“I was the only one who didn’t get paid…”

He shared beers with Jim Clark and the Porsche 917’s maiden race victory with Jo Siffert, but slipped away from motor racing to embrace conventional civilian life. Kurt Ahrens remains one of our sport’s overlooked success stories

writer Jack Phillips

"Do you know what he looks like?” I’m asked. “Yes. No. Well, I did.” I reply.

Looking up to the popular and part-packed Paddock Hill bank I’m pointed towards a man standing alone in the bank holiday sunshine, arms crossed beneath a jumper slung over his now-wider shoulders. There’s no swarm of selfie-hunters; he’s indistinguishable but for the Grand Prix Drivers Club cap in his hand – a cap he proudly prods, shuffles around and holds throughout our impromptu hour together.

Kurt Ahrens is not necessarily a name that trips off the tongue of die-hard motor sport aficionados, but the 76-year-old competed in one of the most famous sports cars of all time and witnessed racing history in the making. 

Almost 50 years after walking away from the sport to pursue a conventional life, Ahrens is at Brands Hatch to help begin Formula Junior’s diamond jubilee world tour with Howden Ganley, Sir John Whitmore and others at the new ‘Legends of Brands Hatch’ Superprix.

“It’s quite emotional seeing these cars racing again,” he says, sitting in the Formula Junior hospitality tent while Lotus 22s rumble by. “It brings back many happy memories. I’ve met drivers again like Trevor Taylor, who I drove with at the beginning of my career.”

Emotional doesn’t quite do the visit justice. The memory of Jo Siffert still hangs over the circuit, 45 years after his fatal crash at Hawthorn. Ahrens and Siffert raced together and they won together, breaking the Porsche 917’s duck in Austria in 1969.

“It’s the first time I have been back for more than 40 years,” he says, forcing out a smile. “I wanted to put a wreath of flowers and a Swiss flag at the spot – it gave me goose bumps. It brought back sad memories, not only of Jo but Jochen Rindt and Jim Clark too. When I go to the Red Bull Ring I make sure I see the monument of Jochen. At Hockenheim I see Jim’s, and now I have been able to remember Jo. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”

His memories of Clark are vivid. Kurt’s limited English (our interview is aided by Carlos, friend and interpreter) meant they couldn’t quite stretch to being friends, but being in the same paddock and on the same grids meant they got to know one another well. 

“The night before he died at Hockenheim we were driving to a television studio in Mainz in my car. I sat in my Brabham and Jim had to push me onto the set; the interviewer asked me: ‘Is this your mechanic?’ I was very embarrassed and said: ‘No, no, he is twice world champion!’ It was a good joke, but probably not for Jimmy.

“Driving back I asked if he wanted to have a drink, and Jimmy said: ‘Well, you’re my driver. It’s up to you’.”

If proof was needed he pulls out from his wallet a crumpled but obviously cherished photo of them smiling with a jug of beer, his eyes reddening.

“On the way back to the hotel the car broke down and Jimmy couldn’t believe it, because it was a Mercedes! We got to a gas station and were looking for money; the owner didn’t believe Jim was a champion. He didn’t know who he was. In the end he agreed to make a deal for the oil and we made it back. 

“When we finally arrived Jimmy said to me: ‘Good luck tomorrow. My car is not so fast.’ We still don’t know what happened that day.” 

***

By this point, 1968, Ahrens’ career had reached a pivotal crossroads. He had been working his way up the single-seater ladder and showing well against F1’s finest in F2.

“Once in F2, at Jarama, I was behind Graham Hill and on the inside of the corner there were these cones. He would make a point of hitting them so they flew back and hit me! Every lap the marshals would put them back and then – peew – he would do it again! I finished third behind Rindt and Beltoise. Graham didn’t finish.”

When his chance in the main class came it washed away in the Green Hell rain. It was a luckless endeavour, with even the Sussex wildlife against him in the build-up. 

“Jack Brabham asked me to drive at the Nürburgring later that year in F1 and Caltex, my team, made an arrangement with the organisers. I had to go straight from Zandvoort to Goodwood because I had never driven the car before. There was a line of ducks crossing and I hit them; the oil lines broke and I lost all of my testing time.

“At the ’Ring I couldn’t drive on Thursday or Friday because of the weather. Saturday evening we were allowed to drive in the streaming rain for only half an hour. I was so looking forward to driving the car in the dry, and there we were in torrential rain. Imagine if I crashed in the race – the whole of Germany would have laughed. I took no risks, then the spoiler broke and started lifting the car. I didn’t realise because it had been jumping anyway! I pitted and dropped from seventh to 12th. Jackie Stewart won by four minutes. I knew then this was not my world. It was hectic; everyone was British so I couldn’t really communicate.”

Single-seaters had very much been his world until then. He had dominated the German Formula Junior championship between 1961 and 1963, beating his father (Kurt Ahrens Sr, also a racing driver) to two titles. A third was lost in court. 

It’s a murky story; the most popular version is that he and the rest of the Lotus drivers were racing an ineligible engine – a 1500cc Cosworth. Ahrens remembers it differently. 

“We had ordered a1500cc Cosworth engine but it was never delivered. Gerhard Mitter then accused me after I won a race near Hanover, so we had to open the engine. It was correct, but I had no mechanics so my father had to drive all the way to Cosworth to have it rebuilt.

“Then at the Nürburgring Mitter said: ‘I know you have a bigger engine’ so I told him ‘Let’s make a gentleman’s agreement: you win,
I will come second, then we will both be German champions.’ I didn’t want to have to open the engine and go back to England.

“News of our plan got to [national governing body] the ONS, I drew back to let Gerhard win and I was banned for six months, Mitter for four after an appeal. But it was from October to March anyway…”

He and Mitter later clashed again, this time in F2. “At Hockenheim I was second or third and got a bump from behind, and the front wheel of Mitter’s car broke off. Richard von Frankenberg, a famous journalist, interviewed both of us after the race but we had agreed not to blame each other and just say that I braked too early, he braked too late. So in front of 20,000 spectators I said: ‘I’m sorry, I braked too early and didn’t know Gerhard was behind me. It was my fault. Shit happens’.” 

“Then Mitter came up and said ‘Kurt Ahrens braked too early.’ My wife was so angry she was shouting at him because he didn’t stick to the story. He was to blame but I wanted to share it. We were never friends.”

Their paths continued to cross and both became works Porsche drivers. While Ahrens says Mitter’s only friend at Porsche was fellow racer Udo Shütz, he himself became a popular development driver.

***

“We had a great friendship throughout the rest of the team at Porsche and a rivalry to see who really was quickest. Jo was the safest and most reliable but Pedro was probably fastest.

“They were fantastic, ideal team-mates. Jo and I won the first race for the 917 at Zeltweg, but it was supposed to be Jo and Brian Redman. I had tested it so much; I knew it better than Brian did, so Seppi and I made a good team. Mr Piëch told us to do our best because Porsche’s fame was in the balance.”

It was a rare terse Redman in Austria that weekend. He recalls: “I had one of my few fits of temperament. I had never driven the 917 and never raced there. Because of all the handling problems Jo spent pretty much all the practice time in the car. I had three laps in this difficult, dangerous car on a fast, difficult circuit. 

“After practice I went to team manager Rico Steinemann and said: ‘Thank you very much Rico – I’m going home.’ But after much discussion it was agreed that I would drive with Richard Attwood in David Piper’s 917 and Kurt would drive with Siffert. They won, and we were third.”

It was as a Porsche test driver that Ahrens later had the biggest crash of his career, writing off 917 chassis 006, a long-tail, at the VW test track in April 1970. It is the only blot on his near-perfect copybook.

“It came all of a sudden. The adrenaline was so high I didn’t really realise what had happened. On the long straight I thought the haze on the track was from the sun but it was rain. The rest of the circuit was sunny, but I hit the water at high speed and aquaplaned into the barrier. Two weeks later Willi Kauhsen had the same accident, at the same spot, and demolished another car. So even before Le Mans started we had millions of pounds worth of damage to two prototypes.” 

Due mainly to the 917’s inherent fragility, Le Mans was never kind to Ahrens. He didn’t finish in 1969 or 1970, but led both times. He and Rolf Stommelen qualified on pole in that first year, but the car barely made the second hour due to an oil leak.       

“Rolf nearly lost control at the start in 1969. He said: ‘We won’t finish, but if we start in front we will be on television for a few hours!’ He was the team’s joker. He was always talking, and nobody really wanted to drive with him because he was so fast.”

The car lasted longer with Vic Elford in 1970, but he was denied what would have been a career-defining victory in the long-tail 917. “Nobody wanted to drive the long-tail because it hadn’t been tested. Porsche’s computers predicted we could hit 405kph, but at 385kph the nose started to lift so much we could steer with our little fingers.   

“We led for 16 hours but coming past the pits a valve went. Vic was sleeping in his caravan and nobody wanted to wake him to tell him. It fell to me, but he knew as soon as I walked in that we were out.” 

Despite the repeated misfortune the 917 is still the car that holds Ahrens’ best memories. It was fast but fearsome, so not even Jacky Ickx could live with it.

“We were testing at the Südschleife, the old south circuit of the Nürburgring, and Jacky at that time was driving for Ferrari. He was there to test for Porsche and drove two or three laps in the 917. He got out dripping with sweat. Me? I had barely a spot. Many drivers refused to drive it; Mitter once over-revved it because he didn’t want to. I was 27 so didn’t think about that. I was proud to be a Porsche driver.   

“At Le Mans we had to drive in the middle of the track because it would float all over the place. Braking at Arnage the back lifted and steered the car. It was a magical car, though. They always said it was difficult, but I had never driven a car like it so it felt normal.”

***

Then in 1971 Ahrens, who had been working at his father’s firm throughout his career, slipped away from top-level motor sport. He raced just once more, for Ford Cologne in Brno, simply to see his family-in-law behind the Iron Curtain.

“My father was running a metal recycling firm, and he told me to decide whether to be a racing driver or take over the company. I chose the company and never had the urge to return.

“I had never felt like a professional. I was the only one who didn’t get paid driving for Porsche. I didn’t have a contract; when I asked about money once I was told: ‘Ah Mr Ahrens, it is an honour to drive for Porsche.’ And it felt like an honour, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It turned out I was getting money but it was going into somebody else’s pocket.”

This was, as Redman points out, a time when sports car drivers were paid infrequently. “The first time Ferrari paid their sports car drivers was in 1972 – $25,000 for the season. But I thought Kurt was a pro anyway – after all he was one of the 10 factory Porsche drivers.”

Working for his father meant Ahrens was by definition still an amateur, and says he was lucky to have an alternative and avoid the fate of many professional drivers from that era. 

“They didn’t have a company to fall back on. Most of the drivers were either killed or fired. You’re then 35 years old without a job.”

And despite not being paid at the time, he says he will always have his memories. “The old days were fantastic; we had camaraderie,” he says. “Young people tell me they don’t know that time and that now is better. But in my time we were all friends; I knew Jim Clark, and all those great drivers.”