The last big name from Mercedes-Benz’s brilliant pre-war driver line-up has died, aged 97. Manfred von Brauchitsch was perhaps the least talented of Alfred Neubauer’s regular stars, but to be shaded by the likes of Rudolf Caracciola, and later Herrmann Lang, is not a sign of weakness. Not for nothing did Manfred appear on the debut of the Silver Arrows —winning the 1934 Eifelrennen — and still be racing for the team the day after Hitler’s war machine had invaded Poland.
A scion of a blue-blooded military family, von Brauchitsch began his career on motorbikes. A skull broken in a spill soon put a stop to that, and he switched to four wheels in 1929. His big breakthrough came three years later when he upset Caracciola’s Alfa by winning the Avusrennen in an ungainly, but effective, streamlined Mercedes SSKL. Neubauer was impressed and in 1934 drafted him into the squad that would change motor racing history.
Brauchitsch was a charger — hard on brakes, gearbox and tyres. He was tactical in an era when you had to be strategic. But he provided a useful balance, acting as loyal lieutenant to Caracciola and as a buttress against the ravings of Luigi Fagioli. Recovered from an accident in the 1934 German GP (skull again!), he finished second in the 1935 French and Belgian grands prix. He was half a lap away from winning the German race, too, when an overstressed rear tyre burst. Limping back to the pits in floods of tears, he was christened ‘Der Pechvogel’ (The Unlucky Bird) — a sobriquet he would live up to.
There had been several pole positions in between, but it took him three years to end his victory drought, for once ignoring team orders to beat Caracciola in a head-to-head at Monaco. Often criticised for being ragged, Manfred had proved that accuracy and finesse were part of his armoury. He was improving and might have expected to step into Caracciola’s shoes as the great man’s powers slowly faded. But these hopes were quashed by the rise of Lang, an ex-mechanic. This did not sit well with von Brauchitsch, but despite rumours of his departure from the team, he remained with it throughout the three-litre formula of 1938-39, and scored his third, and last, major victory in the 1938 French GP. He would have won the German GP, too, but for a late refuelling fire.
As war loomed in 1939, and Lang asserted his authority, Manfred had to make do with a respectable tally of two seconds and two thirds. His mind, however, like those of many, lay elsewhere. Military service was out of the question because of his motorsport injuries, and he arrived in Belgrade for the Yugoslavian GP in September with a return ticket to Geneva in his pocket. In fact, he almost left before the race, Neubauer having to rush to the airport to drag him back to his cockpit. A fateful move, as it turned out.
After finishing second in Belgrade, von Brauchitsch spent WWII shuffling papers in Berlin. His pre-war exploits counted for little during hostilities — and even less in their immediate aftermath. He was bitter and thought about relocating to South America: he was entered in the 1949/50 Temporada but did not race. Instead, he ended up defecting to East Germany under a political cloud.
As the founding president of the German Automobile Club, he had many contacts behind the Iron Curtain and, having annoyed the authorities by organising illegal motorcycle races, was arrested on charges of espionage — only to jump the Wall while on bail in 1953. Behind him he left unpaid debts — and his wife who, tragically, would commit suicide.
Von Brauchitsch would go on to play an active role in East Germany’s Ministry of Sports and Olympic Committee. Handsome and distinguished, he made several appearances in the West after Reunification, his hair now as silver as the cars he once raced with such verve.
But now time has eventually overtaken a racer who went wheel to wheel with Nuvolari and, with his passing, motorsport’s most spectacular chapter has closed. PF