1931 Mille Miglia – The victory of Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz SSKL

1931 Mille Miglia Rudolf Caracciola Mercedes-Benz SSKL (2)

90 years ago, Rudolf Caracciola achieved a surprising victory at the 1931 Mille Miglia. The large and, despite numerous lightening measures, still heavy Mercedes-Benz SSKL (W 06 RS) started in Brescia rather as an outsider. Rudolf Caracciola at the steering wheel and Wilhelm Sebastian as co-driver nevertheless succeed in leaving the numerous favoured local heroes behind at the fifth edition of the Mille Miglia 1931. They needed exactly 16 hours, 10 minutes and 10 seconds for the 1,635 kilometres, which meant an average speed of 101.6 km/h. No driver before has ever achieved an average of more than 100 km/h. Caracciola is also the first non-Italian driver to win the Mille Miglia.

151 teams are entered for the road race on 12 and 13 April 1931. The route was from Brescia via Parma to Bologna, from there over the Apennines to Florence and then from Siena to Rome. The return route was via Perugia and Macerata to the Adriatic Sea and via Rimini, Bologna and Verona back to Brescia. The Italian teams had a home advantage in terms of route knowledge and also in terms of supply. “The route was virtually paved with spare parts stores,” said Rudolf Caracciola in retrospect, “we, on the other hand, had to economise.” Race director Alfred Neubauer was only able to set up four stores along the route to support the Caracciola/Sebastian team, which was entered as a private team.

1931 Mille Miglia Rudolf Caracciola Mercedes-Benz SSKL (5)

Officially, the car was still called “SSK Model 1931”. The designation SSKL (“Super-Sport-Kurz-Leicht”) was only given to the car in 1932. It was the fourth and last model in the legendary S series and only four were built exclusively for racing. With a great deal of effort, the team headed by development director Dr. Hans Nibel succeeded in keeping the racing car, which was by no means state-of-the-art any more, competitive. By using a thinner-walled frame construction and adding numerous drilled holes, the unladen weight was reduced by 125 kilograms to 1,352 kilograms. The six-cylinder 7,069 cc engine was also thoroughly reworked. With the Roots supercharger activated, it produced 221 kW (300 hp) and its top speed was 235 km/h.

Race against the Italian local heroes at the 1931 Mille Miglia

Equipped with this power, Rudolf Caracciola and Wilhelm Sebastian set off on the course of the 1931 Mille Miglia on 12 April 1931 at 3:12 p.m. The roads are narrow, leading over mountain passes, actually an advantage for the lighter and more agile Italian cars. Only towards the end of the race can Caracciola drive at full throttle for many kilometres. Driving the heavy Mercedes-Benz over 1,000 miles at full throttle is a great challenge for man and machine. Caracciola himself describes his wild ride as follows: “For sixteen hours I sat at the wheel, for sixteen hours we thundered along the length and breadth of Italy, feeling our way through the night by the beam of the headlights, driving into the blinding light of the spring morning, … for sixteen hours I had no idea what our position was in the enormous field of several hundred cars.”

1931 Mille Miglia Rudolf Caracciola Mercedes-Benz SSKL (3)

On the return to Brescia, Caracciola says: “At the finishing line, Alfred Neubauer was completely out of his mind and was performing a completely crazy dance. What on earth was going on? At first, I didn’t realise what had happened, not yet, but slowly it dawned on me: I had won the Mille Miglia” Behind him came Giuseppe Campari and Attilio Marinoni in the Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Spider Zagato and third-placed Giuseppe Morandi and Archimede Rosa in the OM Tipo 665 SSMM. The great Tazio Nuvolari finished ninth with co-driver Giovanni Battista Guidotti in the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spider Zagato, and the first car of non-Italian origin was a Graham-Paige in 33rd place at the 1931 Mille Miglia.

1931 Mille Miglia Rudolf Caracciola Mercedes-Benz SSKL (1)

Photos Daimler AG

Author: Paolo Ollig

As editor-in-chief Paolo regularly writes about all the big and small stories related to classic cars and motorbikes. Classic dreams: Lamborghini Countach and Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

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