Simon Says… Change Drivers!

Simon Says… Change Drivers! - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston

Sehr geehrter Herr Kollege! There has been some last-minute drama. ‘Mercedes-Benz-Team’ cannot field their driver. A substitute has been chosen, and he is already revelling in the ‘Mercedes-Benz-Formel-rennwagen’. The drive has gone to… André Simon.

Who?! What?!

Monaco and Mercedes have history. The race began in 1929 – as Caracciola and the SSK were creating legend – and was Mercedes-Benz dominated, 1935-’37. It would be eleven years before Grands Prix – the new Formula One – would return to Monte Carlo. Seven more until Mercedes-Benz returned to the streets.

The 1955 Monaco Grand Prix – the first European World Championship race of the season – saw an exceptional entry of drivers & marques. Lancia, Maserati, Ferrari… Mercedes-Benz, who brought three different versions of their W196. Moss & Fangio got new short-wheelbase models, with outboard front drum brakes. Unsure how the short car would handle, the two had slightly different engine positions.

There was little to fear. In first practice on Thursday afternoon, Fangio – on his short, engine-forward W196 – smashed Caracciola’s 1937 lap record. The new 2.5-litre Mercedes lapping 5.4sec faster than the 5.6-litre, supercharged 1937 model! Ascari would later match Fangio’s time, on the works’ Lancia D50.

The third W196 – a familiar, conventional open-wheel version – was to be driven by Hans Herrmann. Lang was still recovering after the Mille Miglia. A fourth W196 acted as T-car. Allowing engineer Uhlenhaut to see how his machines coped with the streets of Monte Carlo.

All was well, organised, accounted-for – in the Mercedes-Benz fashion. Then Herrmann lost it at Massenet, smashing through the stone pallisade. Car wrecked, man broken.

Luckily, 34-year-old Parisian André Simon was entered on a private Maserati. Thankfully, he was also a Mercedes-Benz reserve who was being considered for Le Mans. And so, a press release from Untertürkheim… and Simon on a W196 for the 6am Friday practice.

The Herrmann crash was the start of a uncommonly poor, unlucky weekend for Mercedes-Benz.

Fangio started from pole position, Moss from third – and they soon settled into that so familiar ‘train’ at the front of the race. Fangio, commanding. Until lap 50 – half distance – when his transmission broke, at the station. Moss assumed the lead, a victory certain, until… smoke! The W196 blew out its oil, and Stirling parked it at the pits.

But what of our substitute, André Simon? He qualified 10th but his engine also let go, just before quarter distance. The entire Mercedes-Benz squad out of the race, the way was clear for Ascari on the brilliant Lancia… until Alberto put it in the harbour!

Mercedes-Benz would have to wait until 2013 for their first Formula One Monaco Grand Prix win.

André Simon would get his chances later in 1955 on the Mercedes W196S sportscar. Notably finishing 3rd at the Dundrod TT, with Kling and von Trips. A placing that meant the Championship would go down to the wire at the Targa Florio. His journeyman career would continue through to the mid-sixties. His greatest success, winning the 1962 Tour de France on a Ferrari 250 GT.

Hans Herrmann would go on to become a sportscar legend. But ‘Lucky Hans’ would sit out the rest of 1955 as he recovered from his injuries. His seat for Le Mans went, instead, to Pierre ‘Levegh’…

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