A Look At the 1954 French Grand Prix Grid

Earlier this week I posted a brief note on this website about a photo that I had seen in the Peter Nygaard book “Juan Manual Fangio Photo Album”.  Another photo in this book that I found interesting is a photo of the start of the 1954 French Grand Prix held at Reims.  This was a significant race as this was the re-entry debut race for Mercedes-Benz at the Grand Prix level following World War II.  The shot below was taken just at the instant of the start of this race.

Start of the 1954 French Grand Prix

Perhaps the thing that most people would first observe would be the noticeable difference between the full body used by the Mercedes-Benz cars and the open wheel style of the other cars.  The engineers at Mercedes-Benz had discovered that on certain high-speed tracks, their W196 Grand Prix car was faster with the streamlined body, even with the additional weight of the body work.  Mercedes-Benz had three cars entered in the race – Juan Manual Fangio was on the pole in Car 18, Karl Kling was in P2 in Car 20, and Car 22 driven by Hans Herrmann was 7th on the grid.

The other thing that I noticed was the narrow track, especially considering that they were starting with some rows having three cars.  This crowded start would limit the lateral movement of cars that started in a 3-wide grid row.  In fact, the starting grid does not seem to be particularly fair.  It seems to me that with the grid pattern at the French Grand Prix, that the fourth place car on the grid, Car 2 a Ferrari driven by Froilan Gonzalez, could easily tuck up to the rear end of Fangio and follow Fangio around the first corner and come out in second place.  It seems that it would not be too hard to squeeze out Kling who was second on the grid beside Fangio.  In fact, if you look carefully at the photo, notice that Kling is already looking over at Fangio’s car, probably trying to figure out how to follow Fangio.  And if Kling has to lift to fall into Fangio’s path, then I think that he would be squeezed out by Gonzalez.  Further, Alberto Ascari in the Maserati Car 10 in third place on the grid could easily end up in fifth place after the first corner.  The whole 3-2-3-2 grid pattern on a narrow track just seems unfair to the cars that are in the 3-wide grid rows.

A Streamlined W196 In Fangio’s Livery From The 1954 French Grand Prix

Another thing that was interesting to me was that I had seen a streamlined W196 with Fangio’s Car 18 livery at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Germany.  After the start shown above, Fangio went on to win the French Grand Prix that day, July 4, 1954.  This was Mercedes-Benz’ first race and first victory after returning to racing following World War II and also Germany won the World Cup of Soccer that day as well.  With these two important victories on the same day, July 4, 1954 is remembered as one of the greatest days in German history marking Germany’s successful resurrection and re-emergence onto the world stage after the darkness of World War II.  Germans felt a great renewed sense of pride that day.

One final thought about the 1954 French Grand Prix grid photo – just what in the world is that mechanic doing on the curb beside Ascari’s Maserati?

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