Celebrating 100 years of Opel motorsport heritage
A fascinating story with rockets, fast cars, rallying and some very notable personalities along the way. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Surrounded by obscurity
While Opel has been made famous by Richard Hammond's little Oliver in our community and by today's standards their cars are just passable (and not very popular), there's plenty of motorsport heritage behind the badge. It's very strange for the company, not to use it in their advertisement, because they have nothing to be ashamed of, but it has been surrounded by obscurity long enough.
Fritz von Opel - Credit: Magazin Auto
Street racing back in the day
Before old airfields became racetracks, the Germans had this "crazy" idea to convert a highways into such. By using a hefty length of the oldest controlled European highway (Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße) and adding banking on both sides, the AVUS circuit was born.
The streamlined north banking exit at AVUS - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The original layout was 19 km (12 miles) long, dual carriageway with banked hairpins in both ends, meaning a high top speed potential for any of the participants was an absolute must. As it often happens even today, Mercedes were the ones showing muscles early on with their "Monza-type" Kompressor eight-cylinder engine. They captured the first win with a private, modified car, driven by a salesman called Otto Wilhelm Rudolf Caracciola. Later he would win the European Championship, the pre-1950 F1 equivalent unprecedented three times, becoming one of the most successful Silver Arrows drivers of all times.
The steep part of the north banking at AVUS - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Tortoise and the Hare
What Mercedes couldn't predict was the emergence of a little known manufacturer, who would shatter their winning streak completely and in a way from which they would be completely blindsided. A young rocket engineer called Fritz arrived that day and decided to keep away from the spotlight. Out of 16 cars from nine manufacturers, his Opel 8 was looking like the underdog, having only four cylinders and a measly 25 hp from the 2.3 litre engine.
100 years ago at the start of AVUS Grand Prix - Credit: DriveTwo
What Fritz's car seemingly lacked in performance, it made up for by the driver's advanced knowledge and engineering skills. Having the family name "Opel" carried some big expectation inside his family circle, so the grandson of Adam Opel decided for once to put his rocket science into a racing car project. Creating a racing heritage was not exactly a top priority for Fritz - it was a passion project for the future speed daredevil, who was to be nicknamed "Rocket-Fritz" later in his life.
The original layout of AVUS - Credit: DriveTwo
The first real racing drama
Mercedes were confident going into the race, because they held both the power and speed advantage on this track, and any real competition was nowhere to be seen. The chatty Italian who managed to somehow beat their top speed record the previous year with a truck engine from a small Milanese manufacturer was notably absent, so their confidence grew even stronger. In the meantime, 200 000 people have gathered around the track to witness the first proper upset in motorsport's history.
The start of AVUS Gran Prix - Credit: DriveTwo
Mercedes took the lead from the start and kept it for more than half a lap, but the driver was in a state of shock just after the first banking, because he was overtaken by a seemingly underpowered Opel. What Fritz von Opel managed to do with his engineering skills was to develop a car that needed next to nothing, to achieve much higher top speed. His advanced knowledge of aerodynamics meant that every single bit on that Opel 8 was optimised for minimal drag, so he wouldn't need much power, which at the time Opel was not capable of delivering anyway. And to make the day even sweeter, Opel won the motorcycle race as well. But to make the misery of Mercedes even worse, NSU overtook them for the second place.
Opel 8 leading at AVUS - Credit: OffNews
Often called a mad scientist for some of his radical rocket demonstration, Fritz actually is one of the forefathers of racing aerodynamics, having thought of things like wheel design, suspensions geometry and even internal cooling position, in the context of air resistance. This approach has only been repeated by the open-wheel series today, but was so out-of-the-box idea back in the day, even Mercedes haven't thought about it. Being a precise German, Fritz went as far as calculating the individual drag values of the suspensions in the state of their flexing inside both bankings! The racing Opel broke the top speed record, the average speed record and the fastest lap record. It held those three until the original track was shortened for safety reasons.
Spectacular captured moment at AVUS - Credit: DriveTwo
"Rocket-Fritz" and his legacy
Two important things were born that day - the racer inside Fritz and the desire of Opel for racing. Staying together on course for some time, eventually led to the appearance of rocket racing cars and even rocket-powered motorcycles. Eventually the car manufacturer and the grandson of Adam Opel split ways at the track, as the work of Fritz was giving him a real opportunity to shine in the scientific world by competing with non other, but Wernher von Braun.
Fritz von Opel and his rocket-powered Rakettenwagen - Credit: Magazin Auto
His daredevil rocket-powered vehicles have been largely forgotten now, because he "bended the knee" to Adolf Hitler in an attempt to save his factory workers from the Nazi forced labour, before fleeing Germany and dying abroad. After the WW2, Opel chose not to follow this legacy and concentrated instead in other branches of motorsport to create their own.
"Rocket-Fritz" in action - Credit: Magazin Auto
Fritz's son on the other hand, chose to honour his father's motorsport legacy and even managed to become a top racing driver. Frederick von Opel won the Lombard North British Formula 3 Championship in 1972 and later had two short spells in Formula 1, driving for the Ensign and Brabham teams. He couldn't manage to score any points in ten races and ended his career early, but nevertheless he represented the name Opel in the way it should've been - with courage and pride! After his stint in Formula 1, Frederick has retired to a Buddhist monastery in rural Thailand to become a monk, with little to no communication with the outside world.
The Opel name on an F1 car - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Opel in motorsports today
After the war, Opel chose to dive in the rally world and thanks to brilliant drivers like Walter Röhrl and Ari Vatanen they've won the 1982 World Rally Championship drivers title and later the 1983 Safari Rally. Then the touring car series arrived and Opel was hard on it for years in ITC, DTC and later DTM. They've managed to win the 1996 ITC Championship with their flagship Calibra, but apart from some sporadic race wins, they never won the DTM crown. Nowadays Opel have returned to rallying with their Adam S rally car, seeking to get back to their winning ways once again.
Opel Adam R2 - Credit: WRC Image Gallery
But Opel's racing roots were never in rallying or touring cars. They've grown on a high-speed street track by a young rocket scientist with great knowledge and big dreams. This is what Opel should stand for, because their motorsport identity was forged on that faithful day at the AVUS.