Fifty years after his death, Jean Behra is still remembered by his contemporaries as one of Grand Prix racing’s bravest souls
By Nigel Roebuck
Back in June 1980 I interviewed Patrick Depailler at Brands Hatch. He was a lovely fellow, a man out of his time, I always felt, very much a throwback to motor racing’s heroic age.
At the time tennis was fashionable in Formula 1 circles, and often at airports – most of them flew ‘commercial’ in those days – you’d come across a driver with a briefcase in one hand, a racquet in the other. Depailler would snort at that: he loved skiing and sailing and overpowered motorcycles. His heroes were Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, five-time winners of ‘Le Tour’.
And there had been another. When I mentioned that my childhood life had revolved around Jean Behra, Patrick’s face lit up: “No, really? I was the same…”
A few weeks later I spent a morning at the Williams factory. It was August 1, the date of Behra’s death, and I was thinking about him as I drove to Didcot. On the way back I heard of Depailler’s fatal accident during testing at Hockenheim.
Now we are far on from there, and Behra has been gone 50 years. I happened to be alone in the house that Saturday afternoon, watching Grandstand, when the newsflash came in: ‘The French racing driver Jean Behra has been killed in an accident in Berlin…’
I will never be able to explain why ‘Jeannot’ so dominated my young life, and perhaps that’s as it should be. One shouldn’t, after all, seek a rational explanation for everything; an element of mystery is surely essential in a hero.
It didn’t matter that there were greater drivers, that he was never World Champion or whatever. What appealed to me primarily about Behra was his utter fearlessness – that and his dedication. Raymond Mays once related to me an anecdote revealing of Jean’s love affair with his job.
“He was a magnificent driver, and a charming man, but terribly temperamental in a French sort of way. Sometimes he’d get a bit demoralised, but it never lasted long, and I asked him how he kept his spirits up.
“When things were bad, he said, he would get his passport out: ‘I look at all the stamps, the places racing has taken me, and then at the first page. Name: Jean Behra. Profession: Pilote. And I remember how lucky I am to have this life’. I found that rather moving – and somewhat different from most racing drivers I’ve known.”
Behra, born in Nice in 1921, was one of life’s natural competitors, racing bicycles, then motorcycles, in his teens until the war intervened. Afterwards he carried on as before, champion of France for several years on his red Moto Guzzi. A move to cars, though, was increasingly in his thoughts: by the end of 1951 he had turned his back on bikes and headed to Paris, to 69 Boulevard Victor, where resided the team of Amedée Gordini, whose cars were sometimes fast, always fragile. A contract was signed.
The following June Behra broke into the national consciousness, and he would remain an idol in France for the rest of his life. At Reims, totally against expectations, he defeated the Ferrari team in the Grand Prix de la Marne, fighting off even Alberto Ascari.
“It was impossible,” said Jabby Crombac, “to overstate the importance of that victory in France. It was only two weeks after Le Mans, where [Pierre] Levegh tried to drive the whole race on his own, and failed at the very end – leaving victory to the Germans! This was not so long after the war, you know…
“Wimille and Sommer were gone, so when Jean – who was new in car racing – won at Reims, he was instantly a national hero. Beating the Italians was almost as good!”
Crombac adored Behra: “He was like Jean Alesi – lovely guy, looked the part, tremendous guts, too emotional, drove with his heart…” Shortly before Jean’s death, indeed, he asked Jabby to become his manager: “I didn’t go to Avus – we were to have dinner in Paris the week after to discuss it, but he never came back…”
Behra stayed with Gordini for three years, but the cars rarely lasted, and his frustration mounted. There were, however, occasional successes, as in the 1954 Pau Grand Prix, where he defeated Maurice Trintignant’s factory Ferrari.
On Sportsview, a BBC programme of the time, a clip of the race was shown, and I was captivated by the battle between the dapper, fastidious Trintignant, and the stocky, charismatic Behra. Right there I was hooked, and a few months later, in the Oulton Park paddock, gazed endlessly at Jean’s light-blue Gordini. It had qualified second for the Gold Cup, but disappeared after a couple of laps.
Soon after there was a non-championship race at Avus, put on as a showcase for Mercedes. Karl Kling was allowed to win at home, and the only happening of note was that Behra’s Gordini clung on to the three streamlined W196s, achieving speeds unthinkable without a tow.
Needless to say, the Gordini expired after 15 laps, but Denis Jenkinson was ever after inclined to cite Behra’s drive as the quintessential example of what he called ‘tiger’, this an indomitable refusal to give in.
For 1955 Behra moved to Maserati, but how different his career might have been had he stayed his hand on the contract a little longer, for Alfred Neubauer, needing support for Fangio, was looking around: “I thought of Behra – but he had already signed for the opposition…” Eventually, of course, he signed one S Moss.
As it was, Jean found at Maserati his spiritual home, and his three years there were to be the happiest of his racing life. Through another Mercedes summer the 250F was unable to trouble Fangio and Moss, but Behra was invariably ‘best of the rest’, and won non-championship Grands Prix at Pau and Bordeaux, as well as several sports car races.
At the end of the season, though, he crashed in the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, suffering a broken arm and torn tendons in his right hand. As well as that, his right ear was severed, and this was to be his most celebrated injury. Thereafter he would wear a plastic ear, which he was wont to remove when the occasion demanded, as in a crowded restaurant. “There’s always a table available then,” he would grin. “Sometimes several…”
In the course of his career Behra did indeed have an enormous number of accidents, and this was long before the advent of proper helmets and fireproof overalls, let alone seat belts and rollover bars and gravel traps.
In 1949 he came off his Guzzi at Tarbes (broken arm and collarbone), and the following year at San Remo (broken kneecap); in ’52, while leading the Carrera Panamericana, his Gordini went off the road and into a ravine (seven broken ribs), and then he crashed at Sables d’Olonne (broken arm); in ’53 there was an accident at Pau (broken arm, displaced vertebra); in ’55 came the Dundrod accident, and in ’57 shunts during Mille Miglia testing (broken wrist) and at Caracas (serious burns to arms and face). The list went on.
‘Jean Behra’, wrote DSJ in September 1959, ‘had more guts than the majority of today’s drivers put together. He never knew the meaning of fear, and in consequence tended to drive over the limit more often than not. The way in which he would recover from injury and return straight away to racing was remarkable. A lot of people, drivers included, openly disliked Behra for no other reason than that they were secretly envious of such a tough little man, who would have the most almighty accident, climb out of the wreckage and come back for more.’
In the ’50s Jenks was frequently in Modena, where Behra was an almost permanent resident at the Albergo Reale. “What I liked most about Jean,” he said, “was his pure love of racing cars. He was a good mechanic, but he never worked on cars for the fun of it: what mattered was making them faster. They loved him at Maserati, because he was happy to ‘live above the shop’. There was no bullshit about Jean. He was a racer’s racer”.
At the end of 1955 Mercedes withdrew from racing and Fangio signed for Ferrari, while Moss joined Behra at Maserati. Plainly Stirling was the best driver in the team, the accepted number one, but Jean welcomed him, and had an untypically consistent season, finishing fourth in the World Championship, and again winning a number of sports car races, including the Nürburgring 1000Kms.
“Behra was one of the greatest fighters I ever came across,” says Moss. “If you passed Castellotti or Musso or Collins or Hawthorn, that was the end of it, but with Jean there was no way you could put him out of your mind – you had to keep your eye on your mirrors, boy!
“He was an incredibly tough competitor, you know, and that made him unpopular with some of the drivers, but I thought it was his greatest strength, and I very much identified with it. He was always fair, too – I mean, he wasn’t about to say ‘After you’, but he’d never do a Farina on you! I’d always feel quite happy going into a corner alongside him.
“Fangio, I believe, said Behra was ‘too brave’, but I’m not sure I’d say too brave – not in the way that Stuart Lewis-Evans was, for example. I always liked Jean: he was there to get on with what he was doing, and he did it bloody well…”
For 1957 Moss left Maserati for Vanwall, but any hopes Behra may have had of regaining his number one status were dashed when it was announced that Fangio was coming aboard for what would be his last season.
Jean revered Juan Manuel, and in point of fact had the finest year of his career. The pair shared the winning Maserati 450S at Sebring, and in a similar car Behra won the Swedish GP, partnering Moss. Clutch failure kept him from winning the British GP, but there were F1 victories at Pau, Modena and Morocco, and a couple more – in a BRM, no less – at Caen and Silverstone.
Financial problems drove Maserati out at the end of 1957, whereupon Jean signed for BRM. But the following season was unsatisfactory, for the car, while sometimes quick, was lamentably unreliable and frequent brake failures – one of which pitched him into the Goodwood chicane wall – did nothing for his confidence.
What kept Behra going in 1958 was a new relationship with Porsche, for whom he was consistently brilliant in the little RSK sports cars, finishing second at the Targa Florio and third at Le Mans, as well as winning events as disparate as the Mont Ventoux hillclimb and the Berlin Grand Prix – at Avus.
By general consent Avus was a singularly stupid race track, comprising two flat-out autobahn blasts, with a hairpin at one end and the notorious steeply-banked curve at the other.
To Behra, though, a race was a race. When the USAC brigade came over in 1957 for the Trophy of Two Worlds at Monza, the Europeans had little enthusiasm for a banked track which Tony Bettenhausen’s Novi would lap at 177mph! Maserati, though, built up a special car, and Jean was mortified to find it too slow to compete with the Americans. I could always readily picture him in a roadster at Indianapolis.
Fundamentally, Behra had enjoyed the BRM team, if not sometimes its cars, and he would probably have stayed on in 1959 – had not there come a call from Maranello.
This was like coming home – Modena, the Reale, ceaseless testing – and the new association began well: in the Dino 246 Jean won the Aintree 200 from team-mate Tony Brooks.
“I rated Behra very highly as a driver,” says Brooks. “In a decent car he could give anyone a run for their money. Mind you, although we were team-mates I didn’t know Jean that well – he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak French. ‘Ciao’ and ‘bonjour’ was about as far as we got!
“We shared a Testa Rossa a couple of times. At the Targa he started the race, and rather modified our car – by rolling it down a mountainside! He crawled out from underneath it, and got some Sicilian peasants to help him right it and push it back to the road. When he brought it into the pits I thought, ‘Well, that’s ready for the knacker’s yard’, but Jean had different ideas and so did [Romulo] Tavoni, the team manager. I said something along the lines of ‘You’ve got to be joking’, but they weren’t! I went out, but the steering was all over the place and eventually the car went straight on – fortunately at a slow corner…”
At Le Mans Behra was paired with Ferrari’s newest recruit, a youthful, crew-cut American named Dan Gurney, but although fastest in practice he was almost the last man away, his car reluctant to fire up. After an hour or so, though, the TR59 was leading; as a piece of sheer driving brilliance Behra’s performance that day stands comparison with any ever seen at the Sarthe.
“Jean really flew in the early stages,” Gurney recalls, “and just left everyone behind, including Stirling. A lot of people said he over-stressed the car, but I don’t believe he did. We were still leading in the early hours of Sunday, and then the crown wheel-and-pinion went – that shouldn’t have been hurt by going hard. Yes, Jean was going for it, but he was a proud man and a fighter – and, believe me, he wasn’t slow!
“After the race we drove back to Modena together, just the two of us, and pretty soon we’d worked out a system of English and French and hand signals and hieroglyphics, so that we could communicate with each other.
“I was this young kid coming into the team, but I never felt any resentment from Jean – he was more interested in the next race than anything else. I liked him a great deal – and when he found out that I could steer OK, we became very close. He had come from a motorcycle background, so for me that was already a plus.
“Even back then Jean was something of a throwback to a different time. He wasn’t a moaner at all; he was a fiery guy, and he was there to race. I thought that was great. He had a look in his eye – he didn’t mind getting with the programme, that was for sure…”
Behra raced a Ferrari for the last time at Reims in early July. Team-mate Brooks led away, and was never headed, but ‘Toto’ Roche, the fat buffoon who – for reasons unclear – was the ‘doyen’ of French motor racing at the time, chose to drop the starting flag while standing in front of Behra’s car. As a consequence Jean stalled, and was by some margin the last away.
Before his own people, and at the circuit where the Behra legend had begun seven years earlier, Jean drove right to the edge, and sometimes over. After 20 laps he was up to third, but not long afterwards the Ferrari smokily retired, whereupon Tavoni angrily suggested it was Jean’s fault, that he had over-revved.
Big mistake. With a single punch Behra felled him – and soon there came news from Maranello that Jean’s contract was cancelled forthwith.
“That was my first Grand Prix,” says Gurney, “but I didn’t see the incident when Behra smacked Tavoni. We don’t know that the fight was entirely Jean’s fault, but it’s been assumed that’s the way it was. It was a doggone shame – Tavoni was a good guy, and so was Behra, so why did that have to happen? Sometimes, if you have a lot of honour and pride, you can get easily offended, and I think there was an element of that…”
Perhaps there was another ingredient, too. Over the previous winter Behra had built up a single-seater Porsche, an F2 car based on the RSK. His Ferrari contract precluded his racing the car, but – perhaps unwisely – he entered it in several events, nominating different drivers. In the F2 race at Reims Hans Herrmann drove it, finishing second to Moss’s Cooper; rather more to the point was that it proved significantly quicker than Cliff Allison’s factory Ferrari. This may well have played a part in Enzo’s decision to end the association with Behra.
Immediately Jean sought a return to BRM for the German GP at Avus. “Unfortunately,” Mays recalled, “there wasn’t time to get it organised, so Jean turned up with his own F2 Porsche.”
The day before the Grand Prix there was a sports car race, for which Behra had also entered. It was raining when they went to the grid, and most drivers thought it insane to race in the wet at this place – not a lot different from an oval, after all. On the grid Behra’s friend Herrmann tried to persuade him not to start, but Jean – of course – would hear nothing of that.
On the second lap the Dutch amateur Godin de Beaufort lost his RSK on the brick banking – according to Brooks, ‘like polished tiles’ in the rain – spinning up to, and over, the lip of it. The Porsche fell some distance, but landed on its wheels, whereupon the unimaginative driver selected first gear, and resumed the race!
Afterwards de Beaufort talked proudly of his exploit, and even had himself photographed at the top of the banking. The late Phil Hill told me that this did not sit well with the other drivers: “He was coming out with all this stuff – and we really weren’t inclined to listen. I mean, how crass and insensitive was that? By then Behra was dead, for Christ’s sake…”
The accident came on the fourth lap, as Behra disputed the lead with Wolfgang von Trips. On the banking his Porsche, like de Beaufort’s, broke loose, then began to spin. At the lip of the banking was a concrete gun emplacement, left there since the war, and the RSK hit it. Behra was thrown out, a lurid photograph showing him like Icarus, silhouetted against the grey sky.
“We were all traumatised by Behra’s death,” Hill said. “Gurney and I were standing in the tower, watching, and we saw the whole thing. His car hit the concrete block and was chopped in half. He was hurled out, and then hit that flag pole – it was just like he was flying…”
“I was very saddened when Jean was killed,” says Gurney. “I felt I’d lost what was going to be a close friendship. And of course there was the thought, ‘Did this happen because he was so angry at the way he had been treated by Ferrari?’ The poor guy got wasted at a time when he was still very capable of winning races.”
“Jean was in the next pit to us that weekend,” said Mays, “and I remember feeling very sorry for him – he seemed very much alone during those last few hours of his life. In hindsight, all the elements of a Greek tragedy were there…”
It fell to his countryman, Trintignant, to call Joseph Behra in Saint Raphael, to inform him of his son’s death. Six days later the funeral took place in Nice, at the Eglise de Saint Barthelemy. Close by is the Boulevard Jean Behra.