Fresh from an extensive restoration, original racer Karl Wendlinger gets behind the wheel.

The Mercedes C291 was not the finest racing car ever to bear the three-pointed star. Far from it, in fact.

The World Sportscar Championship switched to a 3.5-liter engine formula for the 1991 season, which left the factory Mercedes team with a real problem. It’s previous car, the C11, used a thumping 5.0-liter, twin-turbo V8 motor which was impossible to adapt, so the squad had to start from scratch.

A radical flat-12 unit was devised and mounted in a chassis designed by Sauber. The combination proved to be a continuous source of problems. The engine was unreliable and the chassis, which drew on older Group C technology, was well off the pace. Taking advantage of engine rules identical to those of Formula One, other teams including Jaguar, Peugeot, and Toyota, had built what were, essentially, closed-roof F1 cars.

Even so, the team of Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass finished second on the C291’s debut at Suzuka, and followed the result up with third at Monza. Junior drivers Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger took another second-place finish at the next round at Silverstone, but their car was withdrawn from the Le Mans 24 Hours due to concerns about reliability. Schlesser and Mass could only manage 16th in their car.

Schumacher and Wendlinger then won the final round at Autopolis. It was enough for the squad to finish third in the Manufacturers’ Championship, but it was a bitter disappointment after their domination of the previous year. Mercedes abandoned sports car racing at the end of the season in favor of Formula One.

Just one of the two C291s built still exists, living at the Carl Benz Museum in Ladenburg, Germany. It had sat unused for many years, but has just come out of an extensive restoration that took one-and-a-half years to complete. Restorer SPS Automotive Performance took the car to the Paul Ricard circuit in France for a shakedown run, and invited one of the car’s original drivers, Karl Wendlinger, to drive it. 

It seems Wendlinger was very happy with how the car performed during his run - it certainly looks and sounds fabulous. Hopefully it will be out racing before too long.

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