As one of the greatest drivers never to win an official Grand Prix, Jean Behra lived and drove full of courage and bravery. To his love of racing, he lost part of his nose, an ear and ultimately, his life.
Behra was born in Nice, France in 1921. During his teens he showed an instant panache for speed, first racing bicycles, then motorcycles. Behra was robbed of his best years by the Second World War, but when peace finally came, Behra won the French 500cc title four times with Moto Guzzi, from 1948 to 1951.
Within those four years, the small and stocky Frenchman tried his hand at the wheel of a Maserati, in a hillclimb at Mont Ventoux, and again at an event in Montlhery. In 1950, Behra competed on four wheels again, during the 24 Hours of Le Mans (but retired), and drove a Simca to the podium at the Monte Carlo Rally. Amédée Gordini, despite Behra’s age of thirty, signed the mercurial driver for his team for the 1952 Formula 1 season.
The brave Frenchman and the blue machine of Gordini quickly became synonymous. As an underdog, Behra fought valiantly, yet the Gordini could rarely pose a threat to Europe’s Grand Prix racing elite. The four seasons with Gordini provided plenty of frustration with frequent mechanical failures. When the Gordini didn’t break, Behra crashed. He broke his shoulder blade at the non-championship Grand Prix de Sables d’Olonne, suffered back injuries in the non-championship Grand Prix de Pau, and miraculously survived tumbling down a ravine while leading the Carrera Panamericana sports car race. The highs of his Gordini years were his wins in the non-championship races at Pau and Cadours in 1954, and his victory in Montlhery. The most eye-opening performance came in the non-championship Grand Prix at Reims in 1952, where he beat Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina of the Ferrari factory team. After this result, Behra adorned the covers of all newspapers in France.
However, plagued by the many mechanical failures, Behra left Gordini and signed for Maserati in 1955, where he was up against the almighty Mercedes team with Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. He collected a podium in Monaco and won the non-championship races at Pau and Bordeaux, in which Mercedes didn’t compete. At the dangerous Dundrod TT circuit, Behra survived yet another big crash, in which the lens of his goggles sliced his ear off. (He was given a plastic substitute ear, and the story goes that he would often scare ladies by removing it and showing it to them.)
After the 1955 Le Mans disaster, which killed 82 spectators, the dominant Mercedes team pulled out of Formula One, thus Behra’s hopes of going for the championship were improved for the 1956 season, but these were soon to be crushed, as Moss signed for Maserati too, forcing Behra to be his number two. Still, the season would prove to be Behra’s best season in Formula 1, with five podium finishes. He finished the season in fourth place, only eight points behind champion Fangio, who now drove for Ferrari.
When Moss switched to Vanwell a year later, Behra’s hopes of being the number one driver were again crushed, as now Fangio signed with Maserati. (Behra would become good friends with the Argentinian, and they would win the Twelve Hours of Sebring together.) Behra started well with a second place in Argentina, and whilst he won the non-championship races at Pau, Caen, Silverstone, Modena and Ain-Diab, the Maserati proved uncompetitive and unreliable as he would score no further points in official races, finishing the season down in eleventh place. Behra wasn’t fully fit either, still recovering from a huge crash he suffered at the Goodwood circuit, which, again, he was extremely lucky to survive.
He switched to BRM for 1958, only to discover that the BRM was even more unreliable than Maserati. From the nine races he started, he finished only two of them, only once on the podium. Aside from Formula One, he raced with Porsche and won the Three Hours of Rouen.
In 1959, now scarred by his many accidents, Behra was signed by Scuderia Ferrari. The prospect of driving for Ferrari looked great, yet Behra – the only one at the team who didn’t speak English or Italian – didn’t fit well within the organisation. The season started with a mechanical failure in Monaco, while he finished the Dutch Grand prix in fifth place. Behra again retired in the French Grand Prix, while teammate Tony Brooks won the race. In frustration, Behra started a heated discussion with team manager Romolo Tavoni, which escalated into Behra punching Tavoni in the face. He was instantly sacked from the team.
Without a Formula One seat, he went to the German Grand Prix at the high speed AVUS circuit, to compete in a supporting sports car race in a Porsche. The AVUS circuit was one of insanity, even for those less safety-conscious days. Its two long straights were linked by two corners, one a tight hairpin, the other a monstrous banked, flat-out curve. Here, Jean Behra’s luck would tragically run out.
Behra started his final race in rainy, thus slippery, conditions. After three laps, Behra ran third behind Wolfgang von Trips and Jo Bonnier, having just passed Jack Brabham. As he entered the banking at some 180 kilometers per hour, the back of his Porsche stepped out. Attempting to correct the slide, Behra started to fishtail, as he climbed higher up the slick, steep banked corner. Finally, the Porsche reached the top and went over it, with its nose pointing towards the sky. Behra was thrown out of the car and hit a flagpole, which then toppled down.
He came down into trees and rolled down the hill, behind the track. A doctor arrived and examined Behra, but instantly shook his head – the Frenchman had died instantly. He was buried six days later in Nice, and some three thousand people lined the streets from wall to wall.
Jean Behra had a rare love for racing, knew no fear, and drove over the limit more often than not, and many people – drivers included – openly disliked him for it. Throughout his years of racing he had an enormous number of accidents, many of which people would say; ‘Well, that’s the end of Behra, he will never race again’, but every time he not only returned, but raced as hard as ever, and with as much enthusiasm as ever before.
In Motorsport’s edition of September 1959, Denis Jenkinson wrote: “Any good driver’s death is a loss to motor racing, but in losing Jean Behra we have lost a rare personality in the present age of racing, for he really had a passion for for racing cars that was a joy to have known.”
Aged thirty-eight, he left a son, and a legacy, which sadly is mostly forgotten through time. While the greats of his era, Farina, Ascari, Moss and Fangio are remembered, Behra, once a national hero, isn’t even in the record books, as all his wins came in non-championship or non-F1 events.