TeamsFritz Riess: 1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
The hero usually has a sidekick that fails to get much of the credit, but usually is the one that helps the hero when all hope is gone. Fritz Riess is one of those men in racing history that most fail to remember. But list the names that had competed against him, or, that had driven with him at different times and it reads like a hall of fame roll-call.
The list is impressive. Ascari, Farina, Lang, Collins, Taruffi and Trintignant were all famous names to have either competed against, or, driven with Riess at some time or another. What's more, many times Riess bested those on the list that had competed against him. To say that Riess was good would be to insult the man. However, there always seemed to be others around him, at the same time, that were great.
Riess, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1922, would really come onto the racing scene in the later part of the 1940s. While taking part in sports car and Formula 2 races, he would be successful right away. In 1949, he would come away with numerous top ten, top five, top three results. He would even manage to win a couple of races. He was good. The problem for him was that, due to World War II, he wasn't allowed to really race anywhere outside of Germany.
Then, in 1950, the restrictions were eased a good deal. This allowed Fritz to travel to some other races. Feeling the sensation of freedom, Riess would celebrate the easing of the restrictions by winning a number of races, including the Eifelrennen held on the 14 mile long Nordschleife. Just about every circuit he would go to he would either win or finish on the podium. Because of the restrictions Riess had grown accustomed to the circuits all around Germany. As a result, the Nordschleife seemed to become a personal playground for him. Many of the others were like second nature to him as well.
Fantastic results continued to come to Riess throughout the rest of 1950 and all the way through 1951. Then, ahead of the 1952 racing season, an opportunity for Riess, and many other German drivers, would come along. War-torn Germany was in no shape to truly assemble a factory Formula One team in the first couple of years of the World Championship. On top of it all, despite the ease of travel restrictions, Germany's money was practically worth zero. This made travelling around Europe to participate in grand prix races not a very economical idea. However, there were some individuals that would manage to go to a couple of races here and there, but still not that far away from Germany.
Then things changed. The incredible costs of grand prix racing were already becoming too much. This helped to lead Alfa Romeo to decide to pull out at the end of the 1952 season. With costs ever-increasing, and no competition for Ferrari, race organizers and the World Championship governing-body were left in search of an alternative. The alternative would be running races according to Formula 2 regulations. Formula 2 costs were less than Formula One, and, the racing had proven to be rather competitive. In the case of many of the German racers, this was a means in which to take part in the World Championship.
After the war, small factory efforts like Veritas and AFM came into existence. Germany also had the proven BMW 328 engine at its disposal. These 'tools' made it possible for German racing to rise out of the ashes. Heading into 1952, these 'tools' wouldn't just enable German racers to take part in some local races, the change in regulations would enable German teams and drivers to enter a world stage. Drivers, like Riess, would take advantage of the opportunity.
Although the opportunity would come, Riess, like many other German drivers, would start, and carry on, his season rather close to Germany. His first grand prix race would come on the 11th of May. The first race took place just to the south of Dessau and it was the 1st Dessau Autobahnspinne.
The race was reasonably short as it was only 16 laps of the 3.10 mile circuit and totaled only fifty miles. The circuit itself, located south of Dessau, utilized a small portion of the autobahn that ran between Berlin and Leipzig. A road bridge crossed over the usually busy autobahn and provided spectators with an incredible view. From this vantage point a good percentage of the race could be seen. The circuit ran south down the autobahn, and then, turned at a hairpin turn and ran back north toward Berlin. The circuit then turned off into a small portion of the heavily wooded Mosigkauer-Heide. The circuit then made another, more gentle, hairpin turn and headed back to the highway.
The race at Dessau was a relatively minor race that was also on the same day as the Gran Premio di Napoli and the day after the BRDC International Trophy race. Therefore, the field was rather light of international competitors. And of the competitors present, the majority were using BMW chassis and engines that were quite a few years old.
Fritz Riess would arrive at the race with a Veritas-Meteor. This chassis had proven to be quite good, even in competition against other, more international, chassis. The advantage competitors, like Riess, had with the Veritas was, very simply, the fact the chassis and engine had been built in the post-war era. This meant the car was more capable of handling the stresses compared to a pre-war design.
Heading into the race, Riess was not the favorite to win. He would again be eclipsed by another, the German Paul Greifzu. Unfortunately for the fans who came to watch Greifzu, they would be witness to a dark moment at Dessau.
Greifzu was beloved not merely because he was an incredible amateur driver, but also, because he was the only driver that had built his own chassis design and had it win a major race. Greifzu, who initially stated he would not come to Dessau, would come out on the track behind Riess during practice. The home-built car Greifzu had around him would power its way past Riess within just a couple of laps. This was Riess' main competition and it looked to be shaping up into a real battle between East and West Germany. However, it would all tragically come to an end after only 4 laps of practice.
Heading down the long straight, Greifzu's engine suddenly seized. Lost in a thick cloud of smoke, the car spun and crashed into a grandstand. The car was all bent up. The steering wheel was warped out of shape due to the velocity of the crash. Just like that Greifzu was dead. So too was the expected battle between himself and Riess.
With Greifzu's death, only nine would end up taking the green flag for the start of the 16 lap race. Not to soon into the race, those with older chassis designs and engines, began to drop out of the race. Josef Peters and Willi Heeks were the first to retire from the race. Another BMW 328-powered car, driven by Kurt Straubel, would also retire. In all, five of the nine would fail to finish the race.
The race, too, failed to make it. Greifzu's death left a void in the competition department. Driving his Veritas-Meteor, Riess would turn the fastest lap of the race and would cruise to the victory. Theo Helfrich and Rudolf Krause would come in a rather distant 2nd and 3rd. The West German driver had come into East Germany and had dominated, and yet, the race would be more remembered for the unfortunate driver who died that weekend.
The victory; however, would not be lost on everybody. And two weeks later, Riess would arrive at the Nurburgring for the ADAC Eifelrennen, but he would arrive with a team and a different mount.
Riess wasn't lost in the background with everyone. The small Ecurie Espadon team, which was founded by a number of Swiss gentlemen racers, had come calling upon Riess to drive its second chassis in the 16th Internationales ADAC Eifelrennen on the 25th of May. One of the team's founders, a very good gentleman racer by the name of Rudolf Fischer, would drive the team's new Ferrari 500 chassis. Their other chassis, a Ferrari 212, was then offered to Riess. Riess had proven himself quite successful and competent on the twisty and dangerous Nordschleife, and therefore, seemed like the logical choice to drive the second car.
As it were, it would be Fischer that proved to be the most adept to the 14 mile long circuit. Riess was looking good in the Ferrari 212. However, with just about a lap left, Riess' race would come to an end. Fischer; though, would roll on to victory over Stirling Moss by over forty seconds. Ken Wharton would finish the race 3rd.
Were it not for the late troubles, Riess looked to be on course for a very good result. However, the failure not only ended his chance at a good result, it also hurt in the West German Championship as well.
Racing at the Nurburgring would not be entirely lost though. He would manage to take a Veritas RS and win another race held on the same day. This would just serve as a prelude to perhaps the greatest victory in Riess' career just one month later.
On the 15th of June, Riess and Hermann Lang prepared to take part in over very important race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One series of racing that was taking off during the early part of the 1950s was sports car racing. The connection with street cars that could be turned into racing cars helped German car companies, like Mercedes-Benz, rebuild and become a competitive threat again very quickly. Of course one of the biggest stages in which the German car company could compete and potentially grow was Le Mans. A good showing at Le Mans would only help a car company, like Mercedes-Benz, to attract customers and strengthen itself in its efforts to rebuild.
For 1952, Mercedes would take their new 300SL to the 24 hour race. Riess would end up co-driving one of the cars along with Hermann Lang. Tipped as favorites before the race even started, the Mercedes-Benz drivers would end up playing second fiddle behind an incredible performance by Pierre Levegh. Levegh would drive the entire 24 hour race by himself and would lead throughout until the 23rd hour. Then, in the last hour of the race, a tired Levegh made a mistake and blew up his Talbot. This handed the lead, and the victory, to Lang and Riess. Once again, Riess continued to enjoy success practically in whatever kind of race he was to take part.
Due to the value, or lack thereof, of German currency after the Second World War, Riess would end up being absent from the majority of the other grand prix races where the competition was tough and experienced gained was immeasurable. In fact, it wouldn't be until August that Riess took part in another major grand prix race. However, the race in August was an important one.
On the 3rd of August, Riess was back at the Nurburgring, and the 14 mile long Nordschleife for a couple of races. In one race, he would drive a Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports car. In the other, he would drive a Veritas RS. The first race was called the Grand Prix of the Nurburgring. The second race was the German Grand Prix, which was also the sixth round of the World Championship. This would be the first time Riess had ever had the opportunity to compete in the World Championship. Fortunately for him, the race was taking part at a track that he was very familiar with and quite successful at.
Things were looking good after the Grand Prix of Nurburgring. Riess had started the race 4th in the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. He would end up going on to finish the race a very fine 3rd. This meant he took the final spot on the podium. This also offered him a good deal of confidence going into the German Grand Prix.
Seeing that the race took place in Germany, the German drivers came out in droves for the race. For many, like Riess, this would be their only opportunity to take part in the World Championship. They would be facing some of the best drivers in the world, including one Alberto Ascari.
The German Grand Prix was an important race and not just for the German drivers taking part in the 18 lap race. Alberto Ascari had missed the first round of the World Championship because he and part of the Scuderia Ferrari team were on their way to the United States to take part in the Indianapolis 500 at the end of the May. However, from the moment he arrived back in Europe, Ascari had been dominant. He had managed to score successive victories in the Belgian, French and British Grand Prix. If he were to win at the Nurburgring the World Championship was his. Therefore, none of the German drivers would receive a break from the rest of the international field, especially Ascari. He was not going to allow anybody to get in the way of his World Championship title, not after being so close the season before.
However, for Ascari to win the title, he; and everyone else, would have to negotiate the notorious Nordschleife, or 'North Course'. Riess, like many of the other German drivers, was very familiar with the Nordschleife and could attest to its reputation. Ascari and many of the other drivers in the World Championship were also familiar with the circuit having raced there on and off over the last few years, and therefore, were very aware of the course's reputation.
Considered the most-demanding and dangerous purpose-built road course in the world, the Nordschleife was a perfect method for sifting the amateur from the professional. To be fast took a certain amount of skill, but especially, bravery and courage. Situated in the Eifel mountains, the weather bears great similarity to another courageous circuit, that of Spa-Francorchamps. One part of the track could be soaking wet while another completely dry. Therefore, every moment of a lap required great concentration and willingness to push the edge of possibility. Unlike Spa; however, one lap around the 14 mile long Nordschleife took twice as long. The constant twisting, turning, rising and falling of the circuit had a way of mesmerizing drivers causing dangerous lapses in concentration. Just one lap ended up feeling like an eternity in a 'Green Hell', and just as the driver emerges from the forest, he or she finds themselves only heading out for yet another lap.
Very few drivers had ever been considered Ringmeisters. However, Asari looked to join that list as he was in pursuit of the World Championship title. Despite not being as well known as Ascari, Riess was another that could have been considered a Ringmeister as he seemed relaxed careening through the twisting mountainous circuit.
In practice, Riess would show just how much he felt at home at the Nurburgring. Right from the very start Riess was at a disadvantage. He had come to the race with a Veritas RS which was a number of years old. Compared to the Ferrari 500 chassis, the RS was outclassed. However, Riess would take the aged chassis and would manage to put the car on the fourth row of the starting grid in the 12th position overall. This put him in the top half of the starting field.
Heading up the field, of course, was Ascari. Clearly on a mission, Alberto would end up turning the fastest lap in practice. However, his time wasn't that much faster than Giuseppe Farina, another former World Champion. Driving the Formula 2 cars, a lap around the 14 mile Nordschleife would end up taking Ascari ten minutes and four seconds. Farina's best would end up being just three seconds slower, which was rather incredible when considering how long the circuit was, and when considering the gap between Ascari and Maurice Trintignant who would qualify 3rd.
The Equipe Gordini team had brought its new Gordini T16 chassis to the race. The small Gordini chassis was quite nimble and had excellent handling, but it still lacked power and acceleration when compared to the Ferrari 500. Therefore, Equipe Gordini's cars handled the twisty portions of the Nordschleife quite well, but just weren't able to reach the speeds Scuderia Ferrari's drivers were able. Nonetheless, Trintignant and Robert Manzon would fight hard and would end up starting on the front row in 3rd and 4th place. However, Trintignant's time, when compared to Ascari's best, would end up being over fifteen seconds slower.
As the race got underway, it would become abundantly clear the main race was against attrition, and many would not end up being able to keep it behind them. Trouble started on the very first lap of the race. Gino Bianco wouldn't even really make it out of the starting gate before he would end up out of the race. Then, Trintignant would go off the course and would end up retiring. Felice Bonetto would end up spinning off course. He would be narrowly missed by Hans Klenk in his Veritas-Meteor. In all, eight would end up not making it around to complete one lap.
While it seemed the field was being swallowed up by attrition, Ascari was out front streaking away. Farina was taking up the pursuit but was not really succeeding. Another that was cruising right along was Fritz Riess. His Veritas RS had managed to make it through the first lap pitfall and was looking quite good. In fact, a number of cars that failed to complete the first lap had qualified ahead of him. Therefore, after just one lap, Riess was looking really good. Things would look even better before 6 laps had been completed.
Another eight entries would be out of the race before the 6th lap of the race had even been started. While many of these retirees came from drivers behind him on the road it meant Riess had just that much less pressure on him from behind. Therefore, he could concentrate on keeping his car together and chasing down those ahead of him on the road.
Were it not for the fight against the Nordschleife and attrition there really would not have been any racing at all. Ascari was out front and pulling away from Farina who was desperately trying to stay in touch. The boring procession; however, would go away on the very last lap.
Out of the thirty that had started the race, by the time the last lap was coming around, there were only twelve still running out on the circuit. Up until the last lap, it had seemed that Ascari was the only one out there. He just kept going around and around, while Farina appeared to be nothing more than an 'also ran'. That would all change.
Ascari was not entirely happy with just two laps to go. His car, which had been pushing hard, was running ill. Ascari knew it didn't have much chance of finishing if he did not pit to have oil added and the rest of the car checked. Therefore, with just one lap remaining, Ascari would pull into the pits. Farina, who had seemed like an outcast throughout the whole of the race, came into view. The lengthy stop was about to cost Ascari the lead. Sure enough, Farina would go through into the lead of the race. After a long time in the pits, Ascari was back out on the circuit in 2nd place. Finally, the race was on.
Just ten minutes ahead awaited Ascari's World Championship. However, he now had another former World Champion ahead of him on the circuit. While Ascari had proven he definitely had the pace, he now had a car that wasn't quite running at peak. On top of it all, while he may have been able to catch Farina before the end, getting by him was a wholly different issue. Farina was known to be ruthless with back-markers, he couldn't be expected to move aside when his championship hopes also rested on the result.
Sick car or not, Ascari wasn't going to be stopped. In only a matter minutes, Alberto would manage to catch Farina, and in a car not quite running up to par. Once he caught up to Farina, Alberto wasn't just willing to stalk Farina and try to pop out at the last moment to take the win. Instead, he wanted the lead, and right at that very moment. Ascari had run the entire race with Bliztkrieg tactics. The Juggernaut was too much for Farina to hold back. Alberto would retake the lead. However, he wouldn't just win by a tenth or two. No, Ascari left the crowd with an indellable memory of what a champion truly was and is. Alberto would come through to take the win, and by fourteen seconds. The title was his!
Lost in all of the emotion and exuberance of the moment was what happened behind Alberto. Rudolf Fischer, the gentleman racer from Ecurie Espadon, would manage to finish 3rd behind Ascari by some seven minutes. Further back came one that Fischer employed for a previous race at the Nurburgring. Two laps down to Ascari came Riess. Riess had performed well and helped to hold his RS together over the course of the 18 lap race. After starting the race 12th, Riess would drive a beautiful race and would finish 7th. He would miss out on a points-paying position by just two places. However, he would end up the best placed German.
Once again, Riess showed his abilities as a racer. He had taken on the best in the world in a hostile environment like the notorious Nordschleife and he had performed well. This would end up just being one of many good results Riess would score over the course of the remainder of the 1952 season.
After scoring a victory at Munchen-Riem one week after the German Grand Prix, Riess would travel to Wegberg, Germany for the 5th DMV Grenzlandringrennen. Located about an hour and a half up the road past Cologne, Wegberg was just one of a couple small villages surrounded by the 4.68 mile egg-shaped Grenzlandring.
Held on the 31st of August, the Grenzlandringrennen was the third of four rounds that made up the West German Championship. Coming into the event, the race for the championship was tight. Fritz Riess and Toni Ulmen seemed destined to fight it out for the title.
Although a lap around the Grenzlandring wasn't all that short at a little more than four and a half miles, the race would be relatively short-lived. The race consisted of just 12 laps around the ultra-fast circuit. Due to its shape, the average speeds around the circuit were high. Average race speeds around the circuit would tend to be in excess of 125 mph. A single fastest lap tended to run as high as 130 mph plus.
By far and away, the most numerous chassis in the field would be the Veritas. Drivers would enter either the Meteor or the RS. Riess would end up being one of seven RSs entered in the race.
While the majority of the field consisted of German drivers, there would be a number of drivers from other nations entered in the race as well, including the small Ecurie Richmond team with Alan Brown and Eric Brandon. The race also hosted an American, Rob O'Brien driving a Gordini T15 borrowed from the Belgian Johnny Claes.
The race distance was 67 miles. However, at over 100 mph per lap, the race wouldn't last that long. For some, it would last even less. In fact, fourteen would end up out of the race by the end.
In the end, it would be the two Veritas-Meteors of Ulmen and Klenk that would be the class of the field. Ulmen would turn in the fastest lap of the race with a time of two minutes and thirty-one seconds and an average speed in excess of 132 mph while en route to taking the victory. Hans Klenk would end up finishing the race in 2nd place behind Ulmen by eighteen seconds. In 3rd place would be Josef Peters. He would end up a minute and forty-two seconds behind Ulmen and only two seconds in front of the 4th place finisher, which would be Riess.
While a good result, the victory for Ulmen only firmed his grasp of the West German Championship title. The title, and the season, would come down to one last weekend at the end of September.
The West German Championship had come down to one last race between two individuals. The race itself would take place in a city that was also divided. The AVUS Circuit was the site for the 8th Internationales Avusrennen, which was the fourth, and final, round of the West German Championship. The 8th Internationales Avusrennen would be just one of a couple of races on the 28th of September.
Located in what was the British sector of Berlin after the end of the Second World War, the AVUS Circuit was practically a circuit in name only as it consisted on mainly just two long straight sections of the AVUS highway running into western Berlin. At 5.13 miles in length, the circuit consisted of two long straightaways interrupted by one larger and one smaller tear-drop shaped corners. The larger of the two tear-drop corners would be banked in the mid-1930s and would end up earning the notorious nickname the 'Wall of Death'. This reputation resulted from the fact the top of the banking featured no retaining wall or barrier of any kind, just a small curb meant to keep the cars on the track.
As mentioned, there were more than one race held on AVUS on the 28th of September. One of those races would be the fifth round of the German Sportscar Championship. Thirty-five cars would start the race. The field would be broken down into two classes: a 2.0 class and a 1.5 class.
Riess was in good position for the race as he would start 2nd. The end would be better than the start as Riess would go on to take the victory. This was a great confidence builder for Riess heading into the grand prix race.
Right at the start of the 25 lap race things were looking good for Riess. Only one lap into the race Ulmen would retire due to problems. This opened the door for Riess. The question was whether he could take advantage or not. Unfortunately for him, Rudolf Fischer was again present with his Ferrari 500.
Fischer would streak down the not quite AVUS straights pushing his Ferrari to its top speeds. Not far behind though would be Riess in his Veritas RS. Then, Fischer began to draw away from the rest of the field.
Fischer's margin continued to increase, especially as he was able to turn in lap times of two minutes and thirty-six seconds around the circuit. This meant his average speed over the course of a lap was pushing 126 mph!
The real battle was behind Fischer. A two-way battle ensued for 2nd place between Riess and Hans Klenk. Never more than a couple of seconds would separate the two drivers for most of the race.
While the two battled, Fischer would come by them en route to the victory. After averaging in excess of 115 mph over the course of the event, Fischer would take the victory by a whole lap. The battle would be for 2nd place in the race, and, 2nd place in the championship.
Riess and Klenk would battle all the way around the final lap of the AVUS Circuit. As they came off the banking of the 'Wall of Death', Klenk was holding onto a slight margin. At the line, it would be Klenk ahead of Riess by just seven-tenths of a second. Klenk's 2nd place result also ended up moving him into a tie with Riess for 2nd place in the West German Championship standings. Despite having retired after just the 1st lap of the race, Ulmen would go on to take the title. His title bid had, in no small way, been helped by the victory at the Grenzlandring.
Due to the dominant pace of Fischer and being beat by a very small margin by Klenk, Riess would end up somewhat lost in the shadows once again. One thing did become abundantly clear for Riess after competing in his one and only World Championship race, and a number of other non-championship grand prix, and that was the fact he was much better suited to sports car racing. Unfortunately, he would not experience the results he had during the 1952 season or prior.
Most surprisingly, considering the fact he was only thirty at the end of the 1952 season, Riess began appearing at fewer and fewer races. Then, at only the age of thirty-five, Riess would drive his last major race, the 1000 kilometers of the Nurburgring in May of 1957. In spite of all of his success and talent, Riess just faded away into distant memory. He would end up dying in Samedan, Switzerland in 1991.