Manfred Winkelhock never backed off in life or in racing. Adam Cooper recalls a true charger
The appearance of ‘M Winkelhock’ at the top of the timing screens caught the eye in Monaco — but then it all went wrong. The yellow car arrived at Ste Devote out of shape and slid into the tyre barrier with a thump. The driver clambered out, frustrated at wasting his chance to hold on to pole position.
It could have been a scene from the early 1980s, but this was in fact Markus Winkelhock, son of the late Manfred. According to those who knew his father well, the young man is from the same mould: after his mistake he tried hard to make up lost ground in the World Series by Renault race, only to crash again.
It remains to be seen whether Markus has the talent to make it. But he has some influential names rooting for him. His father, who lost his life at Mosport Park 20 years ago this month, is remembered fondly by those who knew him.
“Manfred was always a rock in the German racing landscape,” says Christian Danner. “Whether I rated him as super or not is a different question, but I always rated him for being very strong.”
Born near Stuttgart in 1951, Winkelhock came from a modest background. His father had a small garage business, and Manfred was a mechanic. His first experience of competition came in slalom clubbie events with a humble NSU. He moved up to circuit racing in 1976 in the VW Scirocco Cup, promptly winning the German title.
Victory in a celebrity race against established stars raised his profile, and he was invited by BMW competitions boss Jochen Neerpasch to join the company’s Group 5 junior team in 1977 alongside Eddie Cheever and Marc Surer.
Fledgling journalist Norbert Haug was keen to help push a driver from the Stuttgart area and was to become a close friend. “It wasn’t just a relationship between a journalist and a race driver,” says the current Mercedes Formula One boss. “He came very often to my office in the morning to talk motorsport. We did some motocross together, skiing, driving cars in the snow — a lot of crazy stuff! He was a wild animal, hugely competitive. If you played darts with him, you could forget it if he did not win. But he was a really genuine and very positive guy.”
From virtually nowhere Winkelhock found himself in competition not just with his fellow juniors, but also the BMW ‘senior’ team of Ronnie Peterson and Hans Stuck. At a training camp in St Moritz, Marc and Manfred beat the Swedish ace in a cross-country ski race. “Manfred could not breathe,” recalls Surer. “But he turned around to Ronnie and said, ‘This is how it’s going to be in the future!”
BMW’s Paul Rosche became a huge fan and in 1978 he pushed Winkelhock into the works March Formula Two team. The step to single-seaters was an enormous one. Nevertheless he was fifth first time out at Thruxton and finished the year with a third at Hockenheim. “He was a touring car driver, so he was driving too hard and destroying the tyres,” says Surer. “He had a difficult time but wouldn’t give in, so he crashed with everybody!”
He also had to adjust to a new life living in England, staying initially with veteran journalist Alan Brinton in Sevenoaks. Out of the cockpit he always seemed to get into scrapes. He lost his German driving licence after a road-rage incident involving a leading politician. Manfred took umbrage to being overtaken by a convoy of limos that paid no heed to a solid white line, so he repassed them and conducted a brake test.
Brinton helped him get a UK licence, but he put that at risk too. After a Goodwood test Winkelhock and Surer travelled to Southampton in their company 320s. When they made a wrong turn into the docks Manfred didn’t think twice about nudging the Swiss down a ramp and into the sea. “I got out through the roof,” smiles Marc. “We pulled it out, and of course it wouldn’t start. Later we got it going, although maybe only on two cylinders! I told BMW I had a misfire and needed a new car. It smelled like fish…”
The full ground-effect F2 cars of 1979 didn’t suit Winkelhock’s style, but he took third at the Nürburgring and added another at Enna in ’80, the year he stepped unhurt from an infamous backflip at the ‘Ring. The relationship was never easy with March, which saw him as BMW’s man. “He mistrusted them and there was a bad atmosphere,” says Danner, who replaced him.
In September Warsteiner invited Winkelhock to stand in at Arrows for the injured Jochen Mass at the Italian GP. After crashing on Friday, he didn’t make the field.
Away from March his F2 form improved, and in 1981 he led at Hockenheim, despite broken engine mountings, in Berträm Schafer’s Ralt, only to be outfumbled by Stefan Johansson on the last lap. He also impressed for Maurer that year.
By now Manfred had married Martina, the daughter of a racing photographer. They would have two kids, Markus and Marina. “He used to say ‘playing with my boy is the greatest thing in the world’ — a real family man,” says Surer. In four years he had failed to win an F2 race, but Winkelhock still shone as a crowd-pleaser in BMWs and Porsche 935s and later he would make a big impression in the Ford C100 Group C car.
But Formula One beckoned. In 1982 he earned a chance with ATS, where so many drivers had banged heads with volatile owner Günther Schmid. In only his second race, Winkelhock brought the car home seventh in Rio, then was promoted to fifth when Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg were disqualified — his only points finish from 47 F1 starts. Manfred could do little with the Cosworth-powered machine, but fifth on the grid on Detroit’s street track raised a few eyebrows.
The following year he joined the turbo brigade as Rosche supplied engines for Gustav Brunner’s neat ATS chassis. The turbo car suited Winkelhock’s seat-of-the-pants style. “He was very brave and could handle the power because his driving style was not so smooth,” says Surer.
Suddenly he was a serious contender, at least in qualifying. He started seventh at Imola, Spa and Montréal and was in the top 10 on six other occasions. But finishing was the difficult bit and the car always seemed to let him down.
The pattern continued into 1984, when he earned a career-high sixth on the grid at Zolder. Few noticed a charge on the heels of Stefan Bellof at a wet Monaco which ended in a clash with Rosberg.
Sadly ATS was fading away, and Schmid sacked his number one driver with two races to go to focus on rookie Gerhard Berger. A messy legal confrontation ensued, while an outing for Brabham in the Estoril finale proved disappointing.
For 1985 VVinkelhock switched to John MacDonald’s RAM team. The car wasn’t any more reliable than the ATS, but he consistently outpaced Philippe Alliot.
That year he also teamed up again with Surer in sportscars. Both men saw the Porsche 962 as a ticket to winning races. Surer: “We were talking about doing something else, because we both felt that in this bloody F1, if you’re not in a top car it’s not very satisfying.”
After pooling their resources the pair did a deal with Kremer. The partnership started well with second at Mugello, followed by victory in the Monza 1000Km after a fallen tree stopped the race. In August they travelled to Mosport. “I did the start and I had a coming together with a Corvette,” says Surer. “He hit me on my left-rear wheel, so I came in with a flat tyre. I think they had to fix the bodywork and then Manfred went out. I went to the motorhome to get changed and about three minutes later there was silence. The pace car was out.
“I had a bad feeling and immediately suspected it was Manfred. I thought it was because of the little accident I’d had—maybe something had broken in the suspension. Then a mechanic said, ‘Manfred had a crash’. It was in the fastest corner you can imagine, a downhill lefthander, a really bad place to go off, with a wall at the bottom.
“The Porsche was built for Hans Stuck. As a smaller driver you had to move the seat forward. We both sat very close to the rollcage, and he hit it with his helmet.”
Manfred had a leg injury. More worryingly, he was unconscious. Surer drove straight to the hospital in Toronto and found himself managing the situation alone, keeping Martina and Haug updated by payphone. The news was not good. After a lengthy operation, doctors told Marc to expect the worst.
“They said get his family to come quickly,” he recalls. “I went back to the hotel. The Kremer guys were hanging around and said, ‘How is he?’. I said, ‘He’s going to die.’ They said, ‘Don’t joke, he’ll be all right.’ I said, ‘You’re not listening to me. He’s going to die.’ Nobody else went to the hospital because they thought it was a little problem.” Back in Germany, Haug helped to organise flights to Canada, and on Monday morning Surer picked up Martina and her father-in-law from Toronto Airport. Later that day, Manfred’s life-support system was switched off.
“I lost my only true friend in racing,” says Marc. “The next F1 race was at Zeltweg. I thought if I can’t switch off, if I remember Manfred, I will stop racing. It went so deep. Also, it could have been me. But all drivers are the same. While I was driving I forgot about it.”
Surer was left to reflect on what happened. He was furious when it was implied that his partner had made a mistake: “The Kremers wouldn’t tell me what happened on the car. I was worried about the rear suspension, but you could see the side I hit the other car with was OK, so it was not my fault, which was very important for me. Then in the next race, at Spa, Jonathan Palmer had an accident. He was also on Goodyear tyres. On his first flying lap he didn’t have enough pressure, and the right front came off the rim.”
Manfred died aged 33. He was two years and a day younger than Klaus Ludwig, and Haug is convinced that after F1 Winkelhock, like Ludwig, would have had a long career in sportscars and the DTM.
His memory was honoured by the successes of brother Jo, some nine years his junior. But Markus, now 25, is the one that Manfred’s friends are watching. His mother was not too keen to see him follow the family business. “She still isn’t,” says Haug. “But obviously it’s in their blood. He’s quite similar — very talented — and is amazingly quick in changing conditions.”
“He’s turned out to be more and more like his father,” says Surer. “I saw him in Monaco. He had this problem in qualifying and I said, ‘You have to be patient.’ But he was like Manfred — he passed about four cars on the first lap, then crashed! And he looks like him too…”