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Hans Rüesch is best known as an animal rights activist and author but he was also the last pre-war Grand Prix winner to die in 2007. Born in Naples to Swiss parents, his father, who was an expert in Pompeii and its art, was German speaking while his mother’s native tongue was Italian.
Family background and early racing career
They moved to Zürich after selling the family textile mill in 1926. Rüesch’s cosmopolitan upbringing ensured he was fluent in three languages by the time he enrolled at Zürich University to study law. However, he quit his studies prematurely to race cars in 1932 – driving an MG on hillclimbs at first.
A year later he bought an Alfa Romeo 6C-1500 voiturette with which he gained some local hillclimb success. Rüesch’s racing career did not follow any traditional path for he competed in ice races in Germany and on the hills of Europe during the mid 1930s. In addition to that eclectic mix, he drove a Maserati 8CM in occasional GPs during 1934 and 1935 before acquiring an ex-Tazio Nuvolari Alfa Romeo 8C-35 for 1936.
Donington Grand Prix winner
The car may not have been good enough to trouble the all-powerful German teams at the time, but Rüesch enjoyed his greatest day against a largely local field in the 1936 Donington GP. Sharing the car with rising English star Richard Seaman, he started in the midfield (grid positions had been decided by ballot) but led after just four laps. He made slight contact while lapping “B.Bira” but their victory was so conclusive that Seaman could complete the final laps cruising in top gear and still win by over three minutes.
Rüesch finished second to Raymond Mays in Brooklands’ Mountain Championship at the end of the season and he continued as an also-ran in the following year’s major GPs. However, Rüesch did win minor races at Bucharest, Chimay and Brooklands during 1937.
Sunsequent writing career
As Europe descended into war again, Rüesch returned to his studies and started writing. He fled Europe as the Germans advanced in 1940 and settled in New York. Success with the pen followed after the war – both Top Of The World (1950) and The Racer (1953, English language version) were made into Hollywood movies with the likes of Anthony Quinn, Peter O’Toole and Kirk Douglas among the casts.
He made a brief but tragic return to racing in 1953. He spun during a sports car race at Bolzano and a policeman died in the accident. Rüesch decided his time behind the wheel was over and never raced again.
A fervent animal rights campaigner in his later life, Rüesch opened the Centre for Scientific Information on Vivisection in 1974. He also continued to write on the subject with Slaughter of the Innocent (1978) his stand-out work.