John Barnes, Historian

Manfred von Brauchitsch

From 1934 to 1939 the state sponsored teams of Mercedes Benz and Auto Union battled for supremacy in the world of motor racing and for the glory of Hitler's Third Reich. Von Brauchitsch, initially the rookie on the Mercedes team, became its No 2, but towards the end of the period both he and his team leader, Rudi Caracciola, were under pressure from a younger Mercedes driver, Hermann Lang. The red- helmeted von Brauchitsch was a fast but often unlucky driver, who won the Monaco and French Grands Prix, the Eifelrennen and the Avusrennen. With better luck he might have doubled that total. After the war, the ageing star was unable to recreate his career and succumbed to the blandishments of the Communist regime in East Germany. Charged with high treason, he fled to the east and it was not until after reunification that he was once again to be seen at Mercedes Benz reunions. It is doubtful in any case whether he would have figured in Mercedes brief return to racing in the 1950s, as in the eyes of their legendary and authoritarian team manager, Alfred Neubauer, he was no longer up to it.

Von Brauchitsch was born in 1905, scion of a Prussian landowning family. His uncle, the Field Marshal, commanded the Wehrmacht at the outbreak of World War II and was dismissed in December 1941. He served himself in the Reichswehr Defence Force 1924-8, but was unable to continue after fracturing his skull in a bad motor cycle accident. Motor racing was an obvious outlet for his ambition. He took part with a privately owned Mercedes in a number of hill climbs and in 1931 finished third in both the Avusrennen and the Eifelrennen. In the following year, with a stream lined version, he took on the full Alfa Romeo team in the Avusrennen and forced his way to the front on the last lap to defeat Caracciola by 3.6 seconds. New found fame and wealth enabled him to live the life of a playboy and he even starred in a successful film. However his racing career went into a decline, a sixth place at the Avus his best placing. Nevertheless Neubauer chose him to join Caracciola and Fagioli when Mercedes created an official team in 1934. Brauchitsch survived a 100 mph crash when testing the car at Monza in February. The car was to run first at the Nurburgring in May. To Neubauer's dismay the cars were over the 750 kg limit. The problem was solved when Brauchitsch suggested the cars ran unpainted and he had his reward when he took the new car home to victory in the Eifelrennen. In practice for the German Grand Prix, he crashed, fracturing his skull and three ribs, and although he took part in the Swiss Grand Prix, he was obviously unwell and took the rest of the season off.

Back in harness for the 1935 season, he finished second in the French and Belgian Grands Prix and third in Spain. Always an unlucky driver - he was known as Der Pechvogel - he had victory in the German Grand Prix within his grasp when a tyre burst on his last lap. The 1936 season was a disaster for Mercedes, Auto Union sweeping the board, but in 1937 they made a comeback. Von Brauchitsch won at Monaco in August: although throughout much of the race he duelled with Caracciola for the lead in defiance of Neubauer's signals, in the end it was the latter's stop for plugs when in the lead that gave von Brauchitsch the race. He took second place at Pescara, Masaryk, Donington and in the German Grand Prix and third in the Eifelrennen and the Swiss Grand Prix. The race at Donington was characterised by an amazing duel with Rosemeyer's Auto Union, which those who saw it never forgot.

Although under some pressure from younger drivers like Lang and the Englishman Seaman in 1938, he was nearly as consistent, winning the French Grand Prix and taking second place at Tripoli and third in the Swiss and Italian Grand Prix. The German Grand Prix was another example of ill luck. He came into the pits in the lead on the 16th lap in the lead, but his car caught fire in the pits. Brauchitsch threw the steering wheel out of the car and baled out. The disciplined had the fire out in short measure. The Nazi Corps Leader, Huhnlein, promptly ordered him to restart and Brauchitsch obeyed, only to lose the car some way down the road. Officially the story was that the steering wheel had not been refitted properly, but it is more probable that the badly stressed Brauchitsch made a mistake.

1939 was Lang's year, and there was little that Caracciola and Brauchitsch could do to prevent his dominance. In a vain attempt to maintain their psychological dominance, it is said that at a team dinner, Brauchitsch ordered champagne for himself and Caracciola, and, as an afterthought, "a beer for Lang"! Brauchitsch managed a second at Pau and third in the Belgian and Swiss Grands Prix. Seaman had crashed while in the lead in Spa and Brauchitsch attended his funeral in London. The final race of the season took place in Belgrade against the background of the German invasion of Poland. Neubauer prevented Brauchitsch from flying to Switzerland and insisted he start. While in the lead, he spun and had to restart by going against the direction of the race. He was disqualified after crossing the line.

Brauchitsch returned to Germany for the duration of the war. Ruled unfit for active service, he acted as secretary to a General in Berlin. During the war he met the daughter of an industrialist. Until then a ladies man and confirmed bachelor, he married her shortly after the war. The family estates had gone and a poverty stricken Brauchitsch was reduced to organising motor cycle events. In that capacity he fell foul of a revived national Sporting Authority and was banned for life. Brauchitsch sought to emigrate to Argentina and Caracciola arranged for him to be invited to the Argentine temporada in 1950. He had hoped Brauchitsch would find a job, but the latter asked for a car and complained bitterly when he was asked to drive a clapped-out Maserati. By now Brauchitsch was drinking heavily and his marriage was in trouble. The ban on him was lifted in 1950, but he was not asked to drive for Mercedes when they returned to motor racing. The German authorities in the Soviet zone had begun to woo him In February 1951 he was invited to the ski championships in Thuringia as "the famous west German fighter for freedom" and his advice was sought on the racing car that the Rennkollektiv were building at Karlshorst. An East German publisher accepted his autobiography, . Kampf um Meter und Sekunden, for a price that bought him a villa in Bavaria. He had already accepted the presidency of the Committee for the Preparation of the World Games for Youth and Students, a communist-front organisation in the west and attended the games in Berlin. In 1952 he accepted the presidency of the Committee for Freedom and Unity in German Sport, again an organisation financed by the DDR. He was arrested and released, then charged in September 1953 for "preparation of a highly treasonable undertaking, danger to the State and mysterious behaviour". Bailed in March 1954, he promised not to leave West Germany until the Federal Court had heard his case. However when the case was opened in June 1955 he had fled to East Germany, leaving his wife behind. She had already tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide and in September 1957 she succeeded in a second attempt.

From 1957 to 1960 he headed the DDR's national motor sport authority and subsequently became president of its movement to promote the Olympic ideal. In 1988 the International Olympic Committee awarded him the Olympic Order.

The motor racing photographer, George Monkhouse, rightly called Von Brauchitsch "invaluable to Mercedes". He scored three wins, eight seconds and eight thirds for Mercedes, although more than once robbed of what had seemed certain victories. Only Caracciola had more podium finishes. Monkhouse called him "a most charming, quiet unassuming man and always immaculately dressed." Others spoke of his arrogance. But what all agreed, once in his car, he was the most spectacular of drivers, hard on his tyres, but sliding his car through the corners in a way that delighted the spectators and undeniably fast.

Born Hamburg 16 August 1905