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 (unknown)

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].

Cutting his teeth on the Austrian Renault 5 Cup (unknwon)

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.

Harald Ertl (#55) closely pursued by Markus Höttinger similar BMW 320 (unknown)

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.

Another superb performance gave Höttinger and the Ringmeister Hans-Joachim Stuck the Group 5-Division 1 the title (Jürgen Reiss)

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 lasted only two seasons, but proved to be a state-of-the-art one-manufacturer Trophy and let the fans longing for another one. Who knows if something like that would draw more public and a different mojo to a F1 weekend nowadays? (unknown)

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.

Which is the best? The car? The eternal livery? The young driver behind the wheel? All of them, I presume, and this caption at the Mainz-Finthen airfield sums it all (The Automobilist)

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.

Markus’ first single-seater season wasn’t properly succesfull. However, he only did odd F2 races and the difficult March 792 provided an excellent car to learn the trade. (Hans Fohr)

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.

Second round of the 1980 F2 season at Höckenheim. This photo must have been taken during practice, as he would die during the first laps of the race (unknwon)

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.

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.

Small footage of the race and the intervention of the safety teams.

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.

Betraued by destiny, remembered forever (Hartmut Schulz)

Didier Pironi – Talent and Controversy (Part I)

Even today, among motorsport fans, talking about Didier Pironi raises controversy. The French pilot is synonymous of betrayal, Imola 1982, and for being the cause of the death of Gilles Villeneuve. Unfortunately, this is an extremely narrow view of the events, and it covers with a black cloak someone who was amongst the greatest talents that left the French school of the 70s.

Didier Pironi was born into a wealthy family on the outskirts of Paris, on the 26th of March, 1952, son of Louis Pironi, a former combatant on the French resistance during World War II who, during the immediate post-war years, established a construction company that had become highly regarded. Pironi had an older half-brother, Joseph Dolhem, born in 1944, and it is curious that their mothers were sisters. Despite this apparent familiar confusion, the brothers grew up together and Dolhem soon developed a keen interest in sports, in particular motor racing, and began his career late in the 1960s, winning the prestigious Volant Shell in 1969. However, for Dolhem, motor racing and flying were just a diversion, and he never cared much the same as his younger brother for his career, even though José was quite talented and even had occasional odd chances in Formula 1, before turning his back on 4-wheels and becoming an airplane pilot.

Pironi and his half-brother José Dolhem, two lovers of sport and high risk adventure, both skilled drivers, one completely dedicated pro, another that raced for fun (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

As for Didier, he seemed to be destined to pursue the family business and apllied for an engineering course. However, he caught the racing bug from Joseph, and entered his first local car racing in 1972 and, encouraged by his brother, decided to enrol at the Paul Ricard’s Winfield School, with the aim of obtaining the Volant Elf (which had replaced Shell on the promotion of the most respected French drivers’ school). From a very early stage, Didier proved to be a highly focused driver, concentrating on achieving success, and extremely sharp-eyed to the smallest detail, thus managing to win the famous prize at the end of 1972, which guaranteed him a place in the Ecurie Elf on the European Formula Renault Championship (F3 in France was, back then, much less valued than Formula Renault and Super Renault, the latter even serving occasionally as a supporting event for Grand Prix!) in 1973. Pironi would later say that if the first season wasn’t properly successful, he would quit the competition as, more than a passion, he only got involved in something to win. And, in fact, the first season evinced a very talented and totally dedicated driver, Didier’s finishing overall, which was an extremely positive result considering his youth and almost total lack of previous experience in motor racing.

Winning the Volant Elf, with Ken Tyrrell and Jackiw Stewart. (Didier Pironi Memorial website)

Elf only guaranteed sponsorship and support to the winner of the Volant on the first season, but they also rewarded the most talented drivers in France, and Pironi stood with Ecurie Elf in 1974, further showing his dedication by moving himself to Magny-Cours, where Tico Martini’s squad was based, as he drove for him. In matter of fact, the back then French small circuit was the base for many talented young drivers and Pironi, always looking to maximize his gify, decided that he would be better in the vicinity of the circuit, where he could rent a garage and a place on the pits and test. The results were immediate and, faced with a very powerful competition, Didier won the Formula Renault Championship in 1974, winning seven of the twenty races. Thus he kept his connection to Martini and Elf for 1975, now in the upper echelon, the Formula Super Renault, achieving immediately a third place in the championship, beaten only by the more experienced René Arnoux and … Jean Ragnotti! And, if the first year was to learn, the second was enough to emphasize young Pironi’s raw talent, as he simply destroyed all the opposition to win twelve of the seventeen rounds of the championship to secure the 1976 title.

Didier Pironi (#) on the front at the mythical Nouveau Monde corner, Rouen-les-Essarts (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

By the end of the year, Didier Pironi was hired by the works Tico Martini’s squad, supported by Elf and Renault, to run in the European Formula 2, having as teammate the more experienced Arnoux. Even though he was not the team’s first driver, Pironi showed all his usual dose of talent and dedication to finish the championship in third place, just two points away from the second, winning a race in Estoril, while his teammate guaranteed the title. That same year, aware of the strong image it provided both for the “big bosses” of F1 and the sponsors, Pironi made its debut in Formula 3 on the prestigious Monaco G.P. at the wheel of a Martini Mk21-Toyota supported by Elf, being able to dominate the race with a terrifying exhibition. Didier also drove for the second time in his career on the 24 Hours of Le Mans (he had made his debut with Kremer the previous year) at the wheel of a Renault Alpine A442 entered by Oreca, alongside René Arnoux and Guy Fréquelin, but he was the first victim of the Renault’s debacle in that edition of the French classic, retiring on the formation lap with the car on fire!

His sole season of F2 easily demonstrated why Pironi was one of the best prospects on the single-seater world (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

While René Arnoux remained with Martini, who was preparing to debut on the Formula 1 circus in 1978, Didier Pironi was immediately hired by another Elf-backed team, Tyrrell, alongside Patrick Depailler. After two years with the celebrated six-wheeled P34, which never had the desired effect, Tyrrell returned to the conventional designs with the 008 and, although it was no more on the plateau of the golden days of Stewart and Scheckter, when they could fight for the titles, it was always a hard-working squad which was often vying for the points and the occasional podiums and wins. Thrown to the “piranha club”, Pironi couldn’t yet be a competitor to Patrick, both in practice and racing, as Depailler was one of the most experienced and renowned drivers of the era, both aggressive and sensitive enough to test a lot and tune the car almost perfectly. Yet Didier got a very consistent first half of the season, which allowed him to get to the points on a regular basis. However, on the second half, trying to show some service in a car that, due to lack of funds, could not evolve in the same way as the top-tiers, the regularity was replaced by some accidents, typical of the driver who forces the machine beyond its capabilities. For many observers, it was on that season they began to realize that Pironi wasn’t perhaps one of the most natural talented drivers, even if he knew how to compensate this slight deficit that separates the excellent from the legends with a boundless dedication.

Here at Long Beach, Pironi proves on his first season he was more than prepared to become a F1 driver. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Anyway, Didier left his mark on the history of motor racing that year by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the new Renault Alpine A442B with the experienced Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, being able to handle a steady pace with a car whose gearbox was clearly crying his days out, collapsing from exhaustion after finishing the race. While working at Le Mans, Renault had made its debut in Formula One in 1977 with Jean-Pierre Jabouille and, although the experimental car was called the “yellow kettle” by the British press due to the usual custom of breaking the engine or the turbocharger, the gradual improvements made in 1978 turned the car as an odd fighter for points in 1978 and, unknowingly, showed the way to follow to all the teams of Formula 1 – Renault had just inaugurated the Turbo Era. After a year and a half of development, the team wanted to extend the team to two drivers and were looking for a quick and consistent youngster to partner the veteran Jabouille, whose car development faculties were absolutely indispensable. The choice fell on Pironi, but he had a contract with Ken Tyrrell for 1979, which led to some “frisson” between the parties. The Englishman claimed his rights and Pironi accepted, being the vacant place at Renault occupied by … René Arnoux, who had given everything with the Martini – Tico Martini soon realized that running a F1 team was far more complicated and expensive, and wisely chose to end its adventure after one year, dedicating himself to the blossoming business on the promotion formulas.

Splendid win for Pironi/Jaussaud at Le Mans, after so many troubles for Renault they year before. After that, Renault’s focus turned entirely to their turbo programme in F1. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

In 1979 Pironi had another very experienced team-mate behind the wheel of the new Tyrrell 009, Jean-Pierre Jarier, but Didier wasn’t (again) intimidated and, unlike the year before, quickly proved to be the fastest and most consistent of the team. The team from Ockham was gradually struggling to catch up with the front-runners, but that was no problem for Pironi, who often managed to make the car perform more than expected, finishing almost every race and often with very interesting performances, which earned him two third places in Belgium and USA-Watkins Glen. Thus he finished the season in tenth with fourteen points, twice as much as he had achieved in 1978. And, thanks to his excellent qualifying results, Pironi was able to enter three races on the fabulous Procar Series – a one-off trophy using BMW M1 that supported some Grand Prix, where the six-best drivers on the F1 qualifying earnt a place, so they could face the remaining habitués, mostly endurance and touring car drivers, but also some “young wolves” searching for a place among the top of the tops. Of those three events, Pironi finished two on the podium… A great talent was, definitely, emerging.

Even if Tyrrell wasn’t a top team since the failure of their P34-six wheel prohect, between 1968 (as Matra International) until 1979, the squad from Ockham only failed to win twice, in 1977 and 1979. However, it was obvious the team was going definitively to midfield, but it didn’t deterr Pironi to make another excellent season. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

The performances with Tyrrell convinced Guy Ligier to invite him to take the place of Patrick Depailler at Ligier in 1980. Since his debut in the highest category of motorsport in 1976, Ligier had been renowned by reliable cars capable of regularly finishing on the points, occasionally reaching victories, but the first half of the 1979 season had been absolutely brilliant, and Laffite fought for the championship until the last rounds. In matter of fact, what Ligier lacked was the ability to develop the car at the same pace as most of the teams in the second half of the season and, perhaps, a little more organization. Still, when switching to the French team, Didier Pironi was aware that he would have a potential winning car in hand and was quick to prove it. The first part of the season was very regular, and culminated with a spectacular victory in G.P. of Belgium in Zolder.

On the way to his first win, Pironi press hard with his Ligier. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website).

Then, Pironi was pole on the Monaco G.P. and led more than half of the race, until an accident in the bend with René Arnoux left both out of the race. Second place in France, Pironi managed a spectacular pole at Brands Hatch and set off for an almost guaranteed domination of the race until, like his team-mate Jacques Laffite, he suffered a puncture and became hopelessly delayed, retiring shortly after. It turned out that the Ligier punctures were caused by broken rims due to some mistakes with ground effect tuning, which placed too heavy loads on the suspensions. After a sequence of three consecutive retirements, which left him out of the title contention, it was, nevertheless, worthy to say that, on the first half of the season, Pironi was frankly stronger than the star driver of the team, Jacques Laffite – who, despite not being the utmost genius at the wheel was, notwithstanding, an excellent driver – which caused quite a stir inside Ligier, since Laffite had led them since their arrival to F1 in 1976 (Laffite would even say that Pironi was the strongest teammate he had, even stronger than Rosberg, which partnered him at Williams in 1983 and 1984). At the same time, Guy Ligier’s bad temper was widely known, and some mistakes within the team led the blue cars to lose their pace on the second half of the season, which alerted Pironi to look for other marque for 1981. Yet, on the latest days of the season, Pironi managed to give more podiums to Ligier on the last two rounds of the year, losing his second win at the Canadian G.P. only because, in those days, the penalty for false start was one minute applied after crossing the finishing line. Pironi dominated most of the race and crossed the line first, but the penalty deprived him of a deserved victory, demoting him to third. Therefore, Didier was fifth in the F1 World Championship with 32 points, just two behind his colleague Laffite, less affected by mechanical failures. And, again, his spectacular qualifying results guaranteed him seven races in the Procar Series, and the Frenchman won once. However, his shows of brilliance caught the attention of several teams, in particular Scuderia Ferrari, who soon hired him for two seasons. Now, Pironi was sure he could achieve the title.

The season ended with some stellar performances, but also with a huge disappointment because Ligier lacked the organization to fight for more, even if in 1979 and 1981 they weren’t far from the title with Laffite, and the team won regularly between 1977 and 1981. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)
French dream team – Didier Pironi and Jacques Laffite. One of the best years for Ligier curtailed by several problems due to ground effect miinterpretation and the heavy loads it placed on wheels and suspensions. (Didier Pironi Memorial Website).