Hockenheim and a reminder of a colossus of motor racing's past

The wreckage of Bernd Rosemeyer's Auto Union car ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Should any F1 driver feel life is tough, it might be an idea to make a brief stop en route to Hockenheim. Hidden in the trees, close by kilometre post 508 on the A5 south of Frankfurt, is a cylindrical stone memorial to Bernd Rosemeyer, who died at this spot 80 years ago.

It was a motorway accident -- but not in the accepted sense. The 28-year-old German was caught up in a ferocious battle for publicity and national pride between Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union as each manufacturer tried to go faster than the other with their streamlined machines.

At the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed, the bare chassis of a Mercedes-Benz W125 provided a startling reminder of the intensity of it all. A seemingly absurd tank mounted at the front was used to carry 100 litres of ice and water to cool the 5.6-litre V12 engine without the need for a drag-inducing conventional air inlet feeding the radiator. It's hard to believe that this massive tank would actually help the overall aim of reducing wind resistance but photographs of the sleek all-enveloping body provide better evidence of the W125 achieving an extremely low drag coefficient of 0.17.

Mercedes had been busy in the wind tunnel, thoroughly revising their machine after Rosemeyer and Auto Union had raised the bar to more than 250 mph during an annual Record Week in October 1937. The location was even more scary thanks to simply closing the twin southbound lanes of the autobahn running from Frankfurt to Darmstadt (the north-bound side being made two-way for daily traffic and split from the temporary test track by nothing more than a grass verge).

The road, not entirely straight, was just eight metres wide and went under several concrete bridges with central pillars. The drivers hated it and would much rather have gone racing at difficult and dangerous places such as the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

But this came with the prestige of racing for two manufacturers that German National Socialist propaganda claimed to be the greatest in the world. The unspoken truth was that the speed record had become an insane merry-go-ground that neither company could afford to jump off.

Mercedes were keen to reclaim the record rather than wait another year. Even though it was January with its attendant inclement weather, a request was made to have the motorway closed. Early in the morning of 28 January 1938, Rudolf Caracciola raised the record to an average of 270.4 mph from runs in both directions. Auto Union knew they had to respond immediately. Rosemeyer unquestionably was their man.

Married to Elly Beinhorn, they made a celebrity couple; she, a fearless aviator; her husband a darling of the motor sport crowds thanks to his impudent brilliance. Rosemeyer was one of the few drivers capable of mastering the fearsome 6-litre rear-engine Auto Union V16, largely because, with a limited but spectacular career, he had never raced for anyone else and knew nothing about driving a more conventional front-engine car. Against a phalanx of Mercedes driving talent, he had won the European Championship, the sport's top honour in 1936.

Keen to get this record business done and return to Elly and their two-month old son, Rosemeyer donned his linen helmet and prepared to climb into the Auto Union even though Caracciola advised his rival that the wind was getting up and there were traces of frost on the road.

Rosemeyer had previously described the strain of hurtling down what quickly became a tunnel of trees and concrete as being more exhausting than an entire Grand Prix. He needed all of his energy to keep the car with its new and untried high-sided aerodynamics in a straight line as he reached 267.1 mph on the return run. With the engine not having reached optimum temperature, and with the radiator opening and air outlets beneath the car closed off a bit more, he set off for another attempt at 11.46 am.

A few minutes later he was dead, wreckage from the Auto Union spread over a wide area. The reason for such a devastating crash was never fully established but it is believed the car was caught by a freak gust in the clearing where the Langen-Morfelden road bridged the autobahn.

Flung from the cockpit, Rosemeyer was found with not a drop of blood spilled, as if resting against a tree where the memorial now stands. It is a simple but fitting tribute to a colossus of an era filled with risk that barely seems credible today.