Helmut Koinigg – Unlearnt lessons at the ‘Glen

Those were the days when motorsport was really dangerous – it still is, of course – and the probabilities of death in competition (F1 or not) were of one in three or four, counting all men that started a F1 season. Surely Jackie Stewart and Jo Bonnier (who fell victim of his passion) had already started their safety crusade, and the circuits were vastly improved comparing to mid-to-late sixties. However, when the first measures were deployed, they could occasionally be worse than their total absence… such was the fate of Helmut Koinigg.

Koinigg was born in Vienna at the 3rd November 1948, but spent his childhood on the south-eastern state of Styria. Growing in such a mountainous region it wasn’t surprising that, like so many of his fellow countrymen, he practiced winter sports since his teens, excelling at skiing. And it was to the latter sport that he dedicated himself first, even being selected for the Austrian national junior B team, while pursuing his studies in engineering and journalism. It’s possible he was already someway interested in motor racing – it registered quite a boom in Austria with the rising success of Jochen Rindt – but he never sought to race, and in 1966 he left for Sweden to live and work, which certainly curtailed for the time being any possible interest in four wheels (while providing an excellent chance to keep skiing).

It was only in 1969 that he finally sought interest in racing cars, buying for that an old Mini Cooper S from a fellow wannabe driver… Niki Lauda (it was in fact Lauda’s first racing car)! Immediately he entered the Mini on the Austrian saloon car races and hillclimbs and it was on his most ambitious foray for the moment – the Aspern ETC round, which he finished a decent tenth – that he met Helmut Marko, another rising star on the Austrian motoring scene (now widely known for his managerial role at Red Bull Team). The young Marko was the reigning Austrian Formula Vee champion and introduced Koinigg to this widely popular promotion formula (more or less the Formula Ford of those times, with great expression in Central and Northern Europe), setting him a test with his works McNamara – promptly Helmut was fast, almost so fast as Marko. It led to an invitation to drive one of the cars on a race at the Nürburgring Südschleife, but he had to retire. However, before the end of the season Koinigg still had time to prove he was fast enough to beat Marko both on qualifying and the race at Zeltweg, which gave him a permanent seat with the team for 1970.

Koinigg’s first racing experience with Lauda’s Mini (Josef Humpel)

Koinigg didn’t disappoint and grabbed some wins both at home and at the European Formula Vee championship, which prompted the renowned Kurt Bergmann squad to invite him for the seasons’ ending Grand Prix of Ashkelon (it would be the very first sanctioned motoring race in Israel). Supporting the main F2 event there were races for Formula Super Vee and touring cars, ironically these were the only ones to take place, as the wild behaviour of the public, coupled with the fearsome (maybe it’s a smooth description for them) security conditions (track limits were marked by tires and… barbed wire, among other things we may call debris) convinced the promoters (a German agency) to stop the events before any death could occur. The Formula Super Vee race reunited some of the best drivers of the main European championships, and Koinigg ended second on his VW 1600 cm3-powered Kaimann.

Askhelon Grand Prix programme cover (Facebook)

Helmut had the chance to drive for March on the 1971 F2 season, but he lacked the required money, the seat going instead for… Lauda! He had no other choice than keep racing on lower formulae, but now he would do the whole European Formula Super Vee season with Bergmann’s Kaimann. It promised a lot and he certainly expected to be on the fight for the title but, sadly, the car didn’t match to the expectations and, again, Koinigg won just two races, retiring in seven from the lead with mechanical failures, notwithstanding finishing third on the standings, beating among others Jochen Mass. Besides his ventures at the Super Vee championship, he bought a Formula Ford Lotus 69 and entered it on some meetings in Great Britain, soon confirming his talent – he was fourth at the Race of Champions in Brands Hatch and won the Victory Race in that same track, beating no other than the outstanding champion of that year, Tony Brise. However, these performances didn’t provide Koinigg with enough budget, so again he saw no chances to progress to F2 in 1972, thus being again “confined” to the Super Vee races with Kaimann. Nowever, it was a great season and Helmut ended second at the Castrol GTX European Championship and at the Gold Cup, on both just behind the Liechtensteiner Manfred Schurti, winning three races in each series. Before the season’s end Helmut was invited by Guy Edwards to race alongside him on his Lola T290-Ford on the WSC, but the car wasn’t properly ready and Edwards decided to focus on the European 2-Litres Championship. Yet he was called for a test with Ford Köln (which ran the works Ford squad at the ETC and at the WSC touring class), awaiting a possible chance of an odd race next season.

Österreichring Formula Super Vee, 1973 (Josef Humpel)

At the beginning of 1973 the situation was unchanged, but Helmut never gave up on his career and started another season on the Super Vee Formula. Again, he couldn’t do better than finish as runner-up at the Castrol GTX European Championship, but captured the Gold Cup title, being named the yearly F.Super Vee King. And, in July Koinigg was called by Ford to drive a Ford Escort RS 1600the ETC 6h Nürburgring for the Zakspeed RTL, pairing with Werner Schommers, but they retired with a broke gearbox. Then it was the Spa 24h, and there he drove a works Capri 2600RS with Hans Heyer – Ford was involved in a soon-to-be legendary fight against BMW, but by then the blue oval was already losing their edge – they were sixth on the grid and made a strong start like the other Fords, but soon BMW took the advantage, Heyer/Koinigg retiring early in the morning with a broken valve gear. It was usual those times for the touring cars to race on major WSC events and Ford invited Koinigg to do Le Mans, with Jean Vinatier and Gerry Birrell, but the Capri LV again retired with valve problems. Beyond Ford, Helmut was also followed by Porsche, which invited him earlier in the year to drive one of the Martini Racing (then the works squad) Porsche Carrera RSR at the extra-championship 4h of Le Mans alongside his old rival Schurti (they ended 4th) and then for the 1000Km Zeltweg – they finished ninth. Yet what he really ambitioned was reaching F1, so he knew he had to climb on the single-seater ladder, and the new project from Bergmann provided him the right chance – Kurt wanted to do F2 with his new car, the Kaimann 1, which was nothing less than a modified March 722 fitted with an Apfelbeck-prepared Opel engine. Helmut drove the car in the Austrian and the European hillclimb championships, winning the first one.

Koinigg/Vinatier/Birrell, 24h Le Mans 1973 (Facebook)

It seemed all was ready for his breakthrough in 1974. Martini Racing kept Koinigg in their line-up with the Porsche Carrera RSR Turbo, again pairing Schurti. Even if the Porsches couldn’t usually match the dominant Matras and even the Alfa Romeos and Gulf Mirages, it was a wonderful chance to keep proving himself on a top team. His first race was the 1000Km Nürburgring, where they finished seventh immediately after the other Porsche of Van Lennep/Müller. Then came his premiere at Le Mans and Koinigg/Schurti qualified 11th, only to retire with 87 laps with a broken engine, the car catching fire. His short programme at the WSC ended at home with the 1000Km Zeltweg, bleakly after less than an hour when the pair was black-flagged because they had to be push-started. He also had an one-outing at the ETC, driving for Alpina BMW at the 6h of Nürburgring (with Harald Ertl), but crashed out. Whatsoever, in all these outings he generally performed very well and demonstrated a lot of talent.

1000Km Nürburgring 1974

The presentation of the F2 Kaimann-Opel. Sadly, the adventure wouldn’t progress much further (Facebook)

Bergmann’s F2 challenge was intended to start at the Jim Clark Trophy at Hockenheim, but their car was so uncompetitive (it broke the engine after a few laps on practice) that Helmut had to look for another drive, finally buying the year old Surtees TS10-Ford of “Shangri-La”, with which he was 11th, after a steady drive on Heat 2, lapping near the times the works Surtees had achieved the year before. John Surtees himself was there and signaled Koinigg for a possible works drive in the future. Then, before the 1974 Austrian G.P., he found money to rent the Scuderia Finotto Brabham BT42-Ford, yet the car was uncompetitive and Helmut lacked experience, thus it was no surprise he didn’t qualify. Despite these setbacks, Koinigg’s efforts convinced Surtees to sign him (against the respective money) for the last two F1 races, after losing Jochen Mass to McLaren (the German would replace David Hobbs in their third car, sponsored by Yardley – before his crash at Germany it was Hailwood’s drive). After a good test at Goodwood, it would be at Mosport that Helmut finally made his true debut on F1, and he immediately impressed when he managed to qualify his Surtees TS16 in 22nd (only 2.5 seconds behind the pole), while teammate Derek Bell failed to put the car on the grid! In the race Koinigg did his best with a car that suffered from an enormous lack of development and finished a respectable 10th.

Canadian Grand Prix, 1974 (Facebook)

The last round of the season was the USA Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, and there practice was harder for Koinigg but he nevertheless was 23rd, again beating his teammate (this time the rookie Jose Dolhem). Helmut made a good start and was driving at a regular pace to preserve the car till the end when, at the tenth lap, he inexplicably went straight on the approach at The Toe, dashing three catch fence barriers and slamming on the armco. Nowadays, in most of the cases, such accident would be undoubtedly non-fatal, but then the car wasn’t detained by the barriers and plunged between the layers of the guardrail. When the marshals arrived they found an atrocious scene: Koinigg was dead, killed instantly when the upper armco tier decapitated him. One year after Cévert, it was the second death at Watkins Glen caused by the inappropriate fixation of the armco barriers, on the spot where on that weekend already three huge shunts had occurred, one of them breaking a foot bone on what would be the last race of Jean-Pierre Beltoise and preventing him to start. Nobody could conclude what exactly caused the crash but, as he went straight on and left no brake marks it was suspected that he had suffered a brake failure or a deflating tyre, the latter hypothesis being the most accepted. The car and the body weren’t removed, just covered with tarpaulin (!!!!) till the end of the race, and took some time to John Surtees to be told his driver was dead – he immediately called Dolhem to retire in respect to his fellow mate.

By this photo, it’s understandable the dynamic of the accident…. (Google Images)

It was irony of fate that he met his end when he was finally on the right path and proving himself worthy to be on F1 – Koinigg was already discussing some options for 1975, and he was highly rated not only by Surtees but also Roger Penske and even the champion Emerson Fittipaldi – and had already started a family when he married his fiancée, an Austrian Airlines stewardess early in May. And, most of all, it was the stupidity of inadequate security concerns had caused his death – there were some bolts missing on the fixation of the lower armco barrier, so when the Surtees crashed this one it absorbed most of the impact and the car plunged underneath it, but the upper barrier stood on its place, its sharp ends cutting everything on the path, precisely at the level of the driver’s neck. It was something that nearly happened to Regazzoni at Monaco in 1968, and killed Giovanni Salvati, Gerry Birrell, Denis Dayan and the aforementioned Cevért (among others), the prove the lessons weren’t learned were the troubles at Montjuïc Parc in the 1975 Spanish G.P., when Ken Tyrrell and some mechanics went to fix the rails with screwdrivers!!!

6 thoughts on “Helmut Koinigg – Unlearnt lessons at the ‘Glen

  1. Regarding the armco at Montjuic Park, all the teams present sent personel out with spanners too check the fixings were tight. I know that as a fact because I worked for Shadow GP and was one of those too walk the circuit, spanner in hand.

    • Oh really???? That was quite bad indeed, I saw some photos…. Do you have some stories regarding your days in the sport?

  2. I’ve seen a photograph from a Swedish magazine article showing Koinigg with Gunnar Nilsson. I’ll have to get in touch with Helmut Marko.

    • With all his work nowadays, it would be hard to get in touch with Helmut Marko, but he certainly has a lod of wonderful stories from his days as a driver and as talent-hunter.

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