contested by Audi, Porsche and Toyota… all based in Germany. Both of the full works teams entered in the World Rally Championship – Hyundai and Volkswagen – are also based in Germany.

In terms of manufacturing there are now only three viable options when it comes to single-seater chassis supply: Mygale from France (Formula Ford/Formula 4), Dallara (GP2, GP3, Formula 3, Indycar, World Series, Formula E) and its Italian compatriot Tatuus (Formula Renault).

Across virtually every discipline of the sport, from rallycross to hillclimbs and truck racing to dragsters, British influence is increasingly on the margins. As well as car production, traditional bastions of the industry such as Dunlop and Shell have also moved their motor sport arms (and associated Research & Development of customer products) away from Britain.

In 2001 the Motorsport Industry Association, the self-appointed lobbying group in the UK, valued the industry at £5bn a year – which was quite punchy. These days the MIA puts that figure at £10bn – which is frankly ludicrous.

In the years since 2001 such prestigious engineering firms as Cosworth, Reynard, Lola, Van Diemen, TWR and Ralliart have hurtled into oblivion. On the domestic front, the British Touring Car Championship lost its manufacturer entries and star drivers but has battled on – and at least survived where the British Rally Championship has been consigned to history.

One by one the lion’s teeth have been pulled.

What took Britain to the top of the world in 1956 and kept it there for roughly half a century was a fraternity imbued with talent and inventiveness as well as the willingness to challenge tradition. As a community we urgently need to revive this same spirit if we are to have any chance of halting the decline.

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 - and fast

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 – and fast

The S&G is a place to look backwards but, at the start of a new year, it might also be a good time to look forwards – and worry. Context is really what this blog is about, and if by looking back we can find a way to fan the embers then so much the better.

The world’s most expensive Grand Prix car

Auction house Bonhams is cock-a-hoop after the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where it sold the ex-Juan Manuel Fangio Mercedes-Benz W196 that was originally gifted to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.

Bonhams auctioned the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 at Goodwood

Bonhams auctioned the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 at Goodwood

The headline figure stands at £19,601,500 (which is what the £17,500,000 hammer price comes to with commission), making this car the most expensive ever sold at auction, the most valuable Formula One car ever sold and the most valuable Mercedes ever sold to boot.

It is a mark of how special this car is that it attained such a sum. As a rule, single-seat racing cars go for relatively modest sums compared to their sports and GT brethren. The rationale is simple: if you can’t drive it to the pub or put your friends in it, it’s not going to make top dollar.

The social side of classic car ownership is a major selling point

The social side of classic car ownership adds enormous value

People buy classic cars as an investment but also to show them off: to get the buzz of being at the wheel and to bask in the awe, envy and admiration that their carriages inspire. That is why the Ferrari 250GTO remains the powerhouse of the classic era – its unique beauty and racing pedigree ensure that values continue to climb, yet this is also a car in which Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason used to take his daughter to school.

The Mercedes therefore falls short of the $35 million mark set by the ex-UDT Laystall team GTO last year… but not by much. Since that time the pale green Ferrari has been a regular attendee at historic events, but whether or not the Mercedes follows suit is open to question.

With a price of $35 million in 2012, the UDT Laystall 250 GTO is still king of the hill

Reaching $35 million in 2012, the UDT Laystall GTO is still king of the hill

A single-seat racing car can only be driven on a track, which means either competing with it or hiring a venue for a private track day. Otherwise it must either be kept hidden away in a private collection or loaned to a museum – neither of which fulfils the basic criteria of ownership.

The ultimate fate of the W196 00006/54 is unknown, but it seems likely to be leaving British shores. The vendor was the Emir of Qatar, who acquired it from the German industrialist Friedhelm Loh about eight years ago, and it was snapped up by an unnamed telephone bidder calling from overseas.

Presumably it will now go back into storage or private display. If money were no object then it might possibly be used in historic events alongside the many other 2.5-litre F1 cars such as the Ferrari 246 Dino, Maserati 250F, Cooper T53 and even the lesser spotted Vanwall.

Fifties Grand Prix cars like this Aston Martin sell tickets for historic races

’50s cars like this Aston Martin sell many tickets for historic races

Yet this is a car with some fairly unique engineering in it – desmodronic valve gear and fuel injection feature on its straight-eight engine, which was engineered to ensure power take-off from the centre of its crankshaft to minimize vibration. Ground-breaking technology is unreliable. Add the passage of 60 years and it becomes impossible to place great strain on the components.

It would doubtless require significant restoration work to make 00006 a full-blown runner – but this is not a problem in itself. Since the auction, much has been made of the car’s patina – but the peeling paint and scratches are not a legacy from its time with the Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung – in fact the damage is more modern than that.

The chips and dings have all occurred since 00006 retired from racing

The chips and dings have all occurred since 00006 retired from racing

Photos of the car at its first race at the Nürburgring show the slightly hurried and unfinished look of the open wheel body which was pressed in to service. Contemporary reporters were amazed by the difference between the carefully sculpted streamliner bodies with which the W196 debuted and labelled the open wheeler ‘unhandsome’.

Indeed, Mercedes had been forced to introduce the open wheel cars earlier than planned after a disastrous race at the British Grand Prix, meaning that the team arrived too late to take part in the opening practice session.

Fangio restored German pride at the 'Ring

00006 and Fangio restored German pride at the ‘Ring

When they did take to the track, however, Fangio and chassis 00006 recorded a time of 9m 50.1s – shaving two seconds off the 1939 lap record set by the supercharged 3.0-litre Mercedes of Hermann Lang.

The race was in many ways an all-Argentinean affair, dominated by Fangio’s Mercedes and a valiant challenge to its supremacy by Froilán González in the outclassed Ferrari 625. Both men were in no small part inspired by the death of their young compatriot Onofre Marimon in practice, whose fatal accident at the Wehrseifen bridge prompted the works Maserati team’s withdrawal.

Fangio's race pace was modest, but he triumphed in Germany

Fangio’s race pace was modest, but he and 00006 triumphed in Germany

González led at the start and then chased Fangio once the Maestro had got past – but was soon swallowed up by the other two Mercedes of junior driver Karl Kling and pre-war legend Lang in a one-off appearance. These two men indulged in a spirited battle for second place in which the ring-rusty Lang ultimately spun at the Hatzenbach and exited to a hero’s salute from the crowd.

Kling then set off after Fangio and began to reel him in – to the enormous and obvious displeasure of his team boss, Alfred Neubauer. Kling passed Fangio but during his furious drive he had clipped one of the banks and broken the transmission mounting, requiring a lengthy stop for repairs which let Fangio claim the first home victory for Mercedes in 15 years.

Fangio then won again with chassis 00006 at the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten, beating the Ferrari of González. The race was something of a non-event in which the margin of victory was almost a full minute after many of the fancied runners dropped out – but it did seal Fangio’s second world championship title.

Victory at Bremgarten ensured the 1954 title for Fangio

Victory at Bremgarten ensured the 1954 title for Fangio

The maestro then received a new chassis and 00006 was next seen at the season-ending Italian Grand Prix in the hands of Hans Herrmann. Fangio won by a lap from Hawthorn’s Ferrari, González and Umberto Maglioli sharing the third-placed Ferrari another lap behind and Hermann trailing home fourth a further lap in arrears.

00006 was then held back as a test hack through 1955, when the season was truncated by the catastrophic accident at Le Mans. It re-emerged for the final race of the ‘silver arrows’ in Formula One – the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. Team leader Fangio and his young apprentice Stirling Moss had use of the fully streamlined cars for the flat-out sweeps of the Villa Reale, but the open-wheel chassis 00006 was made available for Karl Kling.

Kling and 00006 are third in the W196 train behind Fangio and Moss

Kling and 00006 are third in the W196 train behind Fangio and Moss

It was another fiery and wayward performance by Kling, who ran a strong second behind Fangio’s Stromlinienwagen until the prop shaft let go, due to a rare error by Neubauer’s engineers. With that ‘Don Alfredo’ Neubauer tearfully drew a veil over the competition department at Unterturkheim and the 14 W196s went into retirement.

Fangio and Moss help Neubauer put the legendary 'silver arrows' to bed

Fangio and Moss help Neubauer put the legendary ‘silver arrows’ to bed

Chassis 00006 was delivered to the Daimler-Benz Exhibitions Department in December 1955, having been fully refettled. It stayed with them for more than a decade, being taken to exhibitions and public appearances around Europe and being used for tyre testing. A Daimler-Benz Museum archive document records that – as of November 5, 1969 – “Car should be available at any time for R. Uhlenhaut for testing purposes”.

On May 22nd, 1973 it was presented to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire, England.  It was then sold after many years in order to fund the museum’s John Montagu Building, being bought by historic racer and collector Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB Excavators in a deal brokered by Adrian Hamilton, son of Le Mans winner Duncan Hamilton.

Sir Anthony Bamford bought the W196 from Beaulieu

Sir Anthony Bamford bought the W196 from Beaulieu

Bamford sold the car to French collector Jacques Setton. It then passed to Herr Loh, who in 1999-2000 ran it in such events as the Monaco Historic Grand Prix and the Goodwood Festival of Speed with Willie Green at the wheel. The car was then re-sold  to Qatari ownership.

Now, in 2013, this old stager has set a new benchmark for cars at auction – but are there any more such valuable Grand Prix racing gems out there? It must be doubtful. There are certainly cars in existence that would trouble the Richter scale if they were to see the light of day – but they remain tucked up far away from the public gaze. Perhaps once again a car built at Unterturkheim has set the bar higher than any rivals can match.

Off to her new home - 00006 as she is today

Off to her new home – 00006 as she is today