FEBRUARY 6, 2003

Manfred von Brauchitsch

Manfred von Brauchitsch, the last of the Titan drivers from the 1930s, has died at the age of 97. Born into the Prussian nobility, Manfred von Brauchitsch's father enrolled him as an officer cadet as was befitting his station in life. Young Manfred however preferred the motorcycle he had bought and was invalided out of the army in 1928 to recover from his fractured skull, four broken ribs, broken arm and leg. Manfred retired to his cousin's castle near Leipzig, where he found the assortment of cars something of a diversion and pestered to be allowed to try his supercharged Mercedes. Then one night Manfred ventured to the local cinema and saw a newsreel about motor racing.

Smitten, he went back again the next night and by the time the reel was finished had decided that he would become a racing driver. His understanding cousin allowed Manfred to use his Mercedes SS, in which he would both win and crash dramatically and regularly over the next four seasons, breaking more ribs, arms, jaw and collarbone. The highlight came at the 1932 Avusrennen, when Brauchitsch invited pioneer aerodynamicist Reinhard von Konig-Fachsenfeld to build a streamlined body for the big SSKL - and the unknown driver in the outlandish car beat the great Caracciola to victory. The sensation was such that a movie was made, with car and driver playing the central roles.

For 1934 Neubauer invited Brauchitsch to join the new Mercedes Grand Prix team, and the Prussian duly swept to victory in his and Mercedes' first race, the Eifelrennen. He was determined to repeat his Nurburgring form at the German Grand Prix but pushed too hard, crashing in practice and breaking more ribs, an arm, shoulder blade and collarbone. Just six weeks later he returned, propped up by pillows from his hotel, for the Swiss Grand Prix.

It would not be until 1937 that Brauchitsch would win again, and in the intervening time was born the legend of "die Pechvogel" - the unlucky bird - as in all the 45 races he drove from 1934-39 he won but three despite often leading or being in contention. Criticism has long been levelled at his eleven-tenths driving style, not to be repeated until the arrival of Gilles Villeneuve some 40 years later and, true to style, his second win was not only his greatest but one of the best races ever seen: the 1937 Monaco Grand Prix.

Brauchitsch caught Caracciola's leading Mercedes and Neubauer frantically signalled that they should slow down, but Brauchitsch howled past with his tongue sticking out! Caracciola's engine couldn't take the strain and he pitted for new plugs but charged back setting one lap record after another to record a best time on 1 m 46.5 to average 66.79mph (impressive when compared to Michael Schumacher's 66.44mph half a century later). The two Mercedes ran side by side for lap after lap, but for once Brauchitsch's tyres held together - and Caracciola's did not. The two men took a last lap together in the small hours of the next morning in the back of a horse drawn carriage. Despite his inconsistencies as a driver Brauchitsch was a key figure in the Mercedes team, by virtue of his fantastic arrogance if nothing else.

Regularly the noble Prussian would bait team-mate Hermann Lang over his lowly stock (despite the fact that Lang racked up three times as many victories). Time ran out for them all in 1939, but the legacy of Brauchitsch's many accidents was to be declared unfit for active service and he served as a secretary in the Army Headquarters in Berlin, meeting his first wife Gisela as a result.

At the war's end Brauchitsch began to organize domestic races but incurred the wrath of the German authorities, and in 1949 the Caracciolas arranged for him to get a job in Argentina, where he upset almost everybody and came home in disgrace. Hans Stuck took him on as a driver with his AFM team, but with little success, then he was arrested for high treason after prolonged contact with officials Communist East Germany in 1951. After six months in prison and a three-year investigation Brauchitsch's case went to court - and he fled to East Germany. This seems to have been the final straw for his wife, who committed suicide shortly afterwards.

Time, it seems, heals many things and after a career in the East German Ministry of Sport, Brauchitsch and his second wife Liselotte returned to the West as guests of Mercedes-Benz at the opening of the new Nurburgring in 1984, where he drove demonstration laps in his 1937 W125. He remained for many years the main link between Stuttgart's past and present successes and when, in 1997, McLaren-Mercedes unveiled the latest Silver Arrows at Alexandra Palace Brauchitsch was joined on stage by Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and the Spice Girls in quite possibly the most bizarre line-up in history!