With fresh(and somewhat baseless) rumours regarding Audi’s return to Formula 1, we decided to look at their involvement in the sport in the 1930s when the German marque, then under Auto Union, took on the mighty Italians and fellow rivals Mercedes for the battle for glory in the pinnacle of motorsport.
How Auto Union came into being
In 1932, Audi merged with three other German car manufacturers, namely Horch(August Horch’s eponymous company, he also founded Audi), DKW and Wanderer to form Auto Union.
A year later, then German chancellor Adolf Hitler announced two new programmes at the Berlin Motor Show. The first one involved manufacturing a car for the general masses(hence came Volkswagen Beetle) while the other one was a state-funded racing programme under which Mercedes-Benz would be paid 500,000 Reichsmark.
Following this announcement, Auto Union Chairman Klaus Baron von Oertzen, designer Ferdinand Porsche and racing driver Hans Stuck met Hitler and convinced him that two racing programmes were better than one and the amount was split between the two Silver Arrows.
Did you know: The four rings in Audi logo represent the four companies that originally formed Auto Union
Auto Union Type A
Ferdinand Porsche designed the first Auto Union race car, the Type A, from the Horch factory in Zwickau. Porsche cleverly employed a revolutionary mid-engined design in his car, a form of engine placement later revived by Cooper in late 50s. The V16 engine produced 295bhp at 4,500 rpm, providing tremendous acceleration. On the downside, handling of the car was pretty poor.
Type A made its Grand Prix debut at Germany’s AVUS track where lead driver Hans Stuck led a very wet race by a minute before retiring from clutch problems on lap 12. August Momberger in the sister Type A finished third on the podium, behind the mighty Alfa Romeos who went on to dominate the season. Mercedes withdrew from the race due to calibration problem with their cars.
At the all important German Grand Prix at the 22 km Nordschleife, Stuck beat Mercedes’ Luigi Fagioli by well over two minutes to record Auto Union’s first victory of the season. The team won further two grands prix in Czech Republic and Switzerland but neither of the two races were part of the prestigious ‘Grandes Épreuves’ part of the calendar
For the 1935 season, Auto Union came up with a refined version of Type A, dubbed Type B. The biggest gains came from the engine side with a new 5 litre displacement formula increasing power by 30% to 375bhp.
Achille Varzi, on his debut, took the Type B to victory at the Grand Prix de Tunisie, beating Bugatti’s Jean-Pierre Wimille and the Maserati of Philippe Etancelin for the top spot on the podium. Hans Stuck won the European championship round at Monza while Varzi emerged as the winner at Czech Republic. However, the season belonged to its chief rival Mercedes-Benz who won three of the five rounds of European championship. The Monaco crown also went to the W25 with Luigi Fagioli behind the wheel. In other words, it was a clear defeat for Auto Union whose only target was to beat its German rival.
Type C - the most successful Audi in Grand Prix history
In 1936, engine displacement grew to nearly six litres, and Type C produced 520 bhp. It was a dominant year for Auto Union with Bernd Rosemeyer winning three of the four races of the European championship after an accident eluded the German from victory at Monaco. Fellow Auto Union drivers Achille Varzi and Hans stuck, however, ensured that the team had two drivers on the podium at the prestigious race on the streets of Monte Carlo. Auto Union also won half of the circuit races and all the hillclimbs it participated in during the season. Audi’s celebrations were further enhanced by a dreadful season for Mercedes with Rudolf Caracciola taking the W25k to just two victories all season.
With Porsche busy building the Volkswagen Beetle as per Hitler’s order, little changes were made to Type C for the 1937 season. In stark contrast, Mercedes made major changes to the car during the winter, having endured a difficult season the previous year. The W125 chassis was much stiffer than its predecessor, owing to the use nickel-chrome molybdenum steel. The 5.6 engine produced nearly 600 bhp and dominated the proceedings. Caracciola took the drivers title(not to be confused with Formula 1 drivers world championship) after winning three of the five European championship races. Von Brauchitsch won further accolades for Mercedes at Monaco. Auto Union, meanwhile, won fives race including the one at Spa Francorchamps which counted towards the European Championship.
Change in regulations rendered Type C obsolete and a new Type D car was designed by Prof. Eberan von Eberhorst, who replaced Porsche as team’s chief designer after the latter was snapped up by a much wealthier Mercedes outfit. With Eberhorst at the helm of the design department, Auto Union employed a V12 engine at the back of the car. The V16 engine, however, was still used in hillclimbs where a capacity limit was not enforced by the rule makers. The handling of the car was improved mid-season with the use of hydraulic dampers at the front while retaining the frictional models at the rear.
On the drivers front, Rosemeyer fatally crashed at the start of the season while attempting to set a lap record with Type C. Italian driver Tazio Nuvolari was signed up as his replacement and took victories at Monza and Donington Park. A year later, he won the sole Grand Prix to be held at Serbia’s Kalemegdan Park.
With the outbreak of World War II, grand prix racing was subsided and factories that produced racing cars to compete against rivals from across the world started manufacturing war equipment. Many of Auto Unions factory were bombed during the world war, with only a few of them surviving from the wrath of Allies.