I don’t speak French and I don’t understand medicine, but this old newspaper photograph of a racing driver proudly showing off his injuries had me fascinated. Who is this man, stood smiling in just his undercrackers, and how on earth did he end up with the painful sounding ‘oreille droite arrachée‘ in 1955? This is Jean Behra, a man who would not let a spectacular injury list stop him enjoying a long and successful career in motor racing. Behra puts me in mind of the sword fighting Knight in ‘Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail’, losing both arms and legs in a bloody fight the Knight refuses to surrender; ’tis but a scratch!’. Let’s look at the spectacular injury list, and career, of ‘fifites French racing driver Jean Behra.

jean behra

1, 8, 17 & 18 – Carrera Panamerica, 1952, Mexico. This was, at the time, considered to be the most dangerous race in the world. A 2000 mile Targa Florio style rally across the inhospitable Mexican countryside.  Eventual winner Kling’s navigator, Hans Klenk, was knocked unconscious when a vulture came through their Mercedes’ windscreen.  Behra was competing in a Gordini and won the first stage, but when a spectator hung a coat over a warning sign he ended up driving into a deep ravine at speed on day two and suffered seven broken ribs, a broken nose and head injuries.

2, 13 & 14 –  Caracas Grand Prix, 1957, Venezuela. Driving a Maserati 450S, Behra was in a strong second place and competing for the win against Stirling Moss when he came into the pits to refuel. Tank full, the mechanical gave the ‘go’ signal, and as Behra hit the start button his car exploded in a ball of flame. He bruised ribs leaping from the car, and suffered second degree burns to his forearm, burns to right arm, and a burned face.

3 –  Tarbes, 1949, France. Behra started out as a motorbike racer and his big break came in car racing a Maserati 4CL in ’49, but he was also still racing ‘bikes at this time. We can find no record of a circuit at Tarbes, but it’s c.2 hours from Albi, where Behra’s name was recorded as a ‘did not start‘ for a hillclimb there around that time. Perhaps the broken arm and broken collarbone he suffered were on public roads en-route to this event? This injury early in his career certainly didn’t harm his prospects.

4 – Carrera Panamerica, 1959, Mexico. I’m not sure how reliable this newspaper report is because the Carrera Panamerica ended in 1954 (after the deaths of seven contestants and spectators). In 1959 Behra was at his peak, racing elsewhere, so perhaps the fractured elbow mentioned here was actually caused by his crash in Mexico of ’52, or ’53.

5 & 6 – San Remo, 1949, Italy. Behra was down to drive a 3.7-litre Maserati 6C-34, but didn’t start the race, and didn’t appear in qualifying either. It’s quite likely that he came unstuck during practice. We had a blast around the historic San Remo street circuit a couple of years ago and it’s tight and twisty like Monaco. There are plenty of places where a miscalculation at speed and clinging to the steering wheel of a stricken car would have resulted in the broken wrist, broken thumb and broken ribs Behra suffered here in 1949.

7 – “Lincoln”, 1957, UK. Another editorial error in this old ‘paper. Behra actually broke these two ribs racing at Goodwood, in a Maserati. I think the Lincoln connection comes because shortly after this crash he signed for Lincolnshire-based BRM (later giving the their first win on foreign soil).

9 – Unknown. The picture is tantalisingly cropped just above the text so we don’t know the year or location that caused him to have an operation on his right thigh. Behra could not have allowed time for his injuries to properly heal before racing again. His ribs, in particular, must have looked like bits of broken coat-hanger under x-ray. Yet in an era when fatalities were commonplace, the bravery in choosing to race again so soon after big accidents is remarkable. Behra wasn’t particularly accident prone, or a bad driver, he just survived more big crashes than his contemporaries and was utterly determined to race as soon at every opportunity, fit or otherwise.

10, 16 – Tourist Trophy, 1955, Northern Ireland. This race probably should never have started, it should have been stopped after the first two laps when there’d been nine accidents and there’s no excuse for it continuing by the time three drivers had died before the half way mark. Behra’s Maserati was competitive on tight, wet lanes, but on lap 63 the inevitable accident came. This time he suffered a broken arm, broken forearm, broken right hand and severed tendons. He also had his right earn torn clean off. He later had it replaced with a prosthetic ear, dropping it in the drinks of party-goers for a laugh.

11 – Carrera Panamerica, 1953, Mexico. One might think that, following the massive accident he had on the Panamerica in the previous year (see injuries 1, 8, 17 & 18), that he’d give this race a miss, but he was back for a race that eventually killed nine people in various gruesome accidents. He raced well but crashed again, this time suffering a broken right arm and damaging lumbar vertebrae.

12 – Mille Miglia, 1957, Italy. Maserati were in administration but still managed to put together a works team to enter what would turn out to be the last ever Mille Miglia. Behra crashed during pre-testing, breaking his wrist. His fellow Maserati driver, Stirling Moss, was also out of the race with a broken brake pedal. The Italian government banned racing on public roads after the race following de Portago’s 150mph crash which killed him, his co-driver, and ten spectators.

15 – Les Sables-d’Olonne, 1952, France. Racing for Gordini, perhaps the first team to give him a real break, Behra qualified fourth fastest in this F2 race in the pretty French seaside town. But then the rain came down and he crashed into a ditch early in the race, this time suffering head wounds and breaking both arms. Despite his injuries, plus a damaged wheel and broken steering, he managed to drive the wrecked car back to the pits.

Behra had a reputation for being incredibly courageous, or rather disinterested. By ’59 he was driving for Ferrari but left after an argument at the French Grand Prix about poor reliability which culminated with him punching the team Manager in the face. Ten days later he joined a sportscar race, driving a Porsche at Avus, the high-speed circuit in Berlin which was essentially two straights of Autobahn joined by two primitive banked sections. These were mossy, wet and without guard rails and when Behra lost control at 110mph it was to be his last crash. He was thrown clear of the car, flattened a flagpole, and died instantly. There’s some grainy footage of that crash here.

I’d like to think, as he flew through the air to his death, that Behra thought “Ah – this will be just another scratch for to my collection“. His race results were pretty impressive, but the fact that he survived so many colossal accidents during motorsport’s most dangerous era is even more so.

Salut, Jean Behra.

 

Updated 29/12/2015 – Thanks to Mark at Grand Prix Models for info on the first Gordini crash. Your help is always appreciated.

 

 

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