He was called diePechvogel, the unlucky bird. He was known more for the races that he lost than those that he had won, but to dismiss him as a journeyman driver would do him a great disservice. While not at the level of his teammates Caracciola, Fagioli and Lang he was an extremely fast and courageous driver. What he was lacking was the sensitivity for his car that would guide him in when to push and when to hold back.
Born in Hamburg on the 15th of August 1905, to a military family. His father had been a major in the German Army while his uncle was appointed Army Commander in Chief and promoted to Field Marshall by Hitler.
A military career was in the offing for the young Manfred but a motorcycle accident and a fractured skull made him unfit for military service. While convalescing at his cousin’s house he became interested in one of his cousin’s cars, a super-charged Mercedes. He persuaded his cousin to teach him how to drive.
While visiting a local movie house his attention became riveted to a newsreel that showed some racing cars. With his cousin’s support he entered a hillclimb near Salzburg on 8 September 1929. Driving a Mercedes he finished first in class. In 1931, still supported by his cousin, he competed in the Eifel GP and finished third to his future teammate Rudolf Caracciola and H. J. von Morgan.
In 1932 von Brauchitsch won the race that made him famous. Entering the Avus GP as a private entrant a friend convinced him that he needed an edge to compete with the works drivers. That edge would come from a special streamlined body fitted to a Mercedes SSKL. At first the car, which looked like a large cigar was considered something of a joke and nobody gave the car or driver much of a chance until he passed the works Alfa of Caracciola and won the race by a car length.
Von Brauchitsch was invited by Mercedes to join their team who were at the same time preparing all new cars for the 1934 season.
His first start for Mercedes occurred at the Eifel GP and von Brauchitsch won his first race for the works team. After this fantastic start to his professional career he was not to win another major race for three years. At the German GP he crashed and suffered several broken ribs, a broken arm, shoulder blade and collarbone.
Unbeknownst to the doctors he had also suffered a fractured skull! After returning to race in Switzerland the skull fracture was discovered and the remainder of the season was lost to von Brauchitsch.
1935 was a continuation of mechanical and mental breakdowns. His times in practice were always very fast but the race would be another matter. Von Brauchitsch was though a crowd favorite as he always gave of himself all that there was. At the Belgian GP his car failed but Fagioli, after being prevented from passing Caracciola pulled into the pits and refused to continue. Von Brauchitsch was summoned to continue in the Italian’s car, which had just been passed by Dreyfus and Chiron into fourth place.
Neubauer told his driver that he was to drive as fast as possible and try for a Mercedes 1-2 behind Caracciola. This was just the kind of challenge that von Brauchitsch enjoyed as he passed Dreyfus on lap 27 and Chiron on the 29th at the famous Eau Rouge bend. As Harold Nockolds wrote in MotorSport,
“van Brauchitsch does not posses the genius of a Caracciola, a Fagioli or a Chiron, but he gets amazingly good results all the same. His approach to a corner is always rather ragged, and involves a great deal of vigorous work with the steering wheel and some violent use of the brakes.”
The next race could have been his greatest victory but the day belonged to another, Tazio Nuvolari. Von Brauchitsch’s name would go down in history, not as a victor but as the vanquished in the legendary German Grand Prix where Nuvolari raced into history. Von Brauchitsch had a seemly secure lead despite a furious charge by Nuvolari but he continued to drive as if the devil himself was on his tail.
He may well have been that day and von Brauchitsch in sight of the finish line suffered a burst tire allowing Nuvolari to claim a stunning victory. Von Brauchitsch ended his race in tears, oblivious to the cheers of the crowd and the commiseration of his teammates and rivals. At his hotel Chiron visited him and Nuvolari presented him with a bouquet of flowers. 1936 was more of the same and prior to the 1937 season there was a question of whether von Brauchitsch would continue with the team.
Neubauer still had faith in his driver and for the new year Mercedes was determined not to repeat the failures of the preceding season. To that end they fielded a new four-man team which consisted of Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Fagioli’s former mechanic and future star Hermann Lang and promising British driver Dick Seaman.
It is ironic that the often-ragged von Brauchitsch would finally taste victory at the circuit that required the most precision but Monaco was always a race that he enjoyed. In the early laps he lay second to Caracciola with Rosemeyer hot on his heels. Rosemeyer tried all of his tricks to pass von Brauchitsch but not this year or this race. The steering on the Auto Union failed and Rosemeyer crashed into the sandbanks at the Gasometer hairpin.
Their main rival now out of the race everyone expected a routine Mercedes 1-2 but von Brauchitsch had other ideas. Setting a new lap record on lap 21 he was now right on his team leader’s tail. Neubauer began to wave his flag furiously to signal von Brauchitsch to hold his station. In response his rebellious driver would only stick out his tongue at Don Alfredo. Caracciola was up to the challenge and answered his teammate with a lap record of his own but the strain wore on his engine and he had to pit for new plugs. When he returned to the race he began a charge that saw him make up lost ground and to assume the lead when von Brauchitsch pitted for fuel and tires. Just as he re-entered the race Caracciola’s Mercedes appeared and off they screamed side by side as they passed the pits.
Von Brauchitsch was just able to squeeze into the lead. The whole team was in an uproar as half the team waved for von Brauchitsch to relent and allow his team leader to pass into the lead while the other half of the team urged their Pechvogel to press on! Von Brauchitsch had nothing to lose for losing is all that he had done for the last three years.
Caracciola now had the bit firmly in his teeth and on his next lap he set a record that wasn’t equaled for eighteen years. Caracciola was able to wrest the lead but his tires were now shot and he had no choice but to pit. Von Brauchitsch crossed the finish line first and the three-year drought was over, he had finally won another race.
After the race the Mercedes team held a great victory party and the two teammates/rivals joined in the celebration. Later that year Neubauer pulled Von Brauchitsch from a burning car during a pitlane fire caused by spilled gasoline. 1939 was the last year of racing before war engulfed Europe and the last race happened on the day, September 3, 1939, that England declared war on Germany. This was also the day of the Yugoslav GP. Von Brauchitsch thought better of it and caught the next flight out of Belgrade for Switzerland! Neubauer upon hearing of this was able to reach the plane before it took off and literally dragged his reluctant driver back to the circuit.
The race was won by Nuvolari and von Brauchitsch’s life went downhill from there. Being the son and nephew of military men was not of much use in post war Germany and after several failed businesses von Brauchitsch turned to Caracciola for help. Sympathetic to the plight of his friend and former teammate he arranged some contacts in Argentina for von Brauchitsch.
Unfortunately for von Brauchitsch he was not able to make a new life for himself there and returned to Germany a bitter man, just the sort of victim the Communists were looking for. In 1951 the German Grand Prix ace came under suspicion by the West German government for involvement in espionage. He was soon arrested but while out on bail he defected to East Germany leaving his wife behind. In a final tragedy his wife committed suicide the following year. If only Neubauer had allowed the plane to take off.