Hans on deck

In 1952 Hans Herrmann began racing with a humble Porsche 356. Eighteen years later he retired after winning at Le Mans in a thunderous 917. He recalls the many highs and lows of his career with Chris Nixon

It is one of motor racing’s enduring images – a BRM P25 cartwheeling down the track shedding components, one being the driver, who appears to be kneeling on the road, watching calmly over his shoulder as the car disintegrates. The driver was Hans Herrmann and, in fact, he was doing cartwheels of his own, but the camera froze him in the position of a mere spectator. Remarkably, Herrmann walked away virtually unhurt after one of the most spectacular crashes in Grand Prix history.

The BRM belonged to the British Racing Partnership of Alfred Moss and Ken Gregory, Stirling’s father and manager respectively. The race was the ’59 German GP which that year was run on the fatuous Avus autobahn track instead of the fabulous road circuit at the Nürburgring. Moss had elected to drive Rob Walker’s Cooper-Climax and so, to keep the organisers happy, the BRM was offered to local boy Herrmann.

Not so local, in truth, for Hans was born in Stuttgart (the home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche) in 1928 and it was in one of the latter’s models that he had begun his competition career in 1952. He won his class in only his second event, the Deutschland Rally.

Early the next year he and Richard von Frankenberg won their class in the tough Lyon-Charbonnieres rally. This prompted Hans to think big and enter the Mille Miglia, to the dismay of his friends who worried about his lack of experience for such an arduous event. Undaunted, Herrmann scored a superb class win, finishing 28th overall. He was rewarded with the offer of a works Porsche 550 for the Eifelrennen and then Le Mans.

He won the 1500cc Eifel race in the pouring rain, and was paired with Helm Glocker for Le Mans. The little Porsches ran like clockwork, covered the same number of laps and took the flag side-by-side, but officials ruled that the car of von Frankenberg and Frere had covered the greater distance and awarded it the class win ahead of Herrmann and Glocker.

Then, one morning, he was awoken by a phone call from Alfred Neubauer. Would Herr Herrmann like to do some testing for Mercedes at the Nürburgring?

Having signed Fangio and Karl Kling for the ’54 season, Neubauer wanted a younger driver to complete his team. So he summoned Herrmann, Hans Klenk, Gunther Bechem and Paul Frère to the Nürburgring to test 300SLs. The party stayed in the Sporthotel and Herrmann managed to sleep through his alarm call. He was only awakened by the sound of the cars in the pits. At the end of the second day Hans and Frère were fastest but it was the German, understandably, who was offered a place in the Grand Prix team for 1954, an astonishing reward for a man with barely a season of racing to his name.

A month later Henmann drove an F2 Veritas in the German GP, finishing ninth and winning the supporting sportscar race in the 550, setting a new lap record. That year he became the German Sportscar Champion for 1953.

Neubauer allowed Hans to drive Porsche’s new Spyder in the Mille Miglia and, with passenger Herbert Lange, won their class and came sixth overall. It was not a race without incident: they came across a closed railway crossing. In a split-second Hans decided both that he could not stop in time and that the Spyder was lower than the barrier, so he banged Linge on the helmet to make him duck and drove over the crossing just ahead of an approaching train.

Ten days later Herrmann was at Hockenheim for his first drive in the new Mercedes-Benz GP car, the W196 streamliner. It was nearly his last too:

“A pipe broke and sprayed hot oil onto my feet as I braked for the Stadt kurve,” he recalls. “I lost control, hit a house and was thrown out.” He spent the next fortnight in hospital.

Then came Mercedes’ dramatic return to F1, in the French GP at Reims. Fangio and Kling ran away with the race while, not surprisingly, Hans had problems adjusting to the W196. “I found it difficult after the Porsche, which was rear-engined and very light, whereas the Mercedes was front-engined, much bigger and much more powerful. Nonetheless, I made fastest lap and was in third place when the engine blew. Unlike those of Fangio and Kling my motor had not been run-in.”

Mercedes were not keen to enter the next race, the British GP, well aware that the streamliners were unsuited to Silverstone, and sent just two cars for Fangio and Kling to be soundly beaten by Froilan Gonzalez in his Ferrari.

For the German GP at the Nürburgring, Mercedes fielded three open-wheel W196s, to be driven by Fangio, Kling and Lang. Hans had a streamliner which seemed likely to be even less at home on the ‘Ring. As it turned out he was a superb fourth fastest in practice and ran a strong third in the race before retiring with fuel injection problems. He found some consolation in winning the sportscar race with his trusty works Spyder.

He was a fine third in the Swiss GP, fourth in the Italian and third at Avus, which was not so much a race as a demonstration run for Mercedes.

In January, 1955 Mercedes sent four cars to South America for the Argentine GP, in which Hans finished fourth. Then came the Mille Miglia and the debut of the new Mercedes 300SLR which provided a sensational victory for Stirling Moss. Even so, despite Stirling’s heroic drive, Hans believes he could have won that race.

“Our fuel filler was not properly closed at the Florence Control and on the Futa Pass the cap opened and fuel went everywhere. My passenger was Herrmann Eger. At first the fuel was cool, but then it got hotter and Eger was all for jumping out because one spark could have set fire to everything. Then fuel got in my eyes, I hit a marker stone and spun. The cockpit was so full of petrol we could not go on, which was a shame as our brakes were perfect. We learned afterwards that Stirling had virtually no brakes left. I am sure we could have won…”

Hold on. Stirling’s win was a landmark victory, along with those of Hawthorn at Reims in ’53 and Fangio at the Nürburgring in ’57. Could Herrmann have beaten Moss? Surely he cannot be serious? But he is. The unthinkable happens and Hermann’s claim is made with such confidence that it deserves investigation.

He is right to say Moss had virtually no brakes left. After the race it was discovered that the linings had worn through, together with some of the aluminium shoes, but the SLRs were equipped with a hydraulic brake booster, which kept them working.

In his celebrated race report Denis Jenkinson wrote that as they entered Bologna the brakes “were beginning to show signs of the terrific thrashing they had been receiving” but went on to say that for the 85 miles from Cremona to the finish they averaged a staggering 123 mph. Clearly, braking was not a problem.

At the Florence control Herrmann was almost six minutes behind Moss, but even had he not retired you can be sure that not even Fangio could have caught Stirling. Nevertheless, to come within 300 km of finishing second in the Mille Miglia with only two seasons of racing behind him was no small achievement.

A week later, in Monaco, Hans had put the W196 into a stone balustrade just before the Casino. He was lucky to escape with his life. As it was it marked the end to his Grand Prix career. “I was badly hurt but frightened of fire, so I pulled myself out of the cockpit and, with my elbows, dragged myself away from the car I had two broken ribs, a broken pelvis, my right thigh was broken in six places and my hip was dislocated. I spent three months in hospital.

By October Hans was well enough to go to the Targa Florio, where Mercedes were out for the Sportscar World Championship. “I practiced with the 300SLR,” he recalls, “but found that it took about half a second between deciding to brake and actually moving my foot. I had to tell Neubauer I could not race. Mercedes won and then announced their withdrawal from competition.”

For 1956 Hans went back to Porsche and also drove a Ferrari in the Targa Florio with Olivier Gendebien, finishing third. At the end of the season he had a big falling out with Porsche team manager Huschke von Flanstein over money and moved to Borgward for 1957, concentrating on the European Mountain Championship, in which he finished second.

He stayed with Borgward in ’58 “They were nice people, the engine was very good but the car was too heavy” returning to Porsche for Le Mans at the express wish of Ferry Porsche. He and Behra finished a fine third overall, behind the Hill/Gendebien Ferrari Testa Rossa and the Aston DB3S of the Whitehead brothers.

“For 1959 I went back to Porsche and there was no problem with von Hanstein but we had no success, either. I drove the Moss BRM at Avus and the brakes failed at the end of the three-mile straight. I was doing about 180 mph and the pedal went to the floor! I knew I was a dead man, but amazingly I only suffered cuts and bruises. I wanted to get back in a racing car as soon as possible, so I asked Mr Porsche if I could do a hilIclimb. He gave me a car for Klosters-Davos and I won.”

The new decade got off to a good start for Hans, who won the Sebring 12 Hours with Olivier Gendebien in a Porsche RS 60. He then managed to finish both first and third in the Targa: “For some reason Porsche only had five drivers for six cars, so when I wasn’t driving with Bonnier I was driving with Gendebien. I won the race with Jo and was third with Olivier.”

In 1962 Herrmann moved to Abarth and, over the next four seasons took part in more than 70 races and hillclimbs for the Italian team. He twice managed to finish in third place in the European Mountain Championship.

Then it was home to Porsche in 1966, where Ferdinand Piech was now technical director. Over the next three seasons, he would clock up a wealth of podium places for Porsche, culminating in outright wins at Daytona and Sebring in 1968.

His ’69 season continued in similar vein until he starred in the closest-ever finish at Le Mans. Hans was given a long-tailed 908 to drive with Gerard Larousse and early in the race they lost 29 minutes while a front hub was changed. However, with less than 30 minutes to go Hans led, just ahead of Jacky lckx’s Ford GT40.

“The last few minutes of the race were unbelievable,” wrote DSJ in Motor Sport, “for the two cars passed and re-passed in the sort of wheel-to-wheel racing we would like to see in Formula One.”

“Ickx and I passed and re-passed each other three or four times every lap,” recalls Herrmann, wistfully. “There was a little red light on the dash to tell when the brake pads were worn down and it was on all the time now. I knew that if I stopped we would be second, so I decided to carry on and see what happened. Two laps before the end Jacky went into the sand on one corner but had enough speed to pull himself out. He won by about one second. It was a big disappointment, for I really wanted to win Le Mans.”

So did Porsche. They had just one year to wait. In 1970 they scored their maiden victory and cleaned up with a one-two-three, Hans and Dickie Attwood winning in a Porsche Salzburg-entered 917 ahead of a similar car and a 908.

“I decided that 1970 was to be my last season,” says Hans, “but I told no-one, not even my wife. Then as I was leaving my house to drive to Le Mans, she said, ‘If you win this year, will you please retire?’ With some emotion I agreed. After Le Mans I was contracted to race the Porsche at the Osterreichring and Watkins Glen, but I decided enough was enough and that anything else would be an anti-climax. I’d saved the best until last.”