ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 5 Email to Friend   Printable Version


The Bookworm Critique
By Peter Stevenson.
Published by Bentley Publishers.
by Mark Glendenning,

Click here to buy this bookIt's sometimes difficult to imagine that someone who commanded some of the most horrible episodes in human history was also directly responsible for one of the most exciting eras of motorsport. A keen racing enthusiast, Hitler realised the potential of motorsport as a tool for both Nazi propaganda and German technical development very early in his leadership. Vast amounts of money were channeled into Grand Prix racing with the aim of breaking the dominance of top-level motorsport that had previously been enjoyed by the Italians and French. Such a performance on the world stage by the Mercedes and Auto Unions would act as a demonstration of German technical and mechanical prowess, and hopefully win Adolf and his friends the confidence of the German people in the process.

The results were devastating - especially if you happened to work for Alfa Romeo. By 1935, the entire Grand Prix world had turned into a head-to-head battle between the two German teams, with everybody else left far behind to race quietly amongst themselves. The Germans introduced cars that looked, sounded, and performed like nothing that had been seen before. Combine such regular displays of dominance with the exuberantly romantic pageantry that the Nazis were so fond of, throw in a few bitter driver rivalries (Rudi Caracciola and Bernd Rosemeyer) and a couple of fairytale romances (Bernd Rosemeyer and aviation pioneer Elly Beinhorn; Richard Seaman and Erica Popp, daughter of the head of BMW), and cap the whole thing off with the ever-present possibility of some insane order being issued at the whim of the top brass in Berlin, and it's easy to see how the mid-to-late 1930s must have been one hell of a time to be involved in Grand Prix racing.

Not surprisingly, it also makes for a great book. Provided, that is, that the movie-plot dramas that are so abundant are not recorded at the expense of historical integrity. This is where some of the other books on the subject have fallen short, but it was soon apparent that in this case I needn't have worried. One of the characteristics of 'Driving Forces' that I found most appealing was that it was evident throughout that the reader was in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff. For all the inherent drama and twists, you've still got a one-dimensional story unless the complicated political machinations that drove the whole thing are properly captured. Stevenson does this, and he does it with a casual confidence that provides a solid political context for the rest of the story while simultaneously keeping it easily digestible for those with little knowledge of Hitler-style fascism.

Accessibility seems to have been one of Stevenson's key objectives when he set about writing this book. 'Driving Forces' is written in a flowing, narrative style that breathes new life into the characters featured in the grainy black-and-white photos. This again is particularly useful for recent initiates into the world of 1930s Grand Prix racing. When someone makes their first tentative foray into a previously alien period of racing history it is far easier to relate to the main players if they are represented as personalities, rather than as an unfamiliar name on a list of results from a race that was contested seventy years ago.

The value of this book to those more well-versed in racing history is more difficult to assess. While 'Driving Forces' offers a comprehensive overview of this period of motor sport, it is just that - an overview. Stevenson has done a great job of drawing a variety of resources together into one cohesive account, but if you've already done a lot of reading on the subject then it's hard to imagine that you'd find much in here that you didn't already know. This is especially true when one considers that Stevenson's research was highly dependant upon titles that are well-known to racing historians - Prince Chula's Seaman biography, Monkhouse's Mercedes books, Alfred Neubauer's autobiography, Elly Beinhorn Rosemeyer and Chris Nixon's 'Rosemeyer!', that kind of thing. That said, the author seems to have gone to a greater effort to put the events of the era into a cohesive political context than any other books that I have read on the subject, so perhaps 'Driving Forces' could be worth a look on that basis.

I also wonder what some of the more dedicated historians will make of Stevenson's reconstructions of conversations. Some, perhaps all of these are based upon accounts from the books mentioned previously, and I'm in no position to know how great a part artistic license played in the process. Normally I'm a bit leery of this kind of thing, but in this case it didn't particularly bother me. Provided that the reader recognizes such passages for what they are (i.e. the author's impression of what might have been said at the time, based on available evidence), they helped the flow of the story and injected a little extra colour that made the tale a little more vivid.

If you're in the mood for a little bit of February reading, you could certainly do a lot worse than this. It's a well-told account of one of the most fascinating episodes in Grand Prix history that has as close to universal appeal as anything that I have read in the past twelve months. This is particularly true for those who, until now, have remained 'blissfully' ignorant of the sport's history. If you're wanted to understand something of the sport's heritage but have had no idea where to start, you won't find a much better introduction than 'Driving Forces'.

Related Titles:

Monkhouse, George C: Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955.

Hilton, Christopher: Hitler's Grands Prix in England: Donington 1937 and 1938.


If you think back a few months, you might remember me talking about Burt (The Last Open Road; Montezuma's Ferrari) Levy's quest for sponsorship to support his new book. Well, it's finally been finished, and a preview copy arrived here at Atlas F1 Towers late last week. The 'Potside Companion' will hit the bookstores on April Fool's Day, and stay tuned for a full review sometime in the next few weeks.

Mark Glendenning© 2007
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