The 1959 German Grand Prix was one of the most strangest events in the history of the World Drivers’ Championship. It was a race that was unusual on many levels, not the least of which was the insanely dangerous Avus circuit.
Avus was no place for a sane racing driver, said Jack Brabham
Only one World Championship Grand Prix was ever held at AVUS.
But the race on this extraordinary track in West Berlin in 1959 produced numerous claims to fame. For a start, it joined the small number of tracks to host just the one Grand Prix. The fastest man in practice was only a reserve for the race. It was the only GP ever planned to be held in two heats. It was one of the few GPs to provide a team with a 1-2-3 nish. It stood as the fastest GP for many years. It produced one of motor racing’s most dramatic and famous photographs.
And all the while there was an undercurrent that it was absolutely barking mad to be racing there at all…
It all came down to the design of the track. It was a at out blast up and back each side of an autobahn. At the southern end the turn was effected by a fairly conventional loop, but at the northern end, there was a towering banking unlike anything seen before or since.
The banking was made of (not very level) bricks. It did not have a concave prole, like all other bankings: the whole thing was on the same plane. And what a plane it was: the banking stood at 43 degrees. By way of contrast, Indianapolis is banked about 11 degrees, Monza
was 30, and Daytona about 31. In other words, the AVUS banking had just about a 1:1 incline; impossible to walk up, very daunting to drive along.
Hard though it is to believe, the 1959 version of the circuit was only slightly less bonkers than an earlier iteration. The track had hosted the 1926 German GP, the rst of six wins in his home GP for the legendary Rudolf Caracciola. At that time, the lap length was about 19.5km.
In 1934, the track achieved another milestone by being the venue for the (not very successful) debut of Auto Union’s famous Grand Prix campaign. That marked the beginning of the titanic struggles between Mercedes and Auto Union which were to rage until war came in 1939.
Meanwhile, 1936 saw the construction of the banking, which really came to dene the circuit, in a deliberate effort to turn AVUS into the world’s fastest track. It worked a treat.
In 1937, Mercedes and Auto Union returned to AVUS for what turned out to be the last time. The race was the Avusrennen, so the cars therefore did not have to comply with full GP regulations. Both the famous German marques took full advantage of the regulatory freedoms, wheeling out big-engined streamliners which didn’t so much resemble their Grand Prix cars as the weapons the two companies sent out onto the autobahns to break straight-line outright speed records.
And the speeds were truly staggering. Pole position went to Luigi Fagioli (Auto Union) at 280km/h. The race format was two heats and a nal, and as it turned out, each one was faster than the one before. The nal was won by Hermann Lang in the V12 Mercedes streamliner at an average speed of 259km/h; it is said that they were hitting about 370km/h on the long straights, although only loping around the banking at about 160km/h. Fastest lap went to Bernd Rosemeyer at 276km/h.
By way of contrast, pole position at the Indy 500 – with no slow corner at all to reduce the average speed, unlike the South Curve at AVUS – was not achieved at an average speed higher than Fagioli’s heroic 1937 AVUS effort until 1971, and the Indy winner’s average race speed (affected of course by pit stops, which Lang didn’t have to worry about) didn’t match Lang’s until 1972. It is little wonder that the Mercedes and Auto Union mechanics were worried about the tyres at AVUS in 1937, and indeed the track was not at all popular with the drivers, partly for that same reason.
And nothing had changed in that respect by the time the F1 World Championship rolled into town in 1959, even though the length of the track had now been trimmed to 8.3km. The German GP had been held on the Nurburgring Nordschleife ever since that race at AVUS back in 1926. But with AVUS located in West Berlin, a deant city which was now isolated by post-War politics in the middle
THE BANKING WAS MADE OF (NOT VERY LEVEL) BRICKS. IT HAD JUST ABOUT A 1:1 INCLINE; IMPOSSIBLE TO WALK UP, VERY DAUNTING TO DRIVE ALONG.
of East Germany, it was decided to take the Grand Prix back there as a showcase of Western lifestyle; in effect, to thumb the West’s nose at the Easterners surrounding the historic old city.
Of course, it remained to be seen if the East Germans were ever going to be impressed by a venue whose most distinctive feature was a massive slab of Third Reich architecture. But someone was impressed, because a huge crowd gathered for the occasion.
Jack Brabham (works Cooper) arrived at AVUS with a commanding lead in the Championship; he had won at Monaco and Aintree, and had 27 points, with second placed Tony Brooks back on 14.
But Brabham didn’t like what he saw, later pronouncing it a “shocking circuit”. Graham Hill was another driver to be rather intimidated by it. The entry to the banking was preceded by a atout right hander, and Hill later wrote (perhaps with a touch of exaggeration) that on his rst lap of practice, he got through the right-hander all right but then stood hard on the brakes because he thought he had taken a wrong turn and was heading for a brick wall. It was of course the banking towering ahead of him.
Hill said the G forces on the banking forced his head onto his chest; Brabham said the pressure dragged his helmet down over his eyes. Not a place for the faint-hearted, then.
The organisers had taken two steps to mask the problems caused by the sheer speed of the place. Firstly, for the one and only time in World Championship history, the race was to be run in two heats, to give the tyres a chance of surviving the beating they would take on the banking. (Persuading the tyres to last had also been a major consideration in 1937 – and a mere 46 years after the 1959 race, the infamous 2005 USGP at Indianapolis would again demonstrate that tyres and bankings could be a very unfortunate combination.)
Secondly, with an eye to the streamliner bodies which were rolled out by Mercedes and Auto Union in 1937, the organisers decreed that all cars had to run with their standard bodywork. After the War, Mercedes had again experimented in 1954-55 with streamliner bodywork at Rheims, Silverstone and Monza (but not Spa, oddly enough), so if any ingenious engineer had thought that AVUS in 1959 would be ideal for a bit of high-speed aerodynamic experimentation, his hopes had been cruelly dashed by the organisers.
One safety measure the organisers did not bother with implementing was to put a fence on top of the banking. This was not necessarily fatal: during a supporting sports car race, Carel Godin de Beaufort went up and over, crashed through some small trees on the way down the back of the banking, then celebrated his survival by driving straight back into the race – only to be blackagged because the organisers thought that this little disappearing trick may not have left driver and car sufciently focussed to keep racing.
But Jean Behra was not so lucky. Later in that race, the popular Frenchman lost his Porsche in the rain, shtailed up to the top of the banking, and fatally collided with a concrete block and agpole.
Far less signicant than Behra’s death was the remarkable outcome of practice, which was not called qualifying in those days. Ferrari elded four cars for their formidable squad of Tony Brooks, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Cliff Allison – and were somewhat startled when Cliff Allison was fastest of the four. But he was only a reserve for the race – he only got a start when Porsche withdrew its F2 car for Wolfgang von Trips after
Behra’s death – so was relegated to 14th on the grid for his troubles.
(It wasn’t the last time the German GP produced an unusual grid: in the 1967 edition, back at the Nurburgring, Jacky Ickx served an unmistakable notice of intent by being second fastest in practice – only to be told that he had to start from 18th on the grid, with the rest of the F2 cars, in case he held up the F1 runners…)
As it turned out, if Allison had been allowed to start from pole in 1959, it wouldn’t have helped his fortunes: his clutch failed on lap 3, by which time Stirling Moss (Rob Walker Cooper) was already gone with transmission problems.
The Coopers were just about able to run with the Ferraris, but on this occasion it was Masten Gregory in one of the works cars who outshone championship leader Brabham. Gregory took the ght right up to the big front-engined Ferraris, running alongside and sometimes in front of them for lap after lap. Sadly, the Climax in the back of the Cooper detonated on lap 24 of 30, when Gregory was still right in amongst the Ferraris. With Brabham already out with transmission problems, the Italian cars were now unchallenged at the front, and duly eased the pace.
As could be expected on a circuit with those characteristics, the eld had put on a great display, with numerous changes of position and close racing. But a high rate of attrition had also been likely, and there were only eight cars left behind Brooks when he took the ag just 1.3sec clear of Gurney. Brooks averaged 236km/h for the journey, and set fastest lap at 240km/h.
As if to underline how easily he had done it, Brooks didn’t even bother to change his tyres before the second heat, even though that was the whole reason for having two heats in the rst place.
In any event, the nine survivors were duly sent out to have another crack at it. The second heat was not quite as keenly contested as the rst. This time Bruce McLaren took up the mantle for Cooper, jumping into an early lead, but it turned out he couldn’t stay with the Ferraris as Gregory had done so impressively earlier in the day.
When McLaren lost his transmission, just like team-mate Brabham in the rst heat, the Ferraris strolled home sedately; the winning speed was a mere 225.5km/h. The three remaining works Ferraris swept under the chequered ag together, with Phil Hill this time second to Brooks.
There had been one other DNF apart from McLaren. Hans Herrmann (BRM P25) had his brakes fail as he approached the South Curve. The car went into a spectacular series of rolls, throwing its driver clear. A famous photograph was taken of Herrmann miraculously crouching on the track, unharmed, as the car somersaulted over him. (In more recent years, that photograph has been supplemented by lm of the full accident being posted on Youtube; it’s worth a look.)
In the overall classication, Brooks beat Gurney by 1.9sec, with Phil Hill not far away in
third. Brooks’ winning speed over the two heats was 230.7km/h; it stood as the fastest World Championship race until Gurney eclipsed his 1959 team-mate’s mark in his wonderful drive in the Eagle at Spa in 1967.
So, what was all that about? If the 1959 race was meant to impress the East Germans with the Western way of life, it failed miserably; two years later, the East started work on the Wall which would divide Berlin and the two Germanies for another 28 years. But if the purpose of the AVUS banking had indeed been to create the fastest track in the world, then success had been achieved.
But at what cost? Jack Brabham, who had witnessed the accidents to both Behra and Herrmann, had no doubt that the concept of the circuit was atrocious, and the risk was too high. As he left AVUS, Brabham’s Championship lead over Tony Brooks was greatly reduced. But there was unmistakable relief present when he later wrote, “None of the drivers wanted to go back to Avus – well, none of the sane ones anyway. There were quite a few sane ones…”
The loop turn at Avus had 43-degree banking, an uneven bricked surface and no safety barrier...
Right: ‘59 German GP winner Phil Hill (left) with Ferrari team-mates Dan Gurney and Tony Brooks. Below: Brooks’ Ferrari on the banking.
Opposite: Jack Brabham’s Cooper on the Avus banking. He wasn’t alone in describing it as a ‘shocking racetrack’. Above: Ferraris before the start. Below: Five years earlier it was a Mercedes demonstration as Karl Kling headed Juan Manuel Fangio and Hans Herrmann in their Mercedes W196 Streamliners in the Berlin GP. Bottom: The cars exit the unbanked southern loop to start a 4km charge down the autobahn and back.
Below: The three (no doubt relieved) Ferrari drivers on the podium. Opposite: Avus was still hosting major categories like the DTM well into the 1990s.