Dick Seaman's career as a professional racing driver in the 1930s was both short and meteoric. Born Richard John Beattie Seaman in 1913, he is still believed to be, at least by motoring historians, as Britain's best. And it all happened in just two-and-a-half seasons - before a tragic accident which claimed his life when he was only 26.
Whitney Straight's MG Racing Team
At the time he was Britain's sole representative in Grand Prix
racing. Motor racing began in earnest for Dick in 1933 when his parents were talked into buying a 2-litre Bugatti. It was raced at Brooklands
and Donington without success. In early 1934, after another term at Cambridge, Seaman told his parents he was leaving university to take up a new appointment: a professional driver for Whitney Straight's MG racing team
The Grand Prix de le' Albigeois at Albi, France
Seaman's first major race for the MG team was at Brooklands
, where the British Empire Trophy was run on 23 June, 1934. A 300-mile race, it was the first long-distance event in which Seaman participated, but he was to retire with mechanical problems. His next race was also his first foreign event, the Grand Prix
de le' Albigeois at Albi, France. He stalled at the start and once more retired.
The Coppa Acerbo at Pescara, Italy, followed, and Seaman finished third. In the Prix de Berne in Switzerland, at the end of August, he scored his first major victory. In the Grand Prix
de Masaryk at Brno, Czechoslovakia, he was fifth, and at Donington, on home ground, he was second to Raymond Mays
in the Nuffield Trophy.
In December, Seaman raced in South Africa. He then raced an ERA
and, like the MG, it was painted black and had silver wheels. The arrangement was that Seaman purchased the car but ERA
would maintain and transport it to each meeting at Dick's expense. It was, however, an unsatisfactory arrangement, as the car let him down on many occasions.
For 1936 Seaman wanted to continue in the 1500cc voiturette category (the pre-war equivalent of Formula Two). Realising that either an ERA
or a Maserati would be delivered late, he found advice from Giulio Ramponi and Tony Birch who suggested he buy the old 1927-model Delage of Lord Howe. After a win at Donington in Harry Rose's ex-Whitney Straight Maserati, Seaman presented the Delage at the same circuit five weeks later where he won two minor events.
A Taste of Grand Prix Racing
At the Eifelrennen, Seaman crashed, then at Peronne for the Grand Prix
de Picardie he crashed again. A brief interlude of sports-car racing followed. Co-driving F. E. Clifford's Lagonda, Seaman won his class and was fourth overall in the Spa 24-hours
. Then he had his first taste of Grand Prix
racing, but in an uncompetitive 3-litre Maserati. He retired after three laps in the German Grand Prix
and later took over Carlo Felice Trossi's car, finishing a lowly twelfth. The Delage was repaired by August and after a misfiring sixth in the Coppa Ciano at Livorno, Dick won the Coppa Acerbo, the Prix de Berne and the JCC 200 at Donington.
Joining the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Team for 1937
His Aston Martin failed in the Tourist Trophy, but he won the Donington Grand Prix
sharing a 3.8-litre Alfa Romeo with the Swiss driver Hans Ruesch. Seaman was close to winning the BRDC's Gold Star award, one point separating him from Siam's Prince B. Bira
. Before Donington, Seaman had written to the Mercedes-Benz team asking if he could borrow a car. Nor surprisingly, they refused, but after the race Dick had a telegram summoning him to Nurburgring
to test their cars. These trials, plus others at Monza, resulted in Seaman being invited to join Mercedes-Benz's Grand Prix
team in 1937 alongside Rudi Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hermann Lang.
Despite a lean season in 1937, Seaman remained with Mercedes for 1938, but as the team had a large complement of drivers he did not compete in all events the team entered. In fact, he had a thin season. He was not entered for Pau and was reserve at Tripoli and Rheims, so his first race was in July's German Grand Prix
. Driving a restrained race, he shadowed von Brauchitsch's car, but this caught fire during a pit-stop and Dick found himself leading; he went on to win. It was the greatest victory of his career, and the first Grand Prix
win by a British driver since 1923. He also gave Adolf Hitler the NAZI salute.
Hitler Stands No Nonsense
It was around this time that he wrote to his mother - and the contents of that letter give an insight into his political beliefs (although there is evidence he did not believe sport and politics should mix) ... "'Hitler stands no nonsense. He won't have any slackers about. Everybody has got to work. Consequently he has remade and reorganised the country, and that is why they believe in him and rally round him. It's about time Hitler took over Austria too, and made them sit up and pull themselves together. The dirt and squalor and laziness in the country are beyond words. Why, there are men there who ask nothing better of life than to sit about all day over one cup of coffee in a cafe!"
Remaining with Mercedes despite Political Friction
Despite the growing international tension, Seaman remained with Merccdes-Benz for 1939. The 1939 season started with Pau, but despite being fastest in practice Seaman did not start as he was reserve driver. His first race, therefore, was on 21 May, the date of the Eifelrennen. He retired after one lap due to clutch problems. Next outing was the Belgian Grand Prix
, the often-sinister circuit in the Ardennes. Here Seaman appeared to be on top form. Despite rain, which caused even wet-weather expert Rudi Caracciola
to crash, Seaman lapped at high speed to lead the race.
Victory seemed well within his grasp when, with thirteen laps to go, his car skidded and crashed into a tree. The Mercedes wrapped itself around the tree and caught alight, Seaman was trapped in the cockpit. He was rescued by a brave policeman and rushed to hospital but, despite briefly regaining consciousness and talking to his friends, he died that night from terrible burns. The Führer was to remember the respect shown to him by the young Englishman, and sent a wreath to his funeral. He was survived by his German born wife Erica Popp - daughter of the head of BMW.