The 1930s were a time of great motor racing successes for the German car industry. Giants like Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz were both at the pinnacle of automotive technological advances so it became natural that their battle would stray from the road to the race track.
Considering the boom Germany's car industry had during those years, the two didn't have any other car company to fear but themselves. They had the best drivers and the best racing cars, stealing victories from one another in almost every Grand Prix.
The 1930s were also the period in which probably the most famous team racing manager of all time started to make a name for himself. Alfred Neubauer was born on the 29th of March 1891, in a small village from North Moravia (which is part of the Czech Republic now but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Later in his life he would claim that even as a little boy “petrol already ran through his veins” especially after seeing his first car, a Benz driving through his village. After serving for a short stint as an officer in charge of the motor pool in World War I, he then tried to achieve his lifelong dream: driving racing cars. He managed to join Austro-Daimler, where he met Ferdinand Porsche, becoming the company's chief test driver in no time.
Realizing later on that his passion for racing wasn't a substitute for talent, he had a few race participations worth mentioning. His only significant international appearance, while driving a Porsche-designed Austro-Daimler Sascha model, was in the 1922 Targa Florio, when he ended in 19th position. After Ferdinand Porsche left the Austrian firm to work for Daimler AG (which later on became Daimler-Benz) in 1923, he also took young Neubauer with him.
Daimler era, a new start
The “big man”, or “fat man” as he affectionately became known, Alfred Neubauer had found his home at Mercedes-Benz, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Even though his lifelong dream was to become a famous racing driver, he soon became self aware that this wasn't exactly his natural vocation, since he didn't exactly make a habit from winning races. He did participate at the Targa Florio again in 1924 - this time with the Daimler team - where he could only manage 16th place. Later that year Neubauer also briskly ran at the Monza Italian GP, but he was withdrawn from the race after his team mate Count Louis Zborowski died after hitting a tree.
After the end of the 1925 Grand Prix season “the fat man” turned his attention to the managing aspect of racing, basically inventing the position of race team manager (Rennleiter). He had this idea in his head that a pilot on the track is “the world's loneliest human being”, since in those days it was almost impossible for a driver to know his actual position and overall speed during a race.
Subsequently, “Don Alfredo”, receiving support from Wilhelm Kissel (who was the Mercedes-Benz CEO at the time and a racing fan), prepared signal boards, flags and a sign language similar to the one used in baseball. Understanding the importance of racing in the development of road cars and most importantly marketing, Wilhelm Kissel gave Neubauer the go-ahead for a full racing program.
The big man's race presence and tactics were humorously strange since the sport itself was still at the beginnings. Apparently following the “conformity breeds mediocrity” saying, Neubauer's groundbreaking ideas almost got him into trouble on numerous occasions.
At the Solituderennen Grand Prix on the 26th of September 1926, when he first tried the race tactics he had just developed, he was demanded by the race steward to leave the track since his peculiar antics and odd presence were stressing the other drivers. After Neubauer justified his actions by explaining that he was the “Rennleiter”, the race steward laughed and responded that HE was the “Rennleiter”, and that the outlandish team manager should leave the area immediately.
After the stock market crash on Wall Street in 1929 Mercedes withdraw temporarily from motor racing because of the depression which followed, leaving Neubauer without his “toys”. For this reason alone, “Don Alfredo almost decided to jump ship to the arch rivals at Auto Union during that period, but he was eventually convinced with the promise of reviving the racing program.
Even though Mercedes was officially out of racing until 1931, Neubauer had continued to occasionally race SSKs with Rudolph Caracciola, Henri Stoffel and Boris Ivanowsky as designated drivers. The Porsche-designed Mercedes SSK's (Super Sport Kurz) first major victory after Daimler-Benz's return to motor racing was at the AVUS circuit in 1931, effectively paving the way for Neubauer's brilliant career that followed the next three decades.
The rise of the Silver Arrows
In the era prior to the introduction of sponsorship liveries, each country had its traditional color in motor racing. British racing cars were painted in what became known as “British Racing Green”, Italian cars had “Rosso Corsa” livery, the French had “Blue” and German cars were traditionally colored in white. For example, the much-larger-than-its-competitors Mercedes SSK was nicknamed the “White Elephant.”
The origin of the Silver Arrows (Silberpfeil in German) is closely connected to Alfred Neubauer and Grand Prix driver Manfred von Brauchitsch. The international governing body of motor sport had ruled from 1934 onwards that all Grand Prix cars should have a maximum weight of 750 kilograms excluding tires and fuel.
When the twin-supercharged Mercedes W25 was placed on the scrutinizing scales prior to the first race of the season it recorded 751 kilograms, so the surprised Neubauer and von Brauchitsch had the original idea of scraping the white paint in order to lose the extra weight without compromising performance, thus exposing the shining aluminum beneath.
Passing the weight test, the new silver cars won four major Grand Prix and two hillclimb races in the inaugural year, making the German press give them the nickname “Die Silberpfeile” (The Silver Arows).
From 1934 onwards, the stream of successes continued and the only Grand Prix wins Neubauer missed were scrapped by the Auto Union race team, the only interruption being made by the Second World War. After the war was over Don Alfredo persuaded Mercedes-Benz officials to re-enter racing in what eventually became Formula 1.
The string of successes and consequently the glorious career of Alfred Neubauer as a racing team manager ended in probably the darkest day in motor sport history: 11 of June 1955 at Le Mans. On that fateful day, the most catastrophic race accident in terms of human death toll happened, when a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh was catapulted into the spectator crowd, killing the driver and over 80 spectators, while the total number of bystander victims was close to 200 souls.
After 1955, Mercedes withdraw completely from racing until the 1980s, thus leaving Neubauer no other option but to retire and simply stop his career in its tracks. To this day, “Don Alfredo” Neubauer remains one of the most charismatic figures in motor sport history and is considered the true inventor of pit-stop strategy and race tactics.