TeamsHelmut Niedermayr: 1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
All of life is full of blessing and tragedy. The trick is to turn tragedy into blessing.
Like many other talented drivers from Germany after World War II, the tragedy in Helmut Niedermayr's life was the condition of Germany after the war. The nation was divided and slowly rebuilding from ruin. In many cases, because the value of German money was less than about every other currency in Europe, many German racers had to make due with small manufacturing efforts that couldn't evolve and solidify their designs like some of the other racing manufacturers that sprang into life at the war's end.
Born in 1915, Niedermayr came onto the racing scene late in the 1940s. Most of his efforts were in sportscars. Then, in 1951, he had come to get a Veritas Meteor and began racng all over Germany. Thankfully, for drivers like Niedermayr, the split between East and West Germany would not hinder travel immediately. Therefore, Niedermayr would be able to take part in races that counted toward the East and West German Championships.
1952 promised new opportunities for Niedermayr and for many other isolated German drivers. The Formula One World Championship had come to Germany ever since its second year of existence. Although the race took place in Germany, there would only be one German actually in the race, and that was Paul Pietsch. But 1952 would be different.
The World Championship needed a change. Alfa Romeo had departed leaving only Ferrari as the main threat for the championship. In addition to the lacking competition, the costs of Formula One were sky-rocketing. Something needed to be done to add competition without adding costs, in fact, reducing costs. The interim answer was Formula 2. Many nations had Formula 2 Championships. This fostered competition and opportunities for many, including Niedermayr. But while the season would offer the promise of new blessings, it would end up also holding new tragedies as well.
Niedermayr's 1952 season would begin with him taking his Veritas RS to Nurburg, Germany for what was the first round of the West German Championship, held on the 25th of May.
The first round of the West German Championship was the 16th Internationales ADAC Eifelrennen held on the Nurburgring Nordschleife. This would not only be the site of the first, but also the second round of the West German Championship as the German Grand Prix would count toward both the West German and the World Championship. Since the Eifelrennen would serve as a sort of 'prelude' there would be drivers from other nations that would come and take part in the 7 lap race. Among those that would battle the local German talent would be Stirling Moss, Rudolf Fischer, Duncan Hamilton and a couple of others.
Niedermayr would bring his BMW-powered Veritas RS to the race. While Veritas has proven quite successful, including its RS model chassis, the BMW powerplant was something of a liability. A pre-World War II design, the BMW engine had been tweaked about as much as it could handle. It had begun to really garner a reputation for failing because of being over-stressed.
At the Nordschleife, Niedermayr would not only face his countrymen, but he would also face a couple of the best the rest of Europe had to offer. More than anything, Niedermayr would have to face Ferrari's new 500 chassis. The new car, which one had been bought by Rudolf Fischer and was brought to the race, had already secured the first round of the World Championship just one week prior at the Swiss Grand Prix.
On top of the challenge Niedermayr faced via his own countrymen, the international competition and the newer chassis, he would also have to face the 14 mile long Nordschleife. The German racers were well acquainted with what would become known as the 'Green Hell'. Truly captivating and hated at the same time, the circuit took a special kind of racer to tame its many twists and turns, rises and falls. A seeming never-ending eternity of dangerous corners and high-speed sections amidst the Eifel mountains, the Nordschleife presents drivers one of the most technically demanding and notorious purpose-built circuits in all the world.
Sixteen drivers would enter the race. The British contingent of Moss, Hamilton and Wharton would join Rudolf Fischer, with the new and powerful Ferrari 500, on the front row. Only a couple of the Germans in the race would be even close in lap times from practice.
The race, though only 7 laps long, was not a short affair given the fact each lap was 14 miles long. Average lap times around the circuit were pushing just under eleven minutes. Even at this pace, the Nordschleife would prove to be too much for most of the starting field. Two of the starters, including the well-known Paul Pietsch, would not make it through two laps of the circuit.
Meanwhile, Rudolf Fischer would look good at the start of the race and would battle with Stirling Moss for the overall lead for a period of time. Soon, the Ferrari of Fischer would prove more than the HWM-Alta of Moss could handle. This allowed Fischer to escape with the lead.
Niedermayr had two cars, both were Veritas chassis. He had brought his RS to the race. Afterward he may have been thinking it would have been better to bring his Meteor as his RS would give out on him with only a couple of laps remaining in the race. With the exception of Fritz Riess and Zdenko von Schonborn, driving a Ferrari and Simca-Gordini T11 respectively, the rest of those that retired from the race were driving either older chassis, or, older chassis with even older BMW 328-designed engines. Out of the sixteen that would start the race, only five would finish. And only one of those would be a German-born design.
After recording the fastest lap of the race, Fischer would gradually pull away until he would cross the finish line with a forty-two second lead over Stirling Moss in 2nd place. Ken Wharton would finish the race in 3rd, but behind Fischer by some three minutes and twenty-one seconds. The only German, and German-born car, to finish the race would be Toni Ulmen in his Veritas Meteor. Out of five cars still running at the end, Ulmen would finish 5th and would trail Fischer by eight minutes and five seconds.
The retirement in the Eifelrennen was neither a good sign, nor, obviously, a good start to the season for Niedermayr. He needed to find reliability in order to compete for the West German Championship. The one thing he had going for him was the simple fact most of the other German drivers were also struggling with reliability. The aged BMW engines were being very problematic. It was obvious the championship would come down to the driver who could best nurse their car across the finish line.
After the bitterly disappointing failure at the Nurburgring in the Eifelrennen, Niedermayr had an exciting opportunity presented to him in which to help forget about his frustrations. Niedermayr was chosen to co-drive one of Mercedes-Benz's new 300SL sportscars in the most famous endurance race in the world.
Mercedes-Benz would arrive at Le Mans, France with three cars. A real battle was expected over the course of the race. Scuderia Ferrari would come with their Ferrari 250S Berlinetta Vignale, Jaguar would bring their C-Type Jaguar, Luigi Chinetti and Louis Rosier would enter Ferrari 340 Americas, there were a number of slightly older Talbots, and there were some powerful Cunningham C4-RKs in the field.
In addition to the powerful lineups of different car manufacturers, the number of elite drivers in the field was also quite impressive. Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, Stirling Moss, John Fitch, Pierre Levegh, Luigi Chinetti, Louis Rosier, Andre Simon, Maurice Trintignant, Peter Walker, Duncan Hamilton, Tony Rolt, Peter Collins, Reg Parnell, Jean Behra, Robert Manzon, and Eugene Chaboud were all in the field. Another car would have been entered for Jose Froilan Gonzalez, Franco Cortese and Juan Manuel Fangio had it not been for Fangio's frightening accident at the Grand Prix of Monza just a week earlier.
Mercedes-Benz would come with three cars. In one of those four cars was Helmut Niedermayr. He would be paired up with Theo Helfrich, who had proven to be a very good sportscar driver. Amongst the three Mercedes-Benz cars, the pairing of Helfrich and Niedermayr would prove to be the fastest as they would start the race from 9th on the grid. The other two Mercedes-Benz 300SLs would qualify 10th and 11th.
In the actual race, despite all of the rumors abounding about Ferrari, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, it would be a Talbot T26GS driven by Pierre Levegh that would steal the majority of the headlines throughout. Pierre, insisting on driving all of the race by himself, would lead throughout the first twenty-three hours. Then, with just one hour remaining, he would make a mistake, which would damage the engine forcing him to retire from the race.
Levegh's retirement handed the lead to the number 21 Mercedes-Benz of Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess. One lap behind them was Helfrich and Niedermayr. Lang and Riess would go on to take the victory. Helfrich and Niedermayr would finish in 2nd place, one lap back. In 3rd place, fourteen laps behind Helfrich and Niedermayr was Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom in a Nash-Healey.
This was one of the greatest results in Niedermayr's career. Though he did not win the race, he had taken on some incredibly fierce competition over the course of twenty-four hours and had come out pretty much a victor. This offered the German some early encouragement heading into the rest of the season. And it would be greatly needed.
Following the wonderful 2nd place result at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Niedermayr would only take part in local races and other minor events. He wouldn't take part in a sportscar or grand prix race until August. And then, he would take part in both.
On the 3rd of August, Niedermayr was back at the Nurburgring, and the Nordschleife, to take part in a couple of different races. The two main races to take place that weekend were the Grand Prix of the Nurburgring, which was the third round of the German Sportscar Championship, and the German Grand Prix, which was the sixth round of the World Championship. Niedermayr had competed in sportscar racing for a few years by this point. But this would be the first time in which he would be able to compete in the World Championship. Of course, it had only become possible for him due to the changes made in the World Championship, particularly the running according to Formula 2 rules.
Because of the wear and tear the Nordschleife would inflict, let alone competition, Niedermayr would bring two of his cars to the race. He would take part in the sportscar race with his Veritas RS. And, he would also bring an AFM-BMW, which he would use in the German Grand Prix. The decision to use the AFM would be further influenced by how the sportscar race would go.
Amidst a crowd estimated to be well in excess of a quarter of a million people, the sportscar race would not go all that well for Niedermayr. There would not be any great chorus of cheers to go up for Niedermayr. The race would not end in great victory, but in failure, yet again. The steering would fail on the RS thereby ending his race. Niedermayr was surely hoping for a different result in the World Championship race.
Niedermayr had already faced the likes of Ascari, Trintignant, Manzon and others at Le Mans. And he had managed to come out on top of all of them. But this was a different race. It wasn't twenty-four hours, and it didn't have an Alberto Ascari on the verge of a championship.
The previous Formula One season, Alberto Ascari, and the Ferrari 375, quickly became the driver to beat. Ferrari was certainly taking over Alfa Romeo's role of dominance. In fact, it was Alfa Romeo's 159 that was being dominated by the 375. Were it not for different size tires in the hot conditions of Spain, it may very well have been Ascari that would have become World Champion. Instead, Juan Manuel Fangio would earn the title.
In 1952, Ascari had been proving dominant. This was helped, in no small measure, by Fangio's absence. By the time the World Championship arrived in Germany, Ascari was really only a victory away from the title, and with two rounds remaining afterward. Even though he still had a couple of rounds left to act as a cushion, it was obvious Ascari wasn't about to give any chance for the title to slip through his hands once again. There have only been a few to actually be considered Ringmeisters. At the Nurburgring, in 1952, Ascari would do his best to be considered one of them.
When the Eifelrennen took place at the end of May, the pole time for the 7 lap race was right around eleven minutes. In practice for the German Grand Prix, Ascari would push a sub-ten minute lap. In fact, he would end up taking the pole with a time of ten minutes and four seconds. This was almost a minute faster than the fastest time turned at any point during the Eifelrennen. This meant the Germans that had already raced at the circuit earlier in the season would have to rely upon their knowledge and experience to push their cars even more in order to compete. The unfortunate part of that scenario was the very tangible fear of car failure. Against such a pace, it was considered sure murder for the German cars of the time.
This is why the first two rows of the grid would include only one German and German car. Beside Ascari on the pole would be Giuseppe Farina, Maurice Trintignant and Robert Manzon. It was the second row that the first German and German car combination would be found. Paul Pietsch, the noted German driver, would throw caution to the wind and would push his Veritas Meteor to a 7th place starting position on the second row. While capable of achieving such pace, it was very questionable whether the Veritas would be able to maintain the pace over the course of an 18 lap race around the 14 mile long Nordschleife.
Recognizing the risks, Niedermayr would take things a bit slower in practice. He would focus on being in a position to finish the race. As a result of the approach, Niedermayr would start the race from the seventh row of the grid and the 22nd place overall.
As the race got underway, it would come to an end for many. And many of them that would find their race coming to an end would be German drivers. Paul Pietsch had thrown caution to the wind during practice. His 7th place starting position no doubt drew the applause of the fans, but it also drew blood within his car. As the field headed out on the first lap of the race, the gearbox would fail in Pietsch's Veritas. His day was done without having completed 14 miles. Josef Peters, another German driver, wouldn't even make it as far as what Pietsch would before his race would come to an end. In all, eight would drop out of the race without even having completed a single lap. Of those eight of the race, three would be German.
Niedermayr would end up being able to continue on after the first lap. All of the retirements would even allow him to move up the running order. His movement forward would be further aided on the 1st lap by a spinning Felice Bonetto. Not only had Bonetto qualified ahead of Niedermayr, but his spin would cause a number of others to have to try and take evasive action. Niedermayr was far enough back that he saw what happened and was even able to get by those wildly trying to keep from being collected.
Out front, Ascari was not bothered at all by any troubles. He had the lead and began to stretch out an advantage as Farina and Taruffi, another Ferrari teammate, fought amongst themselves for 2nd.
Seventeen entries would be out of the race before even 10 laps had been completed. Fourteen of the thirty starters were German, either West or East. Out of the seventeen that would retire from the race, seven of them were German. Another three Germans would end up making it the entire race distance but would be considered 'Not Classified' because they were too far behind at the end.
Given Ascari's pace, it was surprising there weren't more that would end up 'Not Classified'. On the 10th lap of the race, with well more than a majority of the field out of the race, Ascari would make it very clear he was out to beat anybody who wanted to take the World Championship away from him. Under no pressure from behind, and with the lead of the race already under his control, Ascari would turn what would be the fastest lap of the race. His time would be less than a second slower than his qualifying effort in practice.
Ascari's pace, running at or near his qualifying effort, meant others barely holding on, like Niedermayr, would have plenty of opportunities to wave to Ascari as he drove by to lap them. But this pace came at a cost, and attrition would come looking to collect a price just two laps away from the end.
Ascari was literally miles up the road in front of Farina, but not all was well with his Ferrari 500. The pace had exacted a toll perhaps too much for the car to handle. Alberto knew the car needed help or it wouldn't make it to the end. Ascari saw his title hopes slipping away again. He needed to stop. With just one lap remaining, he would.
The stop required checking the car over, adding oil and doing some other things. It would take quite a while. Ascari's large advantage continued to disappear until Farina appeared, and then, disappeared with the lead of the race. The stop was finished up. Alberto would rejoin the circuit, but a ways behind Farina.
Less than ten minutes separated Ascari from his championship. He wasn't about to let a less-than perfect car keep him from it. He would push hard in an effort to catch up to, and hopefully, pass Farina. Giuseppe would make it easier for Ascari as he wouldn't pick up his pace. Potentially he believed Ascari to be out of the race, but for whatever reason, Ascari managed to catch Farina with plenty of time still remaining. Ascari was so thoroughly dominate all throughout that he would not only get by Farina, he would even manage to pull out a rather sizable advantage over him before crossing the finish line.
When Ascari crossed the line as the race's victor, he would do so with a fourteen second advantage over Farina in 2nd place. After an early battle with Farina, Taruffi would fade. He would fade enough that Rudolf Fischer would end up taking over 3rd place. Though well over seven minutes behind, the Swiss restaurant owner would carry on to take the final podium spot.
Five Germans would manage to finish the race. Unfortunately, due to Ascari's pace, only two of them would be classified at the end as actually still in the running. Helmut Niedermayr would be the first of four that would be considered 'Not Classified'. He would be the third German to finish the race and would finish some four laps, or, about forty-five minutes behind.
While thoroughly beaten by Ascari, Niedermayr had cause for happiness at the end of the German Grand Prix. He had taken on the best and had managed to beat many of them. More importantly, though not classified as such, he had finished the race and was the third-best of all of the Germans in the race. While not great, the result was not that bad. It offered still more confidence for the remainder of the season. More importantly, being that he was the third-placed German in the race, Niedermayr would earn points toward the West German Championship as a result of the effort.
As stated earlier, all of life is filled with blessing and tragedy. And the trick is being able to see the blessing in tragedy. To learn from it. Apply the changes necessary in order to move on. But tragedy, as Niedermayr would soon find out, can have devastating consequences. These consequences can be so devastating that it can be understandably hard to move forward from.
After the thorough trouncing by Ascari at the German Grand Prix, the West German and the World championships both went their separate ways. The bound German racers would, then, head to Wegberg, Germany at the end of the month in order to take part in the third round of the championship. The World Championship would head, not too far away, to Zandvoort, Netherlands for its seventh round.
The third round of the West German Championship was held on the public Grenzlandring road that formed the perimeter around the small villages of Wegberg, Dorp and Beeck. The race was the 5th DMW Grenzlandringrennen and it included a Formula 3 race in addition to the Formula 2 event.
Basically an egg-shaped circuit, the Grenzlandring featured blazing average speeds. Outside of Germany, one of the fastest road courses was Monza. During 1952, the average speeds around Monza were in the neighborhood of 110 mph. The average speeds around Grenzlandring normally fluctuated between 128 and 130 mph! Basically an odd-shaped oval, the speeds remained high. But because it wasn't a purpose-built circuit, the high average speeds also made it incredibly dangerous. Niedermayr would end up revealing just how dangerous the speeds really were.
The field, which also included the small British Ecurie Richmond team and an American racer by the name of Rob O'Brien, would get underway. Though only 12 laps in length, a number of competitors would find the pace was more than their cars could handle, even for just a single lap. Nineteen cars had started the race. One-by-one they began to drop out. Although there would be a lot of retirements over the course of the race, none would be so dramatic and so devastating as Niedermayr's.
Travelling around the circuit in a counter-clockwise direction, Niedermayr had just screamed down the Rheydter-Gerade straight and headed into the initial part of the Roermonder Kurve. The Roermonder Kurve then bled back onto the start/finish straight to start a new lap, but Niedermayr wouldn't make it that far. Just past the train crossing, Niedermayr would lose his Veritas Meteor and would crash into the crowd assembled to watch the race. Fourteen would end up being killed by Niedermayr's high-speed missile. Plowing through a crowd of people as he did, the car was heavily damaged, although Niedermayr would escape with relatively minor physical harm. Visibly, and understandably, Niedermayr was seen after the accident quite upset and bothered by what had happened. While the accident would bring about the end of the Grenzlandring as a motor racing venue, the race that had been still going on at the time of the accident would finish.
After the death of so many people, the results of a race were rather mute, but the race still went on. Ironically, Niedermayr's tragic retirement would end up being the last retirement in the race. Five of the nineteen starters would finish. Toni Ulmen would go on to take the victory by eighteen seconds over Hans Klenk. Josef Peters would end up 3rd a minute and forty-two seconds behind.
The tragic end of Niedermayr's race would shake him up quite visibly. The look in his eyes in the paddock area made it real obvious he knew what had happened and he was trying to figure out how to deal with it. Conventional wisdom speaks of 'getting right back on the horse'. Niedermayr would try this approach.
On the same day as the final round of the World Championship, Niedermayr was in Oberlungwitz, Germany for the final round of the East German Championship. As its name would imply, the race was the 5th Sachsenringrennen and would take place around the 5.41 mile Sachsenring road course.
Unlike the Grenzlandring and its relatively flat layout, the Sachsenring featured a number of elevation changes over the course of a single lap. Each lap began with a steep climb all the way up to around 450 feet above the lowest point of the circuit. Where Grenzlandring was similar to an odd-shape oval, the Sachsenring featured just about everything over the course of almost five and a half miles. The circuit featured a number of esses, a couple of tight hairpin turns, some long straights sweeping fast turns and a couple of blind corners.
Interestingly, the field would consist of grand prix and sportscars. Amongst the grand prix cars, there were more West Germans in the field. Amongst the sportscar entries, there were more East Germans.
The events of just a week prior were still lingering in the subconscious of Niedermayr. He would end up having trouble with his AFM even really before the race began and would end up out of the event.
Niedermayr wouldn't be the only one out of the event before it even really got going. Toni Ulmen would bring his Veritas Meteor to the race but would end up crashing during the event. The car would be heavily damaged, but at least no spectators would be really harmed.
Most all of the West German talent had dropped out of the race. This left the door open for Edgar Barth to take the lead. He would hold on to take his EMW-BMW to the checkered flag ten seconds ahead of Willi Heeks. Ernst Klodwig would end up finishing the race 3rd.
Niedermayr would try and cope with the tragic events of the Grenzlandring race. He would, as they say, 'Get right back on the horse', but the retirement from the race signaled something more. Despite there being the final round of the West German Championship still to be run, Niedermayr's 1952 season was over. Obviously, he was still dealing with the demons in his head. The fight would not be an easy, or, a quick one. As clue to this, Niedermayr would not be present for the 1953 season altogether. He would not reappear on the major racing scene until 1954.
By the time Niedermayr returned to racing, the World Championship had changed to its new Formula One rules, which pretty much relegated many of the German grand prix cars as not able to compete. Therefore, Niedermayr's World Championship experience would end up consisting of just the one race and with a non classification. However, the non classification would still be better than many others that would only take part in one World Championship grand prix.
While Niedermayr would return to some Formula 2 racing, he would mostly concentrate on sportscars. He would go on to compete all the way up to 1956 before stepping away from racing. Throughout races in Germany, he would earn some impressive results. However, none of Niedermayr's achievements would be able to top the 2nd place result he had earned with Theo Helfrich at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This, and not the dark day on the 31st of August should be the lasting memory of Helmut Niedermayr. In spite of the tragedy, the reality was he had great talent as a racing driver and should be remembered for the many achievements he managed to gain, not the tragedy that tried to darken them.
Then, in 1985, Niedermayr was finally able to put the past behind him and allow his subconscious to be forgiven. He would pass away at the age of 69.