Born on this day, Richard John Beattie “Dick” Seaman, one of the greatest British pre-war Grand Prix drivers

Tuesday 4th February 1913

Born on this day, Richard John Beattie “Dick” Seaman, one of the greatest British pre-war Grand Prix drivers. He famously drove for the Mercedes-Benz team from 1937-1939 in the Mercedes-Benz W154 car, winning the 1938 German Grand Prix. He died of his injuries after his car crashed into a tree and caught fire during the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix. He was just 26 years old.

After studying at Rugby School and Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1934 he resolved to become a racing driver and took his MG car to the European mainland to gain experience. He won the Voiturette race of the Swiss Grand Prix event at Bremgarten at his first attempt. He won other small races for English Racing Automobiles (ERA) He was very successful in the 1936 season both in UK and on the Continent using a 1926 1500 cc Delage race car which was developed and modified to be almost unbeatable at the time with Dick Seaman driving and eventually Mercedes team chief Alfred Neubauer invited him for a trial at the Nürburgring. Both Silver Arrows teams used to have at least one foreign driver, if available.

In 1937 he signed for Mercedes-Benz against the wishes of his mother, who did not want him to drive for a “Nazi” team. The Mercedes (and their rival Auto Union) cars, which were part of a racing program that was German government subsidized were far faster, better financed, better built, more advanced and more reliable than any of the racing cars he had driven previously. He now had a chance to win Grand Prixs and be one of the top drivers in the European Grand Prix championship. Having a solid start to his career with Mercedes in 1937, he excelled in the 1938 season – he won the 1938 German Grand Prix, giving the Nazi salute on the podium and becoming one of the favourite drivers of Hitler, and came second in the 1938 Swiss Grand Prix. In December 1938 he married Erica Popp, the daughter of the director of BMW, again against his mother’s wishes.

Leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps during a wet race, Seaman crashed his car into a tree during lap 22. It is thought he was using a line through a corner that was only normally used in the dry. After the impact, the car caught fire, with the unconscious driver still inside. Seaman died a few hours later as a result of his burns, at just 26 years of age; it was Mercedes’ only fatality during that time. On his death bed he remarked to the Mercedes chief engineer, “I was going too fast for the conditions – it was entirely my own fault. I am sorry”.

After Seaman’s death, Mercedes-Benz dealerships worldwide were ordered to display his photograph in their windows. Richard Seaman was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery in London.

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