A pitlane fire and a telegram to Hitler
When the unlucky von Brauchitsch retired from the 1938 German GP, letting Briton Dick Seaman through to win, the official report to ‘My Führer’ had to be worded carefully…
Having a rummage in some files – as one does – a faded photo print dropped to the floor. I retrieved it in surprise. It was a snapshot I didn’t recall, capturing Dick Seaman and Manfred von Brauchitsch immediately after the finish of the 1938 German Grand Prix – 70 years ago this summer. That day had seen these two works Mercedes-Benz drivers experience vastly differing fortunes. The race perhaps had been scripted for von Brauchitsch – feisty nephew of the general commanding the Wehrmacht, the German Army – to win. He had led until a fateful refuelling stop. As the tail tank of his Mercedes-Benz W154 was being filled, Seaman in second place had pulled in behind him. The wealthy young Englishman – the first British driver to join a “crack Continental works team” for many years – was contemplating a strong second-place finish to von Brauchitsch when to his astonishment the car ahead of him was abruptly engulfed in shimmering heat as spilled fuel ignited.
Seaman was able to rejoin immediately and drive on to become the first British subject since Henry Segrave in 1923 – 15 years earlier – to win a full-scale Grande Epreuve. Von Brauchitsch, nerves jangling, was ushered back into his charred W154 by team manager Alfred Neubauer, but within a few miles he abandoned it in the trackside ditch – allegedly after its carelessly latched steering wheel had popped off its splines. I wonder what the German is for “It came off in me ’ands, Guv’nor”? (According to the wildly unreliable Babelfish it’s “Es kam weg in meine Hände, Regler!”).
Poor Brauchitsch had been brought back to the pits, overalls stained, charred and grubby, with the steering wheel in his hands. I suspect he’d actually brought it back to prevent it being nicked. He explained himself volubly to Neubauer and to the head of the NSKK, the Nazi motoring organisation, the snazzily uniformed Korpsführer Adolf Hühnlein. But then Seaman boomed across the finish line to win the Grand Prix, and after accepting a welcome drink in a bakelite mug he strode to the pit block’s Continental Tower to receive his laurels, ‘Browk’ alongside him.
It was at that moment that the snapshot was taken. Just look at it, the upright keen-eyed English winner, marching towards his laurels, just failing to suppress that smirk of elation, accompanied by ‘Der Pechvogel’ – Germany’s perennial ‘unlucky bird’. Vastly differing fortune is written all over each of them. This is the 1938 equivalent of the young men being ushered podium-wards today by Herbie Blash, via the weigh-in machine, the donning of the sponsors’ wristwatches and baseball caps, and the towels fresh from the chill cabinet…
Hühnlein’s customary telegram to his boss, Adolf Hitler, read: “My Führer. I report: The 11th Grand Prix of Germany for racing cars ended with a decisive German victory. From the start the new German racing construction of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union dominated the field. NSKK Storm Leader Manfred von Brauchitsch, leading from the beginning and giving admirable proof of his courage and ability, was deprived of victory by his car catching fire while refuelling. The winner and consequently the gainer of your proud prize, My Führer, was Richard Seaman on a Mercedes, followed by NSKK Chief Storm leader Lang, also on a Mercedes, Hans Stuck and Tazio Nuvolari on Auto Union cars. Heil, My Führer.”
Sounds like a recent report to the FIA?
Britain’s post-war race revival
Sixty years ago on June 30, 1948, the RAC chairman, Wilfrid Andrews, announced that international motor racing upon the British mainland was poised to resume for the first time since 1939. The RAC was confident that an agreement could be reached by all interested Government ministries for the club to run a Grand Prix race on “a former military aerodrome” come late autumn. That evening, BBC radio news relayed Andrews’ announcement to the world.
Here in Motor Sport Bill Boddy described this as “breathtaking news”, while in The Autocar G Geoffrey Smith observed that: “Two clubs, the Junior Car Club and the British Racing Drivers’ Club… may be able to stage a race each this year on airfields in England…”
He also described how, “…in the three years since 1945, the Derby & District Motor Club has been energetically attempting, through the RAC, to recover the best known and most suitable English road racing circuit of all, at Donington Park, Leicestershire. But the Army, which requisitioned the park during the war, has refused to budge. The War Office have (sic) now issued a final statement to that effect… It is regrettable,
but the Army’s point of view is made absolutely clear, and leaves no room for doubt…”
Early in the war, Donington Park had been requisitioned to become ‘No 29 Vehicle Reserve Depot, Breedon’. After 1945, with landowner John Gillies-Shields, two local Derby MPs and the RAC leading the way, repeated attempts were made to persuade the War Office to allow racing to resume there. The Autocar had appealed direct to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, ‘Monty’ himself. He had raised the matter within the War Office, but in June responded: “While sympathising with you in your desire to get Donington returned for motor racing, I am satisfied that the War Office view is the correct one. I therefore regret that I do not feel justified to intervene in this matter. Yours sincerely, Montgomery of Alamein, Field-Marshal.”
The War Office issued a statement, explaining that Donington Park had been developed into “the best vehicle depot in the country”, with “some £300,000” invested in it. “If the Army now decide to evacuate the site it would entail: a) finding alternative accommodation; b) a move of several thousand vehicles, nearly all of which would have to be towed; c) the erection at a new site of matching facilities; d) the Army would get no return for its investment and might face additional expenditure for track restoration… to hand back the park would involve too great a loss to the State to be acceptable.”
It was then on July 9, 1948, that Silverstone airfield was publicly identified as the venue for the RAC’s planned long-distance international Grand Prix that October, while the JCC announced that it hoped to use “the airfield situated on the estate of their chairman, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon [and] intend to concentrate on a revival of the extremely popular Brooklands type of meeting”. Its Brooklands-style programme “…will probably consist of some nine or 10 short races run off every 20 minutes or so”.
Among the Government departments with which the clubs had to deal in that period of stifling bureaucracy were the Ministries of Air, War, Town and Country Planning, Agriculture, Supply, Transport, Fuel, Works and the Board of Trade. Sounds almost ‘Brownian-cum-Brussels’.
As early as the end of June, The Bod had road-tested one of the latest 3½-litre Jaguar saloons around the Duke’s perimeter track, lapping in “2min 31.8sec clockwise, 2min 31.0sec anti-clockwise”! He considered it “…a good sporting circuit [suffering] to some extent from lack of definement (sic) of its corners, but as grass grows beside the road, and cornfields come to the edge of it for much of the distance, this could doubtless be improved if some white lines were laid.” Contemporary Brooklands-bred concerns are revealed by Bill, continuing: “One eminent authority has expressed the view that at the moment there are too many turns in the comparatively short lap. He is probably concerned with the difficulty of racing cars passing one another as, from the sports car aspect, the course could hardly be more pleasant…”.
That September Goodwood hosted its first motor races. In October the RAC’s Silverstone site hosted its inaugural GP. And so international circuit racing returned to the British mainland. Just 10 years later, the first two British World Champions – Mike Hawthorn and Vanwall – would top the motor racing mountain. We owe much to those indefatigable pioneers of 1948.
Schuppan’s skill tested…
It’s quite remarkable how many latter-day BRM Formula 1 works drivers survived the experience to build considerable subsequent careers. Vern Schuppan is probably the best example, the South Australian going on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours race in 1983 (following two seconds and a fifth place there), and the Japanese Sports-Prototype Championship that same year. Why, he even finished third in the 1981 Indianapolis 500.
Years previously, Vern had been a precocious newcomer to Formula 1, having been signed up by ‘Big Lou’ Stanley for the 1972 Marlboro-BRM team despite his having raced cars for barely 18 months. His first two F1 races had then been the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup (pictured) followed by the John Player Victory Race at Brands Hatch. He finished fifth and fourth respectively.
On the morning after Brands, he received a call from Team Manager Tim Parnell asking him to attend a Silverstone test in a BRM P160 alongside new Formula 3 star Roger Williamson. Vern promptly rented a Ford “something or other” and set off for Silverstone where he successfully completed an incident-free test. What’s more, his best time of 1min 17.09secs had been two-tenths shy of the lap record.
So Vern was feeling pretty chuffed with himself as he headed for his home in East Horsley, Surrey. “I was also a bit hungry so I decided to attack a sandwich that Jenny” – his wife – “…had prepared and that I’d put in the glove box, which happened to need the car key to open it.
“Being Australian, and knowing that only French cars then had steering locks, I got the Ford up to 100mph, slipped it into neutral, took the key out of the ignition and just as I’d poked it into the glovebox lock and turned it, the steering went ‘click’ and locked…”
What was it Graham Hill once said about “From ace to *****ole in a tenth of a second”?
Goodwood not tough enough for bikers
I’ve always had a soft spot for racing motorcyclists. To me they have always seemed more prepared to – as John Cobb once put it – “lean that much further out of the window”, at risk of falling out, than the common run of their four-wheeled brethren. Perhaps there’s a hint of this in the reaction expressed after motorcycling’s one and only dedicated race meeting at Goodwood, in 1951.
At day’s end it was suggested to Freddie Richmond that the main disadvantage of motorcycle racing on his new perimeter-track course was that without the camber of a normal road the riders had “…an unrealistically wide choice of cornering line”.
While Goodwood’s fast sweeping bends were judged a fine nursery “for proper road racing”, the racers expressed regret that none of the corners was truly blind, and suggested erecting walls on the infield verges “in the interests of rider development”.
The fear was that riders brought up on such an easily sighted course could become dead men walking the moment they aspired to such true road circuits as the Isle of Man, Dundrod, Cookstown, the Bremgarten, Albi, Chimay, and so many more. But Goodwood became cars-only until the 1998 Revival.