TeamsKarl-Gunther Bechem: 1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
In post-World War II Germany there were a number of amateur drivers that would end up living out their racing careers in relative anonymity. In the case of Karl-Gunther Bechem, racing career was threatened by his name. Bechem's family made it very clear 'What's in a name?'
Karl-Gunther Bechem was born on the 21st of December in 1921. After World War II, the young man from Hagen, Germany would become interested in racing and would start out by racing in sportscars. His first sportscar races would take place in 1950 and would earn him some very positive results. In only his second sportscar race, Bechem would garner praise for his 4th place result and would garner rebuke from his disapproving family.
Initially, the disapproval was something mentioned here and there, but as Bechem began to show an interest in Formula 2, the disapproval turned into demands for him to quit. Bechem's interest in Formula 2 wasn't just a desire for glory and riches, he just wanted to be part of history. And the door to be a part of history would open up going into the 1952 season.
The Formula One World Championship was without competition. Alfa Romeo had left after the previous season. This left Ferrari all alone at the top in Formula One, and with no other team looking even remotely competitive. The lacking competition was resulting from the second problem the governing-body and race organizers had to deal with and that was rising costs. Time was needed to redefine Formula One, but there wasn't much, if any. A stop-gap measure was needed. Enter Formula 2. Formula 2 regularly had a number of competitors that ranged from larger efforts all the way down to smaller teams and privateers. To have as many entries meant the costs had to be obviously less than what they were for a Formula One team. Formula 2 would fit the bill for a couple of years. It would also suit isolated German drivers, like Bechem just fine as well.
Bechem just couldn't miss out on an opportunity to take part in the World Championship, especially when it was coming to Germany. Yet, Bechem's family had made its stance abundantly clear. He could not turn his back on what he believed he was meant to do. He, meaning his name, just could not show up in the listing of results thereby proving he had been rebellious to his family's wishes. Therefore, there was only one option—an alias.
Bechem's 1952 season would start out with his family's disapproval, but it wasn't at its feverish pitch just yet. This could be authenticated by the fact Bechem entered the sportscar Eifelrennen under his real name. Driving in the 2.0 category, Bechem would prove his talents yet again as he would finish the race 5th.
Karl-Gunther's racing had just entered its second year of serious racing. The demands had reached their peak. Bechem would take some time to consider what he was going to do. He knew the World Championship was coming up soon. It would be his only chance of 1952, possibly even of his life, to take part in a World Championship race. However, it was made abundantly clear, Bechem could no longer race, at least not his name.
On the 3rd of August, Karl-Gunther Bechem was nowhere to be found. Many German amateurs were making final preparations to their cars getting ready for the opportunity of a lifetime. Among the German contingent present at their home grand prix, there were only a few that were relatively known outside of the German border. There were some that were only known by name only. And then there were some, like Bernhard Nacke, wasn't known at all. This wasn't too surprising in war-torn Germany still in the process of rebuilding after the war. Besides, given the state of German racing after World War II it wasn't all that surprising to have small privateer efforts arrive at races nobody knew or heard of before. In addition, drivers, like Nacke and all of the other German entries for their home grand prix, would be lost in the background given the presence of such names as Scuderia Ferrari and Alberto Ascari.
The Germans would have an obviously obscure part in the 1952 German Grand Prix. Coming into the race, all eyes were on Alberto Ascari. He had won three-straight World Championship races and was on the verge of his first World Drivers' Championship title. Were he to win the race at the Nurburgring the championship would be his.
In practice, Ascari made it abundantly clear he was intent on winning the championship right then and there. He would end up turning the fastest lap in practice with a lap time of ten minutes and four seconds. This would end up being three seconds faster than Giuseppe Farina starting in the 2nd place position, but also on the front row with Ascari. Also on the front row with Ascari and Farina were Maurice Trintignant and Robert Manzon. These two were Equipe Gordini drivers and they managed to beat out Ferrari's third driver Piero Taruffi.
The race wasn't just important for Ascari. It was also important for Taruffi. Piero had won the first round of the World Championship, the Swiss Grand Prix back in May. If he had any hopes of winning the championship he, first of all, had to pray Ascari had a mechanical problem and, secondly, that he could win the race and set the fastest lap time. This was a tall order and Ascari and Taruffi knew it.
So many unknown Germans would appear to take part in their first World Championship race. In practice, the best of the German entries would be the well known Paul Pietsch in 7th place and the relative newcomer Hans Klenk in 8th. Compared to the pace of those who started on the front row, the Germans stood little chance of really competing. Many of them would come just for the honor of saying they had competed. One of those missing was Bechem. His name was nowhere to be found.
Thirty-two would end up qualifying for the 18 lap race. The Belgian jazz musician Johnny Claes was mired all the way down in the last row with Ludwig Fischer, Bernhard Nacke and Ernst Klodwig. Claes knew that he could do better than where he would start so he would stay in the running. There would be a couple of German racers; however, that would not. Ludwig Fischer would be disappointed with his pace and would withdraw. Willi Krakau, despite starting the row in front of Fischer, would also not take part in the race. Bernhard Nacke and Ernst Klodwig would decide to stay in the race for the sake of being able to say they competed in the race.
As the race got underway, it became abundantly clear the only ‘competing' the Germans would do would be to compete against attrition. Alberto Ascari would take the lead right from the drop of the green flag and would immediate begin to draw away. This was helped by the tight battle between Farina and Taruffi. Piero was giving it his best effort, but it wasn't drawing Ascari in, only letting him to draw away.
All throughout the field attrition began to gain the upper hand. Gino Bianco, who had started in the middle of the field, would barely make it out of the gate before his Maserati would fail him. The 3rd place starter, Maurice Trintignant, would be caught out by one of the 170 corners of the Nordschleife and would crash, thereby ending his race.
As the cars began to circulate the 'Green Hell' for the first time, even more entries would fall by the wayside. Amazingly, only three of the eight that would fail to make it through the first lap of the race were German. Many of the Germans chose discretion instead of valor. Of course, it was made quite clear after practice what could be expected in the race.
The first round of the West German Formula 2 Championship had been the Eifelrennen, which also took place on the 14 mile long Nurburgring. The Germans, knowing the demanding and dangerous circuit well, were only able to consistently run laps around the eleven minute mark. Even then, it was pushing the endurance of the car. Therefore, the Germans knew how they would have to conduct themselves when the German Grand Prix would last 18 laps instead of 7 like that of the Eifelrennen. ‘Preservation' was the key word. Many would heed this and would make it through the first lap without too much trouble. Of course Hans Klenk almost had his retirement handed to him by a spinning Felice Bonetto. However, Klenk would just manage to avoid the spinning Bonetto and would carry on.
Over the next couple of laps there would only be three that would retire from the race. Unfortunately for the more than a quarter million fans who came to the race, two of those were Germans. Amazingly, Bernhard Nacke and Ernst Klodwig, the two last row Germans, were still in the running, albeit already a good long distance behind Ascari.
Out front, Ascari looked like he was racing against himself, or, against time. There was no one else near him. With each lap, Ascari continued to increase the pace a little more. Farina had broken free from his fight with Taruffi. Taruffi faded and was in danger of falling further down the running order. Farina continued to press on as he too still had a shot at a championship. It was an even longer shot than Taruffi, but the 1950 World Champion wasn't giving up. He wanted to earn a title with two different teams. He had done it with Alfa Romeo. Now he had thoughts about earning the title with Scuderia Ferrari. But first he had to catch Ascari someway, but it wasn't happening.
While Ascari continued to stretch out his advantage over the rest of the field, the rear end of the field would see him come around more than once. Also, another wave of attrition would strike the field on the 5th lap of the race. Two Germans and a Frenchman would be struck by the wave. The first to fall to attrition was Bernhard Nacke and his ancient BMW-powered Holbein. An ignition problem would force the German to retire from the race. As Nacke stepped from his car it became abundantly clear that it was actually Karl-Gunther Bechem. He had driven against his family's wishes. What was worse, he didn't even have a good result to try and bride them with. Bechem would just have the memory and the thrill of having competed against the best in the world.
The best in the world just kept getting faster. Eight laps into the race, there were eighteen that had retired from the race. With only ten laps remaining there were just twelve cars remaining on the circuit, and Ascari had already managed to many of them a number of laps down. Only the top five remained on the lead lap with Alberto. However, he was intent on demonstrating his dominance in the race. And, on the 10th lap, with eight still to go, Ascari would turn what would be the fastest lap of the race. Already with a sizeable margin over Farina, Ascari would complete a lap of the circuit in ten minutes and five seconds. His lap time was less than a second slower than his own pole time!
Two laps from the end, the display of dominance Ascari had been putting together was threatening to pull apart his race car, victory aspirations and championship hopes. Only two laps separated Ascari from his championship, but those two laps of the 14 mile Nordschleife seemed as far away as east is from west.
Alberto's incredible pace was amazing to watch, but it was absolute torture on his Ferrari 500. At 14 miles for a single lap, the Nurburgring wasn't a circuit in which Ascari could ponder what he wanted to do. He needed to make a decision. If he wanted to pit he would need to make up his mind to do it. Otherwise, he would have passed the pits and would have had to face 14 miles of circuit and uncertainty if he had made up his mind too late that he should have pitted.
He would not take a chance. And as he came around, he would pull into the pits to have the car checked. This would not be a quick and easy stop. It would take time for the crew to check the car over and make any necessary repairs or changes.
Throughout the first 5 laps of the race it was clear the only hope Farina would have at winning the race, and keeping his championship hopes alive, would come via a failure with Ascari's car. It seemed Farina had what he needed. The seconds continued to click by and Ascari's car seemed no closer to rejoining the race than when it did when it first pulled into the pits. The enormity of Ascari's lead became obvious. But what also became obvious was the fact the enormous lead was dwindling, and fast.
While Ascari was still stuck in the pits, Farina would come by and take over the lead. It seemed Farina's championship hopes were receiving a welcome boost. However, Farina wouldn't increase his pace. Instead, he would continue to lap quickly and carefully. The consistent pace had given Farina the lead, but he wasn't aware of the tidal wave coming his way behind him.
Farina continued to navigate corner after corner. However, he wasn't aware that Ascari was back in the race. The lead Ascari held over Farina before he came into the pits only gave Farina the impression that there was something terminally wrong with Ascari's car as he came by to take the lead. But the problems weren't terminal.
Once back on track, Ascari began lapping at a pace similar to what he had been doing earlier in the race. This was incredible considering his car wasn't all that healthy. As Farina continued to lap the circuit, there was a red Ferrari coming up quickly behind. All of a sudden, Ascari's Ferrari was all over the back of Farina's. Farina was totally caught off guard. As a result, he was clearly beaten. Alberto would get by and would retake the lead of the race with just miles remaining.
Once Alberto had retaken the lead, the race was over. As Ascari crossed the finish line he would manage to open up a margin of fourteen seconds over Farina. Farina couldn't compete with the pace of Ascari. While his championship hopes were over, his 2nd place was practically assured as Rudolf Fischer would finish 3rd over seven minutes behind Ascari.
The most interesting part about Bechem's ruse was the fact he had also entered an AFM 50 Sport in the Grand Prix of Nurburgring sportscar race on the same day and had earned a 3rd place result in the race. Bechem was known. Obviously he was more concerned with competing in the World Championship race than with being discovered.
Bechem had a couple of things working in his favor, however. Obviously his family didn't like motor racing. So he wouldn't have to worry so much about them coming to any of the races. In addition, most of the news was reported by newspaper. This meant that if his family did check the paper Bechem's family would only see the name ‘Nacke' instead of Bechem in the listing. This would enable him to keep racing without his family realizing the truth. And he would keep up his racing and the ruse.
On the 31st of August, Bechem, or Nacke, would be in Wegberg, Germany for what was the third round of the West German Formula 2 Championship. The race was the 5th DMV Grenzlandringrennen and it took place at the ultra-fast Grenzlandring located just east of the German/Belgian border.
Just a couple of weeks before the Grenzlandring, and one week after the German Grand Prix, Bechem had managed to earn a 3rd place result at Muchen-Riem in a sportscar race. Grenzlandring was wholly different than Muchen-Reim though. While Munchen-Riem was a little over a mile and a half in length, the Grenzlandring measured 5.58 miles in length. In addition, Munchen-Riem's average speed wasn't all that high. By contrast, the Grenzlandring offered some of the highest average speeds for any circuit in the world.
The amazing average speeds came courtesy of the circuit's design. The mysterious concrete Grenzlandring was nothing more than an egg-shaped road that surrounded the small villages of Wegberg and Beeck. Such speed on a public route was not without its dangers. In 1950 the circuit would experience a fatality due to an accident. In 1952, the circuit would experience another tragedy; one that would shut it down forever.
In practice, the fastest would be Toni Ulmen in his Veritas RS. His speed would be slightly helped by the fact he would create a coupe design by installing a hood over his cockpit. Kurt Adolff would start beside him in 2nd place. Bernhard Nacke would end up starting the race a little further down the running order in his Holdein HH48-BMW. In all, nineteen would start the race.
The speeds at the Grenzlandring were incredible, even with the aged German machines. Right from the start, Ulmen would prove to be the man to beat as he would begin lapping the circuit with average speeds in excess of 125 mph.
While Ulmen was just getting up to speed, Theo Helfrich and Nacke (Bechem) would find their cars just coming down from speed. Both of the German drivers would be out of the race before the pace even really got going. This wasn't too much of a surprise for Bechem with his ancient Holbein chassis and even older BMW engine.
Out of the eighteen that would start the race, there would only be five that would finish. Among those that would retire from the race, none would do so more tragic than Helmut Niedermayr.
Niedermayr was trailing Paul Pietsch in the 6th place position with just a couple of laps remaining. Niedermayr had been on the gas hard coming down the Rheydter-Gerade straight. This was a long straight which enabled cars to reach their top speeds before having to slow slightly for the long continuous Roermonder-Kurve.
The Roermonder-Kurve was about as long as the Rheydter-Gerade straight. Since it was a long continuous corner, the average speeds throughout the whole of the corner remained high. Just after the train bridge, Niedermayr would lose control of his car and would crash into a group of spectators. He would hit with such velocity that five would be killed instantly. Another nine would later die, succumbing to their injuries. While Niedermayr would walk away with little to no scars, the emotional and mental scars were very evident when he was seen later in the pits.
A dark shadow hung over the rest of the proceedings, which hadn't concluded at the time of the accident. The race carried on, and so too did Ulmen in the lead. He would end up turning the fastest lap of the race with a time of two minutes and thirty-one seconds and at an average lap speed of 132 mph.
Given Ulmen's speed, it was little wonder he would cross the line the victor. He would earn the victory over Hans Klenk. Klenk would finish eighteen seconds behind Ulmen. A minute and a half would pass before Josef Peters would cross the line in 3rd to complete the podium.
The way the races had gone for Bernhard Nacke, Bechem could have almost total confidence going before his family and saying he hadn't taken part in either of the races. This was practically the truth at Grenzlandring when his race could have been measured more easily in feet than in miles. Though he had to be known around those he raced against, the papers continued to list the name 'Bernhard Nacke'. The ruse was working in his mind. This opened up more opportunities for the prodigal son.
On the 7th of September the clandestine Bernhard Nacke again entered a Formula 2 race. But this time it was situated on East German soil. Before Germany became totally isolated from one another, drivers from either East and West Germany enjoyed relative freedom crossing borders and taking part in races on familiar, but foreign, soil. Nacke was allowed to take part in the 4th Sachsenringrennen, but a high place result would still not net him any points toward the East German Championship. It wouldn't matter anyway.
Although the East German favorite, Paul Greifzu, had died earlier in the year, East German fans still had a couple of drivers more than capable of defending their turf against those Germans from the west. Among the favorites was Edgar Barth in his IFA-DAMW and Ernst Klodwig rear-engine Heck-BMW.
The Sachsenring was more of East Germany's equivalent to the Nurburgring than any other circuit. While it wasn't anywhere near the length, it did feature a number of elevation changes, some blind corners and some high-speed twisting sections of track. Amazingly, it was a public road course instead of a purpose-built circuit like the Nurburgring.
It was a good thing Nacke was driving the car he was. Had the car been able to finish a race there may have been more than just his alias that would have been seen in the papers. As it were, he didn't have to worry about it. Nacke's race wouldn't last through to the 2nd lap of the 12 lap race. Nacke wouldn't be the only one to face with retirement though. Since there were only a few starters at the very beginning, it wasn't all that surprising when only three remained in the race at the end of the event.
Edgar Barth had turned in the fastest lap of the race and would beat Willi Heeks by ten seconds to take the win. Ernst Klodwig would be the only other East German finisher and overall finisher of the race when he would finish the race 3rd behind Heeks.
Bechem only had two more major races left on his calendar for 1952; two more races in which he would have to pretend to be somebody else. While two different races, like Bechem, they would take place at the same location. The location was the famous Avus Circuit. The sportscar race was the fifth round of the German Sportscar Championship. The grand prix race was the 8th Avusrennen.
In the sportscar race, Bechem would start way down in the field in 10th position, perhaps to avoid detection. His race would be equally unassuming. Though he would start 10th, Bechem would finish the race in the 5th position. Fritz Riess would end up winning the race after starting 2nd. Riess would out-duel Ulmen for the win after Ulmen started the race from the pole. Wolfgang Seidel put together a very impressive performance as he would finish the race 3rd after starting 9th.
Bechem's quiet result would help to keep his identity something of a mystery as he wouldn't attract too much attention with a rather sedated 5th place finish. He would have less to worry about during the grand prix event.
The Avus circuit was something of an oddity. The circuit was an amalgamation of oval, street and road racing mixed together with straight-line drag racing. Originally, the Avus circuit measured 12 miles in length. The vast majority of the circuit consisted of the highway extending to the west of Berlin. The circuit ran south along the highway and then turned around and headed back north along the highway again. This meant the original circuit consisted of 6 miles of straight-away in each direction. This meant the cars would run at their top speeds for the majority of a lap. The incredible speeds and danger was only further enhanced by a banked turn that made up the Nordkurve. The high speeds and the wall-less banked North Curve made the circuit incredibly challenging and dangerous.
Though shortened for the 1952 running of the Avusrennen, the Avus circuit still measured greater than five miles and boasted of average speeds in excess of 110 mph. The speeds and the fame of the event would draw a number of foreign entries to the race. In the case of the 8th Internationales Avusrennen, there would be a couple of Italians and French, an Austrian, American and a driver from Uruguay in the field. Between the foreign and domestic entries, nobody would be as fast as Rudolf Fischer.
Driving his own Ferrari 500, the Swiss restaurant owner would be the fastest competitor in practice. He would come under threats from the former Auto Union driver Paul Pietsch in his specially-built streamlined Veritas Meteor. The threat would come to a destructive end as Pietsch would lose control coming around the banked North Curve. Pietsch would turn to the inside of the curve and would strike a ditch. Pietsch would be treated for some injuries but would recover without complications. His car was another matter altogether. The smashed streamlined Veritas Meteor wasn't a threat to Fischer any more.
Bechem, in his old Holbein, wouldn't be anything of a threat to Fischer. The Holbein's pace was only fast enough to start the 25 lap race from well down in the starting field. Top speed wasn't Bechem's main concern. Being able to compete and to finish was of utmost importance given the equipment he had.
In the race, the aged and weary old car showed it was past its useful life. After only 2 laps, the Holbein's engine would fail. The failure meant Bechem 'Nacke' suffered failures at each of the grand prix races in which he had taken part in 1952. This was a stark contrast to the relative success Bechem enjoyed while taking part in sportscar races.
Bechem wouldn't be alone. The heavy acceleration and braking would be tough on his fellow competitors as well. Attrition would be helped by the pace of Fischer in his Ferrari 500. Each and every lap Fischer kept pushing his advantage. This pushed his competition; sometimes too far. Seven starters would retire from the race. The rest of the remaining competitors would suffer from the wrath of Fischer.
Right from the start of the race, Fischer was untouchable. Soon, he would have a straight-away's distance between himself and Klenk and Riess fighting it out for 2nd place. Before the race would end, even the duo of Riess and Klenk would end up a lap down to Fischer. Rudolf's pace was such that he would earn fastest lap honors with an average speed of 126 mph.
Fischer's effort had been truly amazing. He would cross the line taking the victory with ease. The real battle was coming in well behind him. Ever since the start of the race, Fritz Riess and Hans Klenk were locked in a fight for 2nd place in the race and a share of 2nd place in the West German Championship standings. Were Riess to hang on and finish the race in 2nd place, he would finish the championship in 2nd place. Were Klenk to edge-out Riess, Klenk would have a share of 2nd place in the standings.
The race between the two would come down to the final corner. Klenk held onto a narrow advantage coming around the North Curve. Riess would do his best to try and slip by, but Klenk would get on the power soon enough to cross the line with a seven-tenths of a second advantage. The two would have a share of 2nd place in the West German Championship standings.
By contrast, Bechem's West German Formula 2 effort had been an abysmal failure. He had scored no points. The old Holbein proved it just couldn't last nor could it touch the pace of even its fellow German competitors, which also had reputations for failure themselves.
Despite the failures and generally short appearances in each of the Formula 2 races in which Bechem took part, he still had the privilege of saying he had raced in the West German Championship and a World Championship event.
Soon, it would become known that Bernhard Nacke was actually Bechem. In spite of the news, Bechem would again appear for the 1953 German Grand Prix. However, this time he would enter the race under his own name. It had become quite clear Bechem was going to make his own way in life.