A lap of Losail, with its nearly alternating lefts and rights, scarcely hints at the potential and challenges of 1954 racing technology. The riding mechanic/navigator in those days may have had superior door-latch mechanisms — but still no seatbelts. In many events, the crucial road book detailing their route filled his lap, his attention, his hands. He rode with his head bobbing up and down, looking for landmarks and matching them to his notes made from trial runs weeks earlier.
When we’re 300 feet away from the pit entrance, Herrmann swerves his old race car in. As we pass the first pit box, he cuts the engine. The only noises left are the wind and the tires sluicing moisture off the pavement. An instant later, the engine backfires. One loud pop echoes off of the garage doors alongside us. As we coast to a halt, I release my deathgrip from Herrmann’s seat rail and inadvertently bump the door. It holds fast.
Could I have leaned against that door and flown out, rolling across rain-blackened tarmac into the Qatari desert, you ask? Surely not with Hans im Gluck! “Lucky Hans” was the nickname that Herrmann earned in the 1950s, when he survived countless crashes. His most famous came during the German Grand Prix in 1959. It was captured for all time in a photograph by motorsport photographer Julius Weitmann, which showed Herrmann sliding along the pavement at Avus Circuit outside Berlin.
Herrmann’s BRM Formula One racer lost its brakes and hit rain-soaked hay bales, launching him into the air. The car rolled twice, ejecting Herrmann along the way. In Weitmann’s photo, his BRM was nose up in the air — flinging parts and fluids to the four winds. A wheel and tire hovered in the air ten feet or so above his head. When everything came to rest, he walked away, merely bruised.
While many focused on Formula One in the 1950s, Porsche invested heavily in long-distance competitions. The company believed that endurance events tested and helped to further develop its cars’ chassis, bodies, and running gear — and it knew its performance in them inspired buyers.
Open road courses with few rules and less protection for participants or spectators were the greatest tests, and Herrmann became a master of two of the most significant events: the Carrera and the Mille Miglia, that 1,000-mile lap of Italy that went from one side of the Piazza della Vittoria in Brescia to the other by way of Rome, 280 miles to the south as the crow flew.
Racing historian and nine-time Mille Miglia entrant Giovanni Lurani has suggested Porsche was among the first entrants to provide its drivers with a route book. “In 1952,” he wrote, “the official Porsche team was supplied with a navigational aid that showed such landmarks as houses, petrol stations, and [billboards], enabling the driver to recognize certain corners.” While it wasn’t fully successful at first, subsequent scouting and practices, known as “training periods,” filled in blanks more accurately and with greater detail.