Doug Nye

The greatest race of all?

A gathering of two or more like-minded enthusiasts usually generates fierce debate about epic battles on the track. What’s your favourite?

On a recent flight I fell into discussion with a fellow enthusiast about great races we recalled. For years books and magazines have sought to present ‘The Greatest Race of All’. Of course such debates are hugely subjective. But among the numerous philosophical quotes which Jenks inscribed on the walls of his tumbledown lodge house near Crondall in darkest Hampshire, was one real gem: “Ah, nostalgia – The Real Thing.”

And that Real Thing has never been solely confined to the premier racing categories. While most of the excitement in modern Formula 1 seems to be confined to the latter half of the pit lane (can Fernando really rejoin ahead of Kimi after that last pit stop? Ooh, aah, – deflation – oh… he can’t), truly race-long battles once seemed so commonplace. 

But candidates for that tag of ‘The Greatest Race’ always seem to be drawn from the same old pool of top-class F1 and sports car racing, sometimes Indy, too. There was Nuvolari and later Fangio starring in the 1935 and 1957 German GPs, Jacky Ickx edging Hans Herrmann to the line by 100 yards in the 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours, Gilles Villeneuve’s blocking masterclass to win the 1981 Spanish GP… You’ll know them all.

But what we kept recalling over BA’s cheese and bickies was great race after great race from the lower categories. I contend that it doesn’t really matter so long as it was a truly gripping race. It does, however, add tremendous edge if you know you have been watching two or more of the world’s greatest racing drivers of their era going at it hammer and tongs, right through the race. Within my experience that was often the case in old-style F2, which admitted both the superstar graded drivers and the new boys and privateers. Some showed enormous promise; many absolutely none…

One truly great long-forgotten F2 classic was the Autocar Trophy race at Snetterton (yes, of all places) in April 1965. It was run in two 25-lap heats, the first of which featured a fabulous cliff-hanger between no less than Jim Clark and Graham Hill. Jimmy drove the Ron Harris-Team Lotus 35, with the latest 1-litre Cosworth SCA four-cylinder engine. Graham was in ‘Noddy’ Coombs’s Brabham BT16 with brand-new BRM P80 four-cylinder power. 

These two World Champions raced hub to hub all around the bleak Norfolk course. From lap seven, when the green-painted nose of Jimmy’s Lotus led by a fraction across the timing line, Graham in his pale-grey Brabham was able to outfox the Scottish genius for the next 18 laps to the chequered flag. Even then the pair screamed by side-by-side, and while the judges gave Graham the win by a tyre sidewall, the timekeepers gave them identical times. I can’t recall if that great race was televised, but if it had been – with stars of such class in intense battle throughout – the tape really would have become an all-time classic.

Ending that F2 season, the Albi GP provided another stupendous race. Yet another multiple World Champion, Jack Brabham, featured in this one. He had begun the year with a Honda engine in the back of his works F2 Brabham. After its racing debut the engine plainly required further development, so Jack used Cosworth power for most of that year, before the revised Honda engine re-emerged at season’s end. Here at Albi the new narrow valve-angle four-cylinder went like a rocket. Jack qualified on pole 0.3sec faster than Jochen Rindt’s Winkelmann team Brabham and Clark’s Lotus, both Cosbodge-powered, of course. Behind them on the Albi grid sat Denny Hulme’s works Brabham-Cosworth and Alan Rees, Rindt’s Winkelmann team-mate, in his. 

The duel which followed initially involved six cars; Clark, Brabham, Hulme, Rindt, Rees and Richard Attwood’s Lola, entered by Midland Racing Partnership, all swapping places, three abreast at times. After 10 laps Richard’s engine quit, but the race raged on with Clark v Brabham at the spearhead, and Jimmy finally won by 0.6sec. For many of us in that period Formula 2 ruled. And don’t think for one moment this epic had been just a sprint race. This Albi GP was run over 85 laps, 191 miles, whereas this year’s British ‘Petit’ Prix was over 185…

Do you recall a favourite great race from other than World Championship Formula 1 or sports car level? If so, let’s hear about it.

“It was only a little one…”

Veteran German Hans Herrmann drove for Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and briefly Abarth, from 1953 to 1970. Intelligent and quick, he also drove Maserati 250Fs in F1 and was always to be reckoned with. When I was talking with him in Stuttgart recently he recalled his farewell race, 1970 Le Mans, with Richard Attwood in a Porsche Salzburg-entered 917 with the small 4.5-litre engine. “I had been beaten at Le Mans by Ickx and the Gulf GT40 the previous year. We at Porsche were desperate to win the race outright for the first time, but I decided before that 1970 race it would be my last. I told nobody, not Porsche, not my team-mates, not even my wife. I just told me. 

“And then we won it outright. ‘Herrmann’, I told myself, ‘you made the right decision!’ ”

In 1953-54 he had been selected to join the new Mercedes-Benz works team, but in testing one of the new W196 cars at the old Hockenheimring – which passed through the town – an oil pipe burst, flooding the footwell with scalding oil. With his foot slipping off the brake pedal he crashed into a house and was taken to the krankenhaus with severely scalded feet. He ended the 1954 season third in the Swiss GP, fourth in the Italian and third in  the Berlin GP on the high-banked autobahn course at AVUS. He shared the fourth-placed W196 in the 1955 Argentine GP, then reappeared in practice at Monaco, where he made a mistake.

“I was driving one of the longer-chassis cars with inboard brakes, one of which began locking. If I’d had more experience I would have called at the pits, but no, I thought I could drive around it. Before Casino Square the brake locked, took me off-line and into the stone balustrade, which broke my leg…” And ended his Mercedes Formula 1 career. (It appears that he actually broke his pelvis and a vertebra).

He later drove Maserati 250Fs and Porsches at F1 level, but his return to AVUS for the 1959 German GP provided another miraculous escape: “I drove the pale-green front-engined BRM for Stirling Moss’s father’s team [BRP]. I was doing maybe 280kph (170mph) towards the right-hand kink which led into the level left-hand hairpin, but when I hit the brake a hose burst and the pedal flopped loose. No brakes. 

“The previous day, my great friend Jean Behra had been killed when he crashed his sports Porsche on the high banking, in the rain. I was heading brakeless into a corner with spectators packed around its outside. I was going to kill hundreds. I tried to slow the car by aiming it into the straw bales on the left. I expected them to burst and drag off speed. But they had been soaked by the rain and were rock-hard. The moment my front wheel hit them it rode up and over the top. 

“The next thing I knew I was flying 10 metres in the air. There was a tremendous impact and I was sliding and rolling to a stop on my own, out of the car. ‘Ach Herrmann,’ I thought, ‘yesterday poor Behra was killed, now you’re dead too’ and I waited for the pain, but it didn’t come. I was puzzled. I could see bits of car landing everywhere, marshals running. I thought I could stand up, I tried it and stood up. Then I checked myself quickly. Unbelievable! Everything seemed still to be attached and working. So then I thought ‘Herrmann, maybe you aren’t gonna die’ – and that did it. I immediately collapsed as much in relief as shock, and laid down again. They carried me off on a stretcher, and the first thing I did was ask for a telephone. I called my mother and said ‘You might hear on the radio I’ve had an accident. Well, it’s true, I have, but I’m OK – it was only a little one…’ ”

With such an outcome, a little one it might have been, but photographs of the Stuttgart baker’s AVUS shunt passed into racing folklore as some of the most spectacular ever taken.

Debunking the Silver Arrows

Disproportionate fuss has been caused in Germany recently by a journalist named Eberhard Reuss publicly questioning the legend that when Mercedes-Benz re-entered GP racing at the 1934 EifelRennen it had to scrape off the white national racing colours to meet the maximum weight requirement, winning the next day in bare aluminium. Ever after, aluminium/silver instead of white became Germany’s national racing colour. In simple terms I believe Reuss is right, the legend is nonsense; it’s just a pity that his ‘revelation’ became a polemic exercise condemning DaimlerChrysler’s marketeers for telling us lies, when all they did was to exaggerate a simplified version of what is proving to be a terribly complicated historical conundrum. But would any sensible car buyer ever swallow whole what the industry tells us?

For me the interesting thing is that not only did Auto Union pre-empt Mercedes-Benz by racing silver-grey cars at AVUS the week before the Eifel event, but two years previously, in the 1932 AVUSRennen, Manfred von Brauchitsch won in a streamlined Mercedes-Benz SSKL also painted not white, but silver. 

DaimlerChrysler’s historic section is today being meticulous about establishing the company’s true heritage, and it has moved archival mountains to verify or deny Reuss’s over-hyped campaign. To outsiders it’s all wonderfully unimportant, but in Germany it really seems to matter. DaimlerChrysler’s historic objectivity has been exemplary – one document uncovered is a memo dated August 8, 1924, from Director Max Sailer ordering that the chassis and body of one of his new works team cars being built for Monza should be finished in “Aluminium” with the upholstery in “schwarzes Leder” – black leather. Mmm, nice, matches my Volvo V70 Estate.