Auto Union racer Bernd Rosemeyer and aviatrix wife Elly were Germany’s glamour couple in the 1930s, but he paid the ultimate price for his fearlessness in 1938.
Bernd Rosemeyer’s father ran a garage and, like so many others from that background, the influence was immediately apparent. After leaving school and starting work for his dad as a mechanic, he was offered a motorcycle racing job at Zündapp and won his first outing on grass for the team in 1931. Managed by his older brother, he moved on to tarmac events with a BMW in 1932, then to NSU for the 1933 season and DKW for 1934. With DKW being absorbed into Auto Union, his winning ways did not go unnoticed and in 1935 he was offered a test drive in the V16 B-type GP car.
Let’s pause and just consume that startling fact. Along with several other candidates, Rosemeyer had arrived at the Nürburgring for his official test. He knew his way around from ’bike races but was impressive enough to get chosen, together with Paul Pietch, to be a junior driver. I don’t believe he’d ever driven a car in a race before and certainly not a 400bhp Grand Prix machine. What’s more, the power was behind him rather than in front. How did he achieve this? Well, there are those who can and those who can’t. He could.
Those Porsche-designed brutes were tricky in the extreme. The driver sat bolt upright and needed serious muscle to make the car go the way he wanted it to. But Rosemeyer’s extraordinary natural talent shone through. Nuvolari had held other drivers spellbound in the early 1930s with his car control and skill, but that mantle was now shared with Rosemeyer. Can a racer be too quick for his own good? Many said he was foolhardy, but they weren’t the ones winning the races. Stepping outside the box was Bernd’s speciality.
His first outing in May 1935 at the Avusrennen ended with mechanical failure, but he scored a second place to Caracciola’s Mercedes W25 at the Eifelrennen three weeks later. His first GP win was at Brno, where he also met Elly Beinhorn – an aviatrix of some note, having been the second woman to fly solo to Australia. What a pair they made, even if they both had to stave off unwanted approaches from a Nazi government anxious to capitalise on their relationship.
In 1936, Rosemeyer won the Eifelrennen from Nuvolari in dense fog, plus the German, Swiss and Italian GPs, as well as the Coppa Acerbo. There were mistakes, too, but that’s what happens when you’re racing on the limit and beyond. For 1937 Auto Union had to contend with the new W125 from Mercedes, but Rosemeyer still managed four good wins. With Bernd Junior’s arrival in November, Rosemeyer had plenty of wonderful things going on.
The GP formula was changing for 1938 and he would have been looking forward to racing the new 3-litre, V12 D-type, but it was not to be. Competition between the Silver Arrows was tempestuous on the circuits and no better on the autobahns. Record-breaking was an important business and when M-B set out with Caracciola and a revised record car, Auto Union responded.
In 1938 Robert Eberan von Eberhorst altered the whole aerodynamic concept for the ‘Stromlinie’. Extra power from the engine helped, but the skirting of the body at the sides and attempts to control airflow under the car as well as over it made a big difference… an as-yet uncharted difference. At around 268mph Rosemeyer’s machine got away from him and flung him out. So perished a talent equal to any who went before him or who has come since. Rosemeyer possessed an undying and unflinching will to be the quickest, in that car, on that day, at that track. This can be the only mantra of the greatest racers the world has known.
Rosemeyer won from second on the grid at Donington in 1937, outmuscling the Mercedes in his Auto Union.
Born 14 October 1909
Died 28 January 1938
From Lingen, Germany
1936 European Champion;
1937 Donington GP winner; Eifelrennen and Coppa Acerbo victories in both 1936 and 1937