The Frenchman’s demands at Reims ’58 prompted team-mate Harry Schell to pen a furious (and somewhat muddled) missive to BRM’s boss
I have never particularly rated top-class racing drivers as being the most literate people around. Nor need they be. Literacy counts for nothing wheel-to-wheel round the outside at Curva Grande, or braking into Les Combes. But I was once greatly impressed to find a letter from Harry Schell to Sir Alfred Owen of BRM concerning goings-on in the 1958 French Grand Prix at Reims. It read in part – and I quote verbatim – as one-finger typed:
‘As you kjnow for the past three races Ihave allways been doing the best time in traing; due to better cars or better driving Ii don’t know butb the facts are there… On Friday the last day of training I did a few laps with my own car in 2.24 6/10 going very carefully; Behra was doing 2.27 2/10 with his own car and with the new engine which came at nite with Mr Berton XXXX I was asked by Mr Berha to try his own car I accepted this offer and put a time of 2.24 2/10 whih is three seconds dffaster than him.’
One can sense that ’Arree is building up a good head of steam, as he witters on: ‘Then five minutes before the end of practice Mr Behra asked for my car; Mr Berthon ansered no so Mr Berha said in these conditions he was not started in the race and that he could not drive any more such a bad car anymore etc. etc.
‘The next day from 10 am in the morning till 4pm Mr Behra stayed at the garage tryingto persuade Mr Berton to give him my car by saying he wanted to cancel his contract and anyway he was not goingto start in the race at all.’
Finally the Franco-American driver’s safety valve blows off its seat: ‘I was then called in the garage by Mr Spear [chief engineer of BRM-owning company Rubery Owen] and Mr Berthon told me ‘Harry .
you must take another car as Berha refused to start in the race if he has not you car. He has Threatened us to cancel his contract you understand the situation so Which car do you prefer of the remaining two cars’… Everybodyd was furious of theattitude taken by Mr Berha. I hope that all thefacts will be told to you exac t ly theway the y happened…I am sure I could have won the race for you or at least be second anyway…’
That was one very upset F1 driver, and in the French GP the following day Behra broke his BRM Type 25 “plainly through overrevving” as Berthon reported to Owen. “This I think he did, possibly justifiably, to confirm his view that the Schell practice car was faster…” Meanwhile ’Arree’s car broke its clutch and vibrated badly enough to fracture a water pipe.
Behra was very self-consciously Champion of France and to him performing well before his home crowd meant everything. He had hurled a Gordini around Reims to beat the Ferrari 500 fleet there in 1952, and the year after his BRM team tantrum – having joined Ferrari – he became so overheated by what he saw (again) as having been provided with an inferior car, that he punched innocent team manager Romolo Tavoni. In that case the absent team owner was Enzo Ferrari, but his wife Laura witnessed the attack. While Peter Berthon of BRM had been able to gloss over a little of Behra’s behaviour, Tavoni had no such choice – had he even wanted to. The Old Man’s justice was swift and emphatic. Behra was sacked. One month later the hair-trigger Frenchman crashed his sports Porsche at AVUS in Berlin, and was killed…
But it had not only been Harry Schell who had trouble spelling ‘Jeannot’s’ surname. At the Monaco Grand Prix in 1955 his Maserati works mechanics had brush-painted his name on his 250F. That’s right, they spelled it ‘Bhera’.