Bernd Rosemeyer: The Villeneuve of the Thirties

Few motor racing battles have such enduring appeal as those between Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. It was arguably the most courageous chapter in Grand Prix history, and Bernd Rosemeyer became its very essence

Bernd Rosemeyer in the cockpit of his car in 1936

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Thirty years ago I wrote a column for Autosport about Bernd Rosemeyer, long dead before I was born, yet the figure of legend who first captured my imagination, triggering a life-long love affair with motor racing.

Soon afterwards, in the Zandvoort paddock, Murray Walker told me he had enjoyed the piece and had something he wished to give me. He then opened his case and handed me a single sheet of paper. When I took in what it was, I reeled.

At the time of Auto Union’s participation in the South African Grand Prix in 1937, a prominent local cartoonist and illustrator named Jock Leyden did a pencil sketch of Rosemeyer, which he had the driver sign and subsequently gave to Graham Walker, Murray’s celebrated father. Now, nearly half a century on, it was coming to me, and nothing in my collection of memorabilia stands higher in my affections.

While there are exceptions to the rule, it is a quirk of most racing drivers — as surprising as it is regrettable — that they have little interest in the history of their own sport, but something about Bernd Rosemeyer seems to intrigue people. I remember Derek Warwick, for example, saying he had read the piece and wanted to know more. And at the German Grand Prix in 1980 Gilles Villeneuve told me that ‘an old guy in the hotel’ had said he put him in mind of Rosemeyer, and did that make sense to me?

“Bernd did not know fear. Somehow I didn’t think that a long life was in the cards for him.”

Of course it did. So much of Villeneuve was reminiscent of Rosemeyer, and later I had similar thoughts of Stefan Bellof. All were freakishly quick, with talent to throw away — and all were abnormally brave. By Rudolf Caracciola’s account, “Bernd did not know fear, and sometimes that is not good. You had to know where the real danger lay and we actually feared for his life in every race. Somehow I didn’t think that a long life was in the cards for him.”

I will admit to having had similar thoughts about Villeneuve, and although I thought Bellof destined to be Germany’s first World Champion, he, too, was clearly a man more likely than most to go out on his shield.

“The Old Man,” said Gilles, “told me I reminded him of Nuvolari…” If I could see that, so could I understand the man who had compared him with Rosemeyer. And I told him some more about this iconic figure, mentioning that every year, en route to Hockenheim, I would pull off at that point on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn where Rosemeyer had perished in 1938. A memorial stands, I said, in the place where they found him. Villeneuve was aghast: “He died on an autobahn?” Yes: he had been making a record attempt.

I first learned of the memorial’s whereabouts — set back, at the end of a lay-by immediately beyond the Langen-Morfelden crossing — from Denis Jenkinson, who invariably paused there whenever he was in the vicinity. The young Jenks had been a fervent fan: “Nuvolari was everyone’s hero, but Rosemeyer was my favourite…”

Bernd Rosemeyer on the Avus banking in an Auto Union in 1937

Rosemeyer made an immediate impression on his debut at Avus in 1935 – he’s shown here in ’37

Imagno/Getty Images

What originally appealed to me was that he was never part of the triumphal Mercedes-Benz machine. From the beginning of his brief career he was an Auto Union man, and I have always found these brutish and wayward cars more arresting than anything from the Three-Pointed Star. As well as that, Rosemeyer was invariably obliged to fight Mercedes alone.

Born in 1909, he initially raced motorcycles with success, but his sights were always on Grand Prix racing. Over the winter of 1934-35 Auto Union gave him a test, along with several other would-be drivers. Rosemeyer came out of it well, was offered a contract and in May 1935 made his debut at the ultra-fast Avus, of all places. It beggars belief that this was his first race in a car of any kind.

Rene Dreyfus, at the time driving Alfa Romeos for Scuderia Ferrari, was competing at Avus that weekend. From my frequent visits to New York, I came to know the gentlemanly Dreyfus well through the last 15 years of his life and was enraptured by his first-hand reminiscences of a time in racing so long gone. We would meet for dinner and the journalist in me yearned to take a tape recorder, but it would have been an intrusion on a social occasion with a man like Rene: instead I would hasten back to my hotel and scribble down everything I could remember.

“In those days,” he said, “Caracciola thought he was the best, and technically he was: certainly he was the most complete driver — but Nuvolari was undoubtedly the greatest. Tazio could do things with a car that no one else could do — although Varzi, until he destroyed himself, was almost his equal. He was the most precise driver I ever saw.”

He wanted to push me off my throne and I wanted to sit there a while longer…”

And Rosemeyer? “If he had been given more time, who knows? Certainly no one — even Nuvolari — drove an Auto Union like Rosemeyer did. Some people said that because he never drove anything else it was easier for him to adapt to a rear-engined car — he had nothing to unlearn, if you like. That might have been true, but I would say he was faster than anyone…”

Dreyfus remembered little of the race in which Rosemeyer made his debut. “Avus was a terrible circuit, very fast, but no real challenge, and everyone — except the Germans — hated it. I recall meeting Bernd for the first time and he caused a sensation by starting on the front row, but it was soon after that, at the Nürburgring, that he was really able to show what he had.”

So he was. In the Eifelrennen, on a wet-dry afternoon, Rosemeyer took the lead from Caracciola with three laps to go, and although he was ultimately repassed on the long straight immediately before the finish, he had given very serious notice of intent. In two races, he was on his way to becoming Auto Union’s mainstay.

This marked the beginning of a battle, sometimes very personal, between the two greatest German drivers of the time. “We did not,” said Caracciola, “give a second to each other. It was his wild, stormy, youth against the experience of an opponent 10 years older. He wanted to push me off my throne and I wanted to sit there a while longer…” As with Nuvolari and Varzi, though, the ferocious rivals would ultimately become friends. “Bernd was such a good-natured fellow,” said Dreyfus, “it was impossible to dislike him…”

Again, resonances of Villeneuve and Bellof.

Bernd Rosemeyer for Auto Union in the 1936 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring

Rosemeyer recorded two victories at the Nürburgring in 1936, including at the German Grand Prix

ullstein bild via Getty Images

The final race of 1935 was the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix, and Rosemeyer — racing a car for the ninth time — scored his first victory. It was also here that he met Elly Beinhorn, then more celebrated than he, for she was Germany’s Amy Johnson, a flyer of great distinction, and in Brno to present one of her many lectures. On July 13 1936— 13 was the lucky number of both — they were married and would travel to the races in her aeroplane.

Rosemeyer was the dominant driver of 1936, becoming European Champion (then the equivalent of World Champion) in only his second season as a Grand Prix driver. At the Nürburgring he won not only the German GP, but also the circuit’s traditional ‘second’ race, the Eifelrennen, in which as a rookie he had made such an impression the previous year.

If a single race defines Rosemeyer, and his place in racing legend, it is this one. Although it was mid-June, the Nordschleife was at its most treacherous. The fog lifted shortly before the start, but rain continued to beat down. For a couple of laps Caracciola led, but soon Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo) and Rosemeyer were past him and the race distilled to these two. They ran in tandem until lap seven, at which point thick fog descended again, whereupon the Auto Union took the lead and disappeared.

In her memoir of life with Bernd, Mein Mann, der Rennfahrer, Elly Beinhorn Rosemeyer lists the lap times of both her husband and Nuvolari, and they make remarkable reading, being very similar until the fog came down — whereupon Nuvolari’s slowed dramatically and Rosemeyer’s hardly at all. In four laps of the 14-mile circuit, he pulled away by more than two minutes, recording one of the most fabled victories in racing history.

Elly makes mention of Bernd’s extraordinary eyesight — way better than her own, which was in itself unusually good — and obviously that will have been no hindrance in conditions like these, but there is more to it than that. Imagine, if you will, what was involved in driving an unwieldy Grand Prix car, with 520 horsepower from its 6-litre V16 engine going to the road through skinny tyres, into the dead reckoning that was the Nürburgring that afternoon: Rosemeyer was touched by genius.

ernd-Rosemeyer-with-his-wife-Elly-Beinhorn

Rosemeyer and his wife, Elly Beinhorn

ullstein bild via Getty Images

Here, on the face of it, was the personification of Hitler’s fair-haired Aryan hero, prepared to risk his life for the glory of Germany, the embodiment of youthful courage and strength. Grand Prix racing was of immense importance to the country’s propaganda machine, and Hitler had his own man — one Adolf HiIhnlein — at the races, always in uniform.

Recorded in Elly’s book is that Heinrich Himmler was so impressed with Bernd’s Nürburgring victory that he made him an ObersturmfiIhrer in the SS. This was considered a great honour at the time, and not, as Elly wrily noted, the sort of invitation you could refuse. With the award came a uniform, which, to the conspicuous disappointment of the Nazi hierarchy, Bernd resolutely refused to wear. Fortunately, as she points out, he was by now so much a national hero as to be effectively beyond sanction.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine the circumstances of GP racing 70 and 80 years ago. Dreyfus told me that he knew of no driver — save perhaps Manfred von Brauchitsch — who was a genuine Nazi sympathiser. “Certainly Rudi (Caracciola) was not, and nor was Bernd. But they all had to give the Nazi salute on the rostrum — even Dick Seaman, when he won at the Nürburgring in ’38…”

When the opportunity arose, though, the drivers delighted in puncturing Hiihnlein’s authority. Before the German GP of 1937 they were lectured on the matter of morals: German men and women, went the stern instruction, do not kiss in public, so there must be no displays of affection before a race. Rosemeyer, it seems, had a quiet word with his colleagues, and as soon as HiIhnlein and his cronies took their places in the stand, to a man the German drivers climbed from their cars, returned to the pits and — to loud approval from the crowd — positively seized their wives and girlfriends…

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As it was, Rosemeyer put on his linen helmet, climbed into his car, made a first run, then the return in the opposite direction. When he came back he was pleased to learn of his speed, for he had not been flat out and had recorded 268mph, compared with Caracciola’s 270. He did, though, mention that there was quite a cross wind at the Morfelden junction. Shortly before midday the Auto Union accelerated away once more, but never came back.

The wreckage was strewn over six hundred yards. It was estimated that the Auto Union had been travelling at 280mph as it approached the Morfelden crossing, where it nudged the grass on the central reservation, then went out of control, somersaulted and disintegrated. The cause of the accident was later ascribed to a freak gust, and this might have been crucial, but many believed the flimsy aerodynamic bodywork simply broke up, putting the car beyond the control even of a Rosemeyer.

His body was found at the edge of the forest, where the memorial now stands, always with freshly cut flowers around it. He was 28 when he died, and had raced cars for only three years, fewer even than Villeneuve or Bellof. Meteors, as Dreyfus said, burn brightly but briefly.