The era of the classic Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows in the period 1934 – 1939 is linked to the racing driver John Richard Beattie Seaman. The Englishman drove his first race in a Silver Arrow in the Tripoli Grand Prix on 9 May 1937. He drove his last race on 25 June 1939: he crashed in the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa and died from his severe injuries a few hours later.
John Richard Beattie Seaman (1913 – 1939) – Driver Profile
When Richard Seaman drove his Mercedes-Benz W 154 3-litre formula racing car to victory at the 1938 German Grand Prix, he sealed his reputation as the most successful British racing driver of his day.
Although a perennial favorite among German race-going crowds, Seaman’s role as a representative of National Socialist motorsport shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War was viewed critically in his homeland. But Seaman would not live long enough to see Europe descend into war: just eleven months after his triumph at the Nürburgring, his career came to a tragic end at the Belgian Grand Prix when his car left the circuit and crashed into a tree. Seaman died of his serious injuries that same evening.
24 July 1938 would be the greatest day in Richard Seaman’s racing career. The 25-year-old Englishman lined up alongside Hermann Lang and Manfred von Brauchitsch on the front row of the grid for the German Grand Prix, having driven his Mercedes-Benz W 154 into third place in qualifying. On the second row behind the three Silver Arrows was another Mercedes-Benz driver, Rudolf Caracciola, who lined up for the start alongside the Auto Union driver Tazio Nuvolari.
With thirty seconds to go, the 12-cylinder engines of the seven Silver Arrows gave a confident roar as the mechanics from the Mercedes-Benz stable started up the race cars. Racing manager Alfred Neubauer, known to all as Don Alfredo, gave the sign to the works drivers: “Ten seconds to go.” Finally the flag came down and as the engines whined to a deafening crescendo Lang immediately took an early the lead.
But after just one lap Seaman was up with him in second place, and on the sixth lap the Englishman led the field for the first time. 300,000 spectators at the Nürburgring were about to witness a “race with a capital R”, as Seaman’s biographer Chris Nixon would later describe the grand prix at the Nürburgring. Although Lang was forced to retire with technical problems, a fascinating duel developed over the ensuing laps between Seaman and Manfred von Brauchitsch – until von Brauchitsch’s car caught fire during a pit stop on lap 16. With great presence of mind, Neubauer pulled his driver from the flames and sent Seaman, the second driver into the pits, back onto the track. Now Richard “Dick” Seaman was leading the biggest race of the grand prix season. Easily recognizable in his W 154 with the start number 16 and green bonnet, the 25 year-old Englishman gradually consolidated his lead and eventually finished three minutes and 20 seconds ahead of Hermann Lang, who had taken over Caracciola’s car.
But who exactly was this young man, whose meteoric rise and tragic death in 1939 was so reminiscent of the career of Bernd Rosemeyer? Who at just 25 years of age already stood shoulder to shoulder with the best drivers in the Mercedes stable and was the first Briton to win the German Grand Prix since the victory of Sir Henry Segrave back in 1923?
John Richard Beattie Seaman was born on 4 February 1913 into a wealthy British family. William John Beattie Seaman and his wife, Lilian Mary, who was 21 years his younger, owned a country estate and a townhouse in London as befitted their social standing. The family also owned a chauffeur-driven British Daimler saloon, which caught the young Richard’s eye from an early age. But even though “Dick” enjoyed drawing sketches of racing cars as a youngster, nobody in the Seaman household ever thought his life would one day revolve around racing cars for the famous German brand. A career in the Diplomatic Corps or a well-paid job in the City of London’s financial quarter would have been considered appropriate for a boy with a background such as his – but not a career as a racing driver.
Richard’s schooling began at the Hildersham House boarding school in 1921. This preparatory school set the young Richard on course for entry to Rugby, the renowned public school, and then for future studies (French and Italian) at Cambridge. On leaving school his parents presented him with his first car – a Riley Brooklands Nine.
In 1931 Seaman (by this time the proud owner of an MG Magna) began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. He rowed for his College, but he was also a member of the University Automobile Club (CUAC) and took part in motorsport events. It was during this period that he met a fellow Cambridge student, the American Whitney Straight. Straight encouraged Seaman to pursue his interest in motor racing, and when his parents bought him a 2-litre Bugatti in 1933 (soon replaced by a Lagonda), Seaman began to take motor racing seriously. Now a member of Straight’s racing stable, success came quickly to the young Englishman as soon as he took the wheel of his black MG Magnette in 1934, securing a class victory in the Prix de Bern and overall victory at the Mont Ventoux hillclimb.
Seaman’s parents were unhappy with their son’s expensive and dangerous love of racing. His father was particularly critical, as Richard was only able to support himself thanks to significant and regular subsidies from his mother. His parents even bought him an aeroplane in an effort to dissuade him from motor racing. But Seaman simply used this new means of transport to get him to races quicker and thus take him closer to his goal of becoming an internationally renowned racing driver.
When Straight retired from motorsport, Seaman signed a contract with ERA (English Racing Automobiles). But the works vehicles proved less than reliable and Seaman left the works team and went on to celebrate victories as a private driver in Pescara, Bern and Freiburg. When his mechanic Giulio Ramponi advised him to switch to a ten-year-old Delage previously owned by Francis Curzon, 5th Earl Howe, Dick bought the car from the aristocratic racing enthusiast. Ramponi completely rebuilt the vehicle and Seaman was soon notching up new race victories at the wheel of this motoring anachronism.
Seaman continued to draw increasingly upon his mother’s financial reserves – and his ambiguous public image fell somewhere between “spoiled brat” and “possibly the greatest road racing driver Britain had ever produced”. The latter assessment of Seaman’s ability came from Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Thailand, Seaman’s friend and motor racing rival on the circuits of Europe, as well as author of his first biography, published in 1941.
Although he continued to enjoy victories in his Delage, the young Briton nevertheless dreamed of one day racing for one of the great German racing stables. When he looked at the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow and Auto Union teams, he was impressed by their state-of-the-art technology and professional organization. Then one day the dream came within touching distance when at the end of the 1936 season he received a telegram from Alfred Neubauer. It was an invitation from the racing manager to take part in a test drive that November. Seaman could hardly believe it: he had finally come to the attention of Mercedes-Benz. Just that same summer he had said of the brand: “If I ever get to drive for Mercedes, I shall never drive for anybody else.”
Seaman was aware of the political implications that came with such an involvement. Nevertheless, his friends all advised him to snap up any offer from Stuttgart should there be one after testing – after all, sport recognized no boundaries. In addition to the technical superiority of the Mercedes-Benz racing cars, however, the business-minded Briton was also conscious of the excellent earning opportunities the company offered compared with British racing stables. But it was too early to start thinking about prize money for the moment. Neubauer had invited 30 young racing drivers to the Nürburgring for testing. After a few laps in sports cars, ten hopefuls were then selected for one of the coveted places in the grand prix racing cars. Neubauer then chose just two drivers to join the team: Christian Kautz and Richard Seaman. Even by late autumn 1936, the racing manager’s praise for the young Englishman (“this young man has real talent”) far outweighed his opinion of Kautz (“he drove well”).
Seaman signed his contract with Mercedes-Benz in February the following year and started his first race in a Silver Arrow at the Grand Prix of Tripoli on 9 May 1937. “Dick” lined up in the new W 125 750-kg formula racing car – designed by the recently appointed technical director of the Mercedes-Benz racing department, Rudolf Uhlenhaut. The in-line eight-cylinder engine with 5.8-litre displacement developed 540 hp (397 kW) and proved to be a formidable opponent for the Auto Union race cars with their mighty 16-cylinder engines. Although Seaman only managed to finish seventh, he spent several laps of the race in second position behind Lang and ahead of Caracciola. Only engine problems caused the Briton to fall back through the field on his debut.
For his second race in Berlin on 30 May he finished in a respectable fifth place. But for the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nürburgring the Englishman was forced to hand over his W 125 to Manfred von Brauchitsch, whose vehicle was damaged in qualifying. Although Mercedes-Benz dispatched a racing transporter with a replacement vehicle, Seaman’s W 125 did not arrive at the Ring until the early hours of Sunday morning. With time for just a few early practice laps, Seaman was forced to retire on the second lap of the race itself as a result of ignition failure.
Then the team’s youngest driver, now living in Germany, fulfilled the expectations that rested on his shoulders. Rudolf Caracciola and Seaman travelled in the SS Bremen to the United States to represent Mercedes-Benz in the Vanderbilt Cup on 4 July in New York. After initial testing on the redesigned Roosevelt Raceway, Uhlenhaut carried out exhausting night shift work to modify the supercharger’s intake system before the race. His efforts paid off and on Independence Day a large crowd looked on as the young Englishman, in only his fourth race for Mercedes-Benz, battled for first place with the great Bernd Rosemeyer in the Auto Union car. When Rosemeyer made a pitstop, Seaman took the lead but went on to finish the race as runner-up with a 31-second deficit, followed by Rex Mays in the Alfa. In the United States protective crash helmets were already prescribed for motor racing. Like many of his colleagues, however, Seaman considered such rudimentary protection superfluous. It was an attitude that would lead to tragedy in 1939.