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Jean Behra
Jean Behra following his accident at Caracas 3 November 1957

Staring out of period black and white photographs, Jean Behra’s handsome, but battered face tells its own story: a combative soul who seemed to thrive only when living on the ragged edge and for whom an exploit was either going to work or it wasn’t: “Ou ca passe ou ça casse.” The British press used to talk about the ‘fiery’ Frenchman while L’Equipe would refer to his ‘Mediterranean’ temperament. In fact, Behra’s famously quick temper probably did little to enhance his career and often meant he was battling in less competitive or reliable racing cars which he would usually drive with great determination until either they broke or he crashed. However, his indomitable spirit and pugnacious driving also won him admirers including Enzo Ferrari who invited him to drive for the Scuderia in 1959, a season which might have been Behra’s finest but sadly turned out to be one he would not complete for he died at the Avus, the day before the German GP.

Jean Behra
Jean Behra at the Nürburgring, 1957

Published in 2013, Jean Luc Fournier’s outstanding book, ‘Behra, Prince des Damiers’ was a welcome and timely addition to the library of post war racing. Fournier confirms what we already knew, that Behra was by far France’s best driver of the 1950s, but he shows just how good ‘Jeannot’ was, at times the equal of any competitor except perhaps Fangio. In an eight-year grand prix career Behra never fulfilled his potential, dogged by uncompetitive cars and frustrated by team managers who seemingly ignored his suggestions. A six-time national motorcycle champion who had built and prepared his own machines, he never entirely adapted to the Formula 1 establishment (Fournier ably describes his long rivalry with Maurice Trintignant as well as the highs and lows of his close friendship with Amedée Gordini, and his intense regret at leaving the French firm for Maserati in 1955). Apart from a couple of reasonable seasons with the Maserati 250 F which included a fourth, eight points behind Fangio in the 1956 drivers’ championship, his GP career brought only disappointment. He had more success in sports cars, particularly with Maserati again, and it was when the Modena firm withdrew from competition during 1957 that Behra turned to Porsche for sports car events. Even though it was late in his career, Porsche would be so nearly the making of Jean Behra.

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