TeamsHarry Merkel: 1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Almost everything, especially motor racing, in Germany after World War II could be described by a single word—improvisation. Germany's industries were slowly beginning to rebuild. Transportation was important, but not racing. Even the first motor race in Germany couldn't be called as such. Therefore, the cars had to have license plates that indicated 'test drive'. However, amidst the ravages of war-torn and divided Germany there was a spirit that was growing that couldn't be snuffed out. It was the spirit of the privateer racing driver.
Amidst a nation without a lot of new technology there would come a lot of different designs and ideas. The design concepts were numerous just like the number of unknown German racers that would take to the wheel of the improvisational machines. One of those relatively known and unassuming drivers to appear in the pages of Formula One World Championship was Harry Merkel.
Born in Leipzig in 1918, Merkel's path to grand prix racing wasn't all that unusual. He would start out by racing motor cycles at the conclusion of World War II. Besides motor cycle racing, Merkel would also take part in a number of hill climb races. This is where he would become best known and would develop relationships that would come into play later.
In the early 1950s, Merkel began driving in sportscar races and would experience rather disappointing results. His first sportscar race would come in April of 1951. The race was the 1,000 mile Mille Miglia. Merkel would drive a Panhard Dyna and would actually finish in his first effort. However, he would end up 113th in the results.
While he would take part in the Mille Miglia in 1951, the majority of the very early 1950s would include Merkel taking part mostly in hill climbs and motor cycle races. However, after putting his toe in the sportscar waters, Merkel was intent on doing more of the racing and was making preparations to enter a number of other sportscar races going into the 1952 season. But, in 1952, Merkel would also be provided another opportunity for which the amateur German racers could have dreamed.
The Formula One World Championship was going to open its doors to the mostly isolated German racers. The move the governing-body and race organizers would take would end up opening the door of the World Championship to a number of racers in many different nations, but it almost seemed specifically suited for the generally isolated German racers that were otherwise unable to take part in races outside of their own borders.
The Formula One World Championship had visited Germany, and the Nurburgring, for the first time in 1951. However, despite the visit, only one German actually took part in the race. Paul Pietsch had driven with Auto Union before the war and was quite a famous German racing driver. He would be hired by Alfa Romeo for the first World Championship race in Germany.
The reason for the lack of Germans in the race was rather simple. Outside of its own borders, Germany's money, either West or East, was worth virtually nothing. On top of it all, German industry was still trying to rise from the ruin. Therefore, there wasn't the equipment and the facilities to mount a serious effort in World Championship grand prix racing. One of the few exceptions to this was Mercedes-Benz and Porsche in sportscars.
Therefore, Alfa Romeo's departure at the end of the 1951 season, and the incredible costs associated with Formula One, actually acted like a wedge for German racers into the closed door of the World Championship. The tool that finally forced the door open was Formula 2 and its competitive regulations. The switch to Formula 2 regulations for the 1952 and 1953 seasons immediately made a number of Germany's 'home-built' chassis legal for the World Championship overnight.
The decision to run the World Championship according to Formula 2 regulations meant German racers, like Merkel, could take part. But it wasn't like the German Grand Prix was the only race on the season. Both East and West Germany had their own Formula 2 championship. While the nations had been divided, travel between the two German nations hadn't been all that restricted in 1952. Therefore, East Germans could take part in West German Championship races, they just would not earn any points toward the championship. The same was true for when a West German went and took part in an East German Championship race.
Finances and equipment was hard to come by in post-war Germany. Therefore, there were few to no factory efforts in grand prix racing. This led to many Eigenbaus, or, 'self-built' chassis emerging on the scene. Even with the 'self-built' chassis, the owners and racers began to put together racing teams or 'associations' that would pool cars amongst a few drivers. Fritz Riess and Willi Krakau were two drivers that had come together and provided their cars for each other and for other drivers. Riess was an extremely talented driver who would also drive with Mercedes-Benz after the war. Willi Krakau was a privateer entry that had showed great success in the later-part of the 1940s and very early 1950s. It would be to these two men that Merkel would turn in to be able to race in Formula 2.
Fritz Riess would be employed by the Swiss team, Ecurie Espadon, to drive in the Eifelrennen at the end of May. Willi Krakau was intent on driving in the race with his AFM 50 chassis. This left a BMW 328 available. Merkel was given the opportunity to race the car and he would take it.
On the 25th of May, Merkel was with Riess and Krakau preparing to take part in the 16th Internationales ADAC Eifelrennen. This race was the first round of the West German Formula 2 Championship and was one of Merkel's first Formula 2 races ever in his career.
While the majority of the German chassis available at the time were fragile and prone to failure, Merkel would be at an even greater disadvantage. He would be driving a BMW 328, which was a very good car; when it was introduced back before the start of World War II. Many German racers returned to the 328 after the war and did their best to extract every ounce of performance the car could give. Usually, that meant the car had been stretched way beyond its means. It was like a light bulb right before it blew. The car was capable of decent performance, but it just had a history of not being able to last very long.
The setting for the Eifelrennen wouldn't help either. The site for the race was the demanding and dangerous Nurburgring. Built in the mid-1920s, the Nurburgring had a reputation as being the toughest, most-dangerous purpose-built circuit in all of Europe, possibly even the world. Consisting of 14 miles of constantly turning, rising and falling circuit, the Nordschleife, or, 'North Course' was a never-ending 'Green Hell' just waiting to pounce upon weakness and any lapses in concentration. Boasting of 170 corners and about a thousand feet of elevation change, the circuit was almost impossible to memorize, but very easy get wrong.
The Eifelrennen wasn't just a German affair. In 1952, the Eifelrennen held a special significance. The first two rounds of the West German Championship would take place at the Nurburgring. The first round would be the Eifelrennen. The second round would be the German Grand Prix, which counted toward both the West German Championship and the World Championship. Therefore, there Eifelrennen was important for those that wanted to gain experience before the World Championship race. Therefore, there would be a few foreign entries in the Eifelrennen.
The foreign contingent would consist of three British and one Swiss driver. The British detachment would include Stirling Moss, Duncan Hamilton and Ken Wharton. The Swiss driver was the restaurant owner and gentleman racer Rudolf Fischer.
Fischer had been to the Nurburgring before. However, in 1952, he had managed to purchase a Ferrari 500 chassis. The car had powered Piero Taruffi to victory at the Swiss Grand Prix the week before. The car had even provided Fischer great success in his home grand prix. He had managed to finish the Swiss Grand Prix in 2nd place. This meant Fischer was sitting 2nd in the World Championship standings. Therefore, as Fischer headed to West Germany for the Eifelrennen he was considered as the obvious favorite to take victory.
In practice, a battle ensued between Fischer and Moss for the pole position. Each of the drivers would record fast laps and would seem destined to sit on the pole. However, in spite of a fast lap by Fischer, Moss would end up taking the pole with a lap time of eleven minutes and two seconds. Fischer would also start on the front row with Moss, but in the 2nd place position. The two would be joined on the front row by neither of the German drivers, but the other two British drivers Duncan Hamilton and Ken Wharton. Driving the old BMW 328, Merkel would start much further down the sixteen car field.
The race distance was 7 laps and would total 99 miles. Fischer and Moss would renew their duel right at the start of the race. While the two would tear away at the front of the field, a number of others would find their race would come to a premature end. Zdenko von Schonborn would burn out his clutch and would be out of the race before having completed a single lap. He would be joined by another famous German racer.
Paul Pietsch had an incredible career. He had earned a drive with Auto Union before the outbreak of World War II. He had even been leading the 'Silver Cars' in a privately entered Maserati during the 1939 German Grand Prix before an ignition problem dropped him to 3rd at the finish. Alfa Romeo would even turn to Paul to have him driver one of their 159s in the 1951 German Grand Prix. However, at the Eifelrennen in 1952, Pietsch's race would come to an end even before completing a single lap. The engine in his Veritas Meteor would let go thereby ending his race.
Another couple of laps would pass. The battle between Fischer and Moss was still raging and another couple of entries would fall out of contention. Adolf Brudes would have the engine let go in his Orley Speciale and Hans Klenk would also fall out of the race due to a failure. Despite his aged machinery, Merkel continued to power his way around the circuit.
About the time Fischer broke free from Moss and began to stretch out a lead, Merkel's old car needed to retire for the day. The old 328 had had enough and needed a rest. Soon, Merkel would be joined by the other two partners in the association from which he received the now defunct ride.
Krakau would have his engine expire after 5 laps and Fritz Riess would have his Ecurie Espadon Ferrari 212 also expire with only a single lap remaining in the race. This left only five cars still running in the race.
Fischer had broken free from Moss. To widen his advantage, Fischer would record what would end up being the fastest lap of the race. He would turn in a lap time that wouldn't just edge out Moss' pole time. It would blow it out of the water. In an attempt to stretch out such an advantage Moss couldn't overcome, Fischer would record an incredible lap time of ten minutes and fifty-one seconds. This time was eleven seconds faster than Moss' pole and signaled to Moss that he wouldn't be able to beat Fischer.
Fischer dominated the rest of the race. Among the twelve Germans that entered the event, only Toni Ulmen was still running, and he was circulating the track in a very lonely 5th place well back from the rest of the field, but still on the lead lap.
Fischer would power his way to another incredible finish. It had been an incredible week for Fischer. He had come in 2nd place at the Swiss Grand Prix. Now, he crossed the line to win the Eifelrennen at one of the most difficult circuits in the world. Fischer would end up beating Stirling Moss by a margin of forty-one seconds by the time Moss crossed the line. Every one of the foreign entries in the race would make it to the end. Ken Wharton would beat Duncan Hamilton for 3rd place and would finish a minute and a half behind Moss. After Hamilton, Ulmen would be the sole German to finish the race in the 5th position. He would end up being over seven minutes down to Fischer by the end.
Merkel's first foray into Formula 2 racing fared, in some ways, better than could have been expected, but it also failed to meet some expectations. Really, the motor cycle racer really couldn't have hoped for much better considering the equipment he was using. Unfortunately, there really weren't too many options. At Merkel's next race he would have his best option. The question was still, 'Would it be enough?'
Merkel would at least leave the Nurburgring with some positive results as he would manage to take 4th in class in the Eifelrennen sporscar race, which was the first round of the German Sportscar Championship.
Merkel's next race would be the biggest race of his rather short racing career. Like many other German racers, Merkel had a great opportunity presented to him. His next race was on the 3rd of August and it was the sixth round of the World Championship.
Over the last couple of years, Merkel had taken part in relatively obscure racing series. The 14 mile long Nurburgring was a fitting stage as the amateur drivers, like Merkel, would find themselves amidst the giant names in grand prix racing. Names like Scuderia Ferrari, Maserati, Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina weren't vague entities, but very real and threatening competitors.
The Eifelrennen had only been 7 laps in length and the BMW 328 had proven to be incapable of handling that distance. The second round of the West German Championship, and sixth round of the World Championship, was to be 18 laps in length; much too much for the raged and fragile 328.
Thankfully for Merkel, Riess would choose to bring his Veritas RS and Krakau his AFM 50. This left one car left, besides the BMW 328. Krakau had built his own Eigenbau BMW-Special. Krakau had made improvements to the car each and every year he had raced it and it proved to be quite successful. However, that was a couple of years prior. By 1952, the Eigenbau was outclassed and outdated. But, it was still newer and seemed to be more capable than the older 328.
Merkel would be taking Krakau's special up against the latest designs from Italy, France and England. In practice, it was shown that neither of the German eigenbaus nor the small factory efforts could hold a candle to the powerful machines from the foreign nations. f course, Alberto Ascari would prove practically nothing could stand up against the onslaught of his Ferrari 500, not even his fellow Ferrari teammates.
Coming into the race, Ascari had great motivation to go fast. He was practically one win away from his first World Championship. The previous season the World Championship title was within sight but was snatched away by Juan Manuel Fangio in the very last race of the championship. He wasn't about to let that happen again, and he would prove it during practice.
Despite having scored three-straight victories prior to the German Grand Prix, Ascari would not merely cruise during practice. There were still two rounds after the race at the Nurburgring. Piero Taruffi and Giuseppe Farina still had a shot at the title. Incidentally, both Taruffi and Farina were Ferrari teammates of Ascari. So much for Formula 2 making the World Championship more competitive and even contest amongst the constructors.
With the motivation of ending the race with the title in hand squarely before him, Ascari would turn in the fastest lap with a time of ten minutes and four seconds. This was an incredible statement made by Ascari. Just one year prior, Ascari sat on the pole for the German Grand Prix in a Ferrari 375 Formula One car. His effort in practice would earn him a best lap time of nine minutes and fifty-five seconds. One year later, and with a less powerful car, Ascari would lap the Nurburgring within eight seconds of his pole team a season prior. His time, in 1952, would be so good that he would have started the 1951 race from the 5th position on the grid.
Not to be outdone, Giuseppe Farina, the 1950 World Champion, would turn in a lap time that was within three seconds of Ascari. His time would have been good enough to start the race the year prior from the 6th position on the grid. Instead, Farina would start the 1952 race from the front row in the 2nd place position.
Ascari and Farina had set the bar at a height that almost nobody else could clear. The rest of the front row would be occupied by Equipe Gordini drivers Maurice Trintignant and Robert Manzon. The two drivers had managed to beat out Piero Taruffi for the front row, but neither of their times were all that close to the efforts of Alberto and Giuseppe. Trintignant would start 3rd, but his best time was still fifteen seconds slower. Manzon's best time would be twenty-one seconds behind.
The times did not look good for any of the Germans that put in an entry into the race. Back in late May, at the Eifelrennen, the best time turned at any point during the event was by Rudolf Fischer in another Ferrari 500. That time was ten minutes and fifty-one seconds. Ascari's time was almost a full minute better than the best time from the Eifelrennen, and it too was set by a chassis produced from outside of Germany.
Paul Pietsch would go on to show just how bad things looked for the battle-weary German nations. Pietsch was a famous driver that never lacked for speed and ability. In spite of everything he brought to the table, the best he could do in practice would be a lap time of ten minutes and fifty-six seconds. He would end up being the highest starting German in the field as he would start the race from the second row in the 7th place position.
Merkel didn't have Pietsch's talent or experience. On top of it all, he was driving a car that had been successful a couple of years prior, but was past its prime by 1952 standards. Qualifying for the race would prove to be the race in which Merkel would have to compete. Unfortunately for the amateur racer, he wouldn't win.
Despite Merkel's best efforts, he just could not qualify for the 1952 German Grand Prix. He had an opportunity presented to him, but because of a lack of experience, and inferior equipment, he wasn't able to take advantage. But even Willi Krakau would find the going tough. Krakau had managed to make it into the field in the second-to-last row. However, he too would not be able to take part in the race. Thirty cars would line up to take part in the World Championship race.
What the quarter of a million spectators saw was a twenty-eight member supporting cast following, like an entourage, behind the two red Ferraris of Ascari and Farina. In fact, even Farina's role was something more akin a best supporting actor than a leading player.
Right from the start, Ascari would take the lead and would immediately begin to draw out an advantage over Farina, who was locked in a battle with Piero Taruffi early. The rest of the field began to die off like extras in an action movie. Eight would retire before completing a single lap. Most would retire due to mechanical problems, but one would retire from an accident and another would be disqualified after receiving outside help trying to get going after a spin. Amazingly, the usually fragile German cars continued to circulate the track, but it was truly an Alberto Ascari exhibition throughout the first 17 laps of the race.
As Ascari continued to stretch his lead, more and more cars fell out of the race. By the time there were 8 laps remaining in the race the field, which had started out with thirty entrants, was down to twelve. Despite the fewer number still running, Ascari continued to increase his pace. On the 10th lap of the race, he would turn what would be the fastest lap of the race. It wouldn't be touched another as it was within one second of his pole time. His lead increased.
But 18 laps around the already tough Nordschleife were too much for even a Ferrari 500 to handle given Ascari's pace. And within two laps of the finish, not all was well with Alberto's car. The car threatened not to make it the rest of the way. Two laps equated to over 28 miles. That was too many miles with an ill car. Alberto had no choice, he had to stop.
Seconds passed by. His lead continued to quickly dwindle. It actually had been a good thing that he had pushed as hard as he had for it was his advantage over Farina that was still giving him hope. However, the stop continued to carry on. Then, Farina would come and go with Ascari's lead.
Farina would be a couple of miles up the road before Ascari would remerge from the pits. One last lap, and less than ten minutes, separated Ascari from his World Championship, but he first had to catch Farina. Farina was known for his cruelty to back-markers, assuredly Ascari couldn't expect his Ferrari teammate to make things too easy for him.
Actually, Farina would make it about as easy as it could get. Upon assuming the lead, Farina didn't increase his pace. Farina perhaps had been thinking back to the Monza Grand Prix back in June when Ascari was running away with the race until a failure handed Giuseppe the lead and the victory. Whatever he had been thinking, Farina wasn't aware of the runaway train heading his way.
Ascari's race pace wouldn't be any more evident than over the course of the last lap of the race. Farina carried on at the same pace in which he had been running the entire race. He was in the lead with a decent margin over Ascari. But Ascari's incredible pace would bring him up behind the unaware Farina much more quickly than many could have imagined. Caught totally unaware, Farina was unable to put up much of a fight against Ascari. Ascari would get by to retake the lead of the race.
Ascari had caught Farina with more than enough miles remaining. Despite having a car that wasn't one hundred percent, Alberto would go on to cross the finish line with a fourteen second margin of victory over Farina. Seeing his championship hopes go by with Ascari, Farina would just carry on to finish the race 2nd. He was under no threat as the 3rd place car was quite a long way behind.
At over ten minutes per lap, being a lap down was like being an eternity behind the leader. All but the 2nd and 3rd place finishers would experience such a reality. Rudolf Fischer, the winner of the Eifelrennen would come close to finishing down a lap, but would hold on to finish the race a little over seven minutes behind Ascari in the 3rd place position.
Nothing could have graphically demonstrated the difference between Germany's racing scene and that of the rest of Europe and the world like the 1952 German Grand Prix. In 1951, only Formula One cars raced in the German Grand Prix. Germany had literally no Formula One teams at the time. In 1952, with Formula 2 regulations, the best from Germany had the opportunity to go up against the best from the rest of the world. At the conclusion of the race it was obvious who had lost the war. The best of the German finishers was Fritz Riess and he would end up being more than two laps, or more than twenty minutes, behind Ascari at the finish.
In the case of Merkel, the disparity was even more obvious. Against the newer technology and the factory efforts, like Ferrari, Merkel couldn't even manage to garner enough pace to make it into the race. Merkel wouldn't have the opportunity to say that he had competed in a World Championship race. However, given the way the race actually unfolded, it seemed many other German racers really should not have had the right to say that they had. In just fashion, Merkel's name would be a mere footnote, like many other German racers, in World Championship grand prix history.
Merkel's failure to qualify for what would be his only World Championship attempt would actually signal something more. Merkel was done for 1952, at least in major races. Merkel had been given the opportunity to purchase Krakau's, which meant he could have taken part in the remaining two rounds of the West German Championship. But he would turn down the offer.
Although Merkel was done racing for the 1952 season, he wasn't quite done racing in his career. While he would not take part in many more Formula 2 races, Merkel would enter a number of sportscar races.
Merkel would put in an entry driving a Porsche 356 for the Mille Miglia at the end of April in 1953. However, neither the car nor Merkel would appear. Merkel; however, would appear for the Eifelrennen Nurburgring sporscar race at the end of May. In the race, Merkel would drive a 1.1-liter Porsche for Buchberger and would finish the race 9th. Merkel's only other highlight for the 1953 season would be a 4th place finish in the 1.1-liter category in the German Sportscar Championship race at Avus in July of that year.
Although Merkel's racing career wouldn't start until the early 1950s, it would continue on into the early and mid 1960s. Throughout that time, he would take part in a number of sportscar races and would earn less than spectacular results.
The Cold War really began to heat up. Merkel's native Leipzig would become closed behind the Iron Curtain. Merkel would leave his native city and would move to West Germany. While living in West Germany, Merkel would manage a number of dealerships with relationships with Lancia, Panhard and Triumph.
During this time after his retirement from racing, Merkel would become quite well known for something that seemed almost off on another spectrum from a racing career. All of the years wielding cars into and out of corners, wrestling with them to get them to do what he wanted helped Merkel in one of his new endeavors—shotput. He was so good that he would end up winning a gold medal in a meet in Australia
After living a number of years in West Germany, Merkel would head off on another chapter of his life. After getting married, Merkel would emigrate to Australia, where he would live until he died in 1995 at the age of 77.
While Merkel's career was less than spectacular, he would have the good fortune of beginning his racing career at a time when Germany's racing scene seemed to provide opportunities to anybody with even a little talent and initiative. Merkel had the good fortune of being part of time that served as perhaps an amateurish but nonetheless foundational time in Germany's post-war racing scene. It was the pioneering and opportunistic spirit in builders and racers, like Merkel, that set the stage for the return of such dominant German efforts as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Audi.