The ghosts of Reims

An opportunity to run an Auto Union V12 at the French circuit triggered a nostalgia trip

Iguess it happens to all enthusiasts. When you have a memory jam-packed with motor sporting stories, sights and sounds – both experienced first-hand and absorbed over years of reading and listening to our forebears – there are times when it doesn’t take much to trigger a brainstorm of nostalgia, and sometimes déjà vu.

In early May, on the old start-finish straight of the slumbering Reims circuit in northern France, we ran the Auto Union V12 in which Hans Stuck had finished sixth – 70 years earlier – in the 1939 Grand Prix de l’ACF. That had been what the more recent media would have called ‘A Joy Day’ for the Auto Union team as two of Stuck’s team-mates – Hermann Paul Müller and ‘Schorsch’ Meier – did a Brawn and dominated the result, first and second, in formation.

Auto Union’s sworn enemy, Mercedes-Benz, had flunked out mechanically that day. For AU’s Chemnitz-based Grand Prix team their victory was complete vindication after the horrible debut which their new 3-litre V12-engined cars had made in the Reims race the previous year. Then, running new V12s during practice, both Müller and Rudolf Hasse had crashed. Hasse escaped unhurt from his destroyed car but Müller was left unable to race, so Christian Kautz replaced him. Team director Dr Feureissen reluctantly decided to race two interim 1937-based open-wheeler cars with 3-litre engines.

And on the very first lap Hasse promptly spun his at Garenne corner and stalled. He manhandled it into a side road and restarted its engine by rolling downhill in reverse. But, intent upon keeping it running while struggling to re-latch its detachable steering wheel(!), he promptly rolled backwards into a ditch. On that same opening lap, stand-in Kautz had clouted a kerb and retired in the pits. Scratch both Auto Unions – and Mercedes’ latest W154 cars finished 1-2-3.

The following year, 1939, saw fortunes reversed. Despite AU setting ‘Schorsch’ Meier’s car alight while refuelling – which left him steering one-handed down the straights while holding his singed arm in the airstream to cool it – both their ex-motorcyclists, Müller and Meier, finished 1-2 and Stuck in ‘our’ car sixth. So what had happened to Mercedes-Benz? Caracciola had burst his car’s fuel tank by spinning into a house wall in Gueux village on the opening lap, and team-mates Lang and von Brauchitsch both suffered engine failures. Result – a stupendous day for the rear-engined Saxons.

So what were we doing there in 2009 with Stuck’s old chassis, number ‘19’ – as retrieved in the 1990s by Paul and Barbara Karassik from decades of Russian storage? The wonderfully cooperative local authorities had agreed to close the pit-straight road for five hours while we photographed and filmed the car, which is to be auctioned by Bonhams & Butterfields at Quail Lodge, California in August. Ian MacFarlane, Ian Harold and Malcolm Gerrish of restorers Crosthwaite & Gardiner were running the car, allegedly under my direction in the Neubauer/Feureissen role (joke).

Now this is where the memory brainstorm begins. At lunch. La Garenne restaurant beyond Thillois hairpin stands beside the former straight-on escape road there. And through the window I swore I saw Colin Chapman’s smashed Vanwall careering past pluming steam from its burst radiator after the practice incident in 1956 which ended his one-race career as a Formula 1 driver. Then up on the old pits roof I looked down upon the Auto Union just as my late photographer mate Geoff Goddard had photographed the Ferrari 375s and Alfettas there in 1951. And looking up-sun towards the brow where the Dunlop bridge used to stand on the approach to Gueux, there was Sommer’s Maserati special silhouetted against the glare, as in 1933. In the old right-hander Gueux Curve – hmm – to the right is where ‘Mac’ Frazer died in the Lotus 11 in 1956. To the left is where Luigi Musso was killed in the Ferrari Dino 246 in 1958. Further on, this is the dished right-hander, impossibly narrow today, in which we have the slow-motion movie of Fangio drifting his Maserati 250F in 1957. Up there is where poor Pete Arundell’s career was ruined by his F2 collision with Richie Ginther in 1964. And this must be where Jean-Pierre Beltoise only just escaped with his life in the Reims 12 Hours, to bounce back from terrible injuries to score Matra’s first-ever F3 race win, come 1965

And so it goes on – all tumbling through what passes for a brain. Down at Thillois this is where Stirling Moss spun his pale green BRM in the 1959 Grand Prix, tried and failed to push-start it in the 110-degree heat, and flaked out semi-conscious right about here, on this very grass verge. And squint down the two-kilometre pit straight to picture Jack Brabham in his Cooper that day, punching out his aero screen to gasp fresh air and combat the super-heated cockpit. That was the day the sun melted the Tarmac and all the cars were shot-blasted by flying grit and asphalt. Jack’s new young team-mate Bruce McLaren had his goggles smashed. He finished the race cockpit-roasted and semi-conscious, his goggles awash with a mix of foamed sweat and blood, “looking like pink champagne”. That was the first F1 race his parents had attended. His mum was utterly horrified, asking “Is it always like this?” as her boy was lifted clear…

And of course it was here that Mike Hawthorn in his first season with Ferrari won that sensational battle against Fangio’s Maserati to win the 1953 Grand Prix. He made only one mistake that weekend, leaving one of Reims organiser ‘Toto’ Roche’s secretaries pregnant with his son…

So the boys primed No 19’s four carburettors with petrol, Ian Harold thumbed the starter button, Ian Mac tweaked the throttles and BLAMM!!! – for the first time in 70 long years Reims-Gueux echoed to the rasp of the supercharged V12 Auto Union. The sun beat down… and all the real world’s troubles were forgotten. And unlike Auto Union themselves, we didn’t set the car on fire.