Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

IF KNOWL­EDGE IS power, ig­no­rance is un­likely to pro­duce win­ners. Yet the com­pe­ti­tion cars Mercedes-benz brought to Sil­ver­stone to cel­e­brate the com­pany’s 125 years in mo­tor­sport ear­lier this year told a very dif­fer­ent story.

Look­ing closely at the ma­chin­ery on show, both in the ex­hi­bi­tion halls of the huge Sil­ver­stone Wing event cen­tre above pit lane and on the track it­self, there was plenty of ig­no­rance to be seen. Al­though the col­lec­tion of cars as­sem­bled at Sil­ver­stone were win­ners one and all, many of them spoke with si­lent elo­quence of how much their cre­ators did not know.

Nat­u­rally enough, ex­am­ples were eas­i­est to find among the old­est ex­hibits. Mercedes-benz has ex­isted since 1926, when Got­tlieb Daim­ler’s Mercedes brand merged with Karl Benz’s com­pany. Both took part in the 1894 Paris to Rouen event widely ac­knowl­edged as the world’s first car com­pe­ti­tion.

The Benz fin­ished 14th, but the Pan­hard and Levas­sor and Peu­geot cars that shared the big prize money on of­fer from mag­a­zine Le Petit Jour­nal were pow­ered by li­cence-made Daim­ler en­gines. Two were on show at Sil­ver­stone. This winner is a nar­rowan­gle V-twin of around 1.6-litres. Max­i­mum out­put? Al­most 3kw.

What caught my eye was the ig­ni­tion sys­tem, which is ba­si­cally a small brass stove ve at the top of the en­gine. In­side are two man­u­ally adjustable burn­ers. ners. Th­ese heat short tubes with closed ends that pass through the e cylin­der walls and into the com­bus­tion cham­ber.

This ‘hot tube’ e’ ig­ni­tion ap­pa­ra­tus looks ut­terly nuts to mod­ern eyes. But Daim­ler ler and his top en­gi­neer Wil­helm May­bach didn’t know that Robert ert Bosch would elec­trify petrol-burn­ing in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine gine ig­ni­tion in a literal sense only a few years later, patent­ing the high-volt­age igh-volt­age spark plug and magneto in 1902.

Chuff­ing through ough four slash-cut stub ex­hausts, the 1909 ‘Bl­itzen’ Benz is an awe­some ome arte­fact. See­ing it run at Sil­ver­stone was a thrill, even if this white-painted ele­phant was brought to life only briefly. For a time, this was the fastest ve­hi­cle in the world. It was eight years be­fore an­other car, or mo­tor­cy­cle, air­craft or boat, could beat its record 228km/h over a mile at Day­tona Beach in 1911. It took a 21.5-litre en­gine, spe­cially de­signed for the job and equipped with spark ig­ni­tion, to pro­duce the 150kw or so needed to reach such speed.

The en­gine is mas­sive, be­cause that’s the only way Benz’s best boffins could think of to make big power. They weren’t to know that ad­vances in me­tal­lurgy were com­ing that would make pos­si­ble com­pact, high-revving en­gines that roared and screamed in­stead of huff­ing like the Bl­itzen Benz, while pro­duc­ing way more power.

The Sil­ver Ar­rows of Mercedes-benz’s golden age in mo­tor­sport are lovely cars, but th­ese pre- and post-wwii rac­ers dis­play scant knowl­edge of safety. The the­ory – and it was never any­thing more – was that your chances of sur­vival were bet­ter if you were thrown out of the car. By this logic, seat­belts were killers, not life­savers. So they weren’t fit­ted...

Even in the cur­rent age of the F1 driver halo, there’s still much to be learned. Walking along the chrono­log­i­cally or­dered row of Mercedes-amg Petronas F1 cars trucked to Sil­ver­stone was fas­ci­nat­ing. Year by year through the hy­brid era that be be­gan in 2014, the in­creas­ing com­plex­ity of their front wing de­signs is a sure sign of the team’s im­prov­ing un­der­stand­ing of aero­dy­nam­ics aero­dy­nam­ics. In essence, there’s no great dif­fer­ence be­tween the aero team who de­signed the front wing of the win­ning 2018 car and the Daim­ler en­gi­neers who more than a cen­tury ago pro­duced an ig­ni­tion syste sys­tem that needed to be lit with a match.

How much more will we know to­mor­row than we do t to­day? No-one can say for sure. But win­ners al­ways will be thos those who make the most of what they have to work with in the here and now.

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