Today marks the final round of the Formula 1 World Championship, a racing series I've followed since balled up in my mother's womb (seriously; my parents were at the 1983 Detroit Grand Prix). The 2014 champion will be either a German driver in a German car or a British driver in a German car—either would be a major achievement for Mercedes-Benz, who field their F1 operations with a fat wallet and a "failure is not an option" mindset.
When you look back at the statistics, one thing is clear: on the whole Germans haven't been very successful in Formula 1—but when they are, they dominate. First on the list is the UK, securing 14 World Driver's Championship victories, among 10 drivers. Germany is #2 on the list of total World Driver's Championship victories—among just two drivers: Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Vettel.
Interestingly, Mercedes-Benz is commonly credited with two Constructor's Championships, even though they were won in 1954/55 and the Constructor's Championship wasn't officially awarded until 1958. So really, no German constructor has won the Formula 1 World Championship before 2014.
All of this isn't to say that Germans didn't try in Formula 1—it's often just too hard to get all the pieces together to mount a serious challenge. Because the first German-born World Champion was Michael Schumacher in 1994, any German driver before that who looked promising would quickly have the hopes, support, and criticism of an entire nation on his shoulders.
This was very much true for Rolf Stommelen: incredibly quick in sports car racing but less so in Formula 1. He even finished second in a race on the Nürburgring Nordschleife in a Porsche 936 with the throttle stuck open—Stommelen just flicked the kill switch when he wanted to brake.
He wasn't as quick in Formula 1, however, but his previous successes in sports car racing meant that he had lots of personal sponsorship—even German car magazine Auto Motor und Sport found cash to put him into cars. But no benefactor was as generous as caravan (camper trailer) magnate Günther Henerici, who eventually found a solution for Stommelen's poor results: he hadn't been racing a German car.
Never mind that the most successful German race team before had been the short-lived Porsche factory outfit—with just one win—Henerici bought a March 721 chassis (back when you could do such things *cough*) and built a team around Stommelen for the 1972 season.
The March 721, powered by a Cosworth DFV, wasn't the world's best racing car…so fighting for a great time in practice was just as noteworthy as getting a victory. Unbelievably, on its testing debut, it was setting laps comparable to the grid-leading McLarens. So what happened?
My favourite car designer, Luigi Colani, had been hired to design the bodywork. As you can see, it was…interesting—and looked much more like an open-wheel sports car than a Formula 1 car. This era had wind tunnel testing, but not to the level of sophistication teams enjoy today. Although his bodywork was technically legal (things are only ever declared illegal if the car is different and fast!) the team could do little to sort out its one big problem: it kept overheating.
Team Eifelland F1 didn't do any favours by letting Colani talk during its introduction. The flamboyant German savant was busy with the media saying that the other cars would turn into antiques over night—this coming from the man who knew the bodywork had been completed in just 100 or so hours by his team of six. (Sadly, there are few photos of it in its initial testing specification. The image above is one of them.)
When it made its race debut, the swooping section of upper bodywork was gone. Sidepods were added. The front wing was changed. And then the team kept de-Colani'ng it. The more things they took off the car, the (generally) slower it went in a straight line—but at least the car wouldn't overheat after just a few laps.
With the benefit of complex computer modelling, as teams have today, maybe Colani's design could have been re-shaped into something revolutionary. But the only accolade it received was a nickname: "The whale."
A serious fire at the Eifelland plant cut off financial backing for the team less than 10 races in, and they were forced to withdraw from Formula 1. Bernie Ecclestone bought the team…for its DFV engines. From there, the car was bought by Tony 'Monkey' Brown, a London-based Dublin car dealer who would provide the ex-Eifelland F1 car to John Watson for his first taste of a Grand Prix car. In Formula Libre ("Free Formula") races, Watson was very quick in the car.
Motorsport magazine has a great feature on the car, closing with a quote from Watson:
“Colani suffered a lot of derision from within F1, but I wouldn’t knock him, however. He’s an individualist, a lateral thinker, a risk-taker—something that F1 lacks today and is all the poorer for it. The current regulations read like a form from the Inland Revenue.
“The Eifelland—that March, whatever you want to call it—served my career well.”