APRIL 2014 - A mountainous course along narrow roads with over 7,000 bends before the gates of Palermo in Sicily, Italy: welcome to the Targa Florio.
This was a highly popular and demanding road race especially in the first half of the last century. In 1924, one lap was 108 kilometres in length. The Targa Florio was run over four laps, while the Coppa Florio required the competitors to complete an extra tour of the circuit, i.e. a total of 540 kilometres. In a supercharged Mercedes Christian Werner won the Targa Florio on 27 April 1924 in a time of 6:32:37 hours, triumphed in the Coppa Florio in a time of 8:17:1.4 hours and also drove the fastest lap in 1:35 hours. Positions 2 and 3 in the same racing class were likewise occupied by Mercedes with drivers Christian Lautenschlager and Alfred Neubauer. This meant nothing less than a triple victory for Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) – a magical moment in the “120 Years of Motorsport” anniversary being celebrated by Mercedes-Benz Classic in 2014.
Mercedes was the only make of car with all vehicles completing the course. The winner of the Targa was by no means assured of victory in the Coppa, because the chances of falling foul of the road and terrain conditions on the final lap were enormous. Of the 37 starters, only 21 made it to the finishing line in the Targa Florio. And as few as 16 saw the chequered flag one lap later in the Coppa Florio. So Christian Werner certainly earned tremendous respect for his overall performance – but so too did his team colleagues, because all of them proved equal to the challenges of what was at the time probably Europe’s toughest road race.
The team sent a telegram to Stuttgart to announce the overall result: “Overall result Werner wins Targa and Coppa Florio, also Coppa Caltavuturo for shortest time from start to that place, also Coppa Villa Igiea for lap record, also Grand Gold Medal of King of Italy, ditto Motor Club of Sicily, also all prizes awarded by Palermo Merchants’ Chamber stop class result Werner first, Lautenschlager second, Neubauer third, Mercedes team wins Coppa Termini for best factory team.”
The new Mercedes two-litre racing cars had been painted red for the Targa instead of the usual German racing colour, which was white. That was all part of the calculation: as most spectators were Italian, enthusiastically cheering on the local, red-painted vehicles, but sometimes obstructing the path of differently coloured foreign cars, Mercedes decided to compete in red cars – and the result was a triple victory.
Mercedes racing cars for Sicily
Victory was decided by turning up with the right hardware. After the race, the Paris-based magazine “Auto” wrote the following about the Stuttgart car maker and its Targa vehicles: “The Mercedes cars were built as they needed to be for the race course in Sicily: short wheelbase, correctly positioned centre of gravity, special attention to comfortable seats for the drivers (such as a cushion of coarse-grained leather to prevent sliding). The Mercedes vehicles also boasted two precious qualities that even non-experts are likely to have appreciated: a quite wonderful road-holding ability and a steering mechanism that puts little load on the front axle and is therefore very soft and extremely precise.”
The Mercedes racing cars were further developments of the first supercharged Mercedes racing car, which was entered in the 1922 Targa Florio, then powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine with a supercharger arranged vertically on the front end of the engine. This engine already had two overhead camshafts driven by a vertical shaft as well as four-valve technology with the spark plug positioned for the first time in the centre of the cylinder.
This engine spawned the 2-litre racing engine for the 2-litre formula, which was introduced in 1922. It featured the innovative cross-flow principle: intake on the left, exhaust on the right. The racing engines used in the 1924 Targa had a power output of 50 kW (67.5 hp) without supercharger and 93 kW (126 hp) with supercharger at 4,500 rpm. The engine could be revved for short periods to 4,800 rpm. Towards the end of 1924, the last version of this high-performance engine delivered as much as 110 kW (150 hp).
The chassis and body on the Targa Florio racing cars were broadly identical to those on the racers entered in the 1923 “Indianapolis 500”, with the differences being that the track was slightly wider and the frame was modified at the rear end to accommodate the indispensable spare wheels. The most important innovation for the drivers was a small windscreen in front of the steering wheel, which was designed to protect them against the hail of small stones that were thrown into the air when overtaking a competitor.
After the Targa Florio, the vehicle saw further successful action in numerous other races. In the Klausen Run of August 1924, Otto Merz drove the best time of the day in the red racer. For the Semmering Race in September, Otto Salzer even had a 4.5-litre engine from the 1914 Grand Prix car installed in a Targa Florio chassis, additionally fitting it with a supercharger. Although Salzer set the fastest time for racing cars in the over three litres class driving this monster, which he lovingly called the “Grandmother”, overall victory went to the Targa Florio winner Wilhelm Werner in “his” red 2-litre racer. Two years later, in September 1926, none other than Rudolf Caracciola, in the “Grandmother”, managed to win the Semmering Race in a new record time.
Christian Werner and his racing colleagues
Christian Werner, born in 1892, began his professional career at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in December 1911 as a “mechanic and chauffeur”, served as a driver in the First World War and joined DMG’s dynamic final inspection department as a “master driver” at the end of 1918.
His first great race was the 1922 Targa Florio, in which he finished second in the over 4.5-litre class. In the same year, he was overall winner of the “Tour of Romania”, the outstanding elements of which were a speed trial, a measured drive for lowest petrol and oil consumption and a hill-climb race with four people on board. In 1923, Werner finished eleventh in the overall classification at Indianapolis, where he came second among drivers of German cars and third among European car makes. His greatest triumph, however, was his victory in the 1924 Targa Florio and Coppa Florio.
His racing colleagues Christian Lautenschlager and Alfred Neubauer were also well-known names in the early years of motor racing. Lautenschlager was the famous winner of the French Grand Prix of 1908 (Dieppe) and 1914 (Lyon). The 1914 race likewise went down in history as a glorious triple victory for Mercedes. At that time, Neubauer, too, was a successful racing driver, although he later made his mark above all as Mercedes-Benz racing director, a position he held until 1955.