Rudolf Uhlenhaut: Supreme engineer
Imagine if Adrian Newey made changes to his Red Bull Racing design, then strapped himself into the car to see if they worked, and tested it quicker than Sebastien Vettel. That’s what happened in the 1930s-50s at Mercedes-Benz.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut was that man. Not only was he a talented, gifted and visionary designer and engineer, but he was pretty quick behind the wheel too.
Drivers who benefited from Uhlenhaut’s talents included Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann. The face of Mercedes at the time was race director Alfred Neubauer. In an interview in 2000 with Mercedes-Benz, Kling highlighted Uhlenhaut’s skills, and not just his engineering ones.
“Uhlenhaut was the real race director,” remembered Kling. “He was much better at setting up procedures such as, for instance, the schedule for tyre changes. He was absolutely loyal, a man with polite and cultured behaviour and with a real personality.”
While the public persona of Mercedes was Neubeauer, Uhlenhaut quietly got on with the work, developing the cars .While they were vastly different people, they had tremendous respect for each other. In his autobiography in the late 1930s, Neubauer wrote: “As the 1937 season got underway we at Mercedes realised that the W25’s failure was mainly due to construction errors. A young genius put the finishing touches to our car, and so far he is the only constructor to successfully steer on a Grand Prix circuit at full speed as well.”
That 1937 car was the famous W125, meticulously developed by Uhlenhaut to take on the Auto Unions. He did thousands of miles testing at the Nurburgring Nordschleife. During one test he lapped three seconds quicker than Fangio, and admitted that: “I can drive rather fast.” That was about all his modesty would allow. He also was quickest in testing at Monza, but racing never appealed to the engineer. However his driving skills benefitted the team as a whole as he could translate personal his feelings into improvements.
His unique career never transpired into racing. He once said he wasn’t a fan of racing anyway, and was much happier on a motorcycle.
Uhlenhaut was Mercedes through and through. If his blood wasn’t red, it was most likely silver. He started working for the Three Pointed Star in Stuttgart in 1931, and retired in 1972, his career naturally altered because of the politics of World War 2. He rose to Director of Automobile Development – projects he was responsible for which included many iconic road cars, like the Gullwing 300 SL.
Quiet and unassuming, Uhlenhaut was more interested in pushing boundaries, making the race cars faster, the road cars unique. After an incredibly fruitful life, and a 41-year career with Mercedes-Benz, and 17 years of retirement, he passed away in May 1989.
Very special thanks to Mercedes-Benz Motorsport
Images: Mercedes-Benz Archive