Markus Höttinger – On the verge of F1

Austria had a fair number of top F1 drivers, including two World Champions, Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda. However, it seems almost all of those who reached the pinnacle of the sport were touched by tragedy. Lauda, Berger, Marko and Wendlinger had horrific crashes, while Rindt, Gartner, Koinigg and Ratzenberger paid the ultimate price for their passion. It also befell upon a young promise that was carving his way to the top of the international motoring scene in 1980: Markus Höttinger.

Markus Höttinger (Facebook)

Markus Höttinger was born at Neunkirchen, Eastern Austria, on the 28th May, 1956. His father was a judge in a national court and his mother a teacher, so young Markus had a typical middle-class upbringing, soon excelling both on studies and sports. After finishing his studies on the renowned Militärgymnasium with distinction, he proceeded to higher studies on Medicine on the University. As if such a degree wasn’t enough, he also applied with success for Journalism and Sports Sciences (!!!!), while developing his excellent skills on Ski, being coached by the famous Prof. Franz Hoppilcher of the Ski Austria Academy – the latter is considered as the father of modern skiing training methods in Austria and would coach a lot of champions!!

Amidst such multiform talent and success, Höttinger did an internship at Mercedes-Benz on the 1975 summer break and used his earnings to buy a Ford, which he immediately entered on local club races! And, on the following season, he took his car to the Austrian Ford Escort Cup, ending second, and also drove on the Austrian Renault 5 Cup, finishing seventh and winning it on his second attempt at 1977. That year he also entered the highly competitive Renault 5 Eurocup, winning the support event for the Italian Grand Prix! It was during his tenure with the small French machines that Höttinger met Helmut Marko – the elder countrymate had a successful career with sportscars and was driving for BRM in F1 when he lost an eye at the 1972 French G.P., after being hit by a stone that pierced his visor; so he became a talent-hunter, nowadays renowned for his powerful role at Red Bull. Helmut Marko recalls Höttinger as “He was just a young guy from Burgenland, which is the smallest state in Austria. He was working on the cars himself in the beginning, just with a friend of his. And then I think we did some sort of cooperation in the European championship. So from then on I was following him or guiding him through the various categories” [Autosport, 220:3, p.61].

Driving his Ford Escort at Aspern, near Wien, in 1976 (Facebook)

Helmut was already a cunning manager and saw raw talent in Höttinger, so he spoke of him to Jochen Neerpasch, then BMW sports manager. And when one of the Münich protégées, Eddie Cheever, was unable to drive at the season ending Kyalami 1000 Km, he called Höttinger to drive an Alpina-entered BMW 320 with the veteran Harald Grohs. Both managed a third place, and even if it was against a frail opposition and they weren’t properly fast (at the beginning Markus was more or less five second slower to his BMW teammates), it has to be said the young man adapted quite well to a far more powerful car and to an unknown circuit, so for 1978 Neerpasch signed him for the BMW development programme. Alongside extensive testing mileage (mainly developing the new 1.4-liter turbocompressed engine), Höttinger was assigned to the semi-works GS Tuning squad to drive one of the powerful Group 5 BMW 320 on the DRM – immediately he was one of the fastest men on Division 2 and won his first race on the third round on the daunting Nürburgring. He would climb to the highest place on the podium two more times that season, finishing second on Division 2 and joint fourth on the overall with 117 points, beating on the way some experienced drivers as Armin Hahne, Hans Heyer and Harald Grohs.

One his way to the first win at the daunting Nürburgring (Facebook)

His strong performances led to an invitation to drive on the Nürburgring round of the World Championship of Makes (to make it easier, let’s call it World Sportscar Championship, WSC) with a works BMW 320, pairing the far more experienced Hans Stuck. It gave Markus another win at the ‘Ring, as they took the honours on Division 1, in front of their mates, nothing less than Dieter Quester (which had refused to drive alongside the younger countrymate because he didn’t want to be a “racing school monitor”) and Ronnie Peterson! Definitively the promising signs at Kyalami and the ‘Ring’s DRM round weren’t one-off performances, so Höttinger was further called by BMW to drive by diverse teams both on the WSC and the ETC. If the remaining WSC entries brought retirements, his debut on ETC had a far better flavour, as Höttinger won the Zeltweg round alongside Umberto Grano, driving a BMW 3.0 CSL for the Luigi “dream team”. 1978 also marked his single-seater debut on the Österreichring European F3 event, driving a Chevron B38-BMW, but he retired on the first heat after an accident.

John Fitzpatrick leading both BMW’s of Manfred Winkelhock and Markus Höttinger (Facebook)

Obviously, such an impressive season reinforced his place in the BMW Junior squad, and Helmut Marko recalls that, despite the occasional detours typical of a good-looking young man, Höttinger soon developed a very professional approach to everything on the sport, and was one of the first young drivers to give special care to fitness and eating habits, which could be a big asset further on his career. And he really needed to be in perfect condition, as BMW filled his calendar with DRM, F2 and the brand-new Procar Series. The latter championship was born after a row between BMW and FISA, as the ruling body imposed a lot of modifications to accept the Gr.4 homologation of the brand new M1, a limited model built almost specially to compete. BMW didn’t agree so Neerpasch approached Max Mosley and the FOCA in order to create a F1 support series with twenty identical M1’s that would be sold to renowned teams, so the ability of both the tuner and driver would make the bigger difference. Also there were another big appeal for the fans and sponsors: the first five F1 qualifiers were offered a drive with works-prepared cars! Thus one of the most spectacular, if not the best ever, one-make series was created, and it would support eight European F1 rounds, starting at Zolder.

One of the entering teams was GS Tuning, that wisely chose Höttinger to drive the terrific M1 against F1 drivers (including Lauda doing the whole series with a Project 4 car) and several established sports and touring car stars. Immediately Markus was among the best and further impressed the BMW board and the F1 bosses. At Zolder, the fight for the lead between him and Stuck ended in a collision, then he was quite outpaced at Monaco and retired at Dijon; but at Silverstone he was back to the top and robbed Stuck of his third place after a sensational battle. Hockenheim ended after an early pile-up, but on home turf Höttinger was superb and managed to handle a damaged car to a sensational second. On the heavy Zandvoort, rain Markus took off Piquet, but finished the season with another podium at Monza (3rd), which put him fourth overall with 45 points – in front of him there were only consecrated drivers: Lauda, Stuck and Regazzoni!! Quoting Marko: “His performance in the Procar really opened up his future. Especially with BMW. Neerpasch noticed his talent and helped a lot” [Autosport, 220:3, p.62].

Procar Series, 1979 (Facebook)

On the DRM front, Höttinger drove the beautifully-liveried Jägermeister Team BMW 320, but it was outpowered against the new 320 Turbos and the Ford Capri Turbo that would dominate the Division 2 in 1979. Yet he often managed to push the car to its maximum without breaking, often finishing on the points and being the best of the “older” BMW’s. By the end of the year the team bought a 320 Turbo and Markus was immediately back on the dice for the overall, taking his lone win at the penultimate round at Hockenheim, enough to be third on Division 2 and eighth overall.

DRM at Mainz-Finthen airfield, 1979 (The Retromobilist)

Finally, BMW also allowed Höttinger to prove his talent on single-seaters, arranging him a drive with a semi-works March 792-BMW from Bob Salisbury. The team had a small budget and Markus’ top priorities were his DRM and Procar outings, so he was only entered on five rounds, alongside the permanent driver Juan Traverso. None of them could impress and the best Höttinger could do were three seventh places, but it wasn’t too bad for a rookie who lacked mileage to adapt to the tricky handling of the March 792. But BMW had already set his eyes on F1, even after a management change, so they wanted their young drivers to have a full F2 season in 1980 and Höttinger was drafted to the newcomer Maurer team.

The 1979 March 792 was a difficult car for a beginner (Facebook)

BMW was the dominant engine in F2 between early seventies and 1982 and sponsored the official March team, being only occasionally challenged by Hart. Concerning the manufacturers, March was always on top, challenged by Chevron (which retired in 1980 after the death of founder Derek Bennett), Toleman and privately-entered Marches. Occasionally AGS and Minardi provided a surprise, but in 1979 a new team would arrive with an ambitious programme: Maurer. Willy Maurer decided to build a car for the 1979 season, sponsored by the Berlin-based beverage company Mampe, thus the MM Mampe Team name; and they had a deal for BMW engines. Even if their first season was a total disaster, the new MM80, designed by Gustav Brunner, embedded all the lessons hardly learnt the year before so 1980 was approached with renewed optimism, and Maurer placed the experienced Eje Elgh alongside Markus.

Maurer was a very promising team in 1980 (Facebook)

Sadly, Thruxton seemed to be a sequel of 1979, as Höttinger retired with a broken engine before completing the first lap and Elgh was out with a puncture, and both weren’t properly fast, but it all seemed to improve at Hockenheim. For the Jim Clark Trophy both cars qualified in midfield and after the start they ran on top-10, so all hopes were allowed. Then tragedy ensued… On lap 3 de Cesaris and Winkelhock collided on Turn 1 and the track was dirty with sand. A lap later, desperately defending from a faster Thackwell, Derek Warwick ran wide and spun on the sand, failing to regain control of his Toleman Derek crashed heavily on the inside Armco barriers, which tore off his right rear wheel that jumped into the track…. precisely at the moment Höttinger was passing. He was struck square on his helmet with such violence the roll-bar was bent sideways!!! An unconscious Höttinger spun and was yet hit by Bernard Devaney, before stopping against the guard-rails three hundred meters after the impact with the wheel.

One of his last captions, exiting the Stadium at Höckenheim (Facebook)

Höttinger was immediately reached by marshals and the medical staff but he had severe head injuries. Immediately they applied trauma procedures on an ambulance right on the side of the circuit, and if initially the doctors thought him clinically dead frail electrocardiogram signs made them take the decision to call a helicopter from Oggersheim, 24 Km away, and the race was shortened in three laps to allow the landing. Markus was transferred to Heidelberg hospital but was pronounced dead on the arrival. There was criticism because the helicopter took so much to arrive, but his condition was probably beyond any help even with actual safety procedures, as we sadly saw by the recent cases of Justin Wilson and Henry Surtees.

His death occurred the day before the planned announcement on the ORF TV program “Sport am Montag” of Höttinger’s debut in F1 in the Austrian G.P., probably driving an ATS. It was ironic that other of the BMW young protégés, Hans-Georg Bürger, would be killed later in the season in the F2 Zandvoort round. Bürger and Höttinger were great friends and both were considered potential F1 drivers, as Marko remembers: “For sure Markus would have been competitive in F1. Just from his speed and his intelligence. Hans-Georg didn’t have the straightforward approach that Markus had, but he was one of the best Germans at that time” [Autosport, 220:3, p.65]. His teammate at the BMW junior squad Christian Danner adds that “Markus had the right personality, and was very disciplined” [Autosport, 220:3, p.65]. Even if he hadn’t yet completed his 24th anniversary and had less than ten single-seater outings in his very short career, it couldn’t be denied he had a lot of talent and could be a top driver, if not on F1, on touring and sports cars, after his impressive performances in 78 and 79. And BMW didn’t fail too much with their talents… sadly, two of them would also die five years later. They were called Stefan Bellof and Manfred Winkelhock.

Thruxton 1980 (8W)

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