The Targa Florio was the decisive contest in the 1955 World Sports Car Championship. Under tremendous pressure to succeed in this, the final race of the season, Mercedes-Benz finished first and second with the 300 SLR, just enough to win the World Championship. This was a triumph that allowed the Mercedes star to shine more brightly than ever before.
1955 was a year of top-drawer motorsport: Juan Manuel Fangio won his second Formula One world title in a Mercedes-Benz W 196 R. Werner Engel was the European Touring Car Champion in his 300 SL “Gullwing” (W 198) production sports car, and Paul O’Shea won the US Class D Sports Car Championship. The shining star of the World Sports Car Championship was the 300 SLR (W 196 S). Closely related to the Formula One racer, this was the car entered by Mercedes-Benz for the six-race series. The brand decided against contesting the first two races, the 1000 Kilometres of Buenos Aires on 22 January 1955 and the 12 Hours of Sebring on 13 March 1955, so allowing the competition to open up a lead in the rankings, which Mercedes-Benz had to make up in the remaining four races.
The first appearance of the 300 SLR in Italy’s Mille Miglia on 1 May was to prove a spectacular debut, with Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio posting the brand’s first one-two finish in the World Sports Car Championship.
The next race was the 24 Hours of Le Mans on 11/12 June, at which Mercedes-Benz competed with three 300 SLRs. Yet, after the vehicle of Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh was blamelessly involved in what was until then the worst accident in motorsport history, race manager Alfred Neubauer took the decision, in consultation with the company management, to withdraw the race-leading 300 SLRs out of respect for the victims. This meant that Le Mans brought no points for Mercedes-Benz. Its rivals having retaken the lead in the rankings, the brand from Stuttgart had just two races left in which to secure overall victory in the World Sports Car Championship – for that was the unambiguous intention with which Mercedes-Benz had gone into the six-race series.
At the International Tourist Trophy in Dundrod, Northern Ireland, on 17 September 1955, 300 SLRs took the first three places to propel Mercedes-Benz up the points table. But this was not enough, because Ferrari still had its nose in front. Worse still: as just a second-place finish in the last race of the season would be enough to give Ferrari the title, the team from Stuttgart needed not only a victory in the Targa Florio, but a one-two finish to keep out Ferrari and Jaguar.
Incidentally, there were two other 1955 races in which Mercedes-Benz entered its 300 SLRs, but these did not count towards the World Championship. Fangio and Moss finished first and second respectively in both the International Eifel Race on the Nürburgring on 29 May and the Grand Prix of Sweden in Kristianstad on 7 August.
A nerve-jangling finale
The 1955 Targa Florio was destined to be the all-deciding race. As the cars lined up at the start for the 39th running of the classic Italian race at 7 a.m. on 16 October, the tension was palpable. The competition, especially Ferrari and Jaguar, would not give in without a fight.
The Mercedes-Benz crew was motivated to a man. The preparations for the “all or nothing” bid for victory in the Targa Florio attempted to take every eventuality into consideration. The race was contested by three 300 SLR teams. Under the race rules, there had to be a change of driver, with no driver at the wheel for more than five laps. The changeover cycles were coordinated to prevent two 300 SLRs being in the pits at the same time. The teams were made up of the pairings Stirling Moss/Peter Collins, Juan Manuel Fangio/Karl Kling and Desmond Titterington/John Cooper Fitch. In preparation for the race, the drivers had practised for a total of 16,695 kilometres to ensure that they were familiar with the 72-kilometre circuit and its 900 curves. Owing to the length of the circuit, this was the first time Mercedes-Benz used radio communication to allow the main pits to keep the way station 29 kilometres away in touch with what was happening in the race. There, the drivers were informed about their position in the race by means of conventional sign boards.
Setting a blistering pace from the outset, Moss took over a minute off second-placed Eugenio Castellotti in his Ferrari and smashed the existing records – the overall average of 89.929 km/h set by the previous year’s winner, Piero Taruffi, as well as the lap record of 93.116 km/h posted by Castellotti in 1954 in a Lancia. On the third circuit, Moss came off the road, causing his team to drop back to third place. Yet, by the end of the ninth circuit, their Silver Arrow was back in front, thanks not least to a daring show of catch-up racing by Collins. With Kling/Fangio occupying second place, everything seemed to be going to plan. However, after a jammed tank cap held them up in the pits during a driver change, the Ferrari team of Eugenio Castellotti/Robert Manzon was able to get ahead of Fangio into second place. There now began a breathtaking catch-up chase: driving at top speed, Fangio steadily reduced the gap between him and Castellotti. When, on the eleventh circuit, Manzon clipped a rock and was forced to change a wheel, the Argentinian was able to retake second place, which he successfully defended to the finishing line. Together with the race-winning team of Moss/Collins, this secured the World Sports Car Championship for Mercedes-Benz – just one point ahead of Ferrari. With fourth place also going to the third 300 SLR of Titterington/Fitch, all the effort had been worthwhile. As the 1955 season had finished so very successfully for Mercedes-Benz, everyone expected to see the brand back at the start the next year. However, then came the announcement that Mercedes-Benz was pulling out of motorsport. It is often incorrectly rumoured that the tragedy at Le Mans was the reason behind the decision. But the truth was that the company’s engineers and technicians needed to devote their full attention to developing production vehicles.
From early on in 1955, i.e. months before the Le Mans race, there had been an internal background debate at Mercedes-Benz over whether to carry on with the brand’s racing involvement. As reported in the motoring press at the time, Mercedes-Benz had given consideration in April 1955 to taking part once again in the World Sports Car Championship in the 1956 season, but to pulling out of Formula One. That would have seen the racetrack appearance of the coupé version of the 300 SLR, known as the “Uhlenhaut Coupé”, which did not contest a single race in 1955.
The background to the persistent, often heated debate inside the Board of Management was capacity problems in the company’s development department, which repeatedly affected the development and testing of planned new production vehicles, it proving impossible to meet the high demand for specialist staff. And so, on 11 October – just five days before the Targa Florio and, with it, Mercedes-Benz’s final victory of the 1955 season – the Board of Management decided to pull out of racing entirely and to devote the considerable engineering expertise of its motorsport department to the development of production vehicles. However, the decision was not made public until after the Targa Florio.
Press quotes on the 39th Targa Florio, Italy, 16 October 1955
Gregor Grant, „Spotlight on Sicily“, in „Autosport“, Great Britain, 28 October 1955:“One must admit that the performance of Stirling Moss and Peter Collins really shook the motor racing world. To turn in laps faster than world champion Juan Manuel Fangio was fantastic enough, but to win after two separate prangs was unbelievable.”
Bernard Cahier, „38th Targa Florio“, in „Road & Track“, USA, January 1956:“After a hard battle Mercedes had once more succeeded in winning, and in defeating Ferrari by one point they finished their 1955 season with a triumphal flourish, taking the three world titles for Racing cars, Sports and Gran Turismos, a performance never before accomplished in automobile history.”
Bernard Cahier, “Moss-Collins win the Targa Florio”, in “das Auto Motor und Sport”, Germany, No. 22/1955:”It was a revelation seeing him [Collins], because, on taking over from Moss, he was in 4th place and more than 7 minutes behind Fangio. When he handed the car back to Moss, he was in first place with a lead of 1.04 min. over Fangio. […] Moss then drove with one eye on safety, intent on maintaining his lead. And Fangio, despite his exceptional racing experience and unique talent as a driver, was unable to overcome a gap of 4.41 minutes between him and the winner. […] Moss, it must be frankly conceded, has now proved for the third time this year that he is deservedly the Sports Car Champion.”
W. F. Bradley, “Sicilian Adventure”, in “Autocar”, Great Britain, 28 October 1955:”All the luck was with Moss. His headlights had gone and he could not have run in the dark, if that had been necessary; Fangio had been held back at the pits and Castellotti had been delayed by Manzon’s accident. Nevertheless, the young Britisher drove what undoubtedly was the finest race of his career, honestly beating his team-mate Fangio, who had started out with the conviction that such a speed was impossible, and proving himself faster than the Italian champion Castellotti.”
“Targa Florio ends with a Mercedes-Benz one-two victory, in “Automobil Revue”, Switzerland, No. 45 of 19 October 1955:”Meanwhile, after a daring drive by Collins, his Mercedes was in front, and, on finally taking over at the wheel of the outwardly somewhat battered vehicle, Moss had a 20 seconds lead over Castellotti. But now it was again time for Fangio to demonstrate his skill. Having chased the courageously battling Italian for three circuits of the track, he overtook him on the eleventh lap to give Mercedes the second place it needed for the World Championship. After that, there were no more changes of position, despite Castellotti losing even more time to a tyre change.”
Mario Ciriachi, “Vittoria di Moss-Collins (Mercedes) nella tormentata‚ Targa Florio”, in “Corriere dello Sport”, Italy, 17 October 1955:”The German 3-litre cars with their direct-injection engines have indeed achieved three exceptional victories in the ‘Mille Miglia’ (1st and 2nd places), in the ‘Tourist Trophy’ (1st, 2nd and 3rd places) and, finally, in this Targa Florio, in which their drivers came 1st, 2nd and 4th in the overall classification.”
Source. Mercedes Benz