TeamsJean Behra: 1959 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Jean Behra had been well acquainted with trials and difficulties. However, the last 12 months had been quite trying. Looking for a new lease on life with a Porsche, Behra likely looked forward to the rest of the '59 season. Little would he, or anyone else, know he would not see the end of it.
The rise of Jean Behra would begin in the early 1950s when the World Championship was conducted according to Formula 2 regulations. Driving for the French Gordini team, Behra would routinely be the strongest of the runners against the mighty Scuderia Ferrari and their 500 F2. Scoring a victory in the Circuit du Lac and the Grand Prix de la Marne in 1952, the Frenchman would become not only the team leader for the Gordini outfit, but also, a highly sought-after driver by some of the best teams within Formula One.
Non-championship grand prix would see Behra ever the strong combatant finishing within the top five all throughout 1952 through to 1954, and all with an underachieving Gordini chassis.
These performances would lead to a factory drive with Maserati. However, he would find himself as teammate to the likes of Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio. Victories would come in Pau, Bordeaux and Reims but World Championship victories would continue to elude him as he would have no chance against Moss or Fangio.
The 1957 and 1958 seasons would see Behra swapping time between teams. He would continue to drive for the factory Maserati team and would continue to have success winning at Pau and finishing 2nd at Reims and Buenos Aires, but all such results would come in non-championship races. Being hired by Owen Racing driving their BRM 25s in the Grand Prix de Caen and the International Trophy race at Silverstone, Behra would have a run of success in 1957 that would include victories in both races. Two more victories in non-championship races for Maserati would complete a highly successful '57 season.
Maserati would leave motor racing leaving Behra without a ride. However, the two victories at the wheel of the BRM 25 encouraged the Frenchman to drive for the British outfit in the upcoming '58 season. Never short on bravery and courage, Behra would find his way to the front row of many grids and in the lead of many races. However, the unreliability of the BRM would prove his downfall throughout the season. Behra's teammate and good friend, Harry Schell, would enjoy much greater success behind the wheel of the BRM and this would lead to Behra demanding Schell's chassis for upcoming races and this only strained their friendship until neither was really speaking to the other by the end of the year.
While Behra's relationships were going down hill, his opportunities were ever-increasing. There was no denying his abilities and his passion behind the wheel. Behra would fight and push hard at nearly every moment. It was only when he didn't have a chance that his commitment could be called into question. Everyone knew that he had the ability and the talent to at least win races. It was believed that all it would take would be a team that had the same passion in building competitive race cars.
This 'too brave' Frenchman would get the opportunity of his lifetime heading into the 1959 season. Jean had driven for Maserati, Gordini and Owen Racing, but now, after numerous accidents and top results in non-championship events, Scuderia Ferrari would come calling.
Behra was not exactly the greatest fit for Enzo and his beloved Scuderia. Behra was a man full of passion. Though amiable and soft-spoken, this was only to the fans and when not within a couple of hours before, or after, a grand prix. He was not one to hide his feelings about a car or even a driver. It was not inconceivable that his fists would fly if pushed to such a degree and criticizing a car was just what he did. This did not go well at Ferrari where the team and the cars were not to be criticized at any point. However, Ferrari was in need. The deaths of Peter Collins and Luigi Musso over the course of the '58 season had seen Phil Hill come to the fore within the team before it seemed the team managers really wanted. But then there was Mike Hawthorn's retirement and death following his World Championship. Suddenly, Ferrari was in need of a whole new driver lineup. Tony Brooks would be added to the team and Phil Hill would continue to make his appearances. But there was still another spot in the lineup. Behra just couldn't be passed up. He had experience and it was known he could win races if he had the car capable to achieving them. So Behra would be the team's driver for the upcoming season.
Prior to signing to drive for Ferrari, Behra had competed in the World Championship at the wheel of the BRM 25. The car was fast but terribly fragile. Behra would grow frustrated with the car and the Owen Racing team but would counter his growing frustrations with a successful campaign driving a Porsche in sportscars. He would go on to win the French and German sportscar championships in 1958 and would finish with a class victory in the Targa Florio and a 3rd at Le Mans with co-driver Hans Herrmann. Porsche had made some appearances in Formula One events, but mostly concentrated on sportscars. There was an effort growing within the Porsche factory to build a car for Formula One. Behra was aware of this as he maintained his relationship with the factory when he made the move to Ferrari.
Making the move to Ferrari though meant Behra would be driving for the Maranello-based outfit in both Formula One and sportscars. The relationship would start out strong enough with he and Cliff Allison partnering to finish the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2nd place overall. Then it was time for the grand prix season to start.
The grand prix season would start in the early part of spring instead of at the beginning of the new year as the Argentine Grand Prix would be missing from the calendar. This meant the season would begin with a number of non-championship races on England's shores and on the continent. Not surprisingly, Behra would prove himself straight-away. In his first effort for the Scuderia he would lead home a Ferrari one-two. The race was the BARC 200 event at Aintree, something of a prelude for the British Grand Prix later in the year, and Behra would be unbeatable crossing the line 14 seconds ahead of Brooks. Behra would then follow up the victory at Aintree with a 2nd place in the Gran Premio di Siracusa on the 25th of April. It appeared the move to Ferrari would actually end up being the best possible move for both the Frenchman and the Italian team, but things would quickly turn sour.
Behra would find himself on the front row of the grid in his first World Championship race for Ferrari. It was the Monaco Grand Prix and a real chance for Behra to prove his talents. He had led around the principality the year before while at the wheel of the BRM. He would repeat the performance by leading the first 20 laps of the '59 edition as well. However, engine troubles would not only drop him out of the lead, but out of the race altogether. Brooks would go on to finish in 2nd while Behra's great beginning would come up terribly short, again.
Behra would only slightly turn things around at the third round of the World Championship, the Dutch Grand Prix. Starting from the second row of the grid, the Frenchman would run a steady race throughout but would never be within reach of the lead. Though the best of the Ferrari entries, a 5th place finish was not a welcome sight for the man not only looking for his first victory, but a World Championship on top of everything else. What made matters worse, it would be a BRM 25 that would take the victory in the Dutch Grand Prix in the hands of Jo Bonnier. Behra had left Owen Racing absolutely fed up with the BRM. The fact it would go on to take victory while he finished in 5th would only make the frustrations all the greater within himself and toward anything, or anybody, he believed was keeping him from achieving the success he believed was achievable.
Then came the French Grand Prix. The French round of the World Championship would be held at Reims, the site of his first major grand prix victory back in 1952. It was believed this would be his opportunity to take that first win, but it would be Brooks that would be the class of the field all weekend long. Brooks would start from the pole and would lead every lap of the race to go on to a Ferrari one-two victory with Phil Hill finishing in the 2nd spot. Behra ran well early on but would end up out of the race as a result of engine trouble.
Once again Behra found himself come up short in a World Championship race. It was too much for the Frenchman to handle. Instead of perhaps facing reality, at dinner that night, Behra would conclude it had to be Ferrari's fault. There had to be problems with the car and that the team wasn't interested in providing him equal equipment. Whatever the reason in Behra's mind, he would end up coming to blows with team manager Romolo Tavoni.
Behra's wife would have to step in to keep her husband back. Tavoni would return to Italy and would give a full report of the race, and the events that followed, to Enzo. Besides the fact he had come to blows with the team manager, Behra had committed the sin of criticizing the team and the car. Firing from the team was automatic. Suddenly, Behra's great chance had been lost in his great moment of passionate anger.
Behra was now without a competitive drive. Suddenly, the Frenchman that seemed to have his best chance at victory and a championship, following a period in which Moss and Fangio had been his teammate, would be gone. Jean now would have to look to other means to take part in grand prix racing.
There was an option available however. Behra had become impressed with Porsche as he drove for the factory effort. He, in turn, would have a specially-built Formula 2 car constructed by Valero Colotti. Powered by a Porsche engine, the Behra chassis would be entered in such Formula 2 events as the Coupte Internationale de Vitesse for Hans Herrmann and would end up with a 2nd place result the same weekend as Jean's blow-up following the French Grand Prix.
The car would be entered in the Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts the following weekend and would again be driven by Herrmann. By this time the news had been delivered to Enzo and Jean was on the verge of being ousted from Ferrari. Jean would obviously not appear for the British Grand Prix as he made his plans for the future. He would, however, be at the wheel of his own Formula 2 car on the 26th of July for the Trophee d'Auvergne held at the Charade Circuit in Clermont-Ferrand.
Having fallen from grace with Ferrari, Behra would take part in the Formula 2 event at Charade and would appear to be lacking the confidence as a result of his sacking. He would not be on the pace at any time throughout the weekend and would end up a lowly 12th at the end of the race. Behra's career was in a tail-slide and he needed to turn things around to prove, not just to himself, but to everyone else that he was still capable of competing at the top level and that it truly was Ferrari that had the problem.
That next opportunity for Behra to prove himself, and to show-up Ferrari, would come at the German Grand Prix on the 2nd of August. Unlike the years prior, the race would not be held at the Nurburgring. Instead, the race would be held at the ultra-fast and dangerous Avus circuit just outside of Berlin.
Utilizing a section of highway running between Charlottenburg and Nikolassee, the Avus circuit would come into being in 1921 and remains the oldest controlled-access highway in all of Europe. The actual construction of the circuit would begin around the time of the First World War but would become delayed as a result of the hostilities. When construction finished, the original circuit measured 12 miles in length and was virtually nothing more than a trip up and down the highway with two teardrop corners at either end to change direction.
The circuit was fast and dangerous, but it would get even more dangerous in 1937 when the north curve would come to feature a brick-paved steeply-banked curve. Slippery and fast, the north curve was very dangerous and only added to the dangers of the circuit. To address the concerns over the danger, the circuit would be shortened to a little more than 5 miles, but the north curve would remain the same. Though the banking was wide, it did not allow for adjustments mid-corner. Drivers had to be in the groove from the entry through the exit. Otherwise, car and driver risked being thrown over the top of the banking and a long way down to the ground below.
Jean Behra would enter the German Grand Prix with his own Porsche-powered chassis. Though driving a Formula 2 car, Behra would be given a spot on the grid as the organizers deemed it important to have German engineering well represented on the grid. Behra's best efforts in practice would be well off the pace of the pole-sitting Ferrari of Tony Brooks. This would not sit well with the Frenchman watching the Ferraris line-up two cars on the front row. Still, Behra would be in the race and would have the opportunity of earning some prize money.
Facing reality, Behra would take his own chassis and would put fenders back on the car as there would be a sportscar race the day before. The race was the Grand Prix of Berlin and would be filled with Porsche 718 RSKs as the race would be held for 1.5-liter sportscars. Behra's Formula 2 car was literally nothing more than a modified RSK that was absent its fenders. Therefore, it took little effort to prepare the car for the race, and, it took little effort to determine that Behra would be in with a good chance at victory.
Unsavory conditions were coming together leading up to the start of the sportscar race. Behra was still upset about his firing from Ferrari. Ferrari was on pole for the German Grand Prix the following day. And, Behra was well off the pace in his own Behra-Porsche. This would all combine with rain and slippery conditions to make for one fatal sportscar race.
The conditions were terrible as the sportscar race got under way. The rain would be falling heavily and the brick paving of the north curve was obviously slippery. Behra was known for his great abandon when behind the wheel of a racing car, but now, there was extra motivation. Rather hopeless and aimless, Behra would be fighting for his racing career as the race got underway. No doubt pushing from the very beginning, Behra would be battling for the lead as he entered the north curve. He would enter the curve too high and would try to correct on the slippery banking. The rear end of the car would step-out and Jean would do his best to save the car.
Fighting for control, the wheels would grip and would take the car up the banking until it struck a concrete bunker. Immediately, Behra would be thrown from the car, a moment in which would be captured on film. Flying through the air, Behra would soon find his life, not just his career, at an end. Crashing into a flag pole, Behra would fall to the earth far below found moments later with his neck and back snapped. Behra was dead. The next day, Scuderia Ferrari would complete the German Grand Prix finishing one-two-three.
Actions and words can be long lasting, far out-living our own lives. Behra's funeral would be held in Nice some six days after his accident. The funeral would be well attended with more than 3,000 mourners. Drivers and those that had come to know Behra would be present in respectful numbers. However, even in death, Jean's moment of anger at a dinner in Reims would remain a lasting memory as there would be one very notable absence among the mourners—Enzo Ferrari.