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 II)

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.

Pironi at Ferrari…. A champion to be??? (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

When he signed for Ferrari, Pironi knew he was far from having an easy task ahead of him. First, the Scuderia, having won the 1979 F1 World Championship with Scheckter in front of Villeneuve, had gone through an absolutely disastrous 1980 season, culminating in the South African’s withdrawal from the sport, as he confessed never to have the same motivation after fulfilling the dream of being World Champion. In 1981 Mauro Forghieri designed the first Ferrari with a turbocharged engine, but they were expecting a lot of teething troubles. At the same time, Didier moved to a team with a name deeply established into their structure and, admittedly, one of the fastest drivers ever – although the speed was often accompanied by excesses – of the history of the sport, the Canadian Gilles Villeneuve.

Pironi (289 leading Piquet (5) and Villeneuve (27) during the USA-Long Beach Grand Prix (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

In 1979, Villeneuve had always been very close to his teammate Scheckter and, at Monza, when Ferrari gave orders to maintain positions, the Canadian religiously obeyed the team, aware that he would have more time to be a champion and that his teammate had, indeed, been the most complete driver of the season. However, with the disastrous car of 1980, the Canadian had vulgarised the South African and was, in matter of fact, the leader of the Scuderia in 1981. However, with his usual sincere and kind character, Gilles welcomed the new team-mate as if it was a friend. Soon this courtesy resulted in a strong friendship, often ending up with a lot of fun and peril, like some spectacular street racing and risky flights – both men had a passion for helicopters and airplanes – and, once, they decided to endure a Transatlantic flight with the gas on the limits, eventually having to perform and emergency landing in Greenland!!!!! Any current team manager would have a heart attack if this happened…

1981 Monaco Grand Prix (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

And, on the circuits, they didn’t give in to an unbridled rivalry. In fact, the new Ferrari 126CK, the first with turbo engine and ground effect, was very powerful but extremely heavy and hard to drive, which left the drivers far from being able to fight for top positions. In addition, reliability wasn’t, as expected, the best, and both Pironi and Villeneuve were penalized throughout the season with a car which the Canadian described a “fast red Cadillac”. However, both in qualifying and racing, Pironi was unable to keep up with his team-mate since, while Gilles managed to win in Spain and Monaco, the best that Pironi did was a fourth place on the winding Monegasque circuit, having started from the bottom of the grid. This discrepancy which occurred during 1981 gave voice to those who considered the French as a driver who hadn’t enough ability to be a champion, unlike Villeneuve that would soon take the title, only needing to moderate even more his driving’s excesses. However, it is necessary to look carefully to the different ways both men approached the adversity. Like Peterson, Villeneuve had the natural ability to bypass the car’s lack of quality with natural exuberance and a style of driving with “the knife in his teeth”, maximizing the potential of the machine when there were occasions for such, having an inventive ability to bypass the problems. Pironi, with his very cerebral and applied approach, hadn’t developed the same capacities, thus preferring to work on the car to tune it and extract the best results from it, but he couldn’t immediately establish this rapport with Ferrari.

1982 season promised to be great, as Ferrari had a great car, with the strongest turbo engine (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

However, in 1982, with Harvey Postlethwaite at the helm of the design of the new 126 C2, Ferrari could hope, in all fairness, to have one of the best cars on the field. Of the four teams that used turbo engines, it was soon obvious that Ferrari, although not the most powerful, was the most reliable, and the men from Maranello had the most complete package, so both Villeneuve and Pironi started the season with legitimate ambitions for the title. Once again, on the first races of the season, Villeneuve beat Pironi and managed (although in a somewhat slender way) to better convert his performances in results. Arriving at Imola on a race boycotted by FOCA drivers, Ferrari and Renault were in a separate championship, and when the French turbos failed (again), the two Ferrari men were isolated in front, only needing to finish the race to get a double in front of their enthusiastic audience. Hence the order to slow down, given from the pitlane… From then on, everyone knows the story. Villeneuve led when the order was given and although both drivers overtook each other more than once (even because the turbo pressure of the Ferrari sometimes shot up, which made one of the cars much faster than the teammate), the Canadian entered the last lap on the front and thought the order was to keep positions, so he felt safe he could win, but Pironi passed him at Tosa and crossed the finish first, to Gilles’ great disbelief!!! Feeling betrayed, mainly by his beloved team, Villeneuve also vowed never to speak to Pironi again and, a fortnight later in Zolder, when he tried to improve his qualifying time, Gilles collided with Jochen Mass on his slowdown lap, suffering an extremely violent accident that caused his death a few hours later. Worse than being considered by most of the press as a traitor, Pironi was now seen by the vast majority of fans as guilty from Villeneuve’s death, the hero idolized by thousands. However, things were not that simple, and it’s a horrible injustice to the memory of a great man and driver (an article about Imola 1982 will be released later).

The moment everything changed… forever (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

In mourning, Ferrari didn’t race in Belgium, but then Pironi realized that all expectations from the team rested on him and took the lead of the operations, focusing more and more on the conquest of the title. Many considered him colder and arrogant at this stage, but the truth is that, beyond the media pressure, Didier was plunged into a very troubled sentimental spiral. Having married just before G.P. of San Marino with his long-time girlfriend Catherine Bleynie, the relationship quickly suffered a heavy blow when, while filming a television ad, Pironi met TV presenter Véronique Jeannot, getting involved with her shortly thereafter. No wonder, then, that Didier was a transfigured man on that troubled summer.

Pironi took a second place in Monaco and a third in the USA-Detroit but, in Canada he was involved on an horrific accident. This time it all happened when the Frenchman, who started from pole, let the car stall on the start and he was subsequently hit with great violence by the rookie Riccardo Paletti, who started from the bottom of the grid and reached the Ferrari ate considerable speed. The impact was so hard that Paletti suffered thoracic injuries that led to his almost immediate death. After the restart, distressed by mechanical problems and deconcentrated by the horrific events, Pironi didn’t go further than ninth. However, in Netherlands, the Frenchman appeared to be once again absolutely focused on the title and got an overwhelming win at Zandvoort, followed by a second place in England and a third in France, leaving him nine points clear of John Watson at the start of the German G.P. Given that both the Renaults and the Brabhams, due to the unreliability of their turbochargers, wouldn’t be able to compete regularly enough for the title, and that the closest atmospheric rivals – John Watson and Keke Rosberg – would have serious difficulties fighting the Ferrari and the other turbos on the fast tracks that would follow, it was perfectly justifiable, including to Pironi himself, to seriously dream with the title.

Great (and last) win at Zandvoort (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Unfortunately, everything would come to a tragic end on the German G.P. Pironi had already secured the pole when he decided to leave the pitlane on the last practice session, under torrential rain. Why did the French risk so much, no one knows, but everyone says that, in those days, he seemed a man more and more distant and tormented. On one of his laps, Pironi was approaching Derek Daly at high speed on the road to the Stadium, when the Irishman from Williams moved away to let pass the Ferrari. Unfortunately, the truth was that Daly was just overtaking Prost, who was on his slowing lap, and Pironi fully hit the rear of the Renault, being throwed in the air just like Villeneuve, landing with his front on the track. Didier survived the scary accident, but was horribly injured on his legs and feet, which left Professor Syd Watkins equating an amputation. The venerable Formula 1 doctor told in his book and on several other occasions that Pironi, amidst the horrible pain he was suffering, asked not have his legs cut and Watkins assured that he would do everything that was possible to avoid it. Hitherto, Didier became embroiled in controversy because he would later say that Syd Watkins had favoured the amputation as the most practical measure to take. The Professor would say that Pironi would be one of the few people to whom he would always harbour grudges.

The remains of the Ferrari are in almost the same state as Villeneuve’s. Pironi survived, but his career was over (Didier Pironi Memorial Website).

Obviously, Didier’s career was over, and title hopes were severely diminished, as Ferrari had again only one driver, Patrick Tambay, to defend their colours and steal points from their opponents. Unfortunately, Tambay also had health problems – the spine was suffering from the effects of ground-effect cars – and he had to be absent on two races, and not even the late call to Mario Andretti was enough for the title to be decided between Keke Rosberg and John Watson, being conquered by the Finn, which only won one race at Dijon.

Pironi never stopped dreaming of a return to the sport, having returned to the paddock precisely at Hockenheim during the 1983 season, still on crutches, and aware that it would take several surgeries to give him back his physical abilities to drive and, although Enzo Ferrari said he was ready to hire the Frenchman as soon as he was recovered, it was too obvious for all that the probabilities were extremely small. Pironi would undergo dozens of surgeries to recover the best use of his legs as much as possible, and it was not until the end of 1986 that he effectively managed to test a Formula 1 again, an AGS prototype that would debut the following season (without great results). He was later invited by Guy Ligier to test in Dijon (Ligier had lost Laffite after the 1986 British Grand Prix, when the veteran broke his legs on a start pile-up) and was not far from the chronos of the other driver of the team, his old colleague and rival René Arnoux. However, in addition to being unsure of being competitive enough during a full weekend even more on a complete season, Pironi had problems with his insurer, who had paid him the end-of-career amount after the accident so, had he returned, Didier would have to give back a huge load of money.

After his AGS experience, Pironi tested for Ligier at Dijon. He was in good condition, and an offer would come… (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Thus, Pironi realized that he would never return to Formula 1 and, in 1987 he dedicated himself to powerboats, especially the offshore events, at the wheel of his Colibri 4. Like José Dolhem, Pironi was attracted to everything that was radical, and at the wheel of his boat he seemed to release all the energy contained by his interrupted motoring career, always taking a lot of risks. Unfortunately, on 23 August 1987, Pironi and his crew, Bernard Giroux and Jean-Claude Guénard, were at full speed on the second place in a race off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, when the Colibri crossed the waves caused by the passage of an imposing tanker. Being in maximum attack, Pironi could not avoid them like the preceding team and the boat took off and flew, striking the water with brutal violence, instantly killing all its occupants. Didier had 35 years old. By this time, he had already rebuilt his personal life and lived for quite some time with his girlfriend Catherine Goux, who was pregnant with twins – when they were born, Catherine called them Didier and Gilles. As for Formula One, it appears that Professor Letournel’s work had finally taken effect, and Pironi had reached an agreement with his insurer to return in 1988, having a pre-contract with the Larrousse team. But all was over on the English coast that day …

Glory and tragedy aboard the Colibri (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)

Didier Pironi always suffered with a little problem, which was far less common back then, his approach to the Formula 1 “Piranha Club”. Pironi was a politician – he confessed that, even though he was not the noblest of the men’s professions, he loved it – and someone who worked a lot on the backstage. This isn’t implying he was a false and covert person, everyone who lived with Didier did not characterize him in that way. But under the cloak of a very direct but apparently shy and secretive person, there was a man who fought to the utmost for success and who put all dedication in his work. And the dedication also implied being close to the sponsors and the right people to get their way. In this way, as it was common and, on our days, generalised, it implied at all costs to obtain for himself some beenefits within the team. It was the opposite of Villeneuve, who limited his profession to the work behind the wheel and to promotional commitments related to the marque. For the Canadian, that was the duty of a Formula 1 driver. For Pironi, being with influential people and sponsors was just as important as tuning the car. Thus, by the way he won in Imola and the subsequent tragic death of his friend and teammate, Didier became, in a completely undeserved way, in the archetype of the traitor, fuelled by a ruthless press. Looking further, didn’t Arnoux deliberately ignore the team orders aimed to help Prost in the title fight in France that season? Or has not Lauda used his three-year influence at Ferrari to secure his primacy over Reutemann in 1977? Backstage manoeuvres have always existed and won’t cease ever and, in this case, such orders weren’t so clear, which adds to the huge injustice with which Pironi is regarded for so many people.

The driver and the man (Didier Pironi Memorial Website)