Rudolf Caracciola was called 'Der Regenmeister' (rain master) because of his unmatched skill at driving fast in heavy rain: although he came to epitomise all that was best in Grand Prix
Caracciola started his competition career in a very modest way. Born in 1901, he made his track debut in 1922, driving a Fafnir light car, with which he won a class victory at the Berlin Avus track. The next year, he began racing in earnest, with a borrowed Ego, matched against makes of such stunning obscurity as the Omikron, the Coco and the Grade.
Parts to bring the Ego up to racing trim had been provided by the car's makers on the firm understanding that if Caracciola won the parts were free, but if he lost he'd have to pay for them. As he had just blown his remaining cash on a square meal before the race, the threat was of little moment.
He won all the same, and on the strength of this victory he applied to the Mercedes racing team for a place. 'Patience, perhaps one day you will be a driver
,' said Christian Werner, head of the Mercedes team, who then offered Caracciola a job selling cars in Dresden.
Soon, young Rudi had his first works drive, at the wheel of a 1½-litre blown Mercedes, which he drove to victory in several speed trials and hill-climbs, including the Muennerstadt Hill-Climb, where he won four events, and the Teutoburgerwald Circuit which he won in 1924, 1925, 1926 and 1927.
Caracciola's First International Win
After a succession of minor victories came Caracciola's first international win, in the original German Grand Prix
, held over 20 laps of the Avus circuit. His mount was a 2-Iitre, straight-eight Mercedes, a model not renowned for good handling, and the asphalt surface of the Avus was slippery with rain: thus was the legend of Der Regenmeister born. Just to prove his versatility, Rudi also made fastest time at the Semmering hill climb, with a blown 4-litre Mercedes of 1914 vintage.
The secret of Caracciola's success was his unflappable calm, even in the most exciting of races. Commented George Monkhouse in 1936: 'He appears to have some uncanny premonition of what the car is likely to do before it does it, and makes the necessary correction on the steering wheel. Like a first class horseman, Caracciola has perfect hands
'. When the new Nurburgring
Circuit was inaugurated in 1926, Caracciola won the sports car race with the new 6.8-litre Mercedes S; he also recorded a number of sprint and hill-climb victories.
Der Regenmeister (The Rain Master)
At the Niirburgring again, he won the 1928 German Grand Prix
; in 1929, he appeared at the first Monaco GP with a liberally-drilled SSKL Mercedes, a car so manifestly unsuitable for the twisting Monegasque circuit that his second place behind Williams's Bugatti was all the more remarkable. It poured with rain during the 1929 Ulster TT: Der Regenmeister obliged with a faultless victory. In 1930, he raced in his first Mille Miglia, finishing sixth, partnered by his old mentor, Christian Werner. Next year, Caracciola returned to Italy for the Mille Miglia - and won - after one of the most epic drives in the history of motor racing, piloting his SSKL Mercedes the entire distance unaided, averaging 62.84mph over the 1000 miles, including stops, a new record.
Rain, at the start of the 1931 German Grand Prix
, favoured Caracciola, who led from the start on the twisting and winding circuit; though the sun came out for the last six laps, the others couldn't catch the flying Mercedes. At the end of 1931, however, Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing and Caracciola joined Alfa-Romeo for 1932, winning the Eifel, Lemburg, German and Monza Grands Prix. In 1933, Rudi drove an Alfa Romeo under the auspices of Scuderia CCC, run by him and Louis Chiron. Practising for the Monaco GP, Caracciola braked too late and rammed a wall, breaking his thigh in several places, which left him with a permanent limp.
Mercedes Persuade A Racing Return
He was out of action for over a year, a tragic period in which his wife was killed in a skiing accident. Eventually, though, Mercedes persuaded him to carry out tests of their new GP car, designed, at the behest of Adolf Hitler, for the 1934 unlimited capacity, 750 kg formula. In the 1934 Italian Grand Prix, Caracciola shared the winning car with Fagioli, his first victory since 1932. His annus mirabilis was certainly 1935: he won the Grands Prix of Tripoli, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, the Eifel and Penya Rhin to become European - and German - Champion.
Two years later, he again took the double crown, with the introduction of the more powerful W125 Mercedes; a new formula for 1938 saw the W154, with which Caracciola won the Swiss GP and Coppa Acerbo. He also drove a streamlined record car at 267 mph to set up a new 5-8-litre class record. 1939 saw Caracciola's last victory, the German GP, his sixth victory in this race. He tried a comeback in 1946 at Indianapolis, having spent the war in Switzerland, but crashed in practice, sustaining more serious injuries.
In 1952 he drove his last Mille Miglia, after a 20-year interval, and finished fourth in a Mercedes 300SL. Rudi's career ended after the 1954 Prix de Berne, when his car locked a wheel and skidded into a tree. Caracciola broke a leg, this time the other one, and was forced to retire from racing. He died in 1959.