Manfred von Brauchitsch

Manfred von Brauchitsch

15/8/1905 - 5/2/2003

Driving for the factory Mercedes-Benz racing team in their famous Nazi state-backed "Silver Arrows" racing cars, Brauchitsch won the 1934 EifelRennen, 1937 Monaco and 1938 French Grands Prix. But he was better known by his nickname "Der Pechvogel" (The Unlucky Bird) for the races he lost, his hard-driving impetuosity and his imperious Prussian officer-class mien.

Manfred von Brauchitsch was born on August 15 1905, the son of a landowning officer in the Prussian Guards. His uncle would become Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht at the outbreak of the Second World War. After school in Berlin, Manfred served in the Reichswehr defence force from 1924 until 1928, when he fractured his skull in a motorcycle accident.

A wealthy playboy, tall, sharp-featured and boldly ambitious, he turned to motor racing and first came to prominence in 1931 driving his own seven-litre Mercedes-Benz SS. In 1932 he had it fitted with streamlined bodywork, and won the prestigious AVUSRennen high-speed autobahn test-circuit race in Berlin's Grünewald, beating all the established stars, including Mercedes-Benz's accepted number one, Rudolf Caracciola.

When Hitler sanctioned state funding of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Grand Prix racing teams in 1934, Brauchitsch was signed up as Mercedes's number two to Caracciola, and promptly won first time out in the new Silver Arrow in the EifelRennen race on the 14-mile Nurburgring circuit. But while practising at the same venue before the German Grand Prix he crashed badly and missed the rest of that season. Back in harness for 1935 he led the German Grand Prix until the last lap when a tyre burst - permitting an Italian Alfa Romeo to humble German motor sport on home soil, and earning Brauchitsch his enduring nickname.

After a luckless season in 1936 with an inferior Mercedes car, he grabbed his chance in the 1937 Monaco Grand Prix by blatantly ignoring team orders and holding off Caracciola to the line. He won his heat at AVUS and ended a fine season with four second places and two thirds. In 1938 he won the French Grand Prix at Rheims, before leading the German event at Nurburgring where he again seemed set for home victory, only for his car to catch fire during a bungled refuelling stop. His young English team-mate Dick Seaman won instead - further embarrassing the Nazi establishment. Brauchitsch then won the Coppa Ciano race at Livorno, Italy, only to be disqualified for receiving a push-start after stalling his engine during the race.

As Brauchitsch and Caracciola grew older, younger Mercedes team drivers threatened their pre-eminence. The greatest threat was former engine mechanic Hermann Lang, promoted through the ranks to become fastest of them all by 1939. At a team dinner Brauchitsch loudly ordered Champagne for himself and Caracciola "oh, and a beer for Lang". In 1939 he was consistently beaten by Lang, coming second at Pau and third in the Belgian and Swiss Grands Prix, and on September 3 at Belgrade he led for 16 laps before spinning his final chance away. He was then ordered to return immediately to Germany due to the declaration of war. The team manager Neubauer claimed to have caught Brauchitsch boarding the first flight to Geneva.

During the war Brauchitsch was engaged on paperwork duties in Berlin. Later, he became an uncomfortable misfit. In fitful attempts to resume racing with the amateur-led German AFM and Veritas teams, his self-importance proved a serious obstacle, especially since he criticised these new shoestring teams as inferior beings in comparison to what mighty Mercedes-Benz had been.

His family estates had been lost in the Russian Zone, and he lost much of what capital remained in failed business ventures. In an abortive trip to the Argentine Temporada race series of 1950, Brauchitsch considered the car provided unworthy. Disillusioned with life in the West, he became responsive to blandishments from East Germany, and ignored a West German government ban in February 1951 to attend a winter sports championships at Oberhof, where he was treated with tremendous deference as "the famous West German fighter for freedom". He also visited the new Communist-backed Rennkollektiv at Karlshorst, which was building an East German racing car.

Back in the West, he became president of the Committee for the Preparation of the World Games for Youth and Students in Berlin, then, in 1952, president of the Committee for Freedom and Unity of German Sport, both of which were considered DDR-financed propaganda fronts. These activities resulted in Brauchitsch being arrested and investigated. Meanwhile, his autobiography, Kampf um Meter und Sekunden (1952), was published in East Berlin.

In 1953 Brauchitsch was arrested for "preparation of a highly treasonable undertaking, danger to the state, and mysterious behaviour". Bailed in March 1954 pending trial, he defected from his home at Kempfenhausen near Munich to East Germany. In a letter to the court Brauchitsch denounced the Adenauer government for having "no time for sport and games". He later became president of East Germany's national motor sport authority (1957-60) and president of its movement for the "promotion of the Olympic ideal". In 1988 he was awarded the Olympic Order by the International Olympic Committee.

In 1974 he returned to the West as a star guest at the French Grand Prix Formula 1 meeting at Dijon.

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."

His first wife, Gisela, whom he married at the end of the war, committed suicide after his defection to the East.

Leave a comment

Comments