98 – 1939 Belgrade GP



A series taken from the 162-page Motor Sport special 100 Greatest Grands Prix (other specials are available here).

From the editor Damien Smith

The Grand Prix motor races we can never forget…

Welcome to this special one-off magazine, dedicated to our love of Grand Prix racing and produced by the same team that brings you Motor Sport each month.

It seemed a good idea: whittle down 107 years of racing history to come up with 100 GPs that could be considered the ‘greatest’ – then rank them in meritocratic order. By week three, the old grey matter was beginning to ache…

Defining greatness was the first task. There were the obvious races – the wheel-to-wheel duels, the comeback classics. But there were also individual performances of supreme dominance, races that might not necessarily have been the most exciting to witness. Greatness goes way beyond thrill-a-minute, we decided.

Then there were those races of prominence, attached to a certain time or place that made them hugely significant. I’m thinking specifically of Belgrade, 1939. Only five entries took the start of a race that didn’t sound particularly scintillating. But as it happened to take place on the very day WWII broke out, we felt it worthy of inclusion. Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel’s remarkable maiden GP win at Monza in 2008, for lowly Scuderia Toro Rosso, was left on the cutting room floor. Is that fair? You decide. We also opted to include a few races that weren’t Grands Prix, leastways in name, although the strength of entry was such that they might as well have been…

Choosing which races should make the list was hard enough; ranking the top 100 in some sort of order was even tougher, especially when it came to the crunch: which should be number one? We never did agree unanimously on the ‘greatest’, but if the magazine was to be finished a decision had to be taken. And that’s what I’m here for!

Will you agree with our choice and order? Probably not. But if steam begins to issue from your ears, take a deep breath. In any exercise such as this, there is no definitive list – because there can’t be. Our top 100 is based on opinion, nothing more, designed to be a bit of fun and to spark good-natured debate among fans of the world’s greatest sport.

So turn the page, delve in – and whatever you do, don’t take it too seriously.

1939 Belgrade GP
September 3, Kalemegdan Park

The German teams’ domination during the 1930s – an overwhelming display of technical expertise dispatched with military efficiency – had long seemed a precursor to something more sinister. The clouds had bubbled. Now the storm broke.

From the archive: “Auslander” on the outbreak of war (November 1939).

Word spread after the first day of practice that German troops were massed on the Polish border. Indeed, Friday’s practice session would be held on a war footing. And by Sunday, Britain and France had entered the conflict. Yet the racers were ordered to keep on racing. New developments were tried, and team-mates locked horns as they bid to set the fastest time around this short, bumpy and cobbled in places street circuit.

Tazio Nuvolari arrived on Saturday morning after a tortuous train journey. Meanwhile, according to Mercedes-Benz’ corpulent team manager Alfred Neubauer, Manfred von Brauchitsch, whose uncle Walter was Germany’s Commander-in-Chief, had to be hauled from an aeroplane bound for Switzerland.

Bill Boddy investigates “The Nuvolari legends” (from the archive August 1955).

The day of the race was understandably tense. Von Brauchitsch, never the smoothest, drove like a man possessed and threw up a stone that shattered team-mate Hermann Lang’s goggles and cut an eye. Though signalled to slow, he then spun away his lead directly opposite the French embassy.

Auto Union’s Hermann Müller hit the front, only to suffer a tyre failure, whereupon team-mate Nuvolari took on a lead he would hold until the end.

Nigel Roebuck on Nuvolari, from December 2001.

Contested by just five cars and lasting not much longer than an hour, this pallid race brought a Homeric era to an uninspiring conclusion. It was apt that its greatest driver should win it – but that meant little given the context.

The Mercedes-Benz team snuck home on dusty back roads and upon its return to Stuttgart its trucks were commandeered. Now the racers were at war. PF

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