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 prole, 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 dene 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 deant city which was now iso­lated by post-War pol­i­tics in the mid­dle


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 blackagged be­cause the or­gan­is­ers thought that this lit­tle dis­ap­pear­ing trick may not have left driver and car sufciently 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 signicant 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 classication, 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.

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