Thank Frankel it's Friday: Jean Behra – the definition of mercurial

16th February 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

If there is such a thing as a crib sheet in this business, it is called the Grand Prix Data book, which has been published in four editions by David Hayhoe, most recently in 2006. In there is every result of every World Championship Formula 1 race from inception in 1950 to the end of the 2005 season. Every driver, every result, every qualifying position, every car number, every retirement, every reason for every retirement.


In the back is an entire chapter of trivia from all the obvious stuff like who won the most races, to much less well known information like a list of drivers whose F1 World Championship careers lasted less than a single lap. And if you just happened to want to know which race had the largest entry of drivers sharing the same surname, thanks entirely to Hayhoe I can tell you it was the 1959 British Grand Prix with Taylors Dennis, Henry, Mike and Trevor none of whom, incidentally, was related. Truly, this is weapons-grade trivia.

But for hacks in search of column ideas, there is no section more useful than the anniversaries chapter. You just flick to today’s date and can look back to see all those who were born or died on that date in history as well as plenty of other interesting stats. Which is how I am able to tell you than Enzo Ferrari would have been 120 on Sunday and that Vincenzo Lancia died 81 years ago yesterday.

Today however I want to focus on Jean Behra who, had he lived, would right now be celebrating his 97th birthday, I like to think with a little Pastis and a game of Petanque.

Behra has always fascinated me, a man for whom the word ‘mercurial’ could have been invented. He was a racer of a kind who doesn’t do very well in racing today. Entirely mono-dimensional behind the wheel, he drove as fast as he could until either the flag fell or the car broke, and during his four years at the perpetually underfunded Gordini team, it was very often the latter. To him the idea of managing tyres, driving to a pre-determined level of fuel consumption and winning at the lowest speed possible would simply not have been racing. Which is perhaps why he is the only person to provide credible opposition to the idea that Chris Amon was the most talented driver never to win a Formula 1 World Championship round.


In fact Behra won plenty once free of Gordini. In 1955 he drove for Maserati and when the all-conquering Mercedes team didn’t attend Grands Prix in Bordeaux and Pau, Behra and his 250F duly mopped up. In 1957 he won again at Pau and in Morocco and Modena, all of them with world class entries, but not World Championship status.

But I want to focus on just two races he did, both for Porsche, in 1958. The first was Le Mans. He was down to drive a 1.6-litre RSK with Hans Herrmann and was up against no fewer than 20 cars in the newly mandated top 3-litre category. On one of the most power hungry circuits on earth, which makes the modern Le Mans circuit look like Monaco by comparison, class honours were the most that could be hoped for. Surely?

Twenty-four hours later the results sheet told a rather different story. Yes there was one of Ferrari’s new Testa Rossa’s out in front, with an Aston Martin DB3S in second, but third lay the little Porsche. What’s more, Behra had battled hard with the Aston until brake issues had forced him to back off in the dying stages of the race. The next car in his class was, and I’m not kidding, 284 miles further back down the road. Between them Behra and Herrmann had just scored Porsche’s first podium at Le Mans; a dozen seasons later, the latter would take its first win.

In the meantime something quite extraordinary happened. Amid all the fuss at the front, few had noticed that another RSK had come home in fourth place, a class winner as well thanks to its smaller, 1.5-litre engine. Now that just happened also to be the engine size limit for Formula 2 cars and, at the time, Porsche was considering going into single seat racing. The timing was good because while it had no engine capable of contesting the 2.5-litre F1 category, the regulations were changing at the end of the 1960 season, whereafter all F1 cars would have 1.5-litre engines. So if Porsche could hone its craft in F2, it would be right where it needed to be when the new F1 rules kicked in.


But first it needed to find out what F2 was like. And it was nothing like it is today. Back then F2 was a very big deal indeed, with the biggest teams fielding their very best drivers. To give you an idea, the next round after Le Mans was at Reims and works teams from Ferrari, Lotus and Cooper were all there with drivers the calibre of Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Peter Collins and Bruce McLaren. The best, in other words, all driving purpose built, single-seat F2 cars.

Porsche’s idea seemed so bold, so leftfield and so clearly doomed to ignominious failure it’s amazing the board even let it happen. The idea was to take the presumably pretty tired RSK sports car that had just won its class at Le Mans, pop on a new nose without headlights, centralise the driving position, fit a new engine cover and send it to Reims to take on the world’s greatest single-seat race teams. And who was going to drive it? Behra of course.

Time was so short Porsche didn’t even make it to the first practice session but when the race began it turned out to be between three cars: Moss in the Cooper, Collins in his V6 Ferrari, and somewhat improbably, Behra in the little Porsche. And when Stirling retired after 11 laps with his oil pressure gone, a three horse race became two and, bluntly, Collins could not keep up. Behra won by 20 clear seconds.

He died the following year in a grisly accident on the lethal banking at the Avus, but the truth is this is not the story of a man who but for factors beyond his control could have been world champion. He always drove hard, was always merciless on his cars and probably the single largest reason he did so well in Porsches was they were so well built not even he could break them. Many of his retirements as well as the many enormous accidents from which he walked away (admittedly minus an ear on one occasion) were driver-induced so he had no cause for complaint. Not that he would ever have done so: for Jean Behra was that simplest of creatures, a driver who just loved to race. And I can see him now after that extraordinary performance at Reims, flicking away a fag, having just humbled the best in the world, winning against all conceivable odds. For Jean Behra, that would have been one of the best days of all.

Photography courtesy of LAT Images.

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