In December 1936 Rosemeyer drove an Auto Union in the South African Grand Prix, flying there in his wife’s Messerschmitt Taifun. What should also have been a holiday, though, was marred by news of his mother’s unexpected death. Soon after their return to Europe there was more family tragedy, for his younger brother Job was killed in a road accident.
Elly recounts that only once did his father ask Bernd to give up racing, which he said he could not do: “Racing is as essential to me as the air I breathe. I know I might be killed, but if I give up now it will be the end of life for me anyway. But I promise you this: if ever I feel nervous about racing, I will never get in a car again…”
If the 1936 season had been one of great success for Auto Union, the team had a more difficult time of it the following year, for by now Mercedes had introduced the iconic W125 and this indisputably was the car to have. If Caracciola regained the European Championship, though, Rosemeyer still had his moments, winning the Eifelrennen again, as well as the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara and the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island. There was also sadness, however: in the German Grand Prix Ernst von Delius, Auto Union’s junior driver and Bernd’s close friend, was killed in an accident with Seaman’s Mercedes.
In the autumn came the inaugural Donington GP, which brought the German teams to England for the first time. Rosemeyer was anything but enthusiastic about taking part, for he felt Auto Union had little chance against Mercedes, but in the event a typically brilliant drive brought victory after a long battle with von Brauchitsch. It would be his last.
Soon afterwards came the Rekordwoche — a week of record attempts to be staged on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. Earlier in the year, when the stretch was closed to allow Goldie Gardner to go for class records in his MG, Auto Union took the opportunity to run a streamlined car for Rosemeyer.
“Just think of it — to be the first man to exceed 400 on an ordinary road…”
All these years on, the circumstances take a little believing. For one thing, no autobahn is completely straight, and there were gentle curves in this one. For another, only one side of it was closed, with normal traffic proceeding along the other. For another yet, at the end of the run a knee-high barrier had been placed across the road, so as to divert traffic coming from Darmstadt into the lanes still open…
When Rosemeyer made his first run — supposedly only a warm-up — he not only went faster than expected, but also forgot about the barrier. When officials realised he wasn’t going to stop in time they hastily removed it, which was just as well for he went by them at about 175mph — and now found himself proceeding towards Darmstadt with normal traffic coming towards him!
Rosemeyer himself was unconcerned: “They could see me — I could see them…” Indeed he seems to have found the episode amusing; on reaching Darmstadt, he had space enough to turn the car around and calmly drove back again, remembering en route to thank those who had moved the barrier…
In the course of the day, Bernd set a number of Class B records, including 242.09mph for the mile and — astonishingly — 233.89mph for 10 miles! This last was achieved over a stretch of 14 miles, allowing for flying start and slowing down, and the strain of holding a car at that speed on a two-lane road, punctuated by bridges, can scarcely be imagined.
Afterwards his wife asked how it had been. “Crazy!” Rosemeyer said. “Especially in the 10-mile run. When you go under a bridge, for a split second the noise of the engine completely disappears — then returns like a thunderclap when you are through…”
Bernd was disappointed, however, at being unable to break the 400kph (250mph) barrier, coming up only slightly short on his fastest run. “Just think of it — to be the first man to exceed 400 on an ordinary road…”
This he duly achieved during Rekordwoche in October. In what was very much a head-tohead between Auto Union and Mercedes, it was Rosemeyer versus Caracciola, the two greatest German drivers of the day — and this time both sides of the autobahn were closed.
Mercedes might have had the better of the Grand Prix season, but Auto Union’s streamliner (as had been raced at the flat-out Avus, where Bernd had lapped at a numbing 176mph) had a clear edge here, Caracciola not surprisingly disturbed by his Mercedes’s front-end lift at extreme speeds.
For Rosemeyer, who had set many new records, it was a week of complete triumph, although he had been disturbed by one long run, which he finished in a state of semiconsciousness, the probable consequence of exhaust fumes in the cockpit.
Now, at last, the season was over, and within a few days the Rosemeyers’ son — also named Bernd — was born. Ahead was apparently a long winter of rest with his family before the new father had to think about driving again, but at the start of January news emerged that DaimlerBenz, stung by what had happened in Record Week, was not prepared to wait for the next one and had pulled strings to enable another series of record attempts shortly to be made.
Rosemeyer was none too impressed, his wife incensed. “This was unjust,” she wrote, “because there was an unwritten rule that if one German company held a record, another would
not try immediately to beat it. But there were many injustices done to Auto Union at that time because the management was not on the best of terms with the Nazi government, and refused to give Hitler any of the company’s big cars for his demonstrations. If Auto Union had failed in the 1937 Rekordwoche, we would never have received permission to try again in January 1938…”
Be that as it may, the company felt obligated to compete. Mercedes had revamped the aerodynamics of its car, and now Auto Union hastily did the same. The car Rosemeyer would drive had all-enveloping bodywork that almost, like a precursor to the ‘skirts’ era in Formula 1, touched the ground.
Bernd arrived in Frankfurt on January 27, speaking light-heartedly of an emergency landing he had been obliged to make in bad weather the night before. The day was given over to an inspection of the autobahn course, and the next morning he arrived back there to learn that his record had been beaten.
Rosemeyer naturally congratulated his Mercedes rival, and in his memoirs Caracciola says that by this time the wind was picking up to a worrying degree, that he wanted to tell Rosemeyer to forget about running that day, but for some reason felt he should not interfere.
Looking at it now, the whole thing seems insane. Here were two great Grand Prix drivers, blasting down a two-lane road at speeds not far from 300mph in wintry conditions. Why did it so matter which team held the record? One thinks of Eugenio Castellotti, killed at Modena in 1957, obeying the dictat of Enzo Ferrari that — for the honour of the company — he regain the circuit lap record from Maserati’s Jean Behra.