14 February 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 73 - A tale of fighter planes and vultures

Of all the names that Formula 1 cars have had, Klenk is perhaps the most onomatopoeic. It was the work of a German engineer-driver called Hans Klenk, who at 32 had led an adventurous life before turning to racing cars in 1951, including having spent the war as a fighter pilot, flying Messerschmitt 109Es…

Born in the village of Künzelsau, to the north-east of Stuttgart, a  few miles from Schwäbisch-Hall, in the autumn of 1919, Klenk grew up with a strong desire to become a surgeon, at least until he discovered gliding at the nearby Hermuthausen grass strip. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was not allowed to build powered aircraft and so in the 1920s young pilots and engineers turned to gliding in order to enjoy the skies. This led Klenk, who also knew Willi Messerschmitt through his flying, to begin training as a aviation technician.

When he was 19 war broke out and he was soon in the Luftwaffe, flying his friend Messerschmitt's designs. Most of the time he was based in the north of Germany, close to the Danish border, but later saw action on the Italian front. When the war ended the completed his studies and decided to open his own engineering business and began souping-up cars for those with money to spend. Among his early products was a Porsche which he rebodied for Heinrich Sauter.

He decided to go racing himself and, like many others at the time, found that the potent pre-war BMW 328 offered the best available starting point for a racing car. So he stripped down a 328 and built his own racing special, similar to many other "eigenbaus" at the time. His own car was not really competitive and so he purchased a Veritas-Meteor (basically another eigenbau) from Karl Kling. The car was unusual in that it had streamlined bodywork, but his results were fairly impressive for a newcomer and he ended the year seventh in the West German Formula 2 Championship.

This drew him to the attention of Mercedes-Benz's celebrated racing manager Alfred Neubauer and he was invited to join the factory team for the Mille Miglia, as co-driver for Karl Kling in the Mercedes 300SL. Their team-mates were Rudi Caracciola, the pre-war Grand Prix ace, and Ernst Kurrle. Klenk decided that the best way to get the best performance was to get to know the route as much as possible in advance and put considerable effort into creating  his so-called “gebetbuch” (prayer book) listing all the features on the 1,000-mile course. This proved to be very efficient and they were leading comfrotably when they were slowed by a puncture, with a wheel that refused to budge and so they lost the victory to a Ferrari, but recovered to finish second. The due were then entered for the Le Mans 24 Hours alongside another of the pre-war Grand Prix stars Herrmann Lang, who shared his 300SL with Fritz Reiss and the Theo Helfrich/Helmut Niedermayr duo.

The Kling/Klenk car retired in the ninth hour with electrical problems, but the other two Mercedes finished 1-2.

The decision, early in 1952, to switch the World Championship to Formula 2 rules, meant that large numbers of BMW eigenbau racers could compete in Grands Prix and Klenk decided that summer to enter the German GP at the Nürburgring. He qualified eighth and finished 11th, which was a commendable effort. 

In November he was back with Kling for the Carrera Panamericana, alongside Lang/Edwin Grupp and John Fitch/Eugen Geiger.  On the opening day of the 1,900 mile race through Mexico, their 300SL collided with a low-flying vulture, which came through the windscreen and knocked out Klenk, who was not wearing a helmet. After fixing up the mess and making sure that Klenk was compos mentis they went on to win the event.

In the months that followed, Klenk re-engineered his Veritas-Meteor and renamed it the Klenk-Meteor. The plan was to enter the car in the German GP that summer. He and Kling started 1953 on the Mille Miglia with an Alfa Romeo, as Mercedes decided not to take part. In July he was second in the Avusrennen in the Klenk-Meteor but soon afterwards crashed while testing a Mercedes 300SL at the Nürburgring. He broke his thigh and knee. He offered the Klenk-Meteor to the 25-year-old Hans Herrmann for the German GP, allowing the youngster to make his F1 debut. Herrmann qualified 14th, easily the best of the locals, and finished ninth.

Sadly, Klenk’s injuries were sufficiently bad to end his career, leaving him with a severe limp for the rest of his life.He would go to become the competition manager of the Continental tyre company and later worked for the firm’s public relations department.  He continued to run his own car preparation business in Stuttgart before retiring to live at Vellberg, not far from his home village, where he died in 2009, at the age of 89. 

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