Mercedes-Benz celebrates 125 years since winning the world's first car race against the clock

Following its celebration of 125 years of motorsport success last year, Mercedes-Benz has a few more anniversaries to commemorate in 2020

After the anniversary celebrating 125 Years of Motorsport at Mercedes-Benz in 2019, the brand continues to celebrate further outstanding racing moments from its history in 2020. Highlights include the first motorcar race against the clock in France 125 years ago and Ralph DePalma’s victory 105 years ago in the Indy 500 race in Indianapolis in a Mercedes.

125 years ago: Victory in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race

The first motorcar race in line with modern racing principles (assessed exclusively on a time basis) ended with a triumph for cars with Daimler engines. 125 years ago, on 11 June 1895, a total of 19 cars and two motorcycles participated in the race. The starting order was decided by drawing lots. After the presentation of the vehicles at the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile in Paris, they drove to Versailles, where the timekeeping started and the competitors entered the race at two-minute intervals, starting at 12 noon. The race route to Bordeaux and back to Porte Maillot in Paris was a grueling 1 175 kilometres. The daily newspaper “Le Petit Journal”, which had organised the first ever motorcar competition held as a reliability run from Paris to Rouen one year before, accompanied the race with daily reports.

Émile Levassor was the first to cross the finishing line on 13 June 1895. However, his Panhard & Levassor car with a “Système Daimler” engine had only two seats – and the regulations stipulated four seats, among other things. Nevertheless, Levassor did not end up empty-handed: He was awarded the second prize for his great performance. He had covered the distance in 48 hours and 42 minutes, and achieved an average speed of 24,1 km/h. This meant that he crossed the finishing line about five and a half hours before Louis Rigoulot, starting number 15 (started in Versailles on 11 June at 12:05, arrived in Paris on 13 June at 18:37). His car, however, also only had two seats and was therefore downgraded in the classification.

Paul Koechlin (starting number 16) was declared the winner of the race. After 59 hours and 48 minutes, he arrived in Paris on June 14 at 12:02 a.m. as the third fastest driver. He had set off about two and a half days earlier at 12:14 p.m. His prize money amounted to 35,000 francs. Koechlin’s Peugeot was also powered by an engine made under Daimler licence. The successful outcome of this race was therefore reminiscent of the fantastic success of Daimler technology a year earlier in the Paris-Rouen race.

All in all, the overall result in June 1895 was very encouraging for the engine technology made by German manufacturers: Six of the first eight vehicles to finish were fitted with Daimler engines and two were cars made by Benz & Cie. The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, organised by the Automobile Club de France, is regarded as one of the forerunners of the French Grand Prix, which was first held in 1906 and was, until 1967, officially called the “Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France”.

105 years ago: Ralph DePalma won the Indy 500

On 31 May 1915, 105 years ago, Ralph DePalma won the 500-mile Indianapolis race in a Mercedes Grand Prix car, despite the fact that three laps before the finish a connecting rod in the engine broke. The car continued to run and DePalma reached the finishing line after 5 hours, 35 minutes and 55 seconds with an average speed of 144,6 km/h. This was the last race over 500 miles in this classic event before it had to be interrupted due to the outbreak of war. In 1916, the distance was shortened to 300 miles; then the competition was put on hold until the end of the war.

Born in 1882, this American racing driver of Italian descent was one of the most successful racing drivers of all time. During the 27 years of his career, Ralph DePalma is said to have competed in 2 889 races and won 2 557 of them. Some of his most spectacular victories were achieved in Mercedes racing cars.

DePalma was just able to ship the Indianapolis winning car to the USA before the First World War broke out. At the French Grand Prix in Lyon on 4 July 1914, in which DePalma participated in a Vauxhall, he was able to experience the legendary triple victory of the Mercedes racing cars first-hand – three and a half weeks before the outbreak of the war. The racing car’s four-cylinder carburettor engine with a displacement of 4.5 litres and an output of 78 kW was an advanced design with an overhead camshaft and – for the first time in a Mercedes engine – four-valve technology.

Paul Daimler sold the car which Louis Wagner had used to take second place in Lyon to Ralph DePalma for 6,000 dollars. On 25 July 1914, DePalma drove his new competition vehicle himself to Antwerp, where the car was shipped to the United States of America on the German freighter “Vaterland”. DePalma himself travelled on the “Olympic” steamer from Le Havre and received the news at sea that the war had started in Europe on 28 July 1914. DePalma wasted no time and in August 1914 participated with his new acquisition in two races in Illinois, which he won. Further victories with the Mercedes followed – among them the victory in the Indy 500, which was particularly spectacular.

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