TeamsHelmut Niedermayr: 1953 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
The 1952 season had been one of incredibly highs and tragic lows for Niedermayr. The highs would lift the spirits, but the low would be so terrible, so gruesome as to shake Niedermayr to his very soul. As a result, 1952 would be the last year in which he would take part in a grand prix, but he could not quite walk away.
In June of 1952, Niedermayr would co-drive with Theo Helfrich in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. The driving pair were part of an incredible fleet of Mercedes-Benz 300SLs brought to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The number 21 Daimler-Benz A.G. 300SL would go on to take the victory, but the number 20 300SL with Helfrich and Niedermayr would come in a splendid 2nd place. This had been one of the crowning achievements of Niedermayr's racing career. A little more than two months later, Niedermayr would be saddled with one of the most horrendous moments of his career and in motor racing on a whole.
While taking part in the 5th DMV Grenzlandringrennen on the 31st of August, Niedermayr would lose control of his AFM-BMW coming through the Roermonder-Kurve and would crash into the large crowd assembled to watch the race. There would be 13 spectators that would lose their lives and over 40 more that would be injured. Niedermayr himself would be injured in the crash but would be seen later in the paddock area absolutely distraught over the tragedy he had the unfortunate honor of causing.
That would be it for Helmut. He would be done racing. He wanted no part in any such event every again, but he could not just walk away from racing altogether. The passion was too great for him to deny. Therefore, while he himself would not race in 1953, his name would. He would lend his car and his name out for just one race during the season.
Given the economical and political difficulties still surrounding West and East Germany even a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War, there were very few German racers that would compete in grand prix races outside of their own country. When the World Championship first came to Germany and the Nurburgring in 1951, none of the German racers could really take part because there wasn't the finances for a Formula One team, especially when most of the major manufacturers were just getting back on their feet from all of the destruction. Therefore, the racing scene in Germany would consist of a number of individuals building their own grand prix cars. These 'self-built' cars, or, Eigenbaus would constitute the majority of the entry lists at German grand prix. Even though the small manufacturers like AFM and Veritas were quite popular many of them would go through numerous changes by their owner until they were considered 'self-built'.
Niedermayr had come to own an AFM 50-BMW. While he would update and revise the chassis it would still remain quite close to what AFM had built in the first place. Despite having the car, he would not be able to take part in the World Championship until the 1952 season when the Formula One World Championship decided to conduct its races according to Formula 2 regulations. This opened up a whole new world to the normal secluded German racers. For the first time a majority of Germans were able to now take part in their own home grand prix. And they would come out of the wood-work to take part.
And while the numbers were less in 1953, a whole gaggle of German racers and teams would make their way to Nurburg and the 14 mile long Nordschleife for the German Grand Prix held on the 2nd of August.
Dominated by Nurburg Castle up on the top of one of the many foothills of the Eifel mountains, the castle overlooks perhaps the most dominant and demanding circuits built in all the world. Once thought to be a refuge or a fortification for the local population back during the days of the Roman Empire and Nero, the castle once was the seat for the office of Nurburg. In a similar manner, the 14 mile circuit, with its constant twists and turns and numerous elevation changes and challenging crests and blind corners, made the Nurburgring perhaps the most infamous and well known purpose-built circuits in all the world. But unlike the castle dominating the skyline, the Nurburgring would have very few conquerors over its years of existence.
Prior to World War II, there were only a couple of German Ringmeisters. There were a number of Italian drivers that seemed right at home on the circuit as well. After the war, mostly because of deficiencies in equipment and teams, it seemed all of the Ringmasters were foreign. One of those foreign drivers that seemed right at home at the circuit was the Italian Alberto Ascari.
In 1952, he had overcome a late problem and passed Giuseppe Farina to take the win and the World Championship for the first time. One year later, Ascari had been the most dominant driver throughout the course of the season and again was on the verge of another World Championship title. Because of the storylines surrounding Ascari, German teams, like Niedermayr, were nothing more than background scenery. Practice would bear this point out very clearly.
Ascari would turn in the fastest lap time during practice and would start the 18 lap race from the pole. He had set an incredible time that was under the ten minute mark. Juan Manuel Fangio, the 1951 World Champion, would end up nearly four seconds slower than Ascari but would manage to start 2nd. Giuseppe Farina would make it two Ferraris on the front row as he would start 3rd. And Mike Hawthorn would come to the Nurburgring for the first time and would end up setting the fourth-fastest time in practice and would make it three Ferraris on the front row.
Hans Herrmann would be the best-starting German in the field. He would start from the fourth row of the grid. Most of the rest of the German entries in the race would start in the last half of the grid.
Helmut Niedermayr would provide Theo Fitzau with his AFM 50 M7 BMW to drive in the race. Fitzau, originally from Kothen, in East Germany, earned his money to go racing by being a soap manufacturer. Most of his experience had been in sports car racing and he was quite promising. The political climate in East Germany was ruining both his soap business and his racing career. And so, earlier on in the year he defected to West Germany. He continued to manufacturer soap. But by him defecting he would come to have an opportunity to take part in the World Championship. The talent he had was evident as he would end up one of the better-qualified Germans in the field after practice. His lap time of eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds was nearly a minute and a half slower than Ascari, but fast enough for the man to start from the sixth row of the grid in the 21st position.
The Eifel mountains has a tendency for unpredictable weather. However, the day of the German Grand Prix would break with the ground dry and no threat of rain. Thirty-four cars would prepare to roll away at the start of the 18 lap race.
As the green flag was shown to the grid, Fangio would make an incredible start and would lead the field throughout the first mile or so. Right there with him breathing down his neck would be Ascari. Hawthorn would follow behind with Baron de Graffenried following him. Ascari would be just too fast and would end up working his way past Fangio into the lead of the race. Fitzau was right in the middle of the field as it wound two, and sometimes, three cars wide heading into and out of turns. His main focus while caught up in the peleton was to be careful and make it through the first lap or two unscathed.
A number of competitors wouldn't make it even to the first corner without problems. Ernst Loof and Hans Stuck would have their cars break before they could really even move. Three more would find their race only to last a little more than a lap.
Once in front, Ascari began to draw away from the rest of the field. Soon he was seconds up the road from Fangio, Hawthorn and Farina. It was obvious watching the cars travelling around the circuit Fitzau would find his biggest effort being to remain just a lap down over the course of the race because of Ascari's truly incredible pace.
As with just about every other German driver in the field, the main concern Fitzau would have would be to get his car to even make it to the finish. And although he would make it through the first couple of laps free of incidents and other troubles, it wouldn't mean that he was a lock to finish the entire race distance. Instead, after just three laps, the race would come to an end for Fitzau and Niedermayr. Fitzau would end up just one of thirteen that would drop out of the race before the race completed 10 laps.
Of course one of those that also would find the going tough would be, surprisingly, the leader. Right around the halfway mark of the race, with close to a minute lead over the rest of the field, a wheel would come off of Ascari's Ferrari. He would lose his lead and some more positions as he would do everything he could to nurse the car back to the pits. As he pulled into the pits to have the car worked on, his good friend and mentor, Luigi Villoresi, would come in in his car and would offer it to Ascari for the remainder of the race. Villoresi would wait until Ascari's car would be repaired. Armed with another car, Ascari would rejoin the race and would begin to throw down some truly jaw-dropping lap times in order to catch back up.
Ascari had a World Championship to win and he would begin to put together some of the most impressive laps in order to give himself the best chance at doing just that. Mike Hawthorn and Giuseppe Farina were up at the front of the field with Fangio bearing down on them. Hawthorn had led a few laps and had a victory at the French Grand Prix. He was perhaps the greatest threat. But as Ascari reentered the race, Farina had control of the race. That didn't matter to Ascari. He would burn it up anyway.
Soon he was driving laps close to his qualifying times. But then, on the 12th lap of the race, Ascari would put together probably the most impressive lap time. He would cross the line to start another lap and it was noted he had completed the 12th lap in a time of nine minutes and fifty-six seconds. This was nearly four seconds faster than his own qualifying effort and it was nearly as fast as the more-powerful Formula One cars of 1951. Ascari was flying and was looking to gain control of the race.
Fangio had taken over 2nd place behind Farina. Yet, despite the fact neither Farina nor Fangio were turning out laps as fast as Ascari their pace was still more than enough for the majority of the rest of the field, especially the German racers. Before it would end, Hans Herrmann would end up the highest-finishing German in the field. However, he would end up more than a lap down, or, what was about twenty minutes behind at the end. Most of the other German racers were looking at margins more in the region of a half-hour in which they trailed the leaders.
One other that wouldn't be able to handle the torrid pace would be Ascari. Turning out lap after lap at qualifying pace, or better, the Ferrari 500's engine would take all that it could handle. And with just three laps remaining it would call it quits. Ascari's incredibly exhibition had come to an end.
Farina continued to hold on. He had a comfortable margin over Fangio and Hawthorn was even further back. With the threat from Ascari laying by the side of the road, Farina knew he just needed to keep it on the track and it was likely he would take the victory.
After three hours, two minutes and twenty-five seconds, Farina would cross the start/finish line for the final time. He would enjoy a margin of victory of more than a minute over Fangio in 2nd place. Hawthorn would come through to finish in 3rd place nearly two minutes behind Farina.
Despite failing to finish the race, Ascari would celebrate his second World Drivers Championship. He and his team would celebrate another year of dominating performances. In contrast, Theo Fitzau and the Helmut Niedermayr team would quietly pack up all of their equipment, and the car, and would head out of Nurburg having nothing to celebrate.
The previous year, Niedermayr surprised many and finished in 9th place. The early retirement in the 1953 edition would complete Niedermayr's departure from grand prix racing altogether. Taking part in just the German Grand Prix, it was obvious Niedermayr had lost a good deal of his passion to continue on in motor racing. The early retirement then just made the decision that much clearer for him. As a result, Helmut Niedermayr would not be seen in another World Championship entry list ever again. The tragic deaths and the disappointing result had taken what passion was left within the man's heart.
After slipping away from motor racing from good, Niedermayr would go on to live out his life quietly and would end up passing away in April of 1985.