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When Bernd Rosemeyer and Elli Beinhorn married on July 13 1936 they were Germany’s glamour couple. He, the brilliant young star of Auto Union’s Grand Prix team and she, the daring female aviator. They were married for just a year and a half before Rosemeyer was killed while attempting a speed record on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt motorway.
His time as a GP driver may have been brief, but it was also heroic. In an era of great stars such as Rudolf Caracciola and Tazio Nuvolari, Rosemeyer was the fastest of them all. He was Gilles Villeneuve with more wins and a championship title as well.
Background and early racing career
This son of a garage owner began racing motorcycles from 1930 on grass tracks at first before switching to circuits two years later. A works NSU rider in 1933, he joined DKW for the following season. That company was part of Auto Union and Rosemeyer was invited to test for its GP team in October 1934. Despite no previous experience of racing cars, he impressed sufficiently at the Nürburgring to be offered a contract as a junior driver for 1935.
Grand prix driver with Auto Union
Ambitious to race, Rosemeyer pestered team manager Willy Walb until he was given his debut in the 1935 Avusrennen. By the end of his first season in cars, Rosemeyer was a reserve no more. Second at Pescara, he finished third in the Swiss and Italian GPs having taken over Paul Pietsch’s car when his own had retired at Monza.
The final race of the year was the Masaryk GP at Brno – Czechoslovakia’s national GP named in honour of the country’s first President Tomáš Masaryk. Star team-mate Achille Varzi led before his gearbox broke allowing Rosemeyer through to score his maiden GP victory. His success had an added bonus – Beinhorn was guest-of-honour and was introduced to her dashing countryman after the event.
That he was a GP winner in his very first season racing cars is a feat all-but unmatched in the history of the sport. 1936 did not start well for he crashed his Auto Union C-type during the wet Monaco GP and it then caught fire at Tripoli.
However, it was Rosemeyer’s year thereafter – the charismatic German scoring four victories and twice finishing second. His wins at the Nürburgring were legendary – winning the Eifelrennen in the fog to earn the nickname Nebelmeister (“the fog master”). Up to 40 seconds a lap quicker than anyone else in those conditions, Rosemeyer then won the German GP by four minutes. He was crowned as 1936 European Champion in only his second season as a GP driver.
Also married that year, the happy couple took a belated honeymoon while Rosemeyer raced in South Africa at the start of 1937. His wife flew them to Johannesburg via Cairo and Nairobi before Rosemeyer starred in two handicap races in the country.
Soundly beaten by Rosemeyer and Auto Union in 1936, Mercedes-Benz responded by introducing its all-powerful W125 for the following season. The Sturrgart concern was once more the team to beat and Caracciola regained the European title. However, Rosemeyer also starred by winning the Eifelrennen, George Vanderbilt Cup on New York’s Long Island and the season finale at Donington Park.
Final speed record attempt
As well as dominating GP racing, both German teams were involved in speed record attempts as they sought further prestige for marque and state. Auto Union and Mercedes were on the motorway south of Frankfurt on January 28 1938 for a series of record attempts.
Caracciola soon beat Rosemeyer’s existing record by averaging 268.7mph over a flying mile. His young rival tried to respond in the streamlined Auto Union but his car was hit by a freak gust of wind as it passed under a bridge. Sent off course at approximately 270mph, the car disintegrated on impact and the 28 year old Rosemeyer was killed instantly.
One of the few to truly master the difficult rear-engine Auto Unions, he was a true star whose popularity spread to England and America thanks to his success there. He was a humorous and charming man who enlivened the sport for three brief seasons.
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