Otto Wilhelm Rudolf Caracciola, more commonly Rudolf Caracciola, was a racing driver from Remagen, Germany. He won the European Drivers’ Championship, the pre-1950 equivalent of the modern Formula One World Championship, an unsurpassed three times. He also won the European Hillclimbing Championship three times: twice in sports cars, and once in Grand Prix cars. Caracciola raced for Mercedes-Benz during their original dominating Silver Arrows period and set speed records for the firm.
Rudolf Caracciola was born on January 30, 1901 in Remagen, Germany. He was the fourth child of Maximilian and Mathilde, who ran the Caracciola Hotel. His ancestors had migrated from Naples to the German Rhineland during the Thirty Years’ War, where Prince Bartolomeo Caracciolo had commanded the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress near Koblenz. Caracciola was interested in cars from a young age, and from his fourteenth birthday wanted to become a racing driver. He drove an “elderly 16/45 Mercedes” during the First World War and gained his driver’s license by the age of 18. After Caracciola’s graduation from school soon after the war, his father wanted him to attend university, but when he died Caracciola instead became an apprentice in the Fafnir automobile factory in Aachen.
When still a trainee at the Fafnir-Automobilwerke in Aachen, Caracciola started in the 1922 Avus race in Berlin (fourth place overall and winner in class) and the Opelbahn race in Rüsselsheim (winner). After a scuffle with an officer of the Belgian occupying forces, Caracciola left Aachen and became a Fafnir representative in Dresden. In 1923 he won the Berlin ADAC (the principal German automobile club) race driving an Ego.
In 1923 Caracciola joined Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft as a car salesman at its Dresden sales outlet. He was allowed to enter races with the current Mercedes 6/25/40 hp racing car. The successes he notched up included victory in the touring car class of the 1923 ADAC Reichsfahrt rally. In 1924 he was winner in his class on several occasions and secured overall victory in the Teutoburgerwald race. That was the year he also met his future wife, Charlotte, nicknamed Charly.
In 1925 Caracciola won eight races at the wheel of the Mercedes 24/100/140 hp. In 1926 he won the German Grand Prix in a Mercedes eight-cylinder racing car. It was in this race that he first drew attention to his brilliant driving skills in adverse weather conditions; the victory was a textbook lesson in fingertip control by the “Rainmaster”, as he later came to be known. The prize money gave Caracciola economic security. He married Charly and in January 1927 opened up a Mercedes-Benz agency in Berlin, although he continued to compete in races.
In 1927 Caracciola won the race in which the new 26/170/225 hp Mercedes-Benz S model racing touring car premiered at the Nürburgring. That year he also went on to chalk up eleven overall and class wins. In 1928 Caracciola won five races in the successor model, the Mercedes-Benz SS, and he continued his winning form in the new racing tourer, the 27/180/250 hp SSK model. With the SSK he also opened the 1929 race season for Mercedes-Benz in the Monaco Grand Prix (third place). Caracciola won the International Tourist Trophy in Ireland in a Mercedes-Benz SSK in pouring rain at an average speed of 117.2 km/h.
Caracciola finished the 1930 Mille Miglia first in his class. The following year he won the race, the first foreign starter ever to do so, in a 27/240/300 hp Mercedes-Benz SSKL racing sports car. After a 16-hour drive from Brescia to Rome and back he and co-driver Wilhelm Sebastian finally crossed the finish line on April 13, 1931 as winners, posting an average speed of 101.1 km/h. In 1931 Caracciola also won the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring – another rain-affected race – and again captured the title of European Sports Car Hillclimb Champion.