Staring out of period black and white photographs, Jean Behra’s handsome, but battered face tells its own story: a combative soul who seemed to thrive only when living on the ragged edge and for whom an exploit was either going to work or it wasn’t: “Ou ca passe ou ça casse.” The British press used to talk about the ‘fiery’ Frenchman while L’Equipe would refer to his ‘Mediterranean’ temperament. In fact, Behra’s famously quick temper probably did little to enhance his career and often meant he was battling in less competitive or reliable racing cars which he would usually drive with great determination until either they broke or he crashed. However, his indomitable spirit and pugnacious driving also won him admirers including Enzo Ferrari who invited him to drive for the Scuderia in 1959, a season which might have been Behra’s finest but sadly turned out to be one he would not complete for he died at the Avus, the day before the German GP.
Published in 2013, Jean Luc Fournier’s outstanding book, ‘Behra, Prince des Damiers’ was a welcome and timely addition to the library of post war racing. Fournier confirms what we already knew, that Behra was by far France’s best driver of the 1950s, but he shows just how good ‘Jeannot’ was, at times the equal of any competitor except perhaps Fangio. In an eight-year grand prix career Behra never fulfilled his potential, dogged by uncompetitive cars and frustrated by team managers who seemingly ignored his suggestions. A six-time national motorcycle champion who had built and prepared his own machines, he never entirely adapted to the Formula 1 establishment (Fournier ably describes his long rivalry with Maurice Trintignant as well as the highs and lows of his close friendship with Amedée Gordini, and his intense regret at leaving the French firm for Maserati in 1955). Apart from a couple of reasonable seasons with the Maserati 250 F which included a fourth, eight points behind Fangio in the 1956 drivers’ championship, his GP career brought only disappointment. He had more success in sports cars, particularly with Maserati again, and it was when the Modena firm withdrew from competition during 1957 that Behra turned to Porsche for sports car events. Even though it was late in his career, Porsche would be so nearly the making of Jean Behra.
Behra was no stranger to Porsches: he bought a 356A as a road car and with his younger brother José as co-driver, finished second in the 1956 Tour de France Auto.
1956 was also the year in which the Porsche 550 Spyder came of age, emerging from being a habitual 1500cc class winner to an overall winner, Umberto Maglioli scored the first of Porsche’s eleven outright victories in the Targa Florio. By now the 550A had 14mm anti roll bars at the front and independent rear suspension at a time when competitors were persevering with rigid or live rear axles. Its successor, the 718, which appeared in late 1957, was faster and more competitive still.
In January 1958 at the Argentinian GP, Behra finished fifth in his penultimate outing with the Maserati 250F and typically he stayed to race in the 1000km sports car event the following weekend. He shared a 550A with Stirling Moss and they finished third. Huschke von Hanstein, Porsche’s racing manager, had managed to get Moss into a works Porsche in 1955 and in Argentina he was pleased to recruit Behra as well to make a formidable team. For ‘Jeannot’ it was the beginning of an illustrious and all too brief run of good fortune. His grand prix activity was depressing – he was now with BRM and as Jean Luc Fournier explains, he got on well with the British, especially BRM’s French speaking engineer, Tony Rudd. Alas BRM’s F1 car, like the Gordinis with which Behra tried so hard with was not competitive; it also had unreliable brakes which cost Behra the lead at Monaco and caused him to hit the wall of the Goodwood chicane very hard, happily without serious injury – Jean Luc Fournier’s book has a fine picture of a bruised Behra being helped from the car and the photo also shows that the famous chicane wall really was made of bricks in those days! Meanwhile his experience with Porsche was proving a refreshing contrast: in March 1958, the new RSK gave notice at Sebring when Behra held third place until the gearbox failed. But then second at the Targa Florio, and then third overall and first in the efficiency index at Le Mans confirmed that the Porsche RSK was now capable of competing with the 3-litre cars.
Then began Behra’s five-month purple patch with the 718 which brought him a win in the Coupe du Rhin, second at Zeltweg, fourth with Edgar Barth in the Tourist Trophy and then two more wins at Avus and in November at Riverside. For good measure, while in the Americas, he travelled south to Venezuela to win the sports car grand prix for Ferrari. 1958 marked the high point of his career. At 37 Jean Behra was the French and German sports car champion and following the retirement of Hawthorn, the Commendatore had invited him to the Scuderia for the 1959 F1 season.
The experience with Porsche suited the independent Behra. It was a more arm’s length relationship than with his previous teams. Porsche also built race cars for private clients and its cars were designed to be relatively easy to modify. Huschke von Hanstein was more than pleased to help Jean Behra, with Moss, the best driver in Porsche’s stable of independent clients and the Frenchman could race his own 718 or turn out for the factory team if von Hanstein invited him. When he asked Behra to drive the latest works 718 at Reims in the 1958 Formula 2 race, ‘Jeannot’ duly obliged by winning in front of his home crowd. The previous year, Formula 2 had returned after a three-season absence, its rules permitting naturally aspirated engines up to 1500cc and also closed wheel cars like the 718. Porsche used the 1958 race on the fast Reims circuit to try out revised aerodynamics and as F2 races were short, a more highly tuned version of its flat four. The next year, F2 assumed much more importance as the FIA announced that from 1961, F1 would be limited to 1500cc – effectively a beefed up F2 and clearly favouring rear engine manufacturers like Porsche.
With F2, Behra also saw the opportunity of developing his own car and of finally being able to implement his own design ideas. He bought a 718 from Ferry Porsche at what was described as un prix d’ami and with assistance from his friend Alessandro de Tomaso, had the car rebodied by Valerio Colotti (of later gearbox fame) in Modena. There was a lot of modular construction about the 718: Porsche had already designed the seat and pedals so that they could quickly be shifted from left hand drive to a central position which was the configuration that Behra drove successfully at Reims. For the ’59 season Porsche decided to make its own open wheeled version, the 718/2. This was a very significant, if low profile project in Porsche, and both Helmuth Bott and Hans Mezger, mainstays of Porsche engineering over the coming decades, were involved. The 718/2 kept the wheelbase of the 718, but got a more highly tuned version of the four-cam type 547 engine (up to 155bhp) more heavily finned drum brakes, a hydraulic clutch and a six-speed gearbox. Its public début was the Monaco grand prix where after a promising start, it crashed in the kind of multiple pile up typical of that tight street circuit. By coincidence or perhaps design, Jean Behra’s F2 car, the Behra Porsche as it became known, also made its appearance. It failed to qualify, but the work of Colotti’s ex-Maserati artisans was apparent in the Behra Porsche’s striking slimness compared with the factory entry. The Behra Porsche was more than a simple reskinning of the 718: Behra had reduced the front and rear track, kept the rear suspension of the original RSK set up, but stiffened it with Watt’s linkages. Meanwhile, Porsche’s new 718/2 sported rear wishbones.
As Ferrari’s principal driver for F1, contractually Behra was in an awkward position, so at grands prix he engaged Hans Herrmann to drive the Behra Porsche. Behra himself drove it a couple of weeks after Monaco at Pau, but he spun and finished only fifth. He then passed it to Herrmann who came a fine second after a long battle with Moss’s Cooper Borgward at Reims, the biggest F2 race of the year; a week later Herrmann retired at Rouen after setting the fastest lap. Behra then drove his creation at Charade, the Grand Prix d’Auvergne, retiring while in second place. His sports car commitments that year were largely taken up by Ferrari where a second at Sebring was his best result. There was no doubt though that Enzo Ferrari was irritated by his number one driver’s extra mural activities and the fact that the F2 Behra Porsche out classed the Dino added insult to injury. So, it was not entirely a surprise when Behra received his marching orders from Maranello following his retirement from third place in the French grand prix and a subsequent row with Ferrari team boss Romolo Tavoni. By that time also, Ferrari had hired Tony Brooks, so effective the previous season for Vanwall, and Phil Hill. This development left Behra free to campaign his 718 again. At the end of July 1959 he left for Berlin and Avus with both his F2 car and the 718 with the intention of racing the F2 in the German grand prix and campaigning his 718 in the sports car race the day before.
The infrequently used Avus track consisted of a motorway straight connected by a 50km/h hairpin and the notorious 170km/h banked Nordkurve and was, by 1959, already dangerously obsolete. In 1956, von Frankenberg’s Porsche had cartwheeled off the banking, the founder and editor of Christophorus lucky to escape with just cuts. In 1959, the track was wet and early in the race, the 718 of Porsche loyalist and Dutch aristocrat Carel Godin de Beaufort shot right over the Nordkurve’s rim, miraculously staying on its wheels as it crashed through the undergrowth and de Beaufort was even able to drive back on to the track, though the marshals soon showed him the black flag. Behra was not as lucky. Perhaps he was trying too hard to catch the works cars which in typical Porsche fashion usually had some technical advantage over the Porsche privateers, but whatever the reason, he too lost control on the red brick surface of the Nordkurve. The Porsche hit a concrete plinth and it’s unfortunate pilote was killed instantly when he was flung from his car against a flagpole.
It was not quite the end of the venture. Though withdrawn from the German grand prix the next day, the Behra Porsche did compete in a handful of GPs in the 1960-61 seasons, in one or two cases driven by Masten Gregory, until being sold to a US enthusiast who campaigned it in formula libre. Happily, the Behra Porsche seems to have survived the ravages of time for it was restored some years ago and until recently could be seen competing in US historic meetings. As for poor Jean Behra, the “nearly man,” of motor sport, his turbulent career seemed at last to have found an equilibrium with Porsche. He had talked of hanging up his helmet to run his own team in 1960, but one wonders whether Ferry would have offered to involve the veteran Niçois in Porsche’s F1 team, and whether it could have been Behra who crossed the line first at Rouen in 1962, finally scoring the championship GP win that always eluded him. We will never know…
|Jean Marie Behra|
|Born||Nice, France, 16 February 1921|
|Died||Avus, Berlin, Germany, 1 August 1959|
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche