Manfred von Brauchitsch is the last remaining link to the glory days of the silver arrows before WWII. He is also, says Alan Henry, a driver whose modest tally of wins in no way reflects his considerable talent. Now 94, he reflects upon a Grand Prix career that started 65 years ago.
The first thing you notice is the shock of white hair which stands out dramatically across the crowded room. Then you take in the fact that he still stands ramrod straight, piercing blue eyes as alert as ever, not missing a trick. Impeccably dressed in an Anciens Pilotes blazer and grey trousers, Wit seems scarcely credible that Manfred von Brauchitsch’s 94th birthday was on 15 August, it almost beggars believe that there survives to this day a man who won his first international Grand Prix over 65 years ago. The scene is the Mercedes-Benz factory at Stuttgart, just three weeks after Mika Hakkinen has won his second consecutive world championship. There are dozens of racing personalities connected with the Mercedes-Benz legend present for this annual get-together to which 40,000 of Stuttgart’s public throng to watch demonstrations of Mercedes competition cars old and new.
Von Brauchitsch is the nearest thing Mercedes has to royalty. He is the sole surviving member of the Mercedes Grand Prix team from the 1930s, an elite thruw-back to the days when he, Rudolf Caracciola, Dick Seaman and Hermann Lang went out to do battle against the rival Auto Unions in the heyday of the ‘Silver Arrows.’
He has the composure of a man who has known status and respect Examine his background and this will not surprise. Born in 1905 in Hamburg into a Prussian dynasty of army officers, von Brauchitsch enlisted in the forces immediately after finishing secondary school. He rose to the rank of sergeant by 1928 when he was invalided out of the army.
His uncle, Walther von Brauchitsch, went on to become a general by 1938 and was later promoted to commander-in-chief of Hitler’s armies. On reflection, Manfred probably got the best end of the deal.
Despite this, he was also one of the unluckiest drivers of that era, winning just three major international races between 1934 and ’39. His first triumph came in the 1934 Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. It was the weekend when the Silberpfeile were informally christened with a tag which would endure throughout their racing lives.
The technical regulations in force at the time of their debut did not place any restriction on engine capacity, but required a weight limit of between 546 and 750kg. While being scrutineered prior to their debut at the Nurburgring, the eight-cylinder, 78 x 88mm, 3360cc supercharged Mercedes W25s tipped the scales fractionally over the maximum weight limit This alarmed the team’s racing manager Alfred Neubauer, but someone cleverly suggested that it might be a good idea to strip off the car’s white paint overnight prior to the race.
Neubauer later claimed the credit for this inspired piece of improvisation which left the W25s just inside the maximum weight limit, but now sporting bare silver aluminium bodywork. Hence they received their new, informal nickname which became applied to the Auto Unions for the remaining years in the run-up to the Second World War. And, indeed, well beyond.
The efforts of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams left precious little room for anybody else to enjoy the limelight, although the Italians picked up a few crumbs from the German table, most notably when Tazio Nuvolari stole victory in the 1935 German Grand Prix from under von Brauchitsch’s nose. Nuvolari was motivated by a passionate desire to upstage the German teams on their home patch, believing as he did that a conspiracy between his fellow Italian Achille Varzi and German driver Hans Stuck had kept him out of the Auto Union team the previous year.
Yet it was Mercedes who came to the ‘Ring in confident mood, having already won seven major races that season to Auto Union’s mere one. On a glistening, ominously damp track, it was the legendary Caracciola who stormed away into an immediate lead.
“Caracciola was the very best driver I competed against,” reflects von Brauchitsch today. “He was very good and fair, a convivial fellow. We had a good relationship for many years, both on and off the circuit We were slightly older than most of the others and forged a deep personal bond.” Yet although Caracciola led at the end of the opening lap at the Nurburgring, it was the remarkable Bemd Rosemeyer who took up the challenge in his Auto Union. But after seven laps he was forced to make a precautionary pit stop after he had damaged one of his rear wheels against an earth bank earlier in the race.
It was not long, however, before the focus of attention fell on Nuvolari in the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo P3. By lap seven in this 22-lap race he was up to third, trading fastest laps with Rosemeyer. Then on lap ten he stormed ahead of Caracciola to take the lead. The crowds fell silent. This was not part of the intended script by any stretch of the imagination.
At the end of lap 12 it was time for the mid-race spate of routine refuelling stops. The Mercedes W25 of von Brauchitsch now went through into the lead as Nuvolari lost two minutes topping up his Alfa. But the frail-looking Italian was not yet finished. Having resumed sixth, Nuvolari climbed relentlessly back to second place and only von Brauchitsch lay between his Alfa and an astounding victory. Nevertheless, it looked as though Mercedes had it made. The German driver went into the final lap just under 30sec ahead and it all seemed over.
Regrettably, von Brauchitsch had been caning his Mercedes’s tyres in his anxiety to stay ahead. Mid-way round that final lap the Mercedes’s left rear tyre flew apart and the German driver was left a sitting duck. Nuvolari roared past to post possibly the most remarkable victory of his career.
“Two laps before the finish, the left front tyre started to show its marker strip which indicated it was getting down to the carcass,” recalls von Brauchitsch.
“I could see from the reaction of the spectators, particularly on the descent to Adenau Bridge, that they understood I was in trouble. After the race Neubauer blamed me because I did not stop, but I didn’t want to come in and perhaps find myself in the same sort of situation which faced Eddie Irvine at the Nurburgring last season. Not enough tyres!”
Another of von Brauchitsch’s greatest disappointments came in the 1938 German GP, held once more at the Nurburgring. At the wheel of the 3-litre Mercedes-Benz W154, he and Dick Seaman dominated the race, but, as their team-mate Rudi Caracciola later recalled, Manfred was extremely aggravated by the way in which the Englishman shadowed his every move. “Neubauer, that Seaman is driving me insane,” shouted von Brauchitsch in abject frustration at his manager. “He drives up so close behind me that each time I brake, I think now we’ll crash. We’ll both end up in the ditch if this keeps on.”
While this exchange was taking place, Seaman had also pulled in for fuel behind his team-mate. Neubauer ran to the second Mercedes and told Dick to take it easy, not to hassle his team-mate. At that point the Mercedes manager glanced over his shoulder to see von Brauchitsch’s car suddenly enveloped in flame after fuel had spilled out over its exhaust pipes.
Neubauer fell on the blazing car, clawed von Brauchitsch from the cockpit and helped beat out his burning overalls. Seaman, petulantly conforming to the letter of Neubauer’s instructions not to challenge von Brauchitsch, just sat in the pits watching the fun.
“God, is the man out of his mind?” roared Neubauer. “Go on, Seaman. take off. What are you doing?”
Seaman replied, deadpan; “you said not to chase Brauchitsch.” Then, according to Caracciola, he flagged Seaman away in the lead after promising him he would not be challenged either if he was ahead at the forthcoming Donington Grand Prix in England.
Meanwhile, von Brauchitsch’s car was cleaned up and he returned to the race. Unfortunately his removable steering wheel had not been properly re-attached and it came off in his hands mid-way round the next lap. With great presence of mind, he grabbed the spindle and gently steered the car into a shallow ditch.
Seaman won and “Unlucky Manfred” was left to walk home by the side of the circuit, canying the offending steering wheel and consoled by cries of support from the grandstands. He reported that the wheel had come off, but engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut shrugged aside that explanation. In his view, the wheel had not been properly re-secured after that chaotic refuelling stop.
Nevertheless, this was a huge blow for von Brauchitsch and, while at the track he concealed his true feelings beneath a suave and debonair exterior, the truth was that the German driver was close to tears.
Von Brauchitsch seemed not to be terribly keen on Neubauer, but, if that was the case, then the legendary, rotund Mercedes team manager could rightly have claimed another view after his driver won at Monaco in ’37 against team orders ahead of Caracciola.
Yet there was clearly no rancour between the two rivals who continued to get on splendidly. “We ate a lot and drank a lot together,” said von Brauchitsch with a sly grin which seemed to stir memories of good times spent more than 60 years ago.
“We had the same interests. But after die Monaco race, Neubauer didn’t speak to me anymore and I began to suffer some small but inexplicable problems with my cars. For example, in 19391 had mysteriously high fuel consumption all weekend that we were racing at Pau, causing me to stop during the race for a top-up while I was leading, giving Lang the win in the process. Accidents? Coincidences? Who knows?”
Von Brauchitsch clearly still believes this conspiracy theory.
Caracciola, his senior by four years, regarded von Brauchitsch with great affection and high regard. Sadly Germany’s second greatest racing driver died 40 years ago at the early age of 58 and we only have his memoirs to draw on. But they certainly make interesting reading on the subject of his colleague. In the evening after Seaman had pinched the German GP from von Brauchitsch, back at the Hotel Eifler Hof in the village of Adenau, Caracciola suddenly noticed he was missing. He went to his room “where I found the Big Fellow stretched out on the bed, sobbing with anger and disappointment
“Baby (Rudi’s wife Alice) sat on the edge of his bed and ran her hand over his tousled head and I sat on a chair. We let him give vent to his feelings and then I ordered an enormous jug of cold orange juice.
“After a warm bath there remained only the victory celebration to be gotten(sic) over with a smile. In the morning the fellow with the proverbial bad luck would be over the worst of his grief.”
Immediately prior to the Nurburgring race von Brauchitsch had won the French Grand Prix at Reims, beating Caracciola and Lang into second and third places. He finished second to Nuvolari in the Yugoslav Grand Prix in Belgrade on 3 September, 1939, the day on which the Second World War began.
I decided not to question von Brauchitsch on one potentially controversial issue, namely that he’d left for Belgrade airport after breakfast on race morning, telling Lang to tell Neubauer that he was going home. Apparently Neubauer stormed after him to the airport and pulled him off the plane, only later realising that the flight von Brauchitsch had boarded was going to Switzerland. Not Germany.
If you read between the lines of Caracciola’s autobiography A Racing Car Driver’s World, you can easily draw the conclusion that von Brauchitsch was planning to join his team-mate in Switzerland, where Rudi had lived since the early 1930s. Caracciola recalls that Manfred “gave us his luggage for safe keeping.” As von Brauchitsch departed for Belgrade, he said “Goodbye, dear old Bear,” to his compatriot. Caracciola replied; “Goodbye — or rather, come back soon.”
After the war, which he was to spend working as a private secretary to a General in Berlin, von Brauchitsch briefly moved himself to Argentina before returning to his homeland where he would become Sports President of the Automobilclub von Deutschland in 1948.
However, von Brauchitsch remained a free spirit and has since admitted that “he could not stand the system” in reference to Dr Konrad Adenauer’s immediate postwar conservative government. This is somewhat at odds with suggestions that he “fled” to East Germany in 1955 simply to escape massive tax debts.
However, Mercedes insiders think the Eastern bloc could see the prestige involved in luring away one of West Germany’s most famous sportsmen. In 1955 he made the move to the East and was quickly appointed President of the German General Motorsport Association.
Yet it will be for his ill-fortune behind the wheel and his stylish manner away from the circuits which Manfred von Brauchitsch will be best remembered. Unquestionably, he looked down on some of his colleagues, most notably the somewhat scruff), Luigi Fagioli and even his compatriot Hermann Lang who had risen from the ranks of mechanic to eclipse Manfred in terms of talent and achievement
Reflecting that mood, my personal favourite story was recounted by Raymond Mays shortly before his death in 1980. Sitting down with his two team-mates in Berlin’s swanky Roxy Bar in the 1930s, von Brauchitsch summoned a waiter.
“A bottle of champagne for Herr Caracciola and myself,” he said commandingly. “And a beer for Lang.”