So here I was, just after my eighth birthday, and facing a sea change in my life. For the next five years Jean Behra, his chequered helmet, his victories, his innumerable accidents, became my world, and when he died, at Avus in 1959, I came to understand for the first time what was meant by grief. I never spoke to my idol – although my autograph book bears the signatures of Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn, Castellotti et al, I was always too overawed to ask Jean – but nearly 40 years on a photograph of him retains pride of place on my office wall.
Why he was of surpassing importance to me, I cannot tell you, because I don’t have the answer. It didn’t matter to me that there were greater drivers, that he was never World Champion, nor even – somehow – won a Grande Epreuve; what appealed primarily, I suppose, was his utter fearlessness. Fangio was right when he described him as “too brave”, but this can never be a fault in a childhood hero.
Those of us in thrall to Grand Prix racing support certain drivers throughout our lives, and if favourites of mine have included such as Prost, an elegant stylist who made it look easy, more usually I have been more drawn to the derring-do brigade, to Rindt, Peterson and, above all, Gilles Villeneuve.
Among the current drivers, Alesi is one I root for, and Jabby Crombac is not surprised: “But of course – Alesi is the Jean Behra of today! Lovely guy, looks the part, tremendous guts, too emotional, drives with his heart…”
Denis Jenkinson was another who thought highly of Behra, and down the years we sank many a cognac as we talked of him. “More than anything else,” he said, “what I liked about him was his pure love of racing cars. He was a good mechanic in his own right, but he never fettled cars for the fun of it: the only thing that mattered was making them faster. They loved him at Maserati, because he was happy to ‘live above the shop.’” Then, the ultimate accolade from DSJ: “There was no bullshit about Jean. He was a racer’s racer.”
In the 1950s Jenks was frequently in Modena, where Behra was an almost permanent resident at the Albergo Reale. For ‘Jeannot’, a day without some time in a racing car was a day lost, and he savoured every opportunity to pound around the nearby autodromo, then passing the evening playing cards and drinking wine and talking racing.
It was an existence he found completely fulfilling, and the association with Maserati, whom he joined in 1955, was the happiest of his racing life. Gordini had been fun, but after four seasons the chronic lack of both pace and reliability had become wearisome to one now recognised as among the world’s top drivers.