TeamsHans Klenk: 1954 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
1954 would see a new dawn for Formula One. However, its return would signal the waning of a special time of motor racing in post-war Germany. 1954, then, would see the last bit of evidence of a time when the privateer and the small racing car manufacturer carried the German racing scene forward into the future.
1954 would see the return of Formula One regulations to the World Championship. Prior to the 1952 and 1953 seasons the Formula One World Championship had made appearances in what was West Germany. However, because of post-war restrictions, an economy in a sad state and the sheer cost of racing in Formula One there would not be a German team amongst the others in the field and there would only be one driver in the field that called Germany home.
Between '52 and '53 there would be a great change in the World Championship landscape. Costs had risen to unsustainable levels and Alfa Romeo had pulled out of the World Championship. This would force the governing-body to have to make some hard decisions. In an effort to give them more time, a decision would be made to run the World Championship according to Formula 2 specifications. This would end up opening up a whole new world of racing that would have never had a chance of competing in the World Championship otherwise.
East and West Germany would have a number of small manufacturers and privateers building 2.0-liter single-seater cars to race in their own championships. However, when the regulations for the World Championship switched to Formula 2 regulations, which included a maximum engine displacement of 2.0-liters, all of a sudden, those privateers would be able to take part in races against the best in the world at the time.
Just like that, when the World Championship returned to Germany for the 1952 and 1953 seasons the starting grid would be filled with small privateer teams and individuals just longing to compete on the largest stage. One of those that would be there right from the very beginning would be Hans Klenk.
Hans Klenk would be born in 1919 in Kunzelsau. During World War II, Klenk would serve as a pilot flying Messerschmitts. By the end of the war, Klenk would turn his interests to motor racing. But like most racers in East and West Germany at the time, Klenk would have to start his racing career by building his own car as there were only a couple of small manufacturers building cars that were available for purchase. Still, Klenk would be right there at the German Grand Prix of 1952.
Soon afterward, Klenk would join the Mercedes-Benz sportscar team and would end up winning the 1952 Carrera Panamericana along with Karl Kling. However, while driving for Alfred Neubauer and Mercedes, Klenk would injure himself and would be limited in his racing from then on.
And heading into the 1954 season, Klenk would have his BMW 328-powered Meteor just sitting around not being used. But unfortunately, there really much use for the car anymore. Because of the return of Formula One regulations to the World Championship, East German teams and organizers would finally withdraw behind its borders and would conduct one more year of the East German Formula 2 Championship. And because West Germany was open to other foreign teams, cars and drivers their races would also become welcome to the new Formula One regulations, or, would cease racing altogether due to the fact the borders were open. Therefore, the world was open to Klenk, but with really no place in which to race his Meteor.
Like every other round of the World Championship in 1954, the maximum displacement of an engine under the new regulations would be 2.5-liters. Therefore, a smaller engine would be more than allowed to race, it would just be severely handicapped against its competition. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity for Klenk to make use of his car at least one more time.
But because a 2.0-liter car would be at a disadvantage, and because West Germany's economy was still trying to recover, there really was only one place in which Klenk could enter his aged machinery to race.
In 1953, Klenk would take his car and would score a 2nd place result behind Jacques Swaters in the 9th Internationales Avusrennen. He would then set about rebuilding his Veritas Meteor in order to have it ready for the German Grand Prix coming up later on in the season. However, he would suffer a terrible accident in a Mercedes 300SL and would be sidelined for the rest of the year as a result of the injuries he sustained. Klenk would miss out on his opportunity to take part in the World Championship for a second time.
It seemed with the onset of the new Formula One regulations for the 1954 season, and the seriousness of his injuries, that Klenk had missed out on his opportunity to take part in another World Championship race. Though Klenk would not take part in another World Championship race, his Klenk-Meteor would make the trip to the Eifel mountains one more time and would be entered in the 17th German Grand Prix held at the Nurburgring.
The Klenk-Meteor would be unloaded at the Nurburgring in preparation for the 311 mile race. However, it would be Theo Helfrich that would prepare to drive the car in the race. Theo Helfrich was another driver with the Mercedes-Benz sportscar team and would be successful in his own right. He and Helmut Niedermayr would score a 2nd place in the 1952 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Helfrich was more than familiar with the 14 mile long infamous Nordschleife and he would need to rely on every bit of his experience in order to keep in touch with the much more powerful, and newer, Formula One cars. However, after practice, it would become abundantly clear the only chance Helfrich would have of even scoring points in the race would be if there was an atomic bomb that fell and wiped out all of the faster competitors.
Although Helfrich's pace during practice would not leave him anywhere near the pace of the bigger European teams, everyone would be reminded of what was truly important during practice. Onofre Marimon would be at the wheel of a Maserati 250F. Marimon knew he had a car capable of challenging for top results. And as a result, he would be pushing hard. However, rounding a downhill right-hand bend Marimon would lose control and would end up rolling the car over and over again until it came to a rest in a field just before the Adenau Bridge. When some workers arrived, it was clear Marimon had died. This would touch off a storm of emotion, especially amongst the many other Argentineans present. Yet, despite the tragic death, the event would go on.
Juan Manuel Fangio would already manage to post the fastest lap time in the Mercedes W196. He would take the pole with a lap time of 9:50.1. The rest of the front row would be occupied by Brits. Mike Hawthorn would be a little more than three seconds slower in his Ferrari but would still start 2nd on the grid. Stirling Moss would be over ten seconds slower around the 14.1 mile circuit but would still manage to start in 3rd place.
Thankfully, because of some troubles with Karl Kling's Mercedes, Helfrich would not start dead-last in the Klenk-BMW. Posting a time of 11:18.3, Helfrich would start from the eighth, and final, row of the grid in 19th place overall. What a last row it would be: the new Germany starting right next to the immediate post-war, everything in a shambles, Germany.
In spite of the dark cloud that would hang over the circuit because of Marimon's passing, August 1st, the day of the race, would see mild temperatures and dry conditions. Still, the emotions were running high. There were still enough tears that it seemed as though it was raining.
22 laps of the epic circuit awaited the drivers as the cars were rolled out onto the grid in preparation of the 2pm start. And as the cars set off on the first lap of the race, it would be Gonzalez in one of the Ferraris that would make the best start of all and would be leading the way heading off into the forest. However, it wouldn't be too long before Fangio had the lead. What was amazing was Kling's start. Bringing up the absolute tail-end of the field, Kling would make a massive start and would be fighting right around the 5th position before the field even reached the mountainous wilderness. Helfrich would have dreamed to be able to make such a start as Kling. Instead, Helfrich would now be the final car in the line. And while he tried to settle in to the race in hopes of making it all the way to the end, if he did, he would know that it was more than likely that he would still end up at the back of the field.
While Fangio set off into the distance with Gonzalez, Moss and the other Mercedes giving chase, Helfrich would watch the field quickly leave him behind. However, he would not end the race dead-last. That unfortunate honor would go to Andre Pilette. Driving for Equipe Gordini, the gearbox on the T16 would fail leaving Pilette out of the running without having completed the first lap. Stirling Moss would be the next out of the running when he would suffer a failure after just completing one lap. Mike Hawthorn would be out after just 3 laps. Could it be that that tidal wave, that bomb was striking the field?
Not with Fangio leading the way at the front. Hawthorn and Moss dropping out of the race left Gonzalez as the main foreign competition. However, there would be a great inter-team rivalry that would become fully engaged as Kling made his way from last place on the grid to challenging Fangio for the lead.
The battle would come down to either Fangio or Kling as Gonzalez would fade over the course of the race due to his incredible grief over the loss of Marimon. Gonzalez would pull into the pits and would hand his car over to Hawthorn for the remainder of the race. Hawthorn would set off after Fangio and Kling but it certainly appeared it was going to be too little too late.
Helfrich, however, continued to carry on. He would complete 100 miles of the race and seemed to be on his way to at least finish the race, albeit well down in the running order. However, after having completed a third of the race, the 2.0-liter engine in the Klenk Meteor would begin to show its age until it finally failed after Helfrich completed his 8th lap of the race. Klenk had competed once more with the help of Helfrich, but compared to the 2.5-liter Formula One cars, especially the mighty Silver Arrows leading the way at the front of the field, hardly anyone would notice the car that kept Germany racing after the end of World War II had fallen out of the running.
However, after Herrmann retired with a broken fuel line, and then, Kling made a pitstop for some work after having beat his car in its run toward the front of the field, the hundreds of thousands of people assembled would be reminded just how fragile things would appear. But with Fangio re-taking the lead with 5 laps remaining, Mercedes knew they had a great stabilizer there at the front. If there was anyone that could bring it home for the team it was Fangio.
Despite a charging Hawthorn, Fangio would have the race well in hand and would just cruise to the finish. Having a minute and thirty-six seconds in hand over Hawthorn, Fangio merely maintained a comfortable and safe pace that would ensure his fourth victory on the season. After Hawthorn crossed the line to finish in 2nd place, the wait would be nearly four more minutes before Maurice Trintignant came across the line to complete the podium.
Germany's celebrations would erupt, but it would also quickly wane as thoughts would quickly turn to the loss of Marimon. Anchored by the relaxed Argentinean, the cheering would soon turn to quiet out of respect.
But the Germans present at the race that day would not only be privy to the loss of a great talent, they would also be privy to the loss of a special time and place in German racing history. Forever overshadowed by the famed Silver Arrows of the golden era and throughout racing history after the Second World War, the decade immediately following the end of the Second World War would be extremely important, and yet, mostly forgotten in the annals of German racing heritage.
But with each passing of Helfrich in Klenk's Meteor, the German faithful were witnessing the waning of a very special time, when the ingenuity of individuals helped pave the way for the return of the country's mighty Silver Arrows. In many ways, it was the German privateers who held the lines for their nation until it could be revived and rise again like a phoenix from the ashes. So while Helfrich was literally running at the rear of the pack throughout his 8 laps, he was actually leading the way for the W196 that would prove to be the race winner.
But while the German Grand Prix would prove to be the last time a 2.0-liter German car from the period right after the end of the Second World War would take part in a Formula One World Championship race, it would not be the last time during the 1954 season in which the Klenk Meteor took to the race track. No, it would have one more race in which to compete. It would come on the 19th of September. It was the 1st Grand Prix of Berlin.
Unfortunately for Helmut Niedermayr, who would drive the meteor in the 60 lap race, the organizers would allow Formula One cars in the field. They were not about to deny the Silver Arrows from Mercedes. Already down on power and at an ultra-fast 5.15 mile Avus circuit, Niedermayr would only manage a fourth row starting spot on the grid, 10th overall.
Again, hundreds of thousands of fans would assemble up and down the parallel circuit fully expecting Mercedes to crush all comers. However, throughout the first 15 laps of the race, Jean Behra would push his Gordini T16 to the maximum and would be amongst the W196s lap after lap. But the damage he was doing to the car to stay with the three streamlined chassis would be more than the car could handle. And after his engine blew up, it would be left to the three W196s to forge the path ahead, everyone else, including Niedermayr, would be left tossing and turning in their wake.
Running in lock-step the Silver Arrow Juggernaut was impressive. They wouldn't just leave the competition behind, they would be time zones ahead. Niedermayr, on the other hand, would fight to bring the Meteor home. With the exception of the W196s, the Meteor would be the only other German car in the field. Therefore, Niedermayr was determined to finish the race. He would push and fight with the car, even after the car developed problems with the steering. Still, he would carry on.
The Mercedes W196s would be all alone at the front. Kling would lead the trio home to a nose-to-tail finish with each car separated by just a half a second. Andre Pilette, the 4th place car in the field, would end up some three laps behind by the end. Mercedes absolutely rolled the field.
Despite the steering problems, Niedermayr would finish the race. Unfortunately, because of the pace of the W196s, he would not be classified in the end. This would be a rather fitting end for a chassis from an era now long since passed. But it still had to be a sight seeing Germany's old and new circulating on the track. The future certainly appeared bright.
For Klenk, the Formula One World Championship would be over, as a driver and a car owner. Hans Klenk would live until he was 89 years of age. He would pass on in Vellberg on the 24th of March in 2009.