Richard Seaman – The Other British Great in a Silver Arrow
Published 14th December 2012 - Written by Graham Moggipaldi
When Lewis Hamilton straps himself in to a Mercedes Silver Arrow next season he will be only the third British driver to drive for the famous German team. Of the other two drivers one is Sir Stirling Moss OBE, a living legend of Formula One, while the other is less well known. Richard Seaman drove for the team in the old pre-war Grand Prix races and while Moss is justly famous for his career as a racing driver, Seaman is more often than not forgotten.
Stirling Moss drove for Mercedes for just one year in the middle of his racing career, which covered a large number of teams, cars and types of motorsport, ranging from rallying, where he finished second in the 1952 Monte Carlo rally, through sportscar racing, where he won the Mille Miglia in 1955 after having become the first foreign driver to win the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1954, through the various other formulae up to Formula One. Over his career he competed in 529 races and he won 212 of them.
Before he joined Mercedes he was already a well established driver, but he had yet to take a victory in F1. His father, Alfred Moss had approach Mercedes, with his manager, Ken Gregory to see if they would be interested in having him race in their planned Formula One team, but the Mercedes manager, Alfred Neubauer, although definitely interested, needed to be certain. In order to convince him, the Mosses, father and son, with some assistance from BP, acquired a car for him from Maserati, which he raced in the 1954 season. His best result that year was a third place at Spa, in the privately entered Maserati 250F, the win being taken by Juan Manuel Fangio driving for the Maserati factory team. The following race, at Reims-Gueux in France saw the F1 debut of Mercedes, who immediately took their first race victory in their Mercedes-Benz W196, driven by Fangio who had moved to the team from Maserati. When Neubauer saw Moss’ performances that year, especially at Monza, where the British driver had dominated both the race and Fangio in his Mercedes until his Maserati’s engine failed due to failing oil pressure, he was certain that Moss was good enough to race for the new German team and the following season he joined Fangio at Mercedes-Benz.
That season, Mercedes dominated, mostly due to Fangio. The only race not won by the team was Monaco, where they had a one-two lead until first Fangio’s transmission and then Moss’s engine failed, allowing Ferrari’s Maurice Trintignant to take the win. Fangio won his home race in Argentina to begin the season, Moss finishing fourth having shared the driving with Hans Herrmann and Charles Kling. There were a high number of driver substitutions as a result of the extreme heat and only two drivers completed the entire race without a substitute driver, Fangio being one of them. He did however suffer severe burns to his leg from the chassis which left him with a permanent scar.
After the mechanical disappointments of Monaco, Fangio won the next two races in the Low Countries, first at Spa in Belgium, followed by Zandvoort in Holland, with Moss taking second place for Mercedes in both races.
In between those two GPs however, there had been the disaster at Le Mans on 11th June, the worst crash in the history of motor racing, where Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh crashed, killing himself along with over eighty spectators. Over one hundred and twenty more were injured. This tragedy caused the cancellation of the French, German, Spanish and Swiss Grands Prix, leaving just two more races to decide the championship.
The next race was the British Grand Prix at Aintree where Mercedes and more particularly Moss dominated. He took pole position, fastest lap and the win, having led 80 out of 90 laps, the other 10 being led by Fangio in the other Silver Arrow. This was not just Moss’ first win for Mercedes, it was his first win in Formula One and the first time that a British driver had won the British GP.
With the race cancellations, the drivers’ championship was already decided by the time the final race at Monza come around, but Fangio cemented his third championship victory with pole position and the win, having dominated the race leading all but one lap, which was led by Moss, who also took the fastest lap.
Despite this phenomenal success, Mercedes withdrew from Formula One as a team, largely as a result of the tragedy at Le Mans and their involvement in it and they did not return as a team until 2010. Moss found a place back at Maserati, this time as part of the factory team.
Moss’ time with the team was a great success, both for himself and for Mercedes, but the team had also played a major role in Grand Prix racing before the Second World War and another British driver had played his part in that success.
Richard ‘Dick’ Seaman was born into a wealthy family, who had expected him to follow a career in the diplomatic service when he graduated from Trinity College Cambridge in 1934, but unlike many of his fellow students, such as Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, Seaman had no such ambitions: he had only one aim in life – to become a successful racing driver.
To this end he went to Europe with his MG that summer and was straightaway successful competing in voiturette races, for small cars, winning the one which formed part of the Swiss GP events that year. Further successes followed over the next two years, both in his little MG and then driving for English Racing Automobiles and he caught the eye of Alfred Neubauer at Mercedes, the man who would later sign Moss to the team. As a result Neubauer invited Seaman to a trial at the Nürburgring. He impressed at the trial and was signed to the Mercedes Benz Silver Arrows for the 1937 season.
Seaman’s mother, in particular, was not happy with his driving for a team so closely associated with the Nazi regime that his contract had been approved by Hitler himself, but Seaman was not interested in diplomatic niceties: he wanted to race and he wanted to race for one of the best teams around.
His first season at Mercedes was a disappointment, with accidents at Monza in testing and in the German GP in the race. The bigger disappointment for him was his lack of success at the British GP at Donnington, where he had been hit by Hermann Müller in an Auto Union early in the race and was forced to retire with damaged shock absorbers. His second season with the team was more successful, with him taking his first GP victory at the German GP at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, which put him in the difficult position faced by many British sportsmen competing in Germany in that era, of having to perform a Nazi salute on the podium, which he did rather half-heartedly. He followed that with a second place in the Swiss GP and after a DNF at Monza, he took third place at Donnington to round off the season. He then rounded off the year by marrying, again to his mother’s disapproval, a German girl, Erica Popp, the daughter of the director of BMW.
How Seaman’s divided loyalties would have affected him during the war, we shall never know because as he led the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa the following season, he skidded off a wet racetrack and collided with a tree. The car wrapped itself around the tree and burst into flames with Seaman unconscious in the middle of it, ‘wedged in his seat like a stone statue, surrounded by a sea of flames’ as the eventual winner of the race Hermann Lang described the horrific scene.
Seaman died hours later as a result of his burns, commenting on his deathbed to a Mercedes engineer, ‘I was going too fast for the conditions – it was entirely my own fault. I am sorry.’
For some Richard Seaman was too inconsistent to be considered one of the true greats, often dismissed as a self-absorbed, spoilt little rich boy and with a career tarnished by its association with Nazism, but for others Seaman was a racing driver, pure and simple with little time for anything other than racing and winning. The final word should go to Hermann Lang, the man who had witnessed his final accident, who said that he would always remember Seaman as, ‘kind hearted, cool and fair as a sportsman, just as I had always pictured Englishmen to be.’
RIP Richard John Beattie “Dick” Seaman