Michael Schumacher might want to watch that new red helmet of his. The last man to wear one in a Mercedes grand prix car, Manfred von Brauchitsch, was nicknamed Der Pechvogel: the unlucky bird.
“Helmet” may just be too strong a word for the thin cloth caps worn in the daredevil ‘30s, but the red part is true, even if it’s hard to discern on black-and-white period photos. But the man who wore it said so in his autobiography, which I’ve read a few years ago. Fun book. Although he goes Commie at the end and defects to East Germany. Red Germany!
The man in question was Manfred von Brauchitsch, one of the racers who drove the original Silver Arrows: the supercharged, unpainted, pre-war Mercedes-Benz race cars, which dominated motor racing in their time. In fact, it was von Brauchitsch who gave them their inaugural win at their first race out, driving a screaming W25 to victory at the 1934 Eifelrennen.
He was the scion of a Prussian military family. His uncle, Walther von Brauchitsch, was an artillery officer in the German army, leading the Wehrmacht on its conquest of Poland in 1939 and most of Western Europe in 1940. He was rewarded with the rank of Generalfeldmarschall—field marshal, the highest attainable rank—but bad planning would lead him to lose both the battle for Britain and the one for Moscow, after which Hitler relieved him of his command.
His nephew’s career on the motor racing circuit was rather similar. Manfred von Brauchitsch’s blazing debut—preceded in 1932 by a win at the AVUS circuit in Berlin, in a pre-Silver Arrow Mercedes–Benz SSKL Streamliner, picture above—was followed by only two more race wins in the next five years,
peppered with frustrating losses, most famous amongst them his puncture on the last lap of the 1935 German Grand Prix, which eased Tazio Nuvolari into his greatest triumph. He was not a smooth operator, hard on his brakes and on his tires, and this contributed to his string of bad luck.
But there is another way to look at luck, however unlucky a bird he may have been on the track. He made a full recovery from a nasty crash on the Nürburgring in 1934, and in contrast with his contemporaries—who either died on the tracks or led short, miserable post-race lives, scarred by injuries imperfectly healed—he lived on to the age of 97, driving old Benzes in his red cap well into his ninth decade, and parading with Mika Häkkinen and the Spice Girls in the heydays of McLaren–Mercedes in the late 90s.
And to take Teutonic Popkultur to the extreme, Little Red Riding Hood is called Rotkäppchen in German: which translates, of course, to little red cap. As for who the grandmother, the wolf, and the hunter are on the current Formula One grid…well, we have a whole season ahead of us to find out, don’t we?
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis, Daimler AG, Lothar Spurzem. Painting of Manfred von Brauchitsch by Graham Turner, available for sale at The Sports Galleries. Little Red Riding Hood postage stamps by the Deutsche Bundespost, issued in 1960.