TeamsTheo Helfrich: 1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Unfortunately, circumstances usually end up influencing promise instead of promise overcoming circumstances. Post-war Germany, throughout the 1940s and onward, was in shambles. Industry had been crippled by the war, and, the money was worth next to nothing. Many who lived during this time focused more on survival than dreams.
As with before the Second World War, Germany gave birth to a number of talented grand prix drivers. However, due to restrictions and lacking value of currency, many of these talented drivers would never get the opportunities they deserved. There were some that would find opportunities, but would still end up 'lesser-known' amongst the rest of the post-war racing fraternity. One of those lesser-known pilots was a motor trader from Mannheim, Germany by the name of Theo Helfrich.
Due to the restrictions and conditions that existed throughout Germany after the war, lesser-known drivers would appear suddenly and disappear almost as quick. Few details were known about many, less was known about others. Such was the case with Helfrich. Details about his life are few and far between. Born in two different cities (Frankfurt and Hamburg), Helfrich was one of a number of talented, but isolated, German drivers to have the opportunity to take part in the Formula One World Championship due to the organizers' decision to switch and run according to Formula 2 regulations for the 1952 and 1953 seasons. Were it not for this decision, perhaps even less would be known.
In Helfrich's case, a little more is known about his racing career because his only racing experience wouldn't just come via the German Grand Prix. A number of other non-championship races, and national championships, were held in Germany after the war. In fact, Helfrich would take part in a number of sportscar races, as well as, grand prix events. In 1949, Helfrich was first seen racing Veritas RS sportscars in such races as the Grand Prix of the Nurburgring and the Grenzlandringrennen. Throughout 1949 and 1950, Helfrich would garner a couple of victories and an incredible number of top-ten finishes, while only suffering one retirement and result out of the top ten. Helfrich would end up being even more efficient in 1951.
In 1952, Helfrich's season began in April with a DDR Sportscar Championship race at Rostock. It was round one of the championship and the season could not have started much better for Theo. He started the race 2nd and would finish it as its winner. This was an incredible way to start the season. And, it offered great confidence going into his next race, which would take place on the 11th of May.
In May, Helfrich was found about an hour and a half away from Berlin in the smaller city of Dessau. During World War II, Dessau was the home of Junkers, a very important and innovative aviation company. Junkers had built the greatly-feared JU-87 Stuka dive-bomber. But the company had also built the engines for the Messerchmitt ME 262 jet fighter/bomber. As the grand prix cars arrived in 1952, Junkers, and the city, was rebuilding and looking toward a new future.
Being the home of Junkers, Dessau played host to some of the most innovative grand prix cars the nation had at the time. Most of the larger motor companies that were the pride of Germany before the war were still rebuilding rather slowly. This allowed a number of smaller racing manufacturers to appear. One of those was Veritas. Established by Ernst Loof, Lorenz Dietrich and George Meier, Veritas quickly became one of the most prominent racing car manufacturers in Germany. And, for the 1st Dessau Autobahnspinne, Helfrich would arrive with a Veritas RS.
As its name would imply, the race at Dessau would take part on a circuit that would utilize a portion of the autobahn that ran through Dessau to either Leipzig in the south, or, Berlin to the north. The two main straights in the circuit design resulted from runs, either north or south, down the autobahn. The rest of the 5.1 mile circuit wound through the heavily-wooded Mosigkauer-Heide. One interesting element to the Dessau circuit was the bridge that ran over the autobahn. A road that was used for the portion of the circuit that ran through the woods actually ran over the autobahn. During the race, the road would be closed. This offered spectators the opportunity to cram themselves on the overpass. Although it may have been tight, it offered a view of at least half of the circuit.
What many of the spectators would witness was the death of Paul Greifzu in practice. The much-heralded East German racer was proving quicker than the rest of the entries during practice. However, he would lose the car off the circuit and would die due to the heavy impact of the crash. The death of Greifzu had made Riess the favorite to win the race as he had proven to be the only one anywhere near as fast as Greifzu.
In the race itself, Helfrich would let everyone know that Riess wasn't the only talented driver present at the race. Helped by the retirements of such talented German drivers as Edgar Barth and Willi Heeks, Helfrich would pressure Riess during the race.
In the battle between Riess and Helfrich, Riess would do his best to make sure he would come out on top as he would go on to set the fastest lap of the race. At the end of the 16 laps, Riess would take the victory. Helrich would turn in a good performance by finishing the race 2nd. In 3rd place would be Rudolf Krause.
Helfrich had started out the season with a victory and a 2nd place result. This would only further help build his confidence as the racing season was just starting to really get underway.
On the 25th of May, the Nurburgring was set to host a couple of races. One of those races was the Sportscar Grand Prix of the Nurburgring. The second was the Internationales ADAC Eifelrennen. The day of racing at the Nurburgring would end up attracting a number of international racing drivers including Stirling Moss, Duncan Hamilton and Rudolf Fischer.
Between the two main races, Helfrich would only end up taking part in the Sportscar Grand Prix of the Nurburgring, which was the first round of the German Sportscar Championship. After starting the race 5th, Helfrich would struggle slightly. However, he would still manage yet another top ten as he would finish the race 8th. While not the result he may have been hoping and looking for, it was an important result given the next race in which he would take part. The next race, as it always has been, takes place in June and was so important that it warranted any sportscar manufacturer to wander away from its home in order to compete.
After World War II, Mercedes-Benz, like many parts of Germany, was rebuilding but still not quite optimal. However, a race such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans was so important to the company's success that it had to bear the costs associated in order to compete. The car manufacturer would send three cars to the race. Theo Helfrich would have the honor, and the privilege of driving one of them. He would share the driving duties with Helmut Niedermayr.
The pairing had qualified for the race 9th in their Mercedes-Benz 300SL. They would end up being the highest starting of the Mercedes-Benz trio. Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess had qualified 10th while Karl Kling and Hans Klenk qualified 11th. The Ferrari 340 of Andre Simon and Lucien Vincent had started on the pole.
While all of the attention was on the Ferraris and the Mercedes-Benz efforts, Pierre Levegh took control of the race and single-handily won the race. Levegh would not relinquish control of his car to his co-driver throughout the race. Then, while leading in the final hour of the race, the tired Levegh made a mistake and blew the engine. This handed the lead to Lang and Riess, who had managed to get by Helfrich and Niedermayr.
As with the race at Dessau, Riess; co-driving with Lang, would lead home Helfrich in a Mercedes-Benz one-two finish. This was an incredible finish for the shut-in German car maker and the also shut-in German drivers. It also provided Helfrich with one of the most notable finishes in his career.
Fresh from the 2nd place result at Le Mans, Helfrich would end up taking part in mainly minor races until the 3rd of August when he would have the opportunity to take part in his first World Championship race.
Helfrich had arrived at the Nurburgring to take part in more than just the German Grand Prix. The non-championship Grand Prix of the Nurburgring Sportscar race was also head on the same day.
In the race, Helfrich would be part of a Mercedes-Benz one-two-three-four finish. Hermann Lang would take the victory by just under two seconds over Karl Kling. Three minutes and thirty seconds behind Lang would come Riess in 3rd place. Eleven minutes and twenty seconds separated Lang from Helfrich, who would finish in 4th place.
In the German Grand Prix race, Helfrich would switch to his Veritas RS. In practice for the race, Helfrich would find out about the shortcomings of the RS compared to Ferrari's 500 chassis. Dominant throughout practice were the two Scuderia Ferrari drivers Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina. Ascari was in full pursuit of his first World Championship title. The German Grand Prix, then, was an important race for Alberto. Were he to win, the championship would be his. Farina, the former World Champion, needed to do all he could just to keep his hopes alive. Therefore, Helfrich, and the other German drivers, would step right into this fight.
Intent on taking the title, Ascari would prove fastest in practice, but not by much when considering the circuit hosting the race. Over the course of the 14 miles of winding circuit, Ascari would only end up being faster than Farina by three seconds.
What would become known as the 'Green Hell', the notorious Nordschleife Circuit presented drivers over 14 miles of perhaps the most technically demanding, challenging and dangerous purpose-built track in all the world. Each lap of this constantly changing and moving circuit was like an eternity. Yet, it only took one split-second loss of concentration at the result could have been very devastating, if not deadly.
Many of the German drivers had raced on the Nordschleife many times, just within the course of a single year. This is what made the performance advantages of the Ferrari 500, and even the Gordini T16, so obvious. Ascari's best time around the circuit was ten minutes and four seconds. After Farina in 2nd place on the front row, Maurice Trintignant would end up starting 3rd in his Gordini T16. His best lap time around the circuit would end up being fifteen seconds slower than Alberto's best. Robert Manzon, another Equipe Gordini driver, would take his T16 and would finish-off the front row by qualifying 4th with a time of ten minutes and twenty-five seconds.
Ascari was within four seconds of being under the ten minute mark. The best positioned German driver and car combination would end up being Paul Pietsch. Pietsch would take his Veritas-Meteor and would qualify with a time just four seconds shy of eleven minutes. Yet, it would be fast enough to allow Paul to start from the second row in 7th place.
While also driving a Veritas, Helfrich's RS struggled in pace. Helfrich also didn't quite have the results at the Nurburgring like that of Lang, Pietsch, or even, Riess. Therefore, it wasn't too surprising the motor trader started the race a little further down in the order. However, he would still end up starting better than many of his fellow Germans. At the end of practice, it was found Theo would start the race on the fifth row in 18th position.
The race would see a lot of carnage. The carnage wouldn't result from accidents between drivers out on the circuit. It would result from the demanding, dangerous circuit swallowing up competitors.
Up at the front of the field, the race would start with Ascari jumping into the lead and quickly pressing the issue. Taruffi and Farina would end up locked in a battle as they gave chase. Toward the back of the starting grid, many of the drivers seemed to be looking over their shoulders in fear. It was obvious attrition was lurking right there, actively devouring competitors.
Some barely made it off of the starting grid before trouble hit. Gino Bianco would be out after a race of yards more so than miles. Maurice Trintignant would have a momentary lapse in concentration and would crash out of the race. Felice Bonetto would spin his car right in front of Hans Klenk and Marcel Balsa and would end up disqualified after receiving a push start.
In the case of Helfrich, his race would be just to complete one lap. He wouldn't win, however. While en route around the Nordschleife for the very first lap, Helfrich would run into trouble and would be unable to continue. The race consisted of 18 laps. Helfrich would end up being unable to finish just one of the 18.
Helfrich wouldn't be the end of the attrition. Eight would drop out of the race, including Helfrich, on the 1st lap alone. Ten more would end up falling out before the end. Robert Manzon was looking good up near the front until his wheel fell off after 8 laps.
Sensing the need to change, many drivers would end up backing off slightly in order to ensure their carrying on until the end. This only aided Ascari in his quest for the championship. In true Ringmeister fashion, Ascari seemed unaffected by the circuit, and the results of others, and only seemed to push harder. In fact, on the 10th lap of the race, Alberto would turn in a lap time that would end up being the fastest lap of the race.
While the fastest lap helped to strengthen Alberto's grip on the championship, it also helped to bore the estimated quarter of a million fans who had flocked to the circuit. Ascari was pulling away from Farina, who firmly taken over 2nd place as Taruffi began to fade. The spectators wanted some excitement. They would have to wait until the very end to get it.
A majority of the German drivers were out of the race and Ascari was leading by a country mile up front. Something needed to happen to spice up the race. Only two laps remained in the race, but not all was well with Ascari's Ferrari. He knew that to finish the race, let alone win, he would need to come into the pits and have some oil added, and other aspects of the car checked. Wanting to finish the race, and hopefully secure his first World Championship title, Ascari would pull into the pits with just one lap remaining.
The pitstop was a lengthy one; more than enough time for Farina to take over the lead. Farina was well along the 14 mile circuit when Ascari rejoined the race. Finally, the crowd would be able to witness what it had come to see. Finally, there was a race.
One lap of the circuit took a little over ten minutes to complete. Ascari knew he had a little less than that in order to take the victory. Although not working at optimum, Ascari's Ferrari responded as he pushed hard in order to catch up to Farina. Given his pace throughout the race, it wasn't too surprising that he was able to catch up. What was surprising was the fact that it was obvious Farina did nothing to speed up his pace. Alberto's pace, being what it was, could not be held back by a Farina driving at the same speed he had throughout the previous part of the race.
Ascari wouldn't just catch Farina. His pace was such that he would easily get by and actually pull out a lead before crossing the finish line. Ascari would win the race, and the title, as he managed to nurse his not-so-healthy Ferrari home to victory fourteen seconds over Farina in 2nd place. The Swiss restaurateur, Rudolf Fischer, would end up finishing the race over seven minutes down, but in 3rd place.
By the time the celebrations had begun at Scuderia Ferrari for Ascari, Helfrich had already packed up his stricken car and was heading away from his first, a very disappointing, World Championship race. Despite all of the great results he had managed to score in sportscars and non-championship grand prix racing, Helfrich's World Championship experience would end up being over without having completed even a majority of the laps. Looking to recover from the bitterly disappointing German Grand Prix, and second round of the West German Championship, Helfrich would wait until the end of August, and then, would head to Wegberg, Germany and the Grenzlandring.
The egg-shaped Grenzlandring hosted the third round of the West German Championship. The race, which took place on the 31st of August, consisted of 12 laps of the 5.58 mile circuit.
Consisting to two different-sized arching turns, the Grenzlandring was an ultra-fast circuit comprised of public roads surrounding the small villages of Wegberg, Dorp and Beeck. Flat and long, the circuit enabled average lap speeds in excess of 125 mph, and occasionally above 130 mph.
Helfrich would arrive at the race with his Veritas RS yet again and was in search of a good result after the failure at the Nurburgring. The failure in the German Grand Prix didn't merely turn his World Championship experience into a bitter disappointment; it also adversely affected his West German Championship hopes. Therefore, he arrived for the 5th DMV Grenzlandringrennen desperately needing a good result to keep his championship hopes alive.
In spite of being the third round of the West German Championship, the field for the 5th DMV Grenzlandringrennen would end up including a few drivers from outside of Germany. While the small Ecurie Francorchamps team would end up not arriving for the race, the even smaller Ecurie Richmond team from England would. There would also be an American in the field. Rob O'Brien, who was the first American to take part in a World Championship round when he raced in the Belgian Grand Prix earlier in the year, would borrow Johnny Claes' Gordini T15 for the race.
The race would end up being another battle against attrition more than amongst competitors. Most unfortunate for Helfrich, who needed a good result to keep his championship aspirations alive, would end up being the first car out of the field. A season of racing, lacking funding for proper repairs and preparation and an aged chassis combined to make for a bitter disappointment.
Helfrich wouldn't be the only one to end up with bitter disappointment on their face. Some thirteen other drivers would also end up out of the race before the 12 laps of the race were up.
Toni Ulmen would need little more than thirty-one minutes to record the victory in his Veritas-Meteor. He would end up beating Hans Klenk by eighteen seconds and Josef Peters by a minute and forty.
As a result of the second retirement, Helfrich's West German Championship hopes vanished. The only hope he well and truly had left was to score some points in the remaining round of the championship in order to ensure a good position in the overall standings after the last race. However, before he would take part in the final round of the West German Championship, Helfrich would head to the Sachsenring for the final round of the East German Championship.
In spite of the presence of the heightening Cold War, German drivers were still able to travel to events in either the East or West Germany without too much trouble. This enabled West Germans, like Helfrich, to be able to take part in the 4th Sachsenringrennen on the 7th of September.
At 5.41 miles in length, the Sachsenring wasn't a short circuit by any means. It also boasted of some lovely undulating terrain that made for some very interesting vantage points for the spectators. With the exception of the esses leading to the start/finish line, the circuit was almost entirely either undulating straitaways, or, sweeping corners that required bravery and skill.
Like the Grenzlandringrennen, the Sachsenringrennen consisted of just 12 laps. But the race would end up covering 65 miles.
After a season of racing, the cars were beginning to truly have trouble making entire race distances. Helfrich had taken part in a DDR Sportscar Championship race earlier, the seventh round of that championship, and would have his RS Veritas fail on him. This would not bode well going into the Sachsenringrennen Formula 2 race.
The season had beaten the cars. In the second race in a row, Helfrich would end up the first entrant out of the race. This was incredible given the fact over the previous three seasons his total failures could have been counted on the fingers of just one hands. By early September in 1952, he already had two.
Edgar Barth would end up proving to be too strong for the rest of the field. He would end up taking a little less than fifty minutes to complete the 12 lap race. He would end up beating Willi Heeks by ten seconds. Ernst Klodwig would end up finishing some distance behind in 3rd.
Edgar Barth's victory only cemented his hold on the East German Championship title. He would end up earning 21 points and would take the title. Ernst Klodwig would able be able to earn 10 points and would finish in 2nd place. Paul Greifzu, who had died in practice at Dessau back earlier in the year, had managed to earn 6 points before his death and would still finish the championship in 4th place.
The two-straight retirements were devastating to Helfrich's confidence going into the final round of the West German Championship. As a result of the failures, the outlook seemed bleak. All that Helfrich could do was arrive, race and wait and see what happened.
On the 28th of September, Helfrich arrived in Berlin for the final round of the West German Championship and the last race of his 1952 season. The last round of the championship was the 8th Internationales Avusrennen held on the AVUS circuit in the British sector of Berlin.
The AVUS Circuit first hosted racing back in the early part of the 1920s. Originally 12 miles in length, the circuit would be shortened to 5.13 miles. Like many circuits in Germany, and throughout Europe, the circuit was comprised almost entirely of public roads. What made the circuit unlike most others was its design. Basically two long straights finished at either end by tear-drop shaped hairpin turns, the circuit made for an unusual design and high average speeds. And while the not-quite-straight straights required bravery and courage to go as fast as possible, the North Curve required a bit more of bravery and courage. Called the 'Wall of Death', the banked North Curve required absolute concentration and attention, not just for a fast lap time, but also, for one's survival.
The starting field would have one unwelcomed guest. Rudolf Fischer, who drove for his own Ecurie Espadon team in a Ferrari 500 chassis, would enter the race and proved incredibly fast although practice.
Then, in the race, Fischer would prove even faster. Thankfully for Helfrich, he would make it through the first couple laps of the 25 lap race. He would also end up not being the first one out of the race. That unfortunate honor would go to Josef Peters.
Fischer was immediately on the pace and pushing forward at the front of the field. This pulled the rest of the field along, perhaps faster than many of them really wanted to travel. Toni Ulmen, who would end up the West German Champion by the end of the race, would fall out after completing just one lap. The pace had proven to be too much for him and his Veritas-Meteor.
Fischer pressed the issue even more as he would go on to turn in a lap time of two minutes and thirty-six seconds giving him an average speed of almost 126 mph over the course of the lap. This would end up being the fastest lap of the race and would only stretch his advantage and stretch the pace even more. Despite running well, the pace would finally end up being too much for Helfrich's RS. As he began what was his 15th lap of the race, the RS would suffer a failure and would retire from the race. This made it three retirements in a row for a driver who hadn't even suffered three retirements in three years of racing.
Fischer continued to dominate. In fact, he would have a full lap advantage on the rest of the field before the end of the race. Therefore, the real race was behind him on the circuit, and it had championship implications. Almost throughout the entire race distance, Hans Klenk and Fritz Riess would do battle. Riess was second in the standings coming into the race. But Klenk had the opportunity to catch him if he could beat him in the race.
Fischer would absolutely streak home to the victory. He would average over 115 mph en route to his one lap margin of victory. The battle between Klenk and Riess would go right down to the line. As they came off the banked North Curve and headed to the line, Klenk held a slight advantage. He would manage to hold on to finish 2nd by just seven-tenths of a second over Riess. What's more, the 2nd place result ended up tying Klenk and Riess in the final championship standings. However, neither of them were close enough to beat out Ulmen who would end up winning the West German Championship by 4 points with 16.
Helfrich hadn't entered the first round of the West German Championship, which was the Internationales ADAC Eifelrennen. Unfortunately for Helfrich, this reduced his opportunities to score points from four down to three. Then, and most unfortunately, he could not get his Veritas RS to finish any of the remaining rounds. In fact, it was a challenge just to get the car to make it halfway. As a result, he would end up competing in three rounds of the championship without having scored even a single point. This bitter disappointment would only be accented by his 1st lap exit in his only World Championship race in early August.
In spite of the troubles faced during the 1952 season, Helfrich would return to Formula 2 grand prix and sportscar racing in 1953. He would end up returning stronger than ever. In addition to sportscar and Formula 2 grand prix racing, Theo would also be spotted taking part in many other minor races such as hillclimbs and some 500 c.c. category races.
Like many German racers of the time period, Helfrich would take part in just about any form and type of competitive racing possible. He would make good use of his talents and would take advantage of every opportunity presented him. This willingness to compete and his talent helped him to take his place in sportcar and World Championship history.