The 1959 German GP: Concrete Courage.

1959 German GP Banner_edited-1

The AVUS Circuit.

avus3In 1926, the first German Grand Prix took place at Avus.[1]  The circuit was formed using a hairpin turn at one end and a high-banked curve at the other end of a section of autobahn.  In essence, there were but two turns: the nordkurve and the südkurve.  I’ve included some footage from the early days of the track:

1926 German Grand Prix.

By 1959, sales at the now-legendary Nürburgring were dwindling, due in part to the remoteness of the track.[2]  Consequently, the course was relocated  back to Avus, in spite of the danger.  But the game had changed.  The high-banked corner had been added and the cars were faster – much faster.  One journalist reported, “To hold the German Grand Prix on such a circuit when for years it had been held on the Nürburgring seems idiotic.”[3]  Bruce Mclaren later noted that the Grand Prix cars were four-wheel drifting at 170 around the middle of the corner.[4]  As occurs to this day, Grand Prix are often supported by lower series races.  The result was a titanic battle between the centripetal force fighting to maintain the cars’ arch and the centrifugal force trying to slingshot the car off the track.  Before the Grand Prix ever started, tragedy struck for Jean Behra, in an unimportant support race.

Jean Behra Loses Control.

 “Only those who do not move, do not die…But are they not already dead?”

-Jean Behra

Jean Behra was a notoriously tough Frenchman.  He is driver in the form of Alberto Ascari and Juan-Manuel Fangio, in that he did not fear death.  But, he did not have the skill of the great champions.  Consequently, he escaped a number of accidents with only broken bones.  A magazine famously published a photo of his injuries, something that Behra was rather proud of.

Jean Behra Injury Photo from Magazine

However, Behra was hotheaded and ill-suited to Enzo’s “my way or the highway” approach to management.  I recently described the end of Behra’s tenure at Ferrari: he went crazed fisticuffs on the team manager, Romolo Tavoni.

Years later, Ferrari Engineer Carlo Chiti made a bone chilling, yet nuanced, reflection.[5][6]  His observation reminded me that a man’s ambition toward greatness can also be his ultimate undoing:

“We had completely abandoned that man to himself.  We had obliged him to take refuge in his own desperation.”

I cannot imagine the mix of anger, humiliation, and desperation that he would have felt after being fired from the famed Scuderia Ferrari.  Certainly, he would have felt significant pressure to impress in every he event he entered.  It is possible, even likely, that this pressure drove him to his untimely death.

Behra was racing his personal racecar, a Porsche Spyder RSK.  Behra was in third place and charging hard.  His car slowed only to around 110 miles per hour (the Grand Prix cars would be significantly faster around the high banked corners).  Suddenly, the centrifugal force of the turn combined with a touch of oversteer broke the tail loose.  The tail spun higher and higher until the corner flung his car off itself.[7]  Spectators watched his body catapulted into the air.  He flung his arms in the air, as if trying to fly himself to safety.[8]  Tragically, he slammed again a flagpole and then rolled down the bank behind the curve.  Skull fracture by blunt force trauma was the official cause of death.  Thus, a great French driver was killed, in part by his own ambition, and in part by the promoters.  It was the promoters who knew of the danger of Avus, and yet, decided to bring the German Grand Prix circuit, simply because Avus was near Berlin, the Nürburgring was remote, and ticket sales were down at the ‘Ring.

For better or worse, the race always (and still does) always go on.  So, the sports car race ran to completion and the 1959 German Grand Prix took place the next day.

1959 German GP.

Unusually, the race was run as two 30 lap heats.[9]  Author Eoin Young, and friend of Bruce McLaren, provided an unedited account of the race by Bruce himself.[10]

Apparently, the Ferrari’s played hardball in qualifying.  McLaren noted, “If either Masten, Jack, or myself went out to try to tail a Ferrari, as soon as [we] were in the slipstream, out would come the Ferrari team manager with the rampant horse on the flag, waving it vigorously in front of the driver, who would then have to pull over and let us go down the straight, or pull in to the pit”

Although it continually ruined the laps of the Coopers, they would follow the Ferrari’s into the pit, straight through, and back out.  While that was not helping them set a qualifying lap, it was making a point to the Ferrari boys while maintaining their drafting position for the next go around.

In the race itself, Ferrari had no way to stop the Cooper-Climax’s from drafting the more powerful Ferrari’s down the straight.

First Heat.

The cars ran toe to toe as the Ferrari’s hustled to break the draft of the trailing Cooper’s.  Brabham, Gregory, and Bonnier held tight, but McLaren, Schell, Trintignant, and Graham Hill fell back into a second group.  One by one, everyone except for Masten Gregory lost the draft of the powerful Ferraris.  Masten’s fortitude assisted his Ferrari chase.  Bruce noted, “I suppose you could say that this circuit was made up of speed and guts, and Masten had plenty of both.”[11]  Apparently, the Cooper team was hoping that consistent pressure would force the Ferrari’s to over-extend their cars.  I find it funny when subtle tactics persist through the ages.  Although modern engines rarely fail, tires only last for a limited time.  It remains commonplace for a following driver to try and push the leading driver hard enough that he destroys his tires and loses pace.

Eventually, the Ferrari’s picked up an entire lap on the rest of the field.  Bruce McLaren and the rest of the field picked up the Ferrari’s as they went a lap down on the leading pack.  McLaren, a quick-learner, figured out how to grab the draft as they passed.  According to Bruce, “Fortunately, the Ferraris weren’t quite as quick out of the hairpin and by getting right on their tail, within a few feet or so, you could get dragged right along the straight.  My car by itself could do 6,300 rpm down the straight… but behind the Ferraris I could do 6,800 and at one stage I managed 7,000 rpm, which was around 185 mph.”[12]

Having held the tow, McLaren crossed the line in fourth.  This put him on the front row of the four-abreast starting grid for the second heat.

The Second Heat.

The starter’s hand raised the flag.  Bruce mashed the gas in neutral, revving the engine high.  As the flag dropped, McLaren released the clutch of his grippy mid-engined Cooper.  In spite of burning rubber for the length of a solid three iron off the tee, McLaren took the lead.  Inevitably, the Ferrari’s flew past.  McLaren’s cooper simply did not have the power of the 246s engines.  Eventually, Bruce’s gearbox stripped itself and forced him to retire.

He watched a fantastic sight as the Ferrari’s rounded the track, 1, 2, 3.  “I saw the Ferraris coming round the very fast right-hander towards me.  They were taking it flat around  – over 170 mph – in a drift.  The three of them nose to tail certainly looked impressive.”[13]

All three positions on the podium were occupied by the Ferrari drivers.  Notably, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill (both from California) were second and third, respectively.  This may be the only race in which two Americans have stood on the podium at the same time.

Driver’s Championship.

  • Jack Brabham – 27
  • Tony Brooks – 23
  • Phil Hill – 13

Constructor’s Championship.

  • Cooper-Climax – 29
  • Scuderia Ferrari – 24
  • British Racing Motors (BRM) – 16


[1] Bruce Jones, The Complete Encyclopedia of Formula One, 262 (12th ed., Carlton 2010).

[2] Id.

[4] Eoin Young, McLaren Memories: A Biography of Bruce McLaren, 68 (Haynes 2005) (providing a first-hand account of the 1959 German Grand Prix transcribed from a tape that Bruce McLaren sent back to his family New Zealand, in his second year abroad as a racing driver).

[5] Carlo Chiti worked with Alfa Romeo but is also remembered for his role in designing the Ferrari 156 Sharknose.

[6] Richard Williams, Enzo Ferrari: A Life, 213 (Yellow Jersey 2002).

[7] Michael Cannell, The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, 205 (Twelve 2011).

[8] See e.g., Id. at 205 (although I am citing to Cannell’s account, with surprising consistency, every account of the crash describes Behra as flinging his outstretched arms in an attempt to control his midair flight.)

[9] Admittedly, the particulars of this format are unclear.  Moreover, fair notice that I am willfully ignoring the inconsistencies between the description of the race format and Bruce McLaren’s contemporaneous account of the race.

[10] Young, supra n. 4, at 66-69.

[11] Id. at 67.

[12] Id. at 68.

[13] Id.