Jean Behra

2021-03-29 00:00

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Jean Behra

On February 16, 1921, Jean Behra was born in Nice, France. In the early years of his career, Jean is not a car driver, but a motorcyclist, as happened


On February 16, 1921, Jean Behra was born in Nice, France. In the early years of his career, Jean is not a car driver, but a motorcyclist, as happened before to Tazio Nuvolari, and in the late 1930s to Alberto Ascari. After making his debut in Turin, on the Valentino circuit, in 1947, Jean will graduate French champion four times in a row, and in 1949 he will make his debut in the World Championship in Switzerland, from which he will retire two seasons later, obtaining the best placing a fifteenth place in the 1951 French Grand Prix.


This decision comes after an initial approach to cars: in fact, in the two-year period 1950-'51 Behra took part in the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans aboard a Gordini, together with Loyer and Trintignant, collecting two retirements. Although on both occasions Jean was unable to reach the finish line, Gordini decides to confirm him and insert him in the team that will compete in the 1952 Formula 1 World Championship, which starts from Bremgarten, Switzerland, the circuit where the Frenchman had done his debut on motorcycles.


Jean is the protagonist of a race against time to take part in the first Grand Prix of the season: in fact, Gordini is in financial difficulties and Behra, in order not to skip qualifying, drives his T16 from France to Switzerland, managing to arrive within minutes from the beginning of qualifications. Jean immediately realizes that he can do better with cars than with motos, so much so that in the first official tests he gets a good seventh place, over eight seconds from poleman Giuseppe Farina, and just over three seconds from his teammate from Manzon’s team, third.


The next day things are even better: from the start of the race Behra is the protagonist, and gives life to a great duel for second place with Simon, until the fall of the exhaust manifold forces him to return to the pits. His race seems compromised, but instead in the final, taking advantage of Farina's retirement, who had in the meantime got into Simon's car, he passes into third position under the checkered flag, winning the first podium in Formula 1.


The Frenchman, after missing the Dutch Grand Prix to concentrate on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he will collect another retreat with the Argentine Roberto Meres, when he returns to Formula 1 shows that when done in Switzerland it is not an episode due to beginner's luck. In fact, Behra, even if he is still beaten by Manzon in qualifying, starting from the fifth place on the starting grid, starts at Spa with the intention of being able to fight again for a place on the podium. Objective that he will not be able to achieve due to an accident in which he is the protagonist during the thirteenth lap, when Taruffi makes a mistake at Malmedy and the Frenchman is unable to avoid it.


The Frenchman is hunting for redemption in his home Grand Prix, on the Rouen circuit, where on Saturday he is the author of another good qualifying, as preceded only by the three Ferraris of Taruffi, Farina and Ascari, who monopolize the front row. In the race, the dream of getting on the podium in front of his fans, after winning and beating the Ferraris in the La Marne Grand Prix the week before, vanishes after an off-track exit that first forces him to return to the pit to repair the car, and after a great comeback that allows him to cross the finish line in seventh position, while Ascari, Farina and Taruffi place the hat-trick of the team from Maranello.


After having played a race not valid for the world championship in Sables d'Olonne, where Jean on a Gordini is the victim of an accident in which he breaks his collarbone, at Silverstone the Frenchman is replaced by his compatriot Maurice Trintignant

Behra is back on track in Germany, but his performance is the opposite of that achieved in France: in qualifying he does not go beyond eleventh position, while Trintignant and Manzon are among the four Ferraris.


In the race, however, Jean took little to get behind Manzon, and thanks to a problem with a wheel in his teammate's car he conquered fifth position, preceded by Taruffi, Fischer, Farina and Ascari. Then in the Netherlands Behra will be sixth in qualifying, but in the race a fault with the electrical system will force him to retire during the tenth lap. The Frenchman finished the championship badly, given that in Monza he started from the eleventh place, as in Germany, but this time he was unable to reverse the situation due to an engine problem that forced him to retire on lap 42, and closed his first world championship in Formula 1 in eleventh position, thanks to the six points won at the beginning of the season.


In 1953 Behra began the championship as he had closed the previous one, obtaining the same result as Monza during qualifying. On a very sad day due to the disappearance of eleven spectators during the race, following the accident involving Giuseppe Farina, the French driver is sixth three laps behind the winner Ascari, but ahead of teammates Trintignant and Schell, who they shared the car.


This will be the best result of 1953, given that only disappointments will come to the Frenchman: in fact, at first, he does not finish the race in Belgium and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and even in France, during the official tests, he fails to score even a timed time. In the race, in front of his fans, Jean is unleashed and recovered up to tenth position, but the T16 also at Silverstone, at the Nurburgring and at Bregmarten is confirmed as well as inferior to Ferrari and Maserati, also unreliable. The French driver collects three consecutive retirements and cannot try to save the season, as Gordini does not field him at Monza, as he is engaged in the Tour de France.


This choice will allow him to get on the podium, finishing second together with Barraquete, but certainly this is not enough to forget the zero points obtained during the Formula 1 World Championship in 1953. His performance did not change over the course of the following season. Behra already understands in Argentina that Gordini did not close the gap during the winter, occupying the last two rows of the starting grid. The day after, during the race, the experience will be even worse for the Frenchman, since in an attempt to recover positions from the sixteenth place, due to a false start, he is disqualified during the sixty-first lap.


A few months later, for the fourth consecutive year he fails to finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but redeems himself by winning the Grand Prix of Pau. At the resumption of the Formula 1 World Championship, however, the problems returned: in Belgium, Jean did not finish the race, despite a good seventh time obtained in qualifying had made the French team hope for a different result. On the home circuit, in Reims, after a bad qualifying, closed without scoring even a timed lap, on a day characterized by many retirements, Behra recovered up to sixth position, but already from the next Silverstone round, the reliability of Gordini it will return to trouble him.


On Saturday he won the second row with the fifth time, but the hopes of fighting with the Ferraris and Maseratis ended on the fifty-fourth lap, due to a suspension problem, after having set the fastest lap at the start of the race, which will allow him to win the only point of the season in the drivers' standings. In Germany, despite reaching the finish line, he only finishes in tenth place, two laps behind the winner: this will represent the last placement, given that in Switzerland, Italy and in the final Grand Prix raced in Spain he will not cross the finish line.


The only satisfaction will come at the Circuit du Cadours and at the Coupes du Salon, where Behra will be able to take away the satisfaction of the triumph. These results, despite the fact that the Formula 1 season was below expectations, push Maserati to sign him after having had to take note of the departure of Stirling Moss, who recently passed to the Mercedes court. In Argentina, in the first race of the 1955 World Championship, Behra demonstrates to the whole circus what talent he is gifted with: in the official tests, the Frenchman conquers the front row, a few thousandths from the home idol Fangio, and seven tenths from the poleman González.


In the race, however, he fails to repeat himself, and is only sixth, along with Harry Schell. In the break following the Argentine Grand Prix, up to the next one in Monaco, the Frenchman wins his first victory with the Trident in the Bari Grand Prix, and will repeat the previous year's success in Pau by hitting the hat-trick in Bordeaux, results that will make him regain confidence as he will demonstrate in Monte Carlo. In Monaco, during the official tests he is still the protagonist, finishing in fifth position, while in the race, paired with Cesare Perdisa, taking advantage of the failure of Moss's engine and Ascari's exit from the track, he comes third and after three years gets on the lowest step of the podium.


The Frenchman will repeat a week later, winning the Super Cortemaggiore cup. Behra arrives in Belgium, in the fourth round of the World Championship, with the aim of continuing in his excellent moment of form. So, during qualifying, the Frenchman equals Monaco's performance by setting the fifth fastest time, a position that he will maintain also in the race, together with Mieres, finishing behind Frère, Farina, Moss and Fangio. In Belgium, Behra is also sixth in both qualifying and racing, while on board the Maserati 300 S, he wins at the Boavista circuit in Portugal.


In the British Grand Prix, which exceptionally takes place at the Aintree circuit, Behra incredibly qualified third, breaking the Mercedes hegemony, but in the race an oil leak during the third lap forced him to retire for the first time of the season. Jean makes up for it by winning the 500 Kilometers of Nurburgring and demonstrating his talent aboard sports cars. After this further positive result, the French driver wants to close the Formula 1 World Championship with a good performance, and he succeeds. In fact, in Monza he will conquer the sixth time in qualifying, while in the race he will finish in fourth place, ending the season in ninth place in the standings, after scoring six points.


Curiously, at the end of the 1955 vintage, Jean Behra participated in the Tourist Trophy, and in this circumstance, he lost his right ear, following a terrible accident. Over the years, the Frenchman managed to joke about this mutilation, not least because a perfect plastic auricle is immediately applied to him. Staying with Maserati, Jean Behra made a strong start in the 1956 World Championship. In the first Grand Prix of the season, in Argentina, in qualifying he marks the fourth fastest time, while in the race, in addition to conquering the first podium of the season, he is the only driver not to be lapped by the duo Fangio/Musso, finishing in second place, with a gap of about twenty-four seconds.


A week later Jean is third in the 1000 kilometers of Buenos Aires, a result that he will repeat also in March, in the 2 Hours of Dakar. At the resumption of the Formula 1 World Championship, in Monaco, his excellent moment of form continues. During the official tests, Behra is fourth as in Argentina, while in the race, despite being one lap behind the winner, he climbs on the podium finishing third, like 1955, becoming the leader of the World Championship. Behra's magical period continues with the conquest of victory at the 1000 km of the Nurburgring: this gives the French driver the motivation to leave for Belgium with the aim of defending the primacy in the Formula 1 World Championship standings, and launch the challenge to Fangio.


Despite the Ferrari driver dominating qualifying, the Frenchman is still fourth, but in the race he does not take advantage of the Argentine’s retirement and crosses the finish line in seventh place, three laps behind Collins, who together with Moss undermine him from the top of the World Championship. Seven days later, Jean redeems himself by winning the 1000 Kilometers of Paris, arriving with high spirits ahead of his home Grand Prix, where he wishes to return to the podium and regain the leadership of the championship. Things don't seem to be going well, as he is seventh in qualifying, while Fangio is on pole, and Collins is third. However, Behra, finishing in third position, in front of his fans, climbs for the first time on the podium in the French Grand Prix, putting behind Fangio and limiting the damage from Collins, who stretches in the standings and goes to plus five.


The home air is good for Jean, who again hits third place in the Rouen Grand Prix. But it is at Silverstone that the Frenchman is the author of one of the greatest feats of his career. Started from the thirteenth box, Behra recovers ten positions and climbs again on the podium, together with Fangio and the duo Collins/De Portago, remaining in the fight for the title of World Champion.


Jean, after having hit yet another victory in the Bari Grand Prix, an occasion in which he once again proves to be a complete driver, in Germany is the author of a further comeback that allows him to reach third place, behind Fangio and Moss, joining in the standings Peter Collins, who retired during the race, thus taking him to eight points behind the championship leader. The season could make him World Champion, however the Frenchman understands right from the qualifications that recovering eight points from Fangio is almost impossible. In fact, the Argentine is the poleman and Ferrari monopolizes the front row, while Behra is only fifth.


The remaining hopes of a world championship victory come to an end on lap 23, when he is forced to get out of his Maserati, due to a trivial failure of a magnet. Behra concludes his best Formula 1 championship in fourth place, with 22 points. This disappointment does not prevent Behra from competing and winning the Rome Grand Prix, and from getting on the podium in Venezuela, where he is third, and in Australia, where he is second.


The 1957 season seems to start well, given that in the first stage of the World Championship, in Argentina, at the end of qualifying he is third, while in the race he is the only driver able to keep up with his new teammate Fangio, finishing second with a delay of about eighteen seconds. Like the previous year, he repeats himself in the 1000 kilometers of Buenos Aires finishing second together with Moss and Mendineguy, while with his compatriot Fangio, he wins the 12 Hours of Sebring, and alone hits the trio at the Gran Prix of Pau.


Surprisingly, despite the good start to the season, Behra is not deployed in Monaco, as the Frenchman is engaged in the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans where, once again, paired with Simon will be forced to retire. Behra makes his return to Formula 1 in correspondence with the French Grand Prix. In qualifying, the French driver seems to have the same feeling with the Maserati 250 F he had shown in Argentina, qualifying second behind Juan Manuel Fangio, but, in the race, he does not go beyond the sixth place, while his teammate, winning, is already on the run in the World Championship. The same conditions develop at Silverstone and at the Nurburgring, where in both cases Behra conquers the front row at the end of qualifying, but in Great Britain he is forced to retire during the sixty-ninth lap due to a clutch problem, while in Germany he is sixth again at the finish.


With the success in the Grand Prix of Caen, and in that of Sweden, the Frenchman hopes to have put an end to his personal negative moment, but the subsequent results obtained in the Formula 1 World Championship will not be better. Both at the Pescara Grand Prix and in the Italian one, new reliability problems prevented him from taking advantage of two other good qualifications, which ended in fourth and fifth position respectively. Behra vents his anger for a World Cup closed with only six points, in races outside the championship. In fact, by winning the International Trophy, the Modena Circuit and the Moroccan Grand Prix, he takes his fourth consecutive victory in this competition. On the eve of the 1958 Formula 1 World Championship, which will no longer race with the Maserati factory team, given that he had decided to retire from racing, the French driver hopes to repeat these results with the Kavanagh, which makes the 250 available to him. F of the house of the trident.


If this novelty does not seem to change the values ​​in the field in qualifying, with Fangio on pole and Behra fourth, preceded by the two Ferraris of Hawthorn and Collins, the situation is reversed in the race, and in the duel between the two Italian teams, Moss is inserted, who he wins by beating the two Ferraris, with Fangio fourth and the French fifth. If in Buenos Aires he was not able to reconfirm himself as a skilled rider, Jean does it instead at the 1000 Kilometers, which ends in third place, repeating himself a week before the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in the Targa Florio, where he conquers the second position.


Formula 1, however, does not seem to be good for the French driver, given that in Monaco, despite racing now with a B.R.M. car, he is second in qualifying, but in the race he is forced to retire on lap 29, due to a malfunction at the braking system. The redemption arrives in the Netherlands, where, contrary to what happened in the last period, he reverses the situation between qualifying and the race, and after the fourth place obtained at the end of the tests, he returns to the podium in the race fourteen months after that obtained in Argentina, in the first stage of the 1957 season.


Behra thus hopes to have finally put the negative moment behind him, and above all to be protagonist at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he will compete with the Porsche paired with Hermann: in this circumstance, Jean will not only finally cross the finish line, but will come third, managing to get on the podium of a race that until now had given him only a lot of bitterness. This, however, will be his only good result of the year, given that in subsequent races he will collect four consecutive retirements in Formula 1, and will see the checkered flag again only in Portugal, where he will finish fourth. The subsequent affability problems of his B.R.M. it will not allow him to finish the last two Grand Prix races in Italy, on the Monza circuit, and in Morocco.


Despite a difficult season, which ended in tenth place with only nine points, at the end of the championship the Frenchman fulfills the dream of every driver, to be called by Enzo Ferrari, who is looking for new drivers after the death of Musso and Collins, and Mike Hawthorn's retirement. In fact, on November 5, 1958, the newspapers announced that Behra would have participated in the Venezuelan Carrera aboard a Ferrari, together with Gino Munaron and Miro Toselli, subsequently won by the French driver. This prompts Ferrari to declare to the press, on December 9, 1958 (the news will then be transmitted the following day), the formations for the 1959 season, which would have involved Jean Behra, and the total lack of Italian drivers, after the homonymous founder had had to suffer a violent journalistic attack following the death of Luigi Musso:


"We have tried several Italian conductors, namely Cabianca, Gerirti, Lualdi, Munaron and Scarfiotti, and we intend to try others as well, including Govoni, Quadrio, Scarlatti and Taramazzo, but for all the accusations that have been made against us in about the recent mournful accidents, particularly after the death of Musso, we do not feel like taking the responsibility of letting Italian drivers race, at least as long as we are alone, as we remained in the moment of criticism and disapproval. use Italian pilots, although we are convinced that among these young people there are elements who have every chance of becoming champions".


The story with Ferrari immediately begins on the right foot, finishing second in the 12 Hours of Sebring paired with the other newcomer to Ferrari, Cliff Allison. This result gives morale to the French driver, who at first bets with his friends that he would become Formula 1 World Champion, and with this idea he comes to Monaco, for the first round of the season, with the conviction that he can make an excellent result. And in fact, Behra not only immediately proves to be the driver who managed to fight two years earlier with Fangio, but to have already found the feeling with the Ferrari 246 F1, given that he is second in qualifying, four tenths from poleman Stirling Moss.


But as had already happened in previous editions, racing with Gordini and Maserati, his race ends during the twenty-fourth lap, due to an engine problem, while teammate Tony Brooks finishes in second place, behind the winner. Also, in Holland at the end of qualifying he is fourth, but in the race he is unable to fight with the B.R.M. and the Cooper, having to settle for fifth place, one lap behind Bonner. The joy of returning to the podium at the 1000 Kilometers of the Nurburgring does not last long, as two weeks later he does not reach the finish line at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.


In the meantime, the atmosphere at Ferrari has become heavy: a start to the season below expectations has created discontent between Jean Behra and the Maranello team. Shortly before the French Grand Prix, Behra declares to the compatriot press that Ferrari gave him a crooked chassis from Gurney in testing in Modena. The French technical commissioners therefore claim to verify the measurements of Behra's frame, but on the bench this will be perfect. Then Tavoni, with the document drawn up by the commissioners, goes to the editor-in-chief of the French newspaper L'Équipe, which had collected Behra's testimony, and asks to deny it:


"I can't deny a driver like Behra".


The reporter answers. So, Ferrari telephones the editor of the newspaper, asking him when he would be passing through Modena. After a few days the two meet and the director of L'Équipe asks Ferrari if he wanted the head of his managing editor:


"No, but I would like the words of my collaborators to be taken into account next time".


In France there will be the final epilogue. In front of his fans, Behra is fifth in qualifying and suffers the setback to see teammate Brooks in pole position. In the race, things do not improve, given that at first he is delayed at the start, and then the furious run-up leads first to the breaking of a valve, and subsequently to the irreparable damage of the engine which gives way on the thirty-first lap, while the teammate reaches the finish line.


At the end of the Grand Prix, the tension is sky high in the Ferrari pits: Behra first accuses Ferrari in front of the press of having given him a broken engine and a crooked chassis, then in the following briefing the sporting director Romolo Tavoni replies that he is too aggressive, adding that this is the reason why in three races he collected two retirements. Behra reacts, and hits Tavoni with two slaps. The Ferrari sporting director does not answer, but goes to the hotel, where he bursts into tears from the humiliation suffered. While in his room, Amorotti telephones Ferrari, who summons Behra on July 20, 1959:


"I'm sorry the car wasn't satisfactory. I gave it the best I had. Rather that conversation they put in your mouth, you understand, Ferrari can't accept it: I would never have sent it to race with a wrong chassis. So I called a press conference for noon so that you can tell everyone that the car was to your liking. You agree, right?"


Behra replies:


"But, really, what I said I wouldn't want to deny it".


Ferrari, angry and incredulous for this last statement, concludes by saying:


"Very well".


He then calls the administrative manager and orders to liquidate Behra:


"Remember, Behra, that any offense done to my co-workers is as if it were done to me".


On July 20, 1959, Behra announced his departure from Maranello, although he declared himself willing to buy a Ferrari by driving it privately. But in reality, it takes him very little time to find another engagement, as the Porsche, with which he was on the podium at Le Mans, offers him the opportunity to become their official Formula 1 driver. Jean, who compared to other times had been undecided whether to accept the German manufacturer's proposal, decides not to take part in the Grand Prix that would have been held in Germany, on the Avus motorway, but takes part in a side race.


Despite this, Behra wants to show Ferrari what he lost by sending him away, and in the race he pushes hard on the accelerator, driving very aggressively. This decision, however, will be fatal to him. On lap four he loses control of his Porsche 1500 Sport, while tackling one of the most difficult points on the circuit, the flyover, ending off the track at high speed. The car, after hitting the protective wall, flies over the guards, while Behra is thrown out of the cockpit, ending his run against a flag-carrying antenna. He will say Jo Bonnier, who was following him closely:


"I saw the car skid first to the left and then to the right, wheeling up towards the edge of the raised curve. Then I passed and I couldn't immediately realize the seriousness of the accident".


On August 1, 1959, Jean Behra disappears at the age of thirty-eight, paying for his great courage. This is exactly how Enzo Ferrari will remember him in an interview, who despite his abrupt farewell, will keep a good memory of Jean:


"A sincere man, not very diplomatic and not at all flattering. The public understood and admired him. Jean Behra was an attack driver, a real man of great courage. He left Ferrari and no longer agreed with the sporting director of the time".


At the following funeral, Tavoni, Amorotti, and the team of mechanics will be present, all with mourning on their arms, to greet the man who at home was considered, by the newspaper L'Équipe, the Champion of France.


Massimiliano Amato

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