Birthday : 1921-02-16
Deceased : 1959-08-01
Biography Jean Behra
Born in 1921, Behra started cycling as a child, and motorcycle racing when he was 17,in 1938, but after showing an immediate panache for speed, Behra was robbed of his best years by the war. When the war was finally over, he won the French 500cc title four times with Moto Guzzi between 1948 and 1951.
The small and stocky Frenchman tried his hand at the wheel of a Maserati in the Mont Ventoux hillclimb of 1949, and found out he rather liked it. He competed in a handful of events aside to motorcycle racing. He finished sixth for Talbot car at Montlhery in 1949, retired from Le Mans and drove a Simca to the podium at the Monte Carlo Rally. It was in 1951 that Amédée Gordini selected the mercurial driver for the 1952 Formula 1 season, despite Behra’s age of 30, where he joined fellow French drivers Maurice Trintignant, Andre Simon & Robert Manzon.
Behra and Gordini quickly became synonymous, as the brave Frenchman in the blue machine fought valiantly, yet seemed hardly likely to pose a threat to Europe’s Grand Prix Racing elite. However, Behra and Gordini, the underdogs, would cause a few surprises, starting with his first Formula 1 race where he finished third, and his second race where he boldly took the lead before being taken out of the race by Piero Taruffi. Yet, the biggest upstage would come in the non-championship Grand Prix at Reims, where he beat Ascari and Farina of the Ferrari factory team.
However, the rest of his 1952 season provided frustration, as Behra crashed in the French Grand Prix (yet managed to fight back into seventh place. He would later break his shoulder blade at the non-championship Grand Prix de Sables d’Olonne, forcing him to sit out the British Grand Prix. Behra would only finish fifth in the German Grand Prix, and miraculously survive tumbling down a ravine while leading a sports car race (Carrera Panamericana). The last two races of the F1 season, Behra retired due mechanical failures.
And, the next two seasons at Gordini wouldn’t be much different either. In 1953, Jean contested in as much events as possible, but suffered back injuries after crashing six laps into the Grand Prix de Pau, a non-championship Formula 1 race. He was forced to sit out the Dutch Grand Prix, while the next four of the five F1 races he’d retire due mechanical failures, ending the season with zero points. Fully recovered of his injuries in 1954, he won the non-championship races at Pau and Cadours, and the non-Formula 1 event at Montlhery, however, in the eight championship races of the F1 season, he only finished twice, and outside of the points.
Plagued by these mechanical retirements, Behra left Gordini in anger, and signed for Maserati in 1955, where he was up against the almighty Mercedes team with Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss. Despite having little chance of victorie
s, gave his best and collected a podium in Monaco. He also won the non-championship races at Pau and Bordeaux, although it has to be said that Mercedes didn’t compete in those races. At the dangerous Dundrod TT circuit, Behra survived yet another big crash, however, he lost an ear when the lens of his spare goggles sliced it off. He was given a plastic substitute ear, and the story goes that he would often scare ladies by removing it and showing it to them.
Behra’s hopes where up when the dominant Mercedes team pulled out of Formula 1, after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, which killed 82 spectators. However, Stirling Moss signed for Maserati, forcing Behra to be his number two for 1956. Still, 1956 would prove to be Behra’s best season in Formula 1, with five podium finishes. He finished the season in 4th place with 22 points, only 8 behind championship winner Fangio, who drove for Ferrari.
And when Stirling Moss switched to Vanwell a year later, Behra’s hopes of being the number one driver where crushed, as Fangio signed with Maserati. Behra would establish a good friendship with the Argentinian, and they would win the 12 Hours of Sebring together. In F1, Behra started well with a second place in the Grand Prix of Argentina, and whilst he won the non-championship races at Pau, Caen, Silverstone, Modena and Ain-Diab, the Maserati proved uncompetitive and unreliable as he would score no further points in official F1 races, and finish the season in 11th place. Behra wasn’t fully fit either, still recovering from a huge crash he suffered at the Goodwood circuit, which he was lucky to survive.
He switched to BRM for 1958, only to find out that the BRM was even more unreliable than Maserati. From the nine races he started, he finished only two of them, yet once on the podium. Aside from Formula 1, he raced with Porsche and won the 3 Hours of Rouen in 1958,
Things looked great for Behra, as in 1959, scarred by his many accidents, he was signed by Ferrari. Yet, Behra – theonly member of the team who didn’t speak English – didn’t fit well in the team, and the season started with another mechanical failure in Monaco. In The Dutch Grand Prix, Behra finished 5th, while another retirement followed in France, when teammate Tony Brooks won the race. After the race, Behra started a heated discussion with team manager Romolo Tavoni, which escalated into Behra punching Tavoni in the face. He was instantly sacked from the team.
Without a Formula 1 contract, he went to the German Grand Prix at the high speed AVUS circuit, to compete in a supporting sports car race for Porsche, as he was still contracted to them for non-F1 events. The AVUS circuit was one of insanity, even for those less safety-conscious days. It featured two long straights, linked by two corners, one a tight hairpin, the other a monstrous banked, flat out curve. Speeds averaged around 270 km/h, and it was here that Jean Behra’s luck would run out.
On August 1st, 1959, Behra started his final race in rainy and thus slippery conditions. After three laps, Behra was running third behind Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips and Joakim Bonnier, having just passed Jack Brabham. As he entered the banking at some 180 km/h, the back of his Porsche stepped out. Attempting to correct the slide, Jean started to fishtail around, as he climbed higher up the slick, steep banked corner. Finally, the Porsche reached the top and went over it, with its nose pointing towards the sky. Behra was thrown out, and hit a flagpole, which then toppled down. Behra instantly died on impact.
He came down into trees and rolled down the hill, behind the track. A doctor arrived and examined Behra, but instantly shook his head. Behra was buried six days later, in Nice. Some three thousand lined the streets from wall to wall.
Only racing interested him, and many people – drivers included – openly disliked him for it. Behra never knew fear, and drove over the limit more often than not. Throughout his years of motor racing he had an enormous number of accidents, and many ones people would say; ‘Well, that’s the end of Behrra, he will never race again’, but every time he not only returned, but raced as hard as ever, and with as much enthusiasm, and as much passion for racing and racing cars as ever before.
In Motor Sport’s edition of September 1959, Denis Jenkinson wrote: “Any good driver’s death is a loss to motor racing, but in losing Jean Behra we have lost a rare personality in the present age of racing, for he really had a passion for for racing cars that was a joy to have known.”
Aged 38, he left a son, and a legacy, which sadly is mostly forgotten through time. While the greats of his era, Farina, Ascari, Moss and Fangio are remembered, Behra, once a national hero, isn’t even in the record books, as all his wins came in non-championship or non-F1 events. Yet, perhaps this article may restore some of his well-deserved glory.
Video footage of Jean Behra’s fatal crash