TeamsKarl-Gunther Bechem: 1953 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Sometimes our own identity is the most dangerous threat to our existence. Many grand prix history books list the rather innocuous name 'Bernhard Nacke' as having taken part in the German Grand Prix during the 1952 season. So what? What's so intriguing about one name in one race? That was what Karl-Gunther Bechem had hoped for when he would take part in his first World Championship race. In Karl-Gunther's case the anonymity meant the difference between being able to do something he enjoyed or not. For the Bechem name could not be associated with something so dangerous and foolhardy as grand prix racing.
The family had already expressed their disapproval when he had started out racing sports cars. However, grand prix racing, with its slender coffins with wheels, was absolutely off limits to Karl-Gunther according to his parents. And so, he would do as most young adults do. He would disobey and would race under an assumed name. Given the fact he would end up retiring from the race after just five laps, he probably would have been safe from exposure unless his family made a point to read well down in the listing of the results.
While he would only take part in the one World Championship race in 1952, he would take part in other Formula 2 races toward the end of the season, and still under the name 'Bernhard Nacke'. Yet while he would compete under the assumed name throughout the rest of the 1952 season, the next year, he would tire of the charade and would drop the false name and would compete under his own name.
Despite the pressure from the parents, Karl-Gunther had earned a reputation as a good sports car driver. Recognizing his strength, Bechem would focus on his sportscar racing in 1953 and would compete almost exclusively in the German Sportscar Championship. Over the course of the early part of 1953, Bechem would earn some good results in sportscar races including a 3rd place in the second round of the German Sportscar Championship held at Avus and a 2nd in the Rheinland Nurburgring, which was the third round. While he was at Avus and the Nurburgring earning these good results in the sportscar races, while he was already there, Bechem would decide to just take part in the Formula 2 races that were held in conjunction with the sportscar races.
Bechem would pack his AFM '50 Sport and would head to the Berlin districts of Charlottenberg and Nikolassee in the middle part of July. Besides the second round of the German Sportscar Championship, Bechem would also take part in the 9th Internationales Avusrennen, which was also the second round of the West German Formula 2 Championship.
The Avusrennen, as the name would imply, took place on the ultra-fast Avus circuit. The circuit, which amounted to nothing more than an out and back run down the Avus highway, was anything but straightforward. Consisting of two parallel straights, one hairpin turn and one absolutely hair-raising tear-drop corner nicknamed 'The Wall of Death', the Avus circuit would demand brave racers willing to push the edge. At 5.14 miles, the circuit was virtually two, two mile straights and a bumpy and very dangerous brick-paved banked turn with no retaining wall. The famous German racer, Paul Pietsch, would crash his streamlined car coming around the banking, and though he would live, he would end up walking away from racing after the incident.
Tensions between East and West Germany continued to be on the rise. Yet, there was little travel restrictions between the two nations. Therefore, Avusrennen would see a number of East Germans in the field. But besides East and West Germans, there would be a number of entries from foreign nations in the field as well. Given the poor state of the German economy, the presence of foreign entries in the field meant many privateer German racers would be facing foreign entries with the latest in technology and design while they had to make due with technology that had its origins before the beginning of World War II. This reality would show up during practice.
Jacques Swaters would come to the race driving for his own team, Ecurie Francorchamps, in a Ferrari 500. He would go out in practice and would prove almost untouchable. He; therefore, would have the pole. But he would be joined on the front row by two other foreign entries. Alan Brown would start 2nd while Rodney Nuckey would complete the front row in 3rd. Most of the German racers, like Bechem, would end up much further down in the starting order.
Speed wasn't so much the problem for the German cars, as the race would demonstrate. The real problem, the real divide between German technology of the time and that of foreign nations, existed in reliability. As the race would get underway, this reality would become so readily apparent.
Almost from the very start of the 25 lap race, retirements would begin to strike the field. Meanwhile, Swaters would be found up front pulling away from decent German competition. Confident of his pace and advantages, Swaters wouldn't even end up setting the fastest lap of the race. That honor would go to Theo Helfrich. However, it would prove to be of little importance.
As the race carried on, more and more retirements would take place. By the time the race would end there would be sixteen cars out of the running. Unfortunately, one of them would be Bechem. While he had managed to earn a 3rd place in the sportscar race, he would not be able to follow up his impressive result in the grand prix.
By the end of the 25 laps, there would only be two other cars on the lead lap with Swaters. These two would give chase, but would actually look more like the chased. For as Swaters came off the banking for the final time and would be just feet from crossing the finish line the Veritas of 2nd place Hans Klenk and Theo Helfrich would be just beginning to really accelerate down the long front stretch with the whole of another lap ahead of them. As Klenk and Helfrich would come around to finish the divide had become painfully obvious. Swaters would take the victory with a margin of two minutes and forty-two seconds over Klenk and two minutes and fifty-six seconds in hand on Helfrich. With the fastest lap only taking two minutes and thirty-one minutes it was very clear Swaters had slowed down over the course of the remaining lap either out of confidence, or, in wanting the German racers to save face.
As far as Bechem was concerned, the divide between his nation in others in Formula 2 wasn't as important as his merely being able to compete. However, the presence of such dominant foreign entries would cause him to focus mostly on sportscar racing. That is, except, for one important race which would take place in very early August.
A little less than a month after competing in a sportscar race and grand prix at Avus, Bechem would make his way a little further west into the Eifel mountains. His destination was the Nurburgring. While there, he would take part in a couple of sportscar races, but also, the seventh round of the World Championship.
As with the German Grand Prix the season before, the decision by the governing-body to run the World Championship according to Formula 2 regulations for 1952 and 1953 would make it possible for the German Grand Prix to actually include German drivers and cars. The many home-built grand prix cars would end up littering the field in 1952. It would be the same again in 1953.
Nestled in the heavily-wooded Eifel mountains, the notorious and imposing Nurburgring and its 14 mile long Nordschleife has to be considered the ultimate in what a road course should be. Itself kept watch over by Nurburg Castle, the 'Green Hell' as it would become known was arduous and wearisome, but never boring. Thee first Eifelrennen races had been held on public roads and would become deemed as too dangerous. So instead, work would begin in 1925 on another kind of monster; one that would still strike terror in the hearts of drivers. What would result would be a circuit that would wind its way like serpent through the mountains. Safety for the drivers, and spectators, would come very simply from hedges lining the turns. Very little run-off existed anywhere else. Although the circuit would change throughout the years it would boast of no fewer than 170 corners and about a thousand feet of elevation change over the course of a single lap. On top of the twisting and turning, rising a falling, the circuit throws other elements at a driver including a number of blind entries into corners and numerous crests like Flugplatz where cars would actually catch air. Originally designed to also serve as a test track, the demanding circuit would test the limits of endurance for both driver and car, especially the German drivers and cars in the early 1950s.
As with the previous year, a large throng of spectators would come and line the circuit. Also similar to the previous year, the numerous German racers that would take part in this single round of the World Championship, would find themselves as extras in a fight for the championship. Alberto Ascari had the opportunity to sew up his first World Championship when he and the rest of the competitors arrived at the circuit in 1952. In 1953, the story would be the same. If everything went right, he would have the opportunity to become the first repeat World Champion. Of course this was little importance to German drivers like Bechem.
1953 presented the German drivers and teams and even greater challenge. The year before, the dominant team, by far, would be Scuderia Ferrari. However, there would be other teams like Equipe Gordini and HWM. Maserati would also make an appearance in the race, but it would not be a large effort. But in 1953, Ferrari would be joined by a powerful Maserati team headed by Juan Manuel Fangio. These two teams had been the dominant players throughout the season, but they would still be joined by Equipe Gordini, HWM and a number of other talented small teams and privateer entries.
As with the Avusrennen, the German entries could reach the necessary speeds. It was reliability that was the main concern. And yet, even though they had the speed, the German entries would be severely throttled by the foreign contingent. In practice, Ascari would prove to be fastest, which really wasn't a surprise. But his time certainly was. He would manage to take his Formula 2 car and post a time of nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds. This was only about three seconds slower than his qualifying effort in a Formula One car just a couple of years prior. Ascari's time would prove to be about four seconds faster than Fangio's 2nd place effort. Giuseppe Farina would make it three World Champions on the front row as he would start 3rd. And Mike Hawthorn would make it three Ferraris on the front row as he would round-out the front of the grid with his 4th place starting position.
In the case of Bechem, like most other German entries in the field, he would not bother himself with looking at the front of the grid. It was obvious he would be starting somewhere near the back. The question would be: 'How far back?' Bechem would focus on longevity instead of speed. As a result, he wouldn't set the circuit on fire during practice. Instead, Bechem's lap would look something more akin to a joyride than a truly competitive lap. His best time around the 14 mile long circuit would be twelve minutes and thirteen seconds. This meant he was more than three minutes slower than Ascari around the circuit. As a result, Bechem would start the race in the ninth, and second-to-last, row of the grid in the 30th position.
The day of the race would be greeted with sunny skies and dry weather; perfect for racing around the Nordschleife. And although Ascari had set an incredible time in practice it would be Fangio that would get the better jump off the line and would lead going through the first few of more than 170 corners. However, his lead wouldn't last long as Ascari would end up getting by and would begin to press the issue at the front of the field.
For the rest of the field, the battle was to make it through the first lap without incident. In the case of a couple of drivers, both German, their car's reliability would prove to be incapable of completing 14 miles. Both Ernst Loof and Hans Stuck would run into trouble on the first lap of the race and would retire. They would, by far and away, not be alone for too long.
While Ascari continued to stretch out his margin over Fangio and the rest of the cars at the front, cars at the rear of the field began dropping off. Three more drivers, including Roy Salvadori, would end up retiring after completing just one lap. At this rate, given the fact the race was only 18 laps long, it became seriously doubtful there would be anyone still running at the end except perhaps the Ferraris and Maseratis.
Such attrition made things look bleak, but not just for the German entries. Two of the five out of the race after just one lap were foreign entries. Nonetheless, the already stretched-thin German technology was certainly more vulnerable to problems, as Bechem would find out. Bechem would manage to make it about thirty miles into the 255 mile race before trouble would strike his AFM. However, his race wouldn't last much longer. Trouble would strike and Bechem had very limited capabilities of dealing with the trouble, and therefore, would end up retiring from the race.
While Bechem and other entries were having nothing but trouble, it seemed nothing would happen to the powerhouses at the front of the field. But even this thought would be proven wrong at the halfway point of the race. Ascari was leading the race and was actually enjoying a decent margin over Fangio, Farina and Hawthorn. This was important because if he could hold on to win, he would end up the World Champion again. However, while leading the race, one of the wheels would come off his car. Showing his tremendous skill as a driver, Ascari would manage to hold onto the car and would end up being able to make it back to the pits. He would lose the lead and a lot of time, but he wasn't exactly out of the race, at least not yet. The repairs were going to take a good deal of time, which would seriously hurt his bid to win the championship right then and there. Therefore, Luigi Villoresi would come in and would hand over his car to Ascari. He, in turn, would wait for Ascari's car to be repaired. Though well back, Ascari was back in the race. This would set up one of the most amazing performances around the Nurburgring to ever be witnessed.
Well back from the leaders, Ascari needed to catch up. He could hope for attrition. He needed to make it up by going as fast as possible. And he would do just that. He would begin to put together a string of laps that would thoroughly amaze the crowd, including those out of the race, like Bechem. His pace would continue to increase and it would culminate in him setting the fastest lap of the race just six laps away from the end. His time would be a phenomenal nine minutes and fifty-six seconds. The time would end up being only around a half a second slower than his fastest time recorded in a Ferrari 375 Formula One car in 1951! Such pace was causing Ascari to really bring the pressure to bear upon those at the front. Before too long, Farina; who had the lead at the time, would have to start thinking about defending his position.
Unfortunately, the impending battle at the front would eventually go up in smoke. The pace Ascari had been running was too hard for even the newer cars of the time, and after completing 15 laps, the engine in the Ferrari would let go. Ascari's charge to the front would be left stranded by the side of the road.
Ascari's championship hopes still had life, however. If Farina and Fangio could stay in front of Hawthorn the championship would be his for the second time. Hawthorn had had the lead for a time, but both Farina and Fangio had managed to get by. Hawthorn would continue to battle. But was there enough time?
After three hours and two minutes the answer would come back: no. Giuseppe Farina would hold on to 11 of the 18 laps and would go on to take the victory over Fangio. Mike Hawthorn would try hard but would end up finishing the race 3rd, about a minute and forty-five seconds behind.
Ascari's second World Championship meant very little to Bechem and many of the other German racers. The German Grand Prix was part of the West German Formula 2 Championship, and therefore, was more important for that reason. Bechem's World Championship experience had been limited to just two races during the two years in which the World Championship competed according to Formula 2 regulations. Both of those World Championship experiences had unfortunately ended in retirements for Bechem. And even though he would disobey his family's wishes, he would have the joy of knowing he had taken part in the World Championship.
Throughout the remainder of the 1953 season, Bechem would strictly focus on sportscar races and hillclimbs. His Formula 2 racing days were over. This was further validated by the fact the new Formula One regulations would go into effect at the start of the 1954 season. And even though Mercedes-Benz would return to grand prix racing the next year, German involvement in the World Championship, at least amongst drivers and small teams, would once again dwindle.
Although Bechem's involvement in Formula 2 would dwindle to nothing, his racing career, especially in sportscars, would continue, but only for one more season. It would finally come to an end, and peace in the family restored, after Bechem would suffer some rather terrible injuries during the Carrera Panamericana race in 1954.
Bechem's toughest challenge in racing would be his name. His name, his reputation, would threaten to keep him from what he desired most to do. He would end up throwing away his name for the sake of doing what he believed to be right. As a result, both the name Karl-Gunther Bechem and 'Bernhard Nacke' would go on to live in World Championship history.