It was really very gratifying to have received so much positive feedback on the “Absent Friends” feature that we ran in the September ’04 issue of VRJ. One never knows how a story like that will be received, as its focus was more on the war and its effects on three drivers, and less on their cars and the racing.
I have to confess to becoming ever more fascinated with the influence that World War II had on racing and the automotive industry in general. Obviously, this is a very unique period in racing history as Hitler —and to a slightly lesser extent, Mussolini—saw the political and propaganda value to be had from professional motorsport. The result was the near total domination of the late ’30s by the Mercedes and Auto Union juggernauts. But even more interesting than the larger political/industrial ramifications of the war, are the many gripping—and sometimes heart-wrenching—stories of racing personalities such as Wimille, Benoist and Williams, as told in Robert Newman’s feature. Here were three racers—all connected at some point in time through racing—thrust into an unfamiliar world of espionage and death. Sadly, as so often has been the case when the worlds of politics and sport collide, it was the athletes who were thrust into a position of having to make choices that would forever change the course of their lives. Another fascinating example of this is the story of British driver Dick Seaman.
Born into an affluent family in Sussex, England on February 4, 1913, Seamen was the quintessential wealthy British amateur having raced a variety of MGs and ERAs at places like Brooklands and Shelsley Walsh in the early ’30s. While Seamen always showed great promise as an amateur, it was not until 1936 when Seaman scored several decisive wins, including codriving an Alfa Romeo with Ruesch to victory in the Donington Grand Prix, that he attained a level of recognition where the powerhouse players of the period took notice of him. And who were the powerhouse players of the period? At the top of the list was undoubtedly Mercedes-Benz.
With virtually limitless financing and resources from the Nazi government, Mercedes-Benz entered the 1937 season with the new W125 Grand Prix car and a driver line-up that included Rudolf Caracciola, Hermann Lang and, after an extensive driver search for a third driver, Dick Seaman. Imagine Seaman’s sense of pride and accomplishment at having risen from hillclimbing an MG Magnette to being chosen to be a driver on the leading team of the day in just a few short years. However, Seaman’s accomplishment would soon turn bittersweet.
Seamen started his tenure at Mercedes in 1937 with a 5th place at Tripoli, while in just his third race with the team he finished 2nd in the Vanderbilt Cup race. However, as Hitler and Germany began to make their bellicose intentions ever more known, there became a growing sentiment in the U.K. that Seaman—a British aristocrat, no less—should not be driving for the honor of the Nazi war machine. Added to this politically charged debate was the compounding problem that Seaman had also fallen in love, and intended to wed the beautiful daughter of the head of Germany’s BMW car company. Needless to say the British public, not to mention Seaman’s own family, were none too thrilled with the notion of him marrying a German.
Matters became even more charged when, in 1938, Seaman gave Mercedes-Benz, and by association the Third Reich, a politically charged victory in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. The precariousness of Seaman’s situation at home was brought to a head after this event when pictures were published back in the U.K. of Seaman, draped in a victory laurel bearing the swastika, looking somewhat sheepish as he gave a half-hearted Nazi salute. What should have been the defining moment of his life was quickly transformed into an image that for many British fans, could never be forgiven. By this time, Seaman and his German bride were living in Germany full time for what have been termed “diplomatic” reasons.
Sadly, the following year at Spa, Seaman lost control of his Mercedes W163 in a driving rain and was so badly burned in the resulting crash that he eventually succumbed to his injuries. While Seaman was arguably one of the best British drivers of his era, his association with Mercedes, and therefore the Nazi war machine, has forever cast a pall over his accomplishments, in some people’s eyes.
In the final analysis, was Seaman’s choice by Mercedes a politically motivated move? Was Seaman, in fact, spying on his German paymasters for king and crown? We will likely never know the answers to these questions, but it is stories such as these that are as rich as any in motorsport history. I look forward to bringing you more of these in future issues.