Racing Lives: Jo & Markus Winkelhock

The Winkelhock family has tried many branches of the sport. The legacy began with Manfred Winkelhock – a veteran of 56 grands prix – who was killed during an accident in a Porsche 962 at Mosport in Canada in 1985. His younger brother, Joachim, became a British and German Touring Car champion and won Le Mans in 1999. Manfred’s son, Markus, was a star in single-seaters, and made a single F1 appearance in the 2007 European GP, where he established two records. He’s since gone on to be a GT1 world champion and has won the Nürburgring 24 Hours. Here uncle and nephew explain how they coped with losing Manfred and how their own racing careers flourished.

Jo Winkelhock

“When Manfred died, in 1985, it was difficult for the whole family. At the time, I was racing for fun. It wasn’t my intention to become a professional. I was competing in Formula Ford 2000, and after the accident I promised my parents that I would stop.

Manfred worked really hard to finance himself to get into racing. He never stopped; he was incredibly determined. But it made him quite a distant character.

“I would never cry when Dad left, but that time I cried for 10 minutes”

Those Porsche 962s were dangerous. The seat position and the roll cage were very close to the driver’s head, and with the aluminium monocoque the car was really dangerous. Three years after Manfred’s accident, I got an offer to drive one and I turned it down, because it was just too risky.

But after about three or four months of not racing I wanted to be back in the sport. Peter Müller, a good friend of Manfred’s, came to me, and said ‘Jo, I hear that next year Porsche will have a Porsche Cup, with the 944 Turbo.’ So I said, ‘Great, but I don’t have any money’.

Peter offered to buy the car and told me I had to prepare and run it myself, and with a bit of luck and some good driving on my part, there would be just enough prize money to finance the season. Sure enough, I won the Porsche Cup.

That’s where I met Willi Weber. He did some races in the Cup, and he was a nobody. When I won the championship, he came to talk to me about his F3 team. He had money but knew nothing about racing. However, he had a good engineer, Klaus Trella.

After my first test at Hockenheim, I was near the lap record. It was my first experience of a real race car, and I learned a lot from Klaus about setup. So Willi bought a new car for 1987, and I finished second. The year after I won the German F3 Championship and the European F3 Cup. Michael Schumacher joined Willi’s team a year later.

That victory propelled me into the AGS F1 team. But unfortunately that turned into my personal disaster. The car wasn’t too bad, but I needed time to find out what was going on behind the scenes of the team.

They weren’t interested in me even getting through pre-qualifying, because they needed all the money for my team-mate Gabriele Tarquini. At Monaco, after qualifying, I saw them remove fuel from my car, and it had been nearly completely full!

There was another time when a journalist called me to ask about why I wasn’t at a test day with Tarquini and the team. Well, nobody had told me it was happening!

The irony was that I could have driven for Eddie Jordan in F3000, but my sponsor, Camel cigarettes, said it had to be F1.

Jo Winkelhock spent 14 years racing in German touring cars and says the BMW M3 is his pick of the bunch
Jo Winkelhock spent 14 years racing in German touring cars and says the BMW M3 is his pick of the bunch

The DTM cars were really hard work. They were a real touring car – not like today, where they are bespoke with carbon-fibre chassis – and the cost of adapting them from a production car meant they were more than 500,000 deutschmark over 30 years ago.

But racing them was a great honour, because you were up against Cecotto, Soper, Ravaglia, Stuck, Ludwig and Keke Rosberg. It was amazing. I feel lucky to have done it.

We’d be racing in front of stadiums with 100,000 spectators. But better still was my time in the BTCC. Those were my favourite years in motor racing, and I don’t just say that for the benefit of readers in Britain.

Steve Soper was a terrific team-mate. And I soon earned my nickname, ‘Smokin’ Jo, because I wasn’t used to driving touring cars without anti-lock brakes, so in the first season you’d see me locking up the wheels.

Winning at Le Mans was an emotional highpoint for me. The BMW V12 LMR was a simple ‘manual’ car that had little to go wrong. When I got out of the car and went to the podium, Alan McNish said to me, ‘Jo, enjoy being on that podium. It’s such a special feeling.’ He was racing with Toyota that year, and had won with Porsche the year before.

I feel so lucky to have made it through; I had many bad accidents, with a couple of big ones at Macau, but at the end of it I feel lucky to have finished my career without hurting myself badly.

You sense Manfred through Markus’s character; he’s obviously his son. It brings back memories when you spend time around him. He is a lot of fun, just like his dad. And he’s proved himself to be a great driver, too.

Racing is behind me. I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision in stopping when I did [in 2003], but at 43 years old I was tired of all the travelling.”

Markus Winkelhock

“I was five when the crash happened so I don’t really have many memories of my father. One time, my father had a BMW M1 and I was at Kindergarten. He picked me up in it, and I was so proud.

The other thing I remember was when he was leaving to go to the race at Mosport [in Canada]. He had two bags, which were on the doorstep as he was saying goodbye. He carried the first one to the car, while I tried to lift the second but it was far too heavy for me so I was dragging it along the floor. “Come on, give it to me, it’s far too heavy,” he said.

Ordinarily, my Mum [Martina] tells me, I would never cry when my father left home for a race. I was always happy when he came back, but I wouldn’t get upset as he left. But Mum says that one time, as he left for the race where he died, I was crying for 10 minutes and I didn’t want him to go. She says it was strange, because I’d never done that before.

In 2015 I visited Mosport. A German broadcaster, ARD, asked me to help make a documentary about Dad [Winkelhock – Ein Leben am Limit]. It was an emotional process.

Watching the finished production was not easy. I had tears in my eyes. Most of what I knew about Dad came from family stories, or from people around the paddock. So seeing him on screen was emotional.

It’s no secret that the Group C Porsches were dangerous. I’ve spoken with other drivers from the era, including Klaus Ludwig and Marc Surer, who was Dad’s team-mate, and they are happy to have survived that stage of their careers.

But they were fun times, too. Look at today’s DTM. You’ll have two floors of hospitality units, but Mum told me when my father was in F1 there was no hospitality. They’d just sit on a bench eating a sandwich!

My career started by accident. Actually, it was for a bet. My grandfather’s crane hire business would sometimes hold a bungee jump event in the summer. When I was 11, my grandfather said, ‘If you do the jump, you’ll get 1000 deutschmark.’ Then my other uncle said, ‘Yeah, and I’ll give you a go-kart.’ They didn’t believe that I’d have the guts to jump 75 metres or whatever it was!

So I jumped, got the money and the kart, and messed around until I was 18, when I did my first season of car racing, in Formula König. I ended up second, just missing the championship. But to get to that point I’d had to hide things from my mother. Naturally, in the beginning, she was not happy. So for the first test, somewhere in France, I told Mum I was going to a friend’s, then did the test, signed the contract for the season, and went home. She never said I must not do it. And to this day, she rarely watched me race.

Markus has gone on to be successful in GT3
Markus has gone on to be successful in GT3

Most of my race craft has been self-taught. I think I got some talent from my Dad, but I never went to my uncle, for example, and asked for tips about tracks or anything like that. I’m independently minded, and like to work with engineers to adapt the cars and my technique. I’m a tough racer, but I like to get on with all my rivals. The racer I respected most is Robert Kubica.

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Markus Winkelhock: The day I led the European GP in a Spyker

Markus Winkelhock: The day I led the European GP in a Spyker

It’s one of Formula 1’s extraordinary stories: the driver who started last on his debut and went on to lead the 2007 European Grand Prix. Markus Winkelhock tells the full tale of his one and only – short-lived – F1 race

By James Elson

When I was younger, I’d watch Joachim at DTM races and those were seriously cool cars. These days, I’d say I’m having the best time of my career because GT cars compete in so many different races – Bathurst 12 hour, Spa 24, Nürburgring 24 – and at so many different tracks. It’s the variety that I love.

I still love racing, even after 20 years. It’s something special. At Bathurst, the 12-hour race, for example, I saw first-hand how much it means to people. There was a father with his son, who was in a wheelchair, and I took them into the garage and gave his son a tour of the car. You could see in his eyes how much that moment meant to him, and it’s moments like that which remind you it’s not a normal office job. It makes me proud.

Would I like to see a Winkelhock on a race team? I’m not sure. Everyone says it’s stressful. But never say no, maybe I could do it with my uncle…

Markus’s F1 debut was notable for setting two records. He was called up to Spyker after Christijan Albers split from the team. Winkelhock started last, but was the only car on wet tyres with rain falling. He led for six laps as the field stopped to change tyres, making him the only driver ever to start last and lead his first grand prix. When the race was red-flagged as rain intensified, Winkelhock was on pole for the re-grid, making him the only driver ever to start last and first on the same grid. He retired from the race with hydraulic failure.