Richard Seaman – Driver Profile Page Two
Meanwhile the Briton had cemented his place in the Mercedes-Benz team. He moved into a house at Dambach on Lake Starnberg, where he rowed and astonished local residents with a sport hitherto unknown in Germany – waterskiing. His decision to take up residence in Germany was not entirely voluntary, however. In 1937 Seaman was not allowed to take German currency out of the country, and the worsening relationship with his parents meant he was entirely dependent on his salary and prize money as a racing driver.
Seaman’s next race for Mercedes-Benz was the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on 25 July 1937. After a poor start the Englishman was lying in tenth place, but in the space of just five laps he had fought his way up to fourth position. Battling to get back into contention, Ernst von Delius (Auto Union) attempted an overtaking maneuver on Seaman. But von Delius lost control of his car, skidded, blocked the track and drew Seaman’s W 125 into the fray. The two vehicles collided and the German suffered such serious head and hip injuries that he died a few hours later.
Seaman, who was thrown clear of his car before the collision, broke his nose and thumb. From his hospital bed in Adenau on 1 August, the Oxbridge sportsman wrote a letter in his youthful, rounded hand to the chairman of the Daimler-Benz supervisory board, Emil Georg von Stauss: “I am leaving here in a few days, and hope to drive again in the ‘Grosser Preis der Schweiz’ on the 22nd August” – leaving no doubt that he had lost none of his appetite for motor racing as a result of the crash.
Nothing came of his wish to start in Switzerland, however, and although Neubauer gave Seaman an opportunity to race in the Coppa Acerbo in Pescara on 15 August, when Hermann Lang was forced to withdraw on account of flu, the British driver’s superstitious dislike of the number thirteen appeared to have some foundation. For at kilometer 13 on the Friday before the race, 13 August, Seaman collided with a wall at 160 km/h. Although “Dick” escaped uninjured, his W 125 was too severely damage to be repaired.
After two write-offs in just three weeks, Neuberger was now without a car for his junior driver. At the Swiss Grand Prix, Seaman also had to content himself with just a few practice laps, for here “Dick” suffered his third serious accident in a Mercedes-Benz racing car. Even before his first official drive for the racing stable, the Englishman had written off a 1936 racing car during testing at Monza. Neubauer reprimanded the young driver for the high-risk driving style that lay at the root of these accidents and urged him to adopt Lang’s more cautious approach. For whereas Richard Seaman sought risk and the thrill of pushing himself to the technical limits, Hermann Lang succeeded in exploiting the car’s full potential and proving himself to be at least as fast as his teammate.
Nevertheless, the racing manager was impressed by Seaman’s insight into his own mistakes. As with the crash in Monza the previous year, Seaman refused to blame technology in Pescara and instead took full responsibility for it himself. Perhaps for that reason the Englishman was given another chance in the middle of the race. Caracciola handed his race car to the junior driver with engine problems. By lap 13 there were even flames coming from the engine of the W 125, but Seaman revealed himself to be a cool-headed professional. He stopped on a steep downhill section of the track and switched the engine off. Then with the flames extinguished, he restarted the engine and finished a creditable fifth.
Seaman was less fortunate in his last race of the 1937 season. On home soil at the Donington Grand Prix, Seaman was hit by Hermann Müller (Auto Union) and forced to abandon the race with damaged shock absorbers. It was a bitter disappointment for the Englishman, who had notched up three class victories at Donington in 1936 alone, and who was now keen to show the public what he could do in the heavy German race cars for which the Donington course had been specially lengthened and redesigned. Donington was to be Seaman’s last race of the season.
By now the Englishman was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable in Germany and among friends at the Berlin Motor Show he made sarcastic comparisons between Hitlerian pomp and the film sets of Hollywood directors. Moreover, during the early months of 1938 he was not given a start in the new W 154. The driver’s disappointment was quickly forgotten that June, however, when he met Erika Popp, daughter of BMW chairman Franz-Josef Popp and wife Christine. The 18-year-old German girl fell in love with the Englishman seven years her senior and the couple began spending more and more time in each other’s company. While Richard got on very well with Erika’s parents, the relationship and subsequent marriage that year to the beautiful German girl resulted in Seaman finally breaking off all contact with his now widowed mother. The romance between Erika and Richard was still blossoming, however, when Seaman was at last given another race start that July.
Mercedes-Benz had just completed its fleet of new W 154 racing cars in time for the German Grand Prix. Seaman now entered his first race of the season with the start number 16 and during qualifying immediately secured a place on the front row of the starting line-up. He went on to win the Grand Prix in a time of 3 hours, 51 minutes and 46 seconds, ahead of his team colleague Lang. Luck had played a part in the Briton’s win, however. Neubauer’s team orders, which prohibited drivers from challenging one of their own colleagues after the start, literally went up in smoke, when von Brauchitsch’s car caught fire. On refueling, the highly flammable, alcohol-based fuel overflowed and set fire to the W 154. Nobody could now catch the Englishman, who had already set the fastest lap of the race as early as lap 6.
Despite his triumph at the Nürburgring, Neubauer decided not to use Seaman in the next two races. He returned to the start at Bremgarten, however, where the Englishman had secured three successive titles in his class between 1934 and 1936. During qualifying for the Swiss Grand Prix, Richard set two fastest laps and started the race in pole position. Seaman got away well and led the field ahead of Hans Stuck and Caracciola. But the young Englishman was not able to match the driving skills of the “Rainmaster”, and Rudolf Caracciola took the racing car grand prix for the third time, with Seaman finishing runner-up – the only driver not to be lapped by Caracciola.
In September that year, Richard’s future father-in-law Franz-Josef Popp gave Seaman the opportunity to take part in the British Tourist Trophy. Exceptionally, on this occasion, instead of a Mercedes-Benz he drove a Frazer Nash-BMW. “Dick” had been looking forward to the British race, but he and his team colleagues were rather disappointed by the reliability of the BMWs. All four works cars experienced problems during the race at Donington and Seaman crossed the finish line in a distant 21st position. Then in autumn that year he took part in the grand prix event on the same track in a W 154. Seaman presented the Mercedes-Benz team to the Duke of Kent, before taking His Highness on a few laps of the track. In the race itself Seaman finished a creditable third behind Tazio Nuvolari and Hermann Lang.
The race in England brought the 1938 season to a close. Richard Seaman then enjoyed several blissful months with Erika, whom he married – against his mother’s wishes – in London on 7 December 1938. The couple spent their first weeks of married life in England, France and Switzerland, where they exchanged the race circuit for ski resorts, cinemas and tourist attractions. Seaman, who had developed a liking for fine food in his late teens, was now free with his young wife to explore the culinary delights of other countries.
Not long after his marriage, Seaman signed a new contract with Mercedes-Benz, since the young Englishman now felt at home in the racing stable and was hopeful of a top spot among the brand’s drivers. But the political situation was becoming increasingly tense. Just days before the Berlin Motor Show in February, at which Seaman was due to meet Adolf Hitler, he resignedly made light of the situation to Erika, saying that he was more likely to assassinate the dictator than shake his hand. But “Dick” attempted nothing of the sort and focused instead on his job and his marriage. Seaman’s former school friend, Tony Cliff, later highlighted Dick’s worries about the political situation: Seaman, he said, had never held any real political conviction that might have given him a platform on which to make critical judgments about current political affairs.
But even Earl Howe advised his countryman in spring 1939 not to break with Mercedes-Benz for political reasons – even though the Nazi regime were looking for ways to exploit the sporting achievements of the Silver Arrows for political propaganda purposes: “If you can stick it, it would be much better for you to stay where you are.”
The young couple’s financial situation was a further argument against any split with German motor racing, for the Seamans were not allowed to taking any currency out of the German Reich and Dick’s mother now refused him any support from the family’s British assets.
So Seaman followed the advice of the aristocratic racing driver. Although he was named only as replacement driver for the Grand Prix in Pau, he drove the fastest lap in qualifying. Nor did he get a place behind the wheel in Tripoli, where Mercedes-Benz recorded a triumphant double victory with the secretly developed 1.5-litre W 165 racing car. Seaman eventually got to drive this new car at the Nürburgring in May, however, during filming for a documentary about the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. Indeed the camera gave the Englishman a prominent role in the film. But at the Eifel Grand Prix race just a few days earlier, Seaman’s chances of victory slipped from his grasp when he overused the clutch at the start and was forced to retire on the first lap.
In Belgium John Richard Beattie Seaman was determined to bring home his first title of the season. He was keen to underline the fact that his win at the Nürburgring the previous year had not been just a one-off and that he had earned the silver and diamond-encrusted badge with which Mercedes-Benz rewarded each of its drivers’ grand prix victories. But above all, he was determined to prove himself to the “Rainmaster” Caracciola, since on the day of the race heavy rain was falling on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. After the start Dick was lying in sixth position, but with each successive lap he succeeded in clawing his way to the front of the field. By lap eight he was in fourth, when Hermann Lang waved him through. Müller went into the pits and when the mighty Rudolf Caracciola unexpectedly slid off the rain-drenched circuit and landed in a ditch, Seaman suddenly found himself leading the Belgian Grand. By lap 12 he was already 31 seconds ahead of Lang.
Yet in spite of this comfortable lead, Seaman maintained his high speed, even as the rain worsened. It was to be his undoing. Suddenly, his car skidded off the track at 200 km/h and hit a tree. The impact ruptured the fuel lines and within seconds the car was in flames. Seaman was not seriously injured from the impact. But he was concussed and therefore unable to get himself out of the car. By the time the first helpers reached the burning wreck and a courageous Belgian official was able to pull the Englishman from the inferno, Seaman had already suffered very extensive burns.
In spite of the accident, the race continued. The ambulance could only reach Seaman by a circuitous route, during which time the Mercedes-Benz team doctor, Dr. Peter Gläser, did what he could for the injured driver. Eventually Seaman was taken by ambulance to the hospital at Spa, where Seaman joked to his wife that he would sadly not be able to escort her to the cinema that evening. And to Neubauer he admitted that the accident was caused by excessive speed and therefore nobody’s fault but his own. The insight came too late, however. Dick Seaman, one of the most promising racing drivers of the 1930s, died of his injuries just a few hours after the accident.
Seaman’s death came as a shock to the racing stable. The obituary published by Mercedes-Benz reminded the world of his meteoric rise to join the “racing driver elite”. The international press, too, was numbed by “Seaman’s terrible accident” and his death the same evening. Seaman’s obituary in the Motor Transport Press Service of 28 June 1939 ended fittingly with the words: “Now he, too, has met the destiny of racing drivers.”