It was cold, the wind was getting up and he wanted to get home to his wife and baby son. But first there was some business to attend to, the business of wrestling back from Mercedes-Benz the speed record he had held from the previous autumn when he drove his V16 Auto Union along this very stretch of Frankfurt to Darmstadt autobahn at 243mph.
But now his record stood smashed, obliterated by Rudi Caracciola from the Mercedes-Benz team, who drove his streamlined W125 at 270.4mph. Auto Union had to respond. His first run was really only exploratory and to get the car properly warmed up, but he still came within a hair’s breadth of matching his great rival’s speed. One more run ought to do it. But the wind was a problem and it had scared Caracciola sufficiently for him to refuse Alfred Neubauer’s request for another run to raise his record further. In his autobiography he talked of wanting to warn Rosemeyer about the wind but thinking ‘I cannot, must not tell him anything’, which seems pretty weird given what was at stake.
The rest you probably know: nine kilometres into his run just past the Morfelden crossing the Auto Union veered left onto the grass, then right across the width of the motorway before disintegrating. Rosemeyer was found in the woods without visible injury but already beyond anyone’s help. It’s always been widely held that he lost control in a cross-wind, but it’s possible also that a piece of bodywork came adrift which, in a car that relied entirely on its aerodynamics, would likely have catastrophic consequences at such speeds.
That day the racing world lost a man who has since been commonly compared to Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve, men whose talent could make that of other top drivers seem quite ordinary by comparison, and who drove not to win, but to race. And there is a difference: drivers like Alberto Ascari and Alain Prost drove to win, never happier than when far out in front, distant from the competition and controlling the race. Like Moss and Villeneuve, Rosemeyer liked to win, but he loved to race, never happier than when scrapping with his rivals, a man who’d fight as hard whether he was first or last on the grid.