In the summer of 1938, halfway through his second season with Mercedes, Richard Seaman was growing frustrated. It was late July and his last race in a Silver Arrow had been at Donington Park eight months earlier. In recent weeks his German teammates – Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hermann Lang – had finished in the first three positions in Tripoli and at Reims, while the 25-year-old Englishman had been left kicking his heels.
He was free to swim, sail and waterski at his home on the shore of a Bavarian lake, and to dance with his new girlfriend – the 18-year-old daughter of the head of BMW – to his collection of jazz records. But however enjoyable that may have been, it was not why he had chosen to leave England a year and a half earlier.
No Briton had won a major grand prix since Sir Henry Segrave’s victory in France in 1923 at the wheel of a Sunbeam. Segrave had been Dick Seaman’s hero during his schooldays at Rugby, and when he dropped out of his degree course at Cambridge University in 1933 it was with the intention of emulating his idol. Despite a privileged background, he was anything but a feckless playboy. The determined pursuit of his ambition had led to the ultimate accolade for a racing driver: the prized invitation from Germany.
His first season with Mercedes had been a mixture of decent results and lurid crashes as he got to grips with a car twice as powerful as those he’d been used to. He had settled well into the team, without managing to establish himself as anything more than a useful reserve to the team’s established stars.
The 1938 German Grand Prix, to be held at the Nürburgring on 24 July, was the biggest race of the year – and clearly the most important to the Mercedes and Auto Union teams, both of them heavily subsidised by the German government. In order to fulfil their function of feeding the Nazi propaganda machine, they were obliged to win.
Eighteen months earlier, amid an already deteriorating political situation, Seaman had taken high-level advice before signing his contract. It was generally felt that British prestige would benefit from his presence in the world’s best team.
But now he was frustrated, and in the weeks before the big race he entered into a tetchy correspondence with his team manager, Alfred Neubauer. It was a reminder to the management that he had not lost a sense of his own value as a racing driver, or the even more urgent desire for competition. Mercedes’ decision to field four cars at the Nürburgring gave him a real chance to show what he could do.
In the latest of Neubauer’s brainwaves, the Mercedes W154s were colour-coded, using the drivers’ linen or thin leather wind helmets and the cars’ radiator grilles for easy visual identification: white for Caracciola, red for Von Brauchitsch, blue for Lang, British racing green for Seaman.
There was a setback, however, when Caracciola turned up feeling unwell. While he circulated in practice without his usual zest, Von Brauchitsch took the initiative, recording the fastest time, with Lang, Seaman and Caracciola completing the first four places on the 20-car grid.
On the morning of race day, the serenity of the Mercedes camp was disturbed when Von Brauchitsch, the scion of a distinguished military family, chose the wrong moment to aim one of his patronising remarks at Lang, who had started his career as a mechanic. The two men were squaring up when Seaman stepped between them to remind them of why they were there. Neubauer, who was not present, could only be thankful for the Englishman’s cool head and willingness to intervene.
Around the circuit, a crowd of 300,000 had gathered. In the main grandstand, a row of VIP seats was reserved for the guests of the Mercedes team, their identities revealing the firm’s close links with the civilian and military authorities.
Observing the usual ceremony, the cars were rolled to the grid in line astern by white-overalled mechanics. German flags flew over the pits and grandstands but it was noticeable that the loudest applause from the public came for Tazio Nuvolari, the little Italian whose charisma trumped national loyalties. When the starting lights malfunctioned, refusing to change from amber to green, the drivers took matters into their own hands and charged off on the first of the 22 laps. Immediately Nuvolari forced his Auto Union through from the second row as Lang shot into the lead.
Seaman overtook the Italian for second place in the first corner, and at the end of the first lap the Mercedes team occupied the first four places. By then Nuvolari had already crashed, blinded by oil sprayed on to his goggles by one of the Mercedes.
Although Lang had opened a gap to Seaman on the first lap, his engine soon lost its edge. As he slowed, Seaman and Von Brauchitsch closed up, the Englishman content to let his teammate take the initiative as they overtook their colleague, who headed for the pits.
With Von Brauchitsch so obviously hungry for the home win that would both boost his standing and put the upstart Lang in his place, Seaman acted the good team man, remaining at a discreet distance – 10 seconds or so – behind the leader while going fast enough to set the best lap time of the race.
Von Brauchitsch came in for his final pit stop at the end of the 16th lap. Since an unpleasant experience in Tripoli, when fuel splashed over Lang’s shoulders during a refuelling stop, thick towels had been draped around the Mercedes drivers’ necks and shoulders to catch any spillage. The towel had just been removed and the engine restarted when a spurt of fuel ignited on the hot exhaust. The first sign of a conflagration was the agitated driver releasing the catch on his detachable steering wheel, throwing himself out of the car and frantically trying to beat out the invisible flames of the burning alcohol-based mixture.
Seaman, who had stopped immediately behind the other car, saw what happened next in close-up as the rear of Von Brauchitsch’s machine was engulfed in a whoosh of fire. As Neubauer gestured urgently for the startled Englishman to get going again, Dick pulled out, steered deftly around the drama and put his foot down.
An hour later the green helmet streaked past the chequered flag, almost four minutes ahead of his nearest pursuer, the British press corps rising to acclaim him. As he returned to the pits, Neubauer was there to welcome him with a kiss on the cheek.
Some found his win harder to stomach. Korpsführer Adolf Hühnlein, Hitler’s sports leader, was not best pleased by the idea of an Englishman winning Germany’s showpiece event. To soften the blow to national honour, Hühnlein quickly summoned Von Brauchitsch. The winner and the moral victor – as Hühnlein clearly intended to present him – walked together to the balcony of the timekeepers’ office for the trophy presentation.
Then came the trickiest moment of all. Dick had accepted the Preis des Führers – a huge bronze trophy surmounted by an eagle with its wings outspread. Now, with the giant wreath of oak leaves on his shoulders, he saw the throng around him lifting their arms in the Nazi salute: “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” Like England’s footballers before their 6-3 victory in Berlin two months earlier, he had little option but to follow suit, whatever his private feelings.
Flanked by Hühnlein and Von Brauchitsch, who were making the salute in the approved straight-armed style, Dick raised his right hand, elbow bent, in a distinctly unemphatic version of the Hitlergrüss. But there it was, preserved for all time in photographs, the image of a young British sportsman apparently saluting a dictator who, with every passing day, was driving the world closer to catastrophe. He was standing to attention, it seemed, on the wrong side of history.
As the ceremony broke up, the winner was surrounded by his excited English friends. Responding to their congratulations, Dick thanked them and added, sotto voce: “I only wish it had been in a British car.”
When the public fuss was over and he was able to sit down with a cigarette and glass of champagne at an informal party in a room under the grandstand, the chair next to him was occupied by the girl he had met three weeks earlier. Dick had borrowed a comb from Neubauer and wiped the oil and grime from his face but he was still wearing his oil-stained overalls, with his goggles around his neck. Erica Popp was in a light summer frock, with a boater on the back of her head, framing her curls.
Barely four months later they were married, despite the fierce objections of Dick’s mother, who had responded to his desire to take a German bride by cutting him off from his considerable inheritance. Six months after that Erica was in the pits at a rain-drenched Spa as Dick sped past in the lead of the Belgian Grand Prix.
For weeks, as the political situation worsened, they had been making plans for a swift return to England. But now, on his way to his second grand prix victory, he spun off on the wet track and hit a tree. Unconscious and unable to extricate himself from the blazing car, he suffered burns from which he died in hospital that night. Nine weeks later, war was declared.
* Extracted from A Race with Love and Death: The Story of Britain’s First Great Grand Prix Hero, by Richard Williams (Simon & Schuster, £20)