The rivalry between Caracciola and Rosemeyer was strong and very well documented. Otto Wilhelm Rudolf Caracciola, born in 1901, was an experienced pilot who started racing motorcycles, then switched to cars in hillclimb races (where he won three championships in a row) and ended up on circuits. In 1934, he became the main star of the newly founded Mercedes-Benz factory team led by the legendary Alfred Neubauer. Caracciola drove not only extremely fast, but also very precisely and smartly, excelling in all conditions.
In contrast, Bernd Rosemeyer, who was seven years younger, was a talented stormtrooper who rode more with his heart than his head. Thanks to his courage, he was one of the few (he was joined in the team by Tazio “Der Teufel” Nuvolari and Hans Stuck) who was able to tame the monsters of Auto Union (today’s Audi) with a 500-horsepower engine located behind the pilot’s seat (in contrast, Mercedes had an engine in front). In his second Grand Prix, he was in contention for victory with Caracciola at the legendary Nürburgring, but was overtaken due to a wrong shift. He thus scored his premiership victory later in 1935 at the old Masaryk circuit in Brno. Rosemeyer, Nuvolari and Caracciola were some of the best drivers of the 1930s, competing for wins and titles: In the European Championship, Nuvolari had the title in 1932, Caracciola in 1935 and 1937, Rosemeyer in 1936.
Speed records were another field where famous brands and their ambitious pilots competed. The racing specials of the time were so extremely powerful that the technicians believed they could reach truly incredible speeds. This was confirmed by Caracciola, who in 1935 reached a fantastic 312 km/h. Shortly afterwards, however, Hans Stuck topped it with 320 km/h, and in the fall of 1937, Bernd Rosemeyer drove a record 391 km/h.
So Mercedes had a lot to fix and certainly left nothing to chance in their next attempt at a record. The constructors took their winning W125 formula from 1937, fitted a more powerful, twin-supercharged 5.5-liter V12 with 736 horsepower into a lightweight chassis (the weight limit was 750 kg for the championship) and dressed it all in a streamlined body designed according to the latest knowledge (until later measurements in the wind tunnel determined the drag coefficient at a fantastic level of 0.170). Target? At least 400 km/h!
At Auto Union, of course, they couldn’t let themselves be embarrassed. Their Type C special, powered by a 520bhp 6-litre V16, did very well against the W125, winning 5 Grand Prix in the 1937 season compared to 7 for Mercedes. The first speed fight with Mercedes took place on the new AVUS circuit, where the aerodynamic Audi racing against the open Mercedes had a big advantage on the straights, but Caracciola still managed to miraculously win. But now came the opportunity to really show who is the king of speed – when the two brands met on the autobahn just outside Frankfurt.
The conditions that morning 82 years ago were also ideal at first. The morning frost was slowly melted by the sun, so nothing stood in the way of record attempts. He was the first to hit the Caracciola road with his W125 Rekordwagen and reached a speed of 432.7 km/h on the first attempt. He and Alfred Neubauer then shook hands and went to a nearby hotel for an opulent breakfast. The line was at Auto Union. It was cold and the wind was starting to pick up, but Rosemeyer had to put aside his desire to head home to his wife and recently born son – first he had to get his record back. He lit a cigarette, slipped into the cramped cabin of the aerodynamic special and set off on a journey from which he would never return.
The first pass was used to survey the conditions and warm up the car, yet he reached a speed just short of Caracciolo’s newly established record. The second attempt should have been on point. But the ride ended tragically – after nine kilometers at a speed of around 400 km/h, a strong gust of wind destabilized the car and Rosemeyer could no longer tame it. First he drove left onto the grass, then right across the entire width of the freeway, smashing his machine into a pile on the slope that bordered it. Rosemeyer’s body was later found in the woods with no visible injuries, but also no signs of life. The world thus lost one of the most talented pilots of his generation, and ten-month-old Bernd junior lost his father.
The Mercedes team found out about Rosemeyer’s accident late and the tragedy had a big impact on everyone. Caracciola in particular was very remorseful – he already had problems with the wind in his record attempt and refused Neubauer’s request for another attempt to improve his value. Instead of warning his rival, he kept everything to himself. Maybe that would save Rosemeyer… But probably not, Rosemeyer loved racing and beating his opponents more than anything else. His second run was not timed, but it was estimated that his car was capable of reaching speeds of over 470 km/h…
However, Caracciolo’s record on a public road (faster was driven only on the salt flats in the American Bonneville) was valid and remained unbroken for an incredible 79 years, when Christian von Koenigsegg reached a speed of 445.54 km/h with his Agera RS in 2017.