Senna vs Lauda The Rematch
For the first time since they rivalled each other in 1984, the Mercedes-Benz racing saloons of Senna and Lauda face off again
Doesn’t sound much these days, 200bhp. Repmobile turbodiesel territory. Long ago the bar for qualification as a hot hatch, and we’re well beyond that now. Base Boxster 718? Pah, that’s 300. But in the mid-1980s, 200bhp really meant something. Considerably more than the Porsche 944 could muster, for a start: that car needed a turbo to raise the standard 162bhp to 220. Back then 200bhp was a heck of a lot for a family saloon. Enough for it go racing. More than enough, even, for a certain Ayrton Senna to see off far better-established competition.
Niki Lauda for one; he finished second to Senna in the 1984 Race of Champions. They were both driving the brand new Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16, as was the whole field: this is how the 190 Cosworth, as it was better known, made its dynamic debut. And now, for the first time since that race – 35 years on, a quarter-century since the world lost Senna, and at the end of the year in which Lauda passed – those two cars are back in proximity. On track. One more time.
The location is Sindelfingen, Mercedes-Benz’s own test circuit, which snakes between the industrial buildings on the site where the S-Class is (still) largely handbuilt and where customers can collect their car direct from the factory. Senna’s car never left Merc’s ownership; as soon as it won that race, it was taken back into care. If you have visited the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, you may well have seen it. Still the odometer reads only 2000km. It is completely original. Senna himself took delivery of another one in schwarzblau a year later.
You might have seen Lauda’s car too, but that went straight into the hands of Hugo Boss heir Jochen Holy after the race. Each of the drivers was offered the chance to buy their race car (more on them later, but it’s reckoned that’s why 1970 Le Mans winner Hans Hermann didn’t try too hard!). Today Lauda’s is owned by Swiss collector Daniel Iseli, the same guy who drove his 1965 Mercedes-Benz O 319 bus on this year’s Silvretta Classic rally in Austria (see Octane 196).
‘I’ve always been a Formula 1 fan and I watched the 1984 Race of Champions, so I knew about the cars from the beginning,’ says Daniel. ‘I heard about the Lauda car via a friend who deals with exclusive cars in Germany. It was owned by an Austrian called Heinz Svoboda; we became good friends and brought Niki Lauda together with the car three years ago. I bought it in the summer of 2018.’
Daniel had met Lauda several times, and tried to reunite him with the car for his 70th birthday, but he was already too ill. And, apart from his connection with the driver, Daniel has a special fondness for the 190 as a racing car: ‘That race in 1984 was very important: the first time the Mercedes factory itself had raced since the catastrophe at Le Mans in 1955. I think of this car as the Evo Zero. It re-started Mercedes racing. The Senna and Lauda cars are the only known remaining originals from that race. I have all the documentation, every piece of paperwork, and it has been certified by Mercedes-Benz. I drove it recently with my good friend Jochen Mass.’
And then Daniel suggested to Mercedes that the two cars get together, so here we are. Both are resplendent in rauchsilber, both still wear their race numbers and their combatants’ names. Both are little changed over the standard Cossie but, then, its tech spec was deliberately set-up for this kind of thing. So let’s take a history lesson and find out a little more about our mounts.
‘Mercedes-Benz first began talking about a “compact class” car in the 1970s and the W201 was launched in 1982,’ Gerhard Heidbrink of Mercedes-Benz Classic tells me. He goes on to talk about such worthy aims as meeting the USA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations, burgeoning environmental concerns, and the need to appeal to younger (and commensurately less affluent) buyers. The 190 was the result, launched with four-cylinder petrol engines of little more than 100bhp even in fuel-injection form. Clearly an injection of sex appeal was also needed. ‘So we looked at a sporting version,’ says Gerhard, ‘and we spoke to Cosworth about developing the engine.’
In fact, UK-based Cosworth had originally begun work on a 320bhp version of the engine, with the aim to go rallying – only Audi’s Quattro rather put paid to Benz’s plans for the 190, so the company looked towards the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft (DTM, or ‘German Touring Car Championship’) instead, and developed a roadgoing version as its basis for homologation.
Cosworth took Mercedes’ 2.3-litre four-cylinder as its starting point and developed its own ‘Coscast’ cylinder head (made in Worcester) with twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves. With a wet sump and Bosch fuel injection in place of the rally engine’s dry sump and Kugelfischer set-up, outputs were 185bhp at 6200rpm and 174lb ft at 4500rpm, with the ability to rev to 7000rpm and clearly the potential for further development – which it got with the 2.5-litre 2.5-16 and subsequent, lairier, bewinged Evo versions, peaking at 232bhp in road trim and 350 for the track. Like I said, 200bhp was more than enough for Senna’s victory…
Shorter, firmer coil springs, self-levelling and stiffer bushes and dampers made the most of the baby Benz’s sophisticated multi-link rear axle, which still underpins today’s cars and was pioneered in the 190 after 80 designs had been drawn up and 40 of those built and tested on a lunar-rover-style rig. A bodykit reduced drag to Cd0.32, a quicker rack (and smaller-diameter steering wheel) tightened the steering, a bigger tank (70 rather than 55 litres) meant it could race for longer, there was an oil cooler, a close-ratio Getrag five-speed manual gearbox with dogleg first, and a limited-slip differential. Perfect for racing – or an all-time great sports saloon for the road.
And so to the Nürburgring. Not the Nordschleife; we all know what happened to that after Niki Lauda’s terrible accident there in 1976. No, Formula 1 racing was soon to start at the new Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit – and what better than a celebrity race to kick things off? A roster of 20 drivers was invited to drive identical Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16s in the Race of Champions, held in May 1984, ahead of the first F1 race there in the October. Mercedes-Benz had taken the top three places in the first ever race at the Nordschleife, back in 1927, and this event marked its return to circuit racing after a hiatus of 29 years.
Among those 20 drivers were nine former F1 World Champions (Jack Brabham, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Denny Hulme, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter, Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and, of course, Lauda), plus Senna and Alain Prost, both of whom would go on to claim the F1 crown. Other stars included Stirling Moss, John Watson, Klaus Ludwig and Carlos Reutemann, while Senna’s contemporaries, as well as Prost and Rosberg, included Jacques Lafitte and Elio de Angelis. Senna was the youngest and had the most to prove, being only four races into his Formula 1 career with Toleman. His historic (and heroic) second place in the wet at Monaco was just weeks away.
As for the cars, they came from the regular production line, specially prepared by project engineer Gerhard Lepler, though little actually changed other than the fitment of racing seats and harnesses, plus a rollcage, slightly lowered suspension, and a lower final drive ratio.
And car no 11 – Senna’s – has never changed since. I lower myself into the driving seat and note the standard-fit Becker Grand Prix radio, Zebrano console trim, even the switch for the rear-seat ‘taxi lamp’, prominent on the dash to the left of the instrument binnacle and still functional. It’s all at odds with the cage and racing bucket.
Fire up and there’s a gravelly response from under the bonnet: that’s standard Mercedes four-cylinder fare, but the slim rim of the (still broad) four-spoke wheel feels good in the hands, and the stubby gearlever falls surprisingly easily across and down to the left into first. Such shift patterns are often better in left-hand drive.
So I ease out onto the Sindelfingen track and bring up the pace. Sure, this ain’t the ’Ring, and we’re not allowed to race, but the fact is that I’m sitting in the seat once occupied by one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, so I’m not going to quibble. The revcounter is redlined at 7000rpm, but 6000 feels more respectful, much of each lap conducted in third and fourth, with a drop to second for the tightest hairpin.
Every major turn here at Sindelfingen is banked, and you squeeze out of that right-hand hairpin, drop out of the banking, then left and up again, through the most technical section of the track and then flat-out through third, then fourth, and – briefly – fifth, aware of the circuit’s 160km/h (100mph) limit. This is one benign racer, hunkering down into supreme neutrality as it proves the benefits of that multi-link rear axle, and feeling agile, with plenty of feedback through the steering and a supple ride despite the lowered suspension.
You also notice that the self-imposed 6000rpm limit is quickly achieved, even in top, so that lower final drive ratio has clearly traded top speed for acceleration. Yet the 190 doesn’t actually feel like a great sprinter. Clearly it’s deceptive, as the standard car posted a 0-62mph sprint of 7.5 seconds, so it’s no slouch, and this one obviously achieves speed in less time on this gearing. But the torque delivery is so even, hunting out the upper rev-range with no discernible surge, that it’s undramatically quick. Even the soundtrack remains resolutely mechanical, with no histrionics. Which is perhaps befitting of a sporting Benz.
Lauda’s car is a little more dramatic, though only in that it sounds more hardcore: its exhaust note is noticeably louder. Daniel has joined the circuit, too, and suddenly both these cars are hammering their way around for a handful of laps of Sindelfingen, reliving the day when last they met.
The race stats from that historic meeting back in 1984 are revealing. Moss was on pole, with Brabham in P2, Rosberg third on the grid. By the end of the first lap, Reutemann was leading, ahead of Jones, then Senna, who had been 11th on the grid. Perhaps even more impressively, Lauda had worked his way to fourth from 17th. Moss dropped back to third on lap 2, Jones leading Senna, with Reutemann down to fourth, ahead of Lauda. Senna led on lap 3, ahead of Reutemann and Lauda, then Lauda took second – and the pair remained in formation for the rest of the 12-lap race, with Reutemann ultimately finishing third. It was Senna’s first win among the big names.
And the 190’s first victory, too, though obviously that was a given no matter who was driving. But, importantly, while Senna’s calling card was soon followed by increasing success in F1, so the 190 Cosworth begat generations of successful sports saloons – both on track and in dealerships.
In 1988, Mercedes entered the DTM series, which it won overall in 1992 with Klaus Ludwig driving a 190 Evo II. That was the 190’s swansong, but DTM was by then part of the brand DNA – as was an overtly powerful small saloon. After Mercedes-Benz took a controlling interest in AMG in 1999, there followed a string of AMG-branded C-Classes, and today’s Mercedes-AMG C63 S brandishes 503bhp from a twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8.
It’s a far cry from what brought Senna his early victory, but taking to those banked corners in the very car driven by that man makes you understand how heroic such a seemingly modest power output can make you feel.