Jean Behra (1921 - 1959) - The Fearless Racer With The Plastic Ear

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Jean Behra (1921 - 1959) - The Fearless Racer With The Plastic Ear
Jean Behra
JEAN BEHRA was short, stocky, muscular, completely fearless and covered with the scars from the numerous crashes which he miraculously survived-all except the last.

Behra, born in Nice in 1921, soon fell for the lure of speed on wheels: first he took up cycling, then motorcycling, his prowess on two wheels earning him the French motor-cycle-racing championship, three years in succession.

Like so many motor-cycle racers before and since (including Tazio Nuvolari, Piero Taruffi, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, John Surtees and Mike Hailwood), Behra hankered after four-wheel racing and, as soon as organised motor racing began in Europe, following World War 2, he was at the wheel of a Talbot which he drove to sixth place in the Coupe du Salon meeting at Montlhery, near Paris in 1949.

In the following year he drove a Simca 1100 in the Monte Carlo Rally, showing his versatility by finishing third overall; he drove another Simca in the Le Mans 24-Hour race, but was forced to retire. Later on in 1950 he won his class at the Mont Ventoux hill-climb, in a Maserati, and his exploits brought him to the notice of Arnedee Gordini, known as 'Le Sorcier', because of his supposed wizardry with racing engines.

Gordini was the only man seriously to attempt to uphold French prestige in single-seater racing and he gave Behra a seat in his Formula Two team for 1951. He finished third in his first race with the Gordini, but the firm was perpetually short of finance and the cars seldom had the power to become competitive.

All the same, Behra managed the occasional win, including a memorable victory over the Ferrari works team at Reims. Despite a very bad crash at the Pau circuit in southern France during 1953, when he suffered severe back injuries, he was soon back in racing and continued with Gordini until 1954. This was his best year with the French marque with wins at Montlhery, Pau and Cadours.

The Plastic Ear

For 1955, he was signed by the Maserati factory team for Formula One and sports-car racing and was immediately successful, winning the Formula One Pau and Bordeaux GPs, as well as several sports car races, with the Maserati 300S. He suffered another crash while driving on the dangerous Dundrod TT circuit in 1955 and he lost an ear when the lens of his spare goggles cut it off. He was given a plastic substitute and he would often horrify the ladies by removing it at opportune moments.

He stayed with Maserati in 1956, but had no success in Formula One, although he shared the winning sports car in the Nurburgring and Paris 1000 km races. Although he again drove for Maserati in 1957, he was always driving in the shadow of men like Moss and Fangio, and early in 1957 he approached Raymond Mays of BRM to ask if BRM would provide him with a car for the Caen Grand Prix in western France. Mays jumped at the chance, as the team was short of drivers. Two cars were taken, one for Behra and one for the Franco-American Harry Schell. Despite a lack of practice, Behra won the race with ease, admittedly against modest opposition.

Behra followed this up by leading a BRM 1, 2, 3 victory in the International Trophy race at Silverstone, in front of a 100,000 crowd. Behra became the darling of the British enthusiasts and his enthusiasm for the car endeared him to everyone at the BRM works. Despite his almost total lack of English he spent countless hours pointing out ways to improve the car and did a great deal to restore some confidence in the BRM team.

Jean Behra at speed in a modified Maserati 250F during the 1955
Jean Behra at speed in a modified Maserati 250F during
the 1955 Grand Prix season.

He was contracted to Maserati for the rest of 1957 and managed to win the Moroccan and Modena GPs as well as sharing victory in the Swedish GP and Sebring 12 hours, driving the monster 450S Maserati. Behra signed for BRM in 1958, but, in his first race for them at Goodwood, suffered a much publicised accident when the brakes failed and he collided with the notorious brick chicane at speed.

He was badly shaken by the crash and his confidence had hardly returned when he suffered another brake failure at Aintree, fortunately without hitting anything. He suffered other accidents, including smashed goggles at Silverstone and a hair raising spin at Spa, and he never really got to grips with the BRM again, although he finished third in the Dutch GP. He fared better with the RSK Porsches in sports car races, notching up wins at the Nurburgring, Avus, Reims and Mont Ventoux.

Not surprisingly, Behra left BRM in 1959 and joined the Ferrari team. He won the Aintree 200 with the Dino 246 Ferrari, but, later in the season, he quarrelled with the Ferrari team manager Romolo Tavoni and left the team. By this time he had evolved his own Formula Two car, based on a Porsche sports car, and spent of time on this project; he also drove an RSK Porsche sports car, being one of the quickest drivers on the circuits. He took the RSK to the German sports-car GP at the dangerous Avus track near Berlin and, in the race on a wet track, he passed Jack Brabham at high speed going into the enormous high banking at the end of the long, fast straight; instead of rounding the banking normally, the Porsche suddenly shot to the top, hitting the concrete barrier.

Behra was flung from the car, striking a flagpole as he was thrown out. The plucky, and often unlucky 38-year-old Frenchman died instantly. Six days later he was buried in Nice, France. In between there were three funeral services. 3,000 mourners in Nice lined the streets from wall to wall. The first funeral service was in Berlin, followed by another in Paris. Behra left a nineteen-year-old son, Jean Paul. Behra's demise left only Maurice Trintignant among living French drivers of fame. Trintignant comforted Behra's family and called on the young men of France to defend the colors of their country in international motor racing. Conspicuously absent among those present in the racing community was Enzo Ferrari. He dropped Behra as a factory driver ten days before his death and sent no remembrance to the funeral masses.
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