One of the Old School

Shortly before he passed away in his sleep, on March 5, Porsche’s one-time racing director had granted an interview to Randall Barnett. We publish an account of their conversation by way of tribute

Baron Fritz Huschke von Hanstein, who turned 85 on January 3 of this year, two months before his sudden death, was a motorsports legend.

One of the last “gentleman drivers, he counted such notables as Tazio Nuvolari, Rudolph Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Dick Seaman among his acquaintances.

During a lengthy interview at his spacious home overlooking the city of Stuttgart, von Hanstein reminisced about his victory in the 1940 Mille Miglia, about his role with Porsche in the 1950s and ’60s, and about his racing comrades from a bygone era.

An elegant and charming individual with a command of four languages, von Hanstein looked more like a man of 70. The only sign of his advancing age came when he grudgingly turned up the volume on his hearing aid, He did this with a slight smile and a quick apology.

As he poured out coffee from a silver urn, he relaxed and spun out his wonderful tales of life on the world’s circuits in an era we find difficult to envisage today.

“Most of the drivers from my time came from good families,” von Hanstein said. “We were mostly gentlemen of independent means. We were young and we knew that nothing could happen to us. Stupid attitude, I suppose. We knew racing was deadly dangerous, but at the same time we didn’t want to know it. There were so many good drivers then, I think of them often. They were real personalities, simpatico human beings.”

Von Hanstein competed against most of the big-name drivers of the 1930s era, including Italy’s Giuseppe Farina who, in 1950, became the first Grand Prix world champion in the post-war racing world.

And it was Farina’s heavily favoured Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 that von Hanstein beat by some 25 miles in his 1940 Mille Miglia victory, driving a streamlined Touring-bodied BMW 328 coupe.

Later, as racing director of Porsche from 1951 to 1968, von Hanstein was responsible for the fortunes of such men as Dan Gurney, Stirling Moss, Wolfgang von Trips and Jo Bonnier, to name his main stars.

Despite his age, von Hanstein remained “on the go” to the end giving post-season talks to international auto clubs and working closely with the Automobilclub von Deutschland, of which is he was honorary vice president. Always active in international motorsport programmes, he only recently flagged off the German start of the Monte Carlo Rally in the city of Bad Homburg, this act now a longstanding ritual.

A nobleman who traced his ancestry back to the 11th century, von Hanstein started his racing career on motorcycle in 1929, winning his first event that same year while a student in England. After much success on motorcycles, he switched to cars in the mid-1930s. A highly versatile driver, he competed in hundreds of international events hillclimbs, rallies, long-distance races and circuit races.

Discussing his Mille Miglia victory, one that he considered the high-point of his career, he looked back 55 years.

“It was the only race run after the war had started,” he recalled, “which made it a bit bizarre, and it did not follow the normal route. But it was nearly 1000 miles, and a hard 1000 miles it was. And I drove it with no relief at the wheel.”

The 1940 Mille Miglia was unique. It was run on April 28, nearly eight months after the beginning of World War II, and it would be the last Mille Miglia until 1947. Although Italy was still a neutral nation at the time at the time, the classic Brescia-Rome-Brescia route was eliminated for security reasons. So a triangular course was established instead, ruming from Brescia to Cremona and Mantua and then back to Brescia. This involved a distance of just over 100 miles and nine laps were run.

Von Hanstein recalled that time: “I was German champion in 1938, one of my proudest achievements, and I started to move up. I caught the attention of Auto Union and BMW, and I did a lot of testing with the aerodynamic BMW closed-body cars. There were made of light alloy and were considered streamlined in that era.

“The cars were difficult to drive. No one had much experience with aerodynamics in those days it was all just an experimental process. The cars zig-zagged back and forth, never running in a straight line. But I had previous experience with a closed-body car an Adler so that helped. “Although I was German champion,” von Hanstein recounted, “I was still no big star by any means, and that actually helped me get my BMW ride in the race. The real stars all preferred open-body cars so their fans could see them race. They said they would be ashamed to be wrapped up inside a racing car like I was going to be.”

But the inside wrap-up paid off. Von Hanstein defeated a formidable field of far more powerful Italian and French cars, including the fledgling Ferrari model known as the AAC 815, and some of the world’s best drivers as well. While the Italian and French cars had the edge in horsepower, the more sophisticated streamlined BMW coupe had the edge everywhere else and von Hanstein used it to his advantage. He ran rings around the Alfas and Delages that day, and his only worry came from flying rocks and gravel while passing other cars.

“If a stone had crashed through our windshield, the aerodynamic nature of the coupe would have been destroyed, and we would have been out of it,” von Hanstein reckoned.

He had established a strong lead from the start, and was ordered to increase it. The orders came from the famous Alfred Neubauer, who was directing the German operation while Nazi motorsports boss Adolph Huhnlein looked on.

Von Hanstein drove nearly the entire race, as ordered, relinquishing his seat only 10 miles from the end to his co-driver Walter Baumer, who would be killed in the war a few months later.

“Near the end, I stopped, got out of my seat and handed the wheel to Baumer. It was only fair. After all, he had been sat there for nearly 900 miles without complaining. So he drove the car to the flag. I’ve always been happy about that,” von Hanstein recollected, “because as long as the Mille Miglia is remembered, we are both there in the record books.”

The 1940 race made von Hanstein famous, and after the war he went to work to get racing back on its feet in Germany.

A good friend of Ferdinand Porsche, he joined the emerging Porsche firm in 1951, racing Porsche cars himself and directing its racing and public relations fortunes at the same time.

As Stirling Moss once said, “In those days, Huschke was the Porsche team.”

Von Hanstein reminisced about that era: “There was no problem combining the roles of both racing driver and director, although that would be impossible today.

“For instance, I would share my time at the wheel with others – all friends – and if I had some Porsche business work to do while the race was going on, then they would just have to drive longer. It didn’t matter. We all worked together.

“Money was always a big problem in those days, and we were always short of it. And you couldn’t borrow then like you can now. But with a lot of hard work, Porsche forged ahead and we did well on the race tracks.

“Where driver contracts were concerned, we did it all by handshakes. Stirling wanted too much money, so I just gave him a car [a Formula Two Porsche]. I told him that he could win or lose with it. He mainly won, of course, as I knew he would, and it was wonderful publicity for Porsche.

“It’s hard to say who was the best driver during my 17 years at Porsche, because their talents were so varied. I suppose Moss, because he could drive any type of car. So could Dan [Gurney]. Dan and I are very good friends. He still calls me once a month. He should, too. After all, he pinched my secretary. They’ve been married a long time now. And by the way, Dan’s Formula One win in the French Grand Prix was also the biggest success for me during my time as racing director of Porsche.”

At one point during our chat, von Hanstein rose and went to a large book case, returning with a scrapbook.

“Here is another great driver,” he said pointing to a photograph of Wolfgang von Trips. “He had a natural talent, I met him when he was a lad of 18 or 19, when he had come to see if I could get a new piston for his Porsche. Only three cylinders were working. That’s all he wanted a piston. I got it for him and he drove that car in the Mille Miglia and won his class. Eventually we became strong friends. He was a nice guy.”

Von Trips eventually left Porsche for Ferrari and was killed in the 1961 Italian Grand Prix while leading the drivers’ world championship. Von Hanstein spoke at his funeral.

“The drivers were all friends then,” he stressed. “I can still see Graham [Hill] and Jo [Bonnier] sitting at a restaurant table and playing some Chinese game… Mahjong, I think. They would play by the hour. We were all good friends. We ate together and drank together. You don’t see that now.”

He also enjoyed talking about his early days with Porsche in the United States, where he and Karl Kling became the first German drivers to race in America since the war.

“We raced in Albany, Georgia, in 1952,” von Hanstein said, “a 200-miler. Neither of us finished, but we got a lot of publicity because we drove the cars through the streets before the race. We were establishing Porsche’s name in the United States, and then the Mexican Pan-Americana races followed. I led that operation while Kling and Hans Herrmann did the racing.

“My main job in Mexico was getting spare parts to the mechanics along the course, and we used a small plane to do it. That plane was so loaded down with parts I often thought that it would never get off the ground.

“But looking back now, all these things were modest and amusing when compared to operations in today’s racing world.”

Asked if he had ever compiled a list of the 10 all-time best drivers, von Hanstein quickly retorted, “No, it’s not possible. You cannot compare drivers unless you compare them in their own specific era. For instance, Ayrton Senna was the best of this time. Michael Schumacher may become the best of his time. But neither can be the best of all time. “You can’t compare the drivers and races today with those of past era, not even those of 10 years ago. Drivers walk away from accidents that would have been fatal 20 years ago. Earlier, in my time, there were no crash barriers, no sand to sink into, no fire-resistant racing suits, and all that. The races were much longer, and were run on far more dangerous and difficult tracks.”

Here von Hanstein paused, and said, “But please let me stress that I’m happy to note that racing is safer. Anyway, you can’t make an all-time best driver list. How can you compare a Nuvolari to a Senna? No, the drivers must come from their own era.”

A fairly recent achievement that von Hanstein took special pride in involves German drivers Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

“Formula Three has always been strong in England,” he reflected, “and in France and Italy too, and I thought it was about time that we jumped and helped our young German drivers. “I sold the ONS [Germany’s ruling motorsports body] on a deal to put down money for two promising young drivers Schumacher and Frentzen. They could race for one season without paying for anything. The ONS would pick up the tab.

“We didn’t know if they would make it to the top or not, but we certainly hoped they would. Hah! They didn’t let us down, did they?”

With the interview ended, I was preparing to leave the trophy-filled room when I spied a photo of America’s Phil Hill.

“Did Hill ever drive for you?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” von Hanstein replied, “but he may have done. When he stops to see me on a visit he always says he once got 50 marks from me for a race he did. So perhaps his memory is better than mine.”

In Germany, it rains often, and that day was no exception. As I prepared to go, von Hanstein, with an open umbrella in hand, insisted on accompanying me to my car, before I waved goodbye with great reluctance, and, unknowingly, for the last time, to this charming, old-world gentleman.