Undoubtably the beginning of August was a sad one for motor racing, for as a result of accidents we lost two well-known drivers, one a Grand Prix star of the highest order, and the other a first-class all-rounder. Motor racing at the limit must inevitably bring about its crop of accidents, and once an accident has started it is a matter of sheer luck whether it turns out to be fatal or whether the driver gets away unhurt. Until last month the 1959 season had been a particularly good one from the point of view of accidents, but even the most optimistic follower of the sport realised that there was little hope of going through a whole season without a major fatal accident. With the number of racing miles that are covered every weekend at its highest, almost since the beginning of motor racing, it is really quite remarkable how few accidents there are, and it speaks highly for the general standard of driving skill.
Ivor Bueb crashed at Clermont-Ferrand and after a week of struggle he finally succumbed to his injuries, while Jean Behra was killed outright at the moment of impact in his crash at Avus. In both cases the accidents were the result of going over the limit, and no disgrace to either driver, for the man that never goes over the limit or even gets near the limit, may live to a ripe old age, but he can never be considered a “racing driver.” It is this flirting with a danger that can so easily prove fatal that makes a racing driver that much different from the everyday driver. In just the same way the man who climbs a mountain using his hands and feet to hang on to a sheer cliff face is that much different to the man who goes to the top of a mountain in a “rack-and-pinion” train, or a wire-rope railway. Ivor Bueb was very typical of a certain type of British driver that we shall always have with us; he was not a Grand Prix artist, such as Moss or Brooks, but he would drive anything, anywhere, any time, and always drove it well, whether it was a tiny 500 or a 3.8-litre Lister-Jaguar, and without question he had the most remarkable ability to drive at night in foul conditions, as he showed more than once at Le Mans. Joining the motor-racing game via the motor trade and garage business, Bueb made such good progress that he was able to sell his business interests and exist solely as a professional racing driver.
Jean Behra, on the other hand, had always been a professional racing driver, first of all on motor-cycles and then on cars, and essentially in Grand Prix racing, for the single-seater pure racing car held a fascination for Behra since he was a small boy in Nice and pressed his nose on the window of Friedrich’s garage where Rene Dreyfus’ Bugatti used to be kept. It is rather sad and a little ironical that Behra should die at the wheel of a sports car when his real passion had always lay with Grand Prix cars. Shortly before his death he had caused quite a stir in the racing circles by walking-out of the Scuderia Ferrari, after arguments with the team-manager and Enzo Ferrari himself, mostly brought about due to general dissatisfaction. When Behra signed on with Ferrari last winter he seemed all set to be the number one driver, with Hill and Allison as his supporting cast, but then, almost overnight, Ferrari took Brooks into the team and, though no-one was officially named as number one driver, it was obvious that Brooks would be having pride of place. Not unnaturally this did not make for friendly relationships in the team, for the mechanics and engineers were torn between their desire to give all their attention to Behra, who was first to join and who lived in Modena and spent all his time at the factory and was an enthusiastic driver willing to work all night in the garage if need be to help them, and the need to see that Brooks had the best, for he was undoubtedly the best driver in the team and obviously had Mr. Ferrari’s blessing, but he was a comparatively remote individual only becoming known when practice for a race began. Then Dan Gurney joined the Scuderia and through no fault of his own began to drive as fast as Behra, though naturally lacking actual race experience and track-craft. Both on sports cars and Grand Prix cars Behra was finding that Gurney was close on his heels, and this gave the people at Ferrari who were not pro-Behra an opportunity to make unnecessary remarks in loud voices. On top of this, Behra was the only member of the team who did not speak English, so more often than not he found himself left out of conversations, which made his position in the team at race meetings a rather lonely one. While these things did not worry Behra directly, for he was far too experienced and widely travelled to worry about such minor details, they did total up to an unsatisfactory position in the team, and it was a team that lacked any sort of spirit of co-operation at the best of times.
Behra had a love for racing cars that was a pure passion and rather than be left with nothing to do when Ferrari was not racing, he had built himself a Formula 2 Porsche, seeing that Formula 2 was spreading fast on the Continent and also realising that now was the time to begin planning for the 1961 Formula 1. Much to Behra’s continual regret, Enzo Ferrari would not give him permission to drive the Porsche in Formula 2 races (though he did relent once), and while he could not stop Behra running the car and lending it to people, the whole project was not received with enthusiasm at Maranello. After the Reims race, when the Behra Porsche, driven by Herrmann, proved to be superior to the works F.2 Ferrari, a poor view was taken at the factory. All these little things were continually mounting up and finally came to a head when Ferrari failed to go to Aintree for the British Grand Prix, on the excuse that labour problems prevented the cars being prepared. The outcome was that Behra terminated his contract with the Scuderia Ferrari. While the reason could not be blamed on any one thing in particular, it could be added up to a general dissatisfaction all round, made all the more unhappy by the way his team mates showed their obvious dislike for the tough little Frenchman. All drivers have faults in both their driving and their characters, and equally they all have outstanding points and, without realising it, Behra caused himself to be disliked by a great many of his rivals on the circuits, not by a fault in his driving but by one of his most outstanding personal characteristics. Jean Behra probably had more “guts” than the majority of today’s drivers put together. He never knew the meaning of fear and in consequence he tended to drive over the limit more often than not, and throughout his 10 years of motor racing had an enormous number of accidents. The way in which he would recover from serious injury and return straight-away to racing again was quite remarkable. The number of times one heard people say after an accident, “That is the end of Behra, he will never race again,” was quite remarkable, and every time he not only returned but raced as hard as ever and with as much enthusiasm and as much passion for racing and racing cars as ever before. He made no bones about his passion for racing, and seldom would he admit to anyone being a superior driver, and this upset many a Grand Prix star. Also he did not indulge in self-publicity outside of motor racing, restricting his interests to driving, testing, and just “messing about with cars.” A lot of people, drivers included, openly disliked Jean Behra for no other reason than that they were secretly envious of such a tough little man, who would have the most almighty accident and climb out of the wreckage and come back for more. Those people would have liked to have admired such courage, but for some strange reason could not, so their feelings turned to obvious dislike in pure contradiction of what they really felt. Behra was a very self-possessed and confident man, and artificial praise, glamour and “bull” left him singularly unimpressed, even to the point of being openly rude to people, and that in itself was more than enough to antagonise a certain section of the motor racing “circus.”
Any good driver’s death is a loss to motor racing, but in losing Jean Behra we have lost a rare personality of the present age of racing, for he really had a passion for racing cars that was a joy to have known.
While on the subject of drivers I must make a reply to Mr. John Barnes, whose letter appeared in the August issue of Motor Sport. It is quite impossible to compare drivers of a different age of racing and to total up their wins is rather unsatisfactory as nowadays there are far more races to be driven in than 25 years ago. In comparing great drivers it seems that the thing to do is not so much the question of results, but the number of outstanding incidents they survived or achieved. As can be seen at any Grand Prix race, the number of drivers who can lap a circuit at a given speed are numerous and sometimes just one second is sufficient to cover the times of a dozen or more drivers on widely differing machines. As the standards of timing at Grand Prix races are never 100 per cent. efficient, such small discrepancies can hardly be used to differentiate between one another, though often they are used as a yardstick as there is no other available. A driver seems to become outstanding when he becomes history, not by lap times, or race wins, but by epics, and our correspondent mentions some which have become almost legendary about Nuvolari. Equally one can quote similar epics for Ascari, Fangio. Caracciola, Rosemeyer, and one will do the same for Moss when he has retired and become history.
In some ways these epic incidents or activities are a good yardstick for a regular and steady driver seldom does anything else, but an outstanding driver is capable of doing something out of the ordinary. Nuvolari will always stand out in my mind for the way he got into the tiny (for those days) buzzing M.G. Magnette with its preselecter gearbox, a thing he had never seen before, and out-drove all the opposition in the Ulster T.T. Then for the way he drove the under-powered 3.8-litre Alfa-Romeo of 1936 and continually worried the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union teams. If we go back to his early days we cannot but help recalling how he often rode a motorcycle in the morning and drove a car in the afternoon, many times winning both events. I shall always remember Ascari for the time when he lost a wheel from his 2-litre Ferrari on the Nurburgring, and drove the rest of the lap to the pits on the brake drum. The outstanding thing about that incident was when he overshot his pit, due to being unable to brake heavily for fear of damaging the drum, and then sat in the car with the engine running and waited for his mechanics to bring a quick-lift jack. No sooner had they jacked up the front than Ascari selected reverse and drove the car back to the Ferrari pit on the wheels of the jack with the mechanics hanging on to the handle. A lesser driver would have stopped his engine and let the mechanics push the car back.
Fangio will remain in my memory for his fantastic stamina, and I shall always recall seeing him arrive back in our hotel in Brescia during practice for the 1955 Mille Miglia, having driven a complete lap of 1,000 miles non-stop in the “hack” 300SLR. Orders were that we took two days for a lap, running as we were amongst the ordinary everyday Italian traffic, but Fangio had pressed-on and got as far as Bologna as darkness fell. When you have driven from Brescia to Ancona, Pescara, Rome and Florence there is a feeling that Bologna is virtually home, even though it takes some three hours to do Bologna, Piacenza, Brescia. Fangio said be thought, on arriving at Bologna, “Oh well, might as well get back to Brescia for the night.” He completely overlooked the night traffic on the via Emilia, the trucks, scooters, Fiats and bicycles which are bad enough in a fast car, but were a nightmare in a 300SLR. Added to this, he discovered after he had made his decision to go on that the Mercedes had only one headlight working. It was a very tired and weary-looking Fangio that arrived at the Hotel Brescia that night, and Neubauer’s face was a study when he saw him, having only sent him off that morning. Fangio’s average speed amongst the traffic? That does not bear thinking about. Other classics of Fangio that will live for all time are those numerous occasions when he finished a race with a very sick car that most drivers would have retired long since. Undoubtedly, Fangio will always live in the memory for his remarkable stamina and complete refusal to ever give in.
On the simple question of who was the greatest, Nuvolari or Ascari, I feel that we can never resolve that for Ascari’s racing career was so short and he had obviously not reached his peak when his untimely death robbed motor racing of the one man of whom, in my opinion, Fangio would never concede an inch for fear of being unable to reclaim it. — D.S.J.