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Mercedes-Benz Returns to Racing after 33-Year Absence

May 7, 1988 GMT

STUTTGART, West Germany (AP) _ In the postwar glory years, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and other drivers pushed Mercedes-Benz race cars to the limits - and unbelievable success.

Then at the 24 hours of Le Mans endurance test in 1955 a Mercedes-Benz plowed into a crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people and signaling a halt to the firm’s racing days.

Nearly 33 years later, the company in January announced a return to the race circuit, so far testing the waters in two classes - sports prototype and touring cars.

The next test of the sports prototypes is the May 8 race in Britain at Silverstone, where the Sauber-Mercedes team will enter two cars.

Aficionados, backed by a speculation-happy German-language press, say Mercedes-Benz is really on the way back to the prestigious Grand Prix circuit.

″Certainly, we are giving thought to a return to Formula-1,″ says Bernd Harling, spokesman for the Mercedes-Benz racing team. But he insists that Daimler-Benz, which makes Mercedes-Benz cars and sponsors the team, still has absolutely no concrete Formula-1 plans now.

Harling added with a smile: ″What would happen if Daimler were to announce it was going back to Formula-1? Maybe then other competitors would jump in as well.″

The company’s reserved stance and denials haven’t halted a wave of speculation.

Vienna’s tabloid Krone Zeitung newspaper breathlessly reported on April 10: ″Formula-1 right now is a super-hot topic among the Mercedes leadership.″

″In Grand Prix circles, people are convinced of a Mercedes return in 1991.″

Or, as the Motor Sport Aktuell racing newspaper of Zurich said in its April 20 edition: ″Mercedes wants to end the Honda domination with an unbelievable budget - $530 million over five years.″

For now, Daimler-Benz insists it’s concentrating efforts on touring cars and a racing team featuring Group C sport prototypes - low-slung, futuristic- looking C9 racers with the company’s 5-liter V8 engines.

″The decision was based on the expressed interest of local and foreign customers in a racing representation,″ said Werner Niefer, chief of Daimler- Benz’s automobile division in making the announcement in January. ″At the same time, it is our declared goal to prove our ability to compete in auto racing.″

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The factory is working with the racing crew headed by Swiss expert Peter Sauber in the sports prototype category.

After the first three races of this season, the Sauber-Mercedes team had captured one first place. The team was second with 85 points behind Jaguar’s 90 in overall standings of the World Sports Prototype Car Championship.

In the last test on April 10, Martin Brundle of Britain and American Eddie Cheever raced their Jaguar XJR9 to first place ahead of Mercedes in the Monza 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) race in Italy.

Their average speed of 128 mph gave them a one-lap win over the Sauber- Mercedes, piloted by Jean Schlesser of France, Italy’s Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass of West Germany.

″We’re extremely satisified with our overall success so far,″ said Harling during an interview at the Daimler-Benz headquarters in Stuttgart.

The Mercedes-Benz tradition in auto racing stretches back to the world’s first race, when Daimler-built motors powered six of the 21 cars that took off from Versailles outside Paris on June 11, 1895.

Victories before World War I included a 1915 win at Indianapolis, and Mercedes-Benz was a perennial powerhouse from the mid-1920s until 1939.

After the war, the Silver Arrows reached the peak of auto racing success in 1954 and 1955.

Fangio was the 1955 world champion, with Mercedes-Benz teammate Moss the runner-up that year. Other victories in 1955 included Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia in Italy, along with the world sports car championship.

Fangio, an Argentine, and Moss, a Briton, were the best-known Mercedes drivers, along with other greats such as Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann.

But racing was halted at the end of the 1955 season, after the June 11 crash at Le Mans where a Mercedes careened out of control, crashed into a crowd of spectators and exploded.

″In our discussions before we made the announcement in January, the Le Mans accident certainly played a role,″ said Harling.

Sauber-Mercedes will enter two cars at this year’s Le Mans race in France, on June 11 and 12.

″Yes, a lot of people will make the connection to 1955 at this year’s Le Mans running,″ he adds. But he says that on his current travels as team spokesman the issue does not crop up that frequently.

Harling says Mercedes’ attention to developing its line of luxury cars delayed the return to racing. Now, the company is trying to pin down exactly what has happened in the 33-year absence from the track.

″It takes more than money and technology,″ says Harling. ″There’s a certain competitive spirit that you only get in competition. We want to develop contacts, get exerience. We want to learn.″

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