Audi arrives in F1: look back at the history of Auto-Union and the rivalry with Mercedes

Audi arrives in F1: look back at the history of Auto-Union and the rivalry with Mercedes

The imminent arrival of Audi Sport from the 2026 season of Formula 1 recalls the good old game of the ringed company: victory in Group B with the model Quattro then the epic 24 hours of Le Mans and the World Championship of ‘Endurance’.
And yet, Audi also participated in single-seater racing from the 1930s, revolutionizing the competition of the time with the engine in the middle position of the rear. Audi we say?

No… Not Audi at all, but Auto-Union….

Audi: From the crisis of 1929 is born Auto-Union

Auto-Union was officially born in 1932 from the merger of four German companies: Audi, Horch, DKW and Wanderer. The crisis hits Europe three years after the stock market crash of October 24, 1929, which will destroy many American citizens, causes a sharp drop in sales of these small producers against the giant Daimler-Benz that assembles the famous Mercedes. Jörgen Skafte Rasmussen CEO of DKW initiated the merger of four independent and very small companies. Thus, Auto-Union AG is officially born.

Rasmussen’s idea, presented to the board of directors on July 20, 1932, was as follows: “ Today, because of the problem, our small cars are selling poorly. Our highly independent industries sometimes even compete with each other. We must bring them together and with them our methods, our networks, but above all our people and our skills. In addition, since our small cars have lost customers, let’s make more powerful, big sedans but also racing cars..” And the ogre will find someone to talk to. The “monster” in question is obviously Mercedes.

During the 1930s, the most prestigious competition at the time was the European Championship, which was organized by the International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs (AIACR), an organization created by the Automobile Club de France (ACF) and the ancestor of the current Federation of Fédération Internationale. de l’Cars. The first edition of this Championship in 1931 included three events: Italy, France and Belgium. The 1931 and 1932 seasons were contested under Formula Libre rules setting a minimum weight of 900 kg. In 1934, the AIACR revised the rules by fixing the maximum weight at 750 kg.

On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg. Hitler had promised a bonus of 450,000 Reichsmarks to German car manufacturers who would invest in the race. Payments are shared between Daimler-Benz AG and the new company Auto Union AG.

Hitler was going to focus on sports and especially motor racing as a tool for his propaganda.
If Mercedes-Benz is already at the Grand Prix with its famous SSKL. Auto Union will rework Ferdinand Porsche’s P-Wagen project by placing the engine in a central position to build its first single-seater, the Type A (revolutionary at the time). The two German manufacturers are fully committed to this championship and forced the dominance of the so-called “Silver Arrows” to win almost all the races. In addition to Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union, other Latin companies at this time include Alfa Romeo whose cars have been imported by Scuderia Ferrari, Maserati and Bugatti.

European Championship suppressed by the reign of the “Silver Arrows”

After a two-year break, the 1933 and 1934 seasons not taking place, it was Rudolf Caracciola at Mercedes who won the title in 1935. But in 1936 Bernd Rosemeyer was Champion at Auto-Union after a fierce battle with Carraciola.
The other competitors are now just additions, as if to complete the set. The unlimited means provided by the Reich allow German manufacturers to grab everything. Judge instead:

Caracciola was champion in 1935 in Mercedes, Rosemeyer in 1936 in Auto-Union, Caracciola in 1937 and 1938 in his Mercedes and Herman Paul Müller in 1939 in Auto-Union although he was not officially crowned following the outbreak of World War II in September. 3, 1939. The Silver Arrows at the time were making around 600 hp, twice what the organizers believed possible due to the weight limit. To remedy this, the regulations changed from the 1938 season, events being run according to the 3/4.5 liter Formula rules.

Cars with naturally aspirated engines must have a displacement between 1,000 and 4,500 cc while cars with supercharged engines must have a displacement between 666 and 3,000 cc. In addition, cars must weigh between 400 and 850 kg, however, the minimum weight of the car depended on engine displacement.

The end of the Second World War where the disappearance of the Auto-Union

Bernd Rosemeyer will lose his life during the record attempt in January 1938, on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt road set aside for the speed test that Auto-Union argued with Mercedes.

During the Second World War, the competitive Silver Arrow Types C and D are hidden in Zwickau. When the Nazi regime collapsed, Saxony found itself in Soviet territory. The cars are seized and taken away by the Red Army. They leave for the USSR where, dispersed, they will be used as study subjects. All disappear except the 16-cylinder C type which was sold to the Deutsche Museum in Munich in 1938.

In the 1980s, after ten years of research, American collector Paul Karassik managed to find two D-types that were in spare condition. One dated 1938 near Saint Petersburg, the chassis of which was cut in two, the other from 1939 in Kharkov, Ukraine. He managed to get them out of the Soviet Union in pieces via Finland, before being restored by British specialists Crosthwaite & Gardner with technical support from Audi.

“Audi Tradition” currently owns four “Auto Union” Silver Arrows: the old Karassik D Type, the C/D Mountain Climbing Type, as well as two copies (Type C Grand Prix and Type C Avus aerodynamic). These cars are still driven today, they can be seen at vintage car races, especially at the Reims circuit or more recently at the traditional “Festival of Speed” at Goodwood.

In 1945, the Auto-Union company was dissolved and abolished as a legal entity in the Soviet occupation zone in Chemnitz to be re-established in Ingolstadt in Bavaria, the headquarters of the future Audi company. This new company produced DKW brand cars with two stroke engines, mainly small popular cars. The company was taken over by Mercedes in 1957, then by Volkswagen in 1964, with the corporate name “Audi NSU Auto Union”, after merging with the NSU company. The Auto Union name would last until January 1, 1985, when the brand would officially become “Audi AG”.

Article published at 9:45 am on 04/12/2022