Manfred von Brauchitsch at Donnington in 1937
On this day… August 15th
Manfred von Brauchitsch, who died aged 97, was the nearest thing to royalty in the legendary Mercedes-Benz grand prix racing team of the 1930s. His death severed the final link to an epic period in the sport’s history, and one when the German company, and its rival Auto Union, were both sponsored in part by Hitler’s government. He was also one of the unluckiest drivers of that era, winning just three major international races between 1934 and 1939.
Born into a Prussian dynasty of army officers in Hamburg, von Brauchitsch joined the army immediately after school. By the time he was invalided out in 1928, he was a sergeant; his uncle, Walther von Brauchitsch, went on to become a leading Nazi general.
He started racing in 1929 and, by 1932, was attracting attention with his performances in a private Mercedes SSKL sports car, bought with funds from a cousin. His first major race success came at the super-fast, Avus road circuit near Berlin, where his specially streamlined car won at an average speed of 143mph, roundly beating Rudolf Caracciola’s Alfa Romeo.
His first triumph came in the 1934 Eifel Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring. It was the weekend on which the Silberpfeile – or Silver Arrows – were informally christened with a tag which would endure throughout their racing life. The technical regulations of the time put no restriction on engine capacity, but required a weight limit of between 546 and 750kg. While being scrutinised prior to their debut at the Nurburgring, the supercharged Mercedes W25s tipped the scales fractionally over the weight limit. This alarmed the team’s racing manager Alfred Neubauer, but someone cleverly suggested he could strip off the cars’ white paint overnight before the race.
The efforts of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams left precious little room for anybody else to enjoy the limelight, although the Italians took a little, most notably when Tazio Nuvolari stole victory in the 1935 German Grand Prix from under von Brauchitsch’s nose.
In the closing stages of this epic race round the challenging 14-mile Nurburgring circuit, only von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes lay between the Italian’s underpowered Alfa Romeo and an astounding victory. Nevertheless, it looked as though Mercedes had it made. The German driver went into the final lap just under 30 seconds ahead, and it all seemed over bar the shouting.
Unfortunately, von Brauchitsch had been caning his Mercedes’s tyres in his anxiety to stay ahead. Midway round that final lap, the Mercedes’s left rear tyre flew apart, and the German driver was left a sitting duck. Nuvolari roared past to post possibly the most remarkable victory of his career.
Von Brauchitsch seemed not to be terribly keen on Neubauer, but, if that was the case, then the legendary, rotund Mercedes team manager could rightly have claimed the feeling was mutual after his driver won at Monaco in 1937 – against team orders – ahead of fellow Mercedes driver Rudolf Caracciola. Yet there was clearly no rancour between the two rivals who continued to get on splendidly.
“We ate a lot and drank a lot together,” said von Brauchitsch more than 60 years later. “We had the same interests. But after Monaco, Neubauer didn’t speak to me anymore, and I began to suffer small, inexplicable problems with my cars.”
He finished second to Lang in the Yugoslav Grand Prix in Belgrade on September 3 1939, two days after the beginning of the second world war. Not that he ever intended to compete in that race, according to Neubauer’s memoirs. Von Brauchitsch had left for Belgrade airport after breakfast on race morning, saying he was going home. Apparently, Neubauer stormed off to the airport and pulled him off the plane, only later realising that the flight was going to Switzerland, not Germany.
During the war, he served as private secretary to a general, in a German motorised division, and as a tank consultant in Albert Speer’s armaments ministry. Afterwards, he briefly moved to Argentina, before returning to Germany, where he became sports president of the Autobilclub von Deutschland in 1948.
But von Brauchitsch remained a free spirit. Even at the time of Konrad Adenauer’s conservative government, he claimed that “he could not stand the system”. This is at odds with Neubauer’s memoirs, which suggest he was on bail pending the re-investigation of a treason charge when he fled to East Germany in 1955 to escape massive tax debts in the wake of which his first wife, Gisela, committed suicide.
Mercedes insiders think that the East German rulers could see the prestige involved in luring away one of West Germany’s most famous sportsmen. Once he had made the move, he was quickly appointed president of the German General Motorsport Association.
After German reunification in 1989, von Brauchitsch attended Mercedes functions, and even came to Britain for the launch of the new West McLaren-Mercedes partnership at Alexandra Palace in 1997. The sight of the patrician nonagenarian being entertained by the Spice Girls remains an incongruous image in the memory of all who were present.
Yet it will be for his ill-fortune behind the wheel, and his stylish manner away from the circuits, that von Brauchitsch will be remembered. Unquestionably, he looked down on some of his colleagues, most notably the somewhat scruffy Luigi Fagioli, and even his compatriot Lang, who had risen from the ranks of Mercedes mechanic to eclipse him in terms of talent and achievement.
One popular tale puts his aloof demeanour into perspective. Sitting down with his two team-mates in Berlin’s swanky Roxy Bar in the 1930s, von Brauchitsch summoned a waiter. “A bottle of champagne for Herr Caracciola and myself,” he said commandingly. “And a beer for Lang.”
· Manfred von Brauchitsch, racing driver, born August 15 1905; died February 5 2003. Obituary, The Guardian, 2003
Manfred late in life described modern F1 drivers as ‘overpaid pimps’