FEATURE: Mercedes-Benz in Australian motorsport

Wednesday 19th September, 2012 - 11:56pm

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Lex Davison rounds Murrays Corner in the 1947 Australian Grand Prix

Lex Davison rounds Murrays Corner in the 1947 Australian Grand Prix

The announcement of Erebus Motorsport’s impending V8 Supercars program continues a tradition of sporadic non-factory Mercedes-Benz representation in Australian motorsport that stretches over eight decades.

Like many Australian motorsport stories, the Mercedes tale begins with a Davison. Lex, the late grandfather of current V8 Supercar drivers Will and Alex, imported one of the marque’s fearsome 7.6 litre SSK 38/250s in 1947, campaigning it in that year’s Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst. The Victorian set the fastest overall race time, but was classified third under the handicap system.

Davison’s open-wheel oddity aside, it was the formation of the Armstrong 500 – the race that would eventually become the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000 – in the early 1960s that brought Mercedes to the forefront in Australian circuit racing. Two other men that would go on to become legends of the sport in this country, Bob Jane and Harry Firth, paired up to steer a Mercedes 220SE to victory in the 1961 Armstrong 500 at Phillip Island.

Bob Jane and Harry Firth took a 220SE to victory in the 1961 Armstrong 500

Bob Jane and Harry Firth took a 220SE to victory in the 1961 Armstrong 500. pic: autopics

Then a Mercedes dealer through his Autoland empire, Jane’s choice of vehicle for the 1961 race was hardly a surprise. A similar model Mercedes had dominated the previous year’s inaugural event in the hands of Tasmanian brothers John and Gavin Youl, only to blow a tyre and roll on the track’s deteriorating surface in the closing stages.

While the likes of Barry Seton and Kevin Bartlett made occasional appearances in touring car races with 220SEs during the early 1960s, it was not until 1975 that a ‘three-pointed star’ would again be spotted in The Great Race. A modest 280E entry of Hobson White Motors failed to finish the 1975 Hardie Ferodo, although the efforts of driver Ross Wemyssin in other Australian Manufacturers’ Championship rounds were enough to ensure Mercedes-Benz a placing of eighth in the year’s final points standings.

The introduction of the international Group A touring car formula in the mid-1980s provided Mercedes with its next Bathurst starts, this time with a far more serious two-car effort from Jane. The tyre tycoon imported a pair of the Cosworth developed 190E models for the 1986 James Hardie 1000, to be run by then AMG head Helmut Marko.

The Phil Ward/David Clement 190E ended the 1988 Tooheys 1000 on its lid

The Phil Ward/David Clement 190E ended the 1988 Tooheys 1000 on its lid

A pairing of former Olympic skier Franz Klammer and former Formula 1 World Champion Denny Hulme yielded a finish of ninth outright, while the second Andrew Miedecke/Jorg van Ommen crewed car endured an early crash. Again, the marque was placed eighth on the final AMC ladder.

With Jane’s team disbanded at the end of the season, the 190Es were eventually bought by veteran racer Phil Ward, who entered them in a variety of touring car events, including the 1988 Bathurst 1000, where Ward spectacularly rolled at McPhillamy Park. Largely dogged by unreliability, Ward went about his own development program before returning in 1990, scoring 12th at Bathurst alongside dual race winner John Goss.

Although the marque’s next start in The Great Race won’t come until 2013, the Jane cars were refurbished once again for an assault on the 1994 Australian Manufacturers’ Championship. The two-car effort of Ward and journalist Peter McKay saw Mercedes ranked third of the four brands to score manufacturers points that year, while Ward was fourth in the Drivers’ standings.

Bryan Thompson won the 1985 Australian GT Championship using a Chev-powered 450SLC

Bryan Thompson won the 1985 Australian GT Championship using a Chev-powered 450SLC

Ward’s purchase of a DTM-specification Evolution II model 190 for the 1995 season, when the series was rebranded as the Australian Super Touring Championship, saw the end of the road for the two Group A cars, but yielded little in the way of results. Ward’s attention then switched to his Holden V8 Supercar, leaving the Mercedes to fall silent.

Featuring amid Mercedes’ curious touring car story sits the brand’s only Australian championship success. Victorian Bryan Thompson switched between a Peter Fowler-built, turbocharged Chevrolet V8-powered, 450SLC and a Chevrolet Monza on his way to victory in the 1985 Australian GT Championship, with team-mate Brad Jones driving the big Benz in the events where Thompson was in the Monza.

The 450SLC, like many of the contenders in the class at the time, had earlier started life as a Sports Sedan, where it was steered by a young John Bowe. Thompson’s outfit campaigned the car in the GT class for three years after its single season as a Sports Sedan.

Peter Hackett leads the 2012 Australian GT Championship in an Erebus Racing SLS AMG GT3

Peter Hackett leads the 2012 Australian GT Championship in an Erebus Racing SLS AMG GT3

Considering Thompson’s GT success, it was somewhat fitting that the passion of wealthy property investor Betty Klimenko would bring the Mercedes brand back to Australian motorsport through its SLS GT campaign.

Klimenko’s Erebus Racing operation imported the first of its ‘gullwing’ cars midway through 2011, and currently campaigns two entries in the series. Team driver Peter Hackett leads the points standings heading into this weekend’s round at Phillip Island.

Erebus’ V8 Supercar effort may be another in a long list to be running without official backing from Mercedes-Benz Australia, but there’s no denying that the project is on a scale unlike any before it. If the past programs mentioned in this article are currently the chapters in the book of Mercedes-Benz’s Australian motorsport history, one can’t help but feel that they’re about to be reduced to mere footnotes.

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