F1's got talent
…And some of it’s due to Red Bull spotter Helmut Marko. But 40 years ago he was the one under the spotlight – until fate intervened
By Alan Henry
He might have turned into the best Formula 1 driver that Austria ever produced. An overstatement? To dyed-in-the-wool Niki Lauda fans, certainly. They will bristle at the suggestion. But the fact of the matter is that dry-witted Helmut Marko was regarded as a sensational driving talent in the early 1970s, an accomplished sports car driver who won Le Mans in a Porsche 917 and the deft master of the close-fought European 2-litre sports car championship arena that same year.
Marko was recruited by the BRM team late in 1971 and was running sixth in the following year’s French Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand when his helmet visor was shattered by a flint which went straight through and embedded itself in his eye. Mercifully, Marko managed to bring the fuel-laden BRM P160 to a halt safely without triggering a further disaster, but at the age of 29 his international racing career was over.
But who would have guessed that nearly 40 years later Marko’s influence within motor sport would be greater than it ever could be as a driver? These days he is arguably the most powerful talent spotter in F1. Red Bull’s interests in the junior single-seater ladder are probably greater even than Marlboro’s during the 1980s, and Marko heads up the energy drink’s Young Driver Programme, talent spotting from race series around the globe. From karting upwards, he selects promising young drivers to be part of the programme, helping place them in teams in various formulae according to their age and ability, monitoring their progress and giving them advice. Over the years those he has helped steer towards F1 include promising Scuderia Toro Rosso twins Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi.
Marko also attends every Grand Prix, working closely with Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner, and is widely regarded as Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz’s most trusted confidant. But 40 years ago it was he who was the ace in the cockpit.
Marko hailed from the provincial Austrian city of Graz and was a close friend and contemporary of Jochen Rindt. His father was an electrical dealer. Helmut and his friends were all pretty rowdy and in trouble with the local police on a pretty regular basis. Mention the names Andy Zahlbruckner, Stefan Pachaneck – who would later become a successful motorcycle trials rider – and Helmut Reininghaus of the famous Austrian brewing dynasty, and his face cracks into a broad grin.
Rindt, with his ‘wild hair and racy blue jeans’, was regarded as the gang leader and their enthusiasm for cars and motor sport grew together. Jochen enjoyed private means. His parents had been killed in a bombing raid on Hamburg in 1943 when he was still a young child, but he inherited a stake in a prosperous Mainz-based spice business called Klein & Rindt.
These adventures included Marko in his parents’ Chevrolet taking on Rindt’s Simca Montlhéry in the dead of night on the roads between Graz and Bruck, not far from the old Zeltweg aerodrome circuit which would host the first World Championship Austrian GP in 1964. All this ended with the Marko Chevy balanced on the edge of a cliff after Helmut attempted to avoid an oncoming truck. Despite the gang’s best efforts, the Chevy slipped over into oblivion.
“I’d taken it out of my father’s garage at home at about three o’clock in the morning and went out racing against Jochen’s Simca,” says Marko. “But the Chevy’s road holding was not as good as the Simca’s and the next thing I know it’s hanging over this cliff, rocking gently. Then, suddenly, it was gone.”
To say that Marko’s father was unamused is to stray into the area of gross understatement. “As you can imagine, there was a huge row,” he grins. “My father hadn’t been able to work out why his car had apparently been consuming so much fuel. Now he knew!” Rindt later split his Simca in two when he collided with a snowplough hidden in a drift. How this pair were not killed at an early age remains a mystery.
“A year or two earlier Jochen and I had been more or less kicked out of our school in Graz, so we had to go to a boarding school about 200km away,” explains Helmut. “There, Jochen had a skiing accident, and the second time he broke his upper leg, a rather complicated fracture.
“It was a half-hour walk from the school to the boarding house where we were staying, so with his broken leg this was a real problem. But he managed to get his hands on this really old Volkswagen from the spice works to take him to school. It came complete with a chauffeur, but Jochen soon got rid of him and drove it himself, despite the plaster cast on his leg. When I say this car was old, I mean really old, not even with synchromesh on the gearbox.
“So Jochen sent the chauffeur back home, telling the people at the spice works that he was no longer needed because one of us now had a driving licence. Of course, none of this was true, so all of a sudden, at 17 years old, we had access to a car, which was fantastic.
“Of course Jochen was very frustrated at not being able to drive for a few weeks, but I think that frustration at being in a plaster cast accelerated the speed of his recovery.”
Marko continues the explanation: “Every weekend we came home to Graz, but there was a strict rule that whoever was driving would only be allowed to stay behind the wheel as long as he didn’t make any mistake in the judgement of the other passengers sitting in the back.
“A mistake, for us, meant that he wasn’t always right on the limit. Backing off was regarded as the worst offence. It was all pretty wild. On one occasion we were waiting at a railway crossing near Graz and the local traffic police caught up with us, making some pretty critical comments about Jochen’s driving style and asking to see his driving licence, which, of course, he did not have.
“Jochen said ‘oh, this my German passport. In Germany this counts as a driving licence as well, so we don’t need two separate documents.’ I mean, it was incredible the things he made up!”
The pair later travelled in the VW to spectate at the 1961 German GP at the Nürburgring, although Jochen, typically, had left his wallet at home and they arrived outside the spice factory in Mainz out of money and fuel in the middle of the night. Unconcerned, Jochen banged on the door, woke everybody up and successfully managed to scrounge a cash advance from his family firm.
Marko realised that Rindt really wanted to race – and he was determined to emulate his rich young friend. But how was he to turn those dreams into reality?
“We were race fans, but there seemed to be precious little prospect of us breaking into the sport. Austria had not yet got a permanent circuit, just airfield tracks like Aspern, near Vienna, and Zeltweg,” he remembers wistfully. “So we competed in a few rallies, Jochen in the Simca and me on a motorcycle. Then Jochen came into his inheritance and he was able to afford to start racing on his own.
“He got an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Ti, tuned by Conero in Turin, and won pretty much every race he took part in on the Austrian domestic scene. Meanwhile, on the basis of our night racing antics, I reached the conclusion that, if Jochen could make it, then perhaps I should be pursuing the same route.”
Yet there was really no tradition of motor racing in Austria. Jochen was very much the trailblazer in that respect, firing the interest and attention of journalists like Heinz Pruller and Helmut Zwickl as he climbed through Formula Junior and into F2.
“I bought a Formula Vee racer, an Austro Vee, then I sold it at the end of ’67 at a decent profit,” says Marko. “From then on I always made money from my racing, although I never had any support financially from my parents.”
In 1969 Marko drove at one stage for the McNamara F3 Team as well as in sports and saloon cars, in fact anything he could get his hands on. “I would say it was [in] 1969 that I started to be a real professional,” he recalls.
“I got a ride in a 908 with Martini Racing. I think I did the fastest 908 time at Spa. In 1970, I finished third at Le Mans sharing a Martini 908 with Rudi Lins. That year Hans Hermann and Richard Attwood won the race in a Porsche and then I came back to repeat that achievement with Gijs van Lennep the following year.”
At the Sarthe the two men set a new distance record of 3315.2 miles in the short-tailed Martini Racing 917: “I drove I don’t know how many 917s, but I can remember that each one felt different. It was a beast, a real beast. But if you could get it handling well, it was really something. Le Mans was a real surprise and a bit of a shock, too. Ferdinand Piech, who of course was a member of the Porsche family, came up to van Lennep and I and said, ‘well, I’m really surprised that this car finished the race.’
“I said ‘why?’ and he explained that it had been built around a special lightweight chassis frame, the stiffness of which was uncertain. I understood it was also highly inflammable, even by the standards of the time when the damn things could burst into flame after even the most gentle of impacts.
“Afterwards you think, hell, you’re doing 400kph on the straight, with nothing but a little bit of glassfibre in front of your feet. I found it was best not to dwell on things like that.”
Yet it was driving the 2-litre Lola T212 in the European sports car championship that really made Marko’s reputation, the compact car being prepared by Heini Mader and Mario Illien, later of Cosworth/Ilmor fame.
“The whole operation was overseen by Jo Bonnier, with whom I got on very well,” says Marko. “He was quite cultured and had interests outside the sport. I remember being impressed when I visited his home near Jackie Stewart’s place in Switzerland, where one wall was completely taken up by his old McLaren-BRM M5 GP car. I made my F1 debut for him in an old McLaren M7C at the 1971 German GP, but I only managed a couple of practice laps and never started the race.
“I was eventually invited to drive a BRM P153 in the Austrian GP at Zeltweg. This was the same race in which Niki made his debut in the March, of course. After this I got the call from Louis Stanley and I drove for BRM in the remaining races that season.”
For 1972, Marko stayed on as a member of the so-called ‘Marlboro World Championship Team’ as the BRM was now pompously rebranded. He also joined the Alfa Romeo sports car team, finishing second in the Targa Florio, and also took a Ferrari 312PB to second at the Osterreichring. After driving the BRM P160 to fourth in the inaugural non-championship F1 race at Interlagos, Helmut had high hopes for the rest of the year. They were not to be realised.
“I remember driving pretty well in the rain at Monaco,” he says, “but the thing that sticks in my mind was that the team manager, Tim Parnell, had a portable television set on the pitwall so he could watch some bloody English football match. And it tells you everything about how the BRM team was run in those days by the fact that the only thing protected from the driving rain was the damn television!”
Within another few weeks, with brutal abruptness, came the accident at Clermont-Ferrand which ended Helmut Marko’s driving career. “I knew I was in trouble from the moment I felt the searing pain in my eye,” he says, “but my more immediate worry was stopping the car safely. The BRM V12 was really thirsty, so it was absolutely full to the brim with fuel. I don’t know how much precisely, but I was also mindful of the fact that there were 20 cars behind me.
“Thankfully, I managed to get it stopped, then haul myself out of the cockpit before I lost consciousness. Then my friend Vic Elford arrived in the course car, a VW-Porsche 916, gathered me up and took me around to the lavishly appointed Grand Prix Medical Unit.
“They really knew nothing. They hadn’t a clue, completely lost. All they did was put some fluid in my eye that made it hurt even worse. They put me in an ambulance, took me to a local hospital, then onto a second hospital. From the accident to where I needed to be took three and a half hours, only to discover that the doctor required was at a barbecue. It was a Sunday, after all.
“At about 10pm an eye specialist eventually arrived. With modern laser technology, today such eye damage could be repaired. Looking back, I recall that before the race we had a discussion about my position in the cockpit being too high – the top of my head was sticking above the rollbar. I sometimes wonder if that had been addressed before I started the race…
“Yes, I was bitter. I had several operations, but none of them did any good. Up to then there had been nothing in my life but racing, and now I suddenly realised it was all over and I would have to look for something else.”
The answer was a career in the legal profession, but Marko eventually returned to racing as a successful team boss in the 1990s. RSM Marko won the F3000 title with Jörg Muller in 1996 before the team changed its name to Red Bull Junior. From here, his career as an influential single-seater talent spotter had begun.
Chatting with Helmut rekindles happy memories of good times past.
In the early ’70s the F2 media corps comprised literally a handful of us and we regarded motor racing’s second division as something to be cherished and encouraged. In some ways we were curiously resentful of F1 because, in our rather innocent view, the real racing was in F2 and nowhere much else. One absolutely knew that anybody who starred in F2 would make it through to the World Championship arena.
That said, Marko never had the best equipment. In 1971 you needed a Brabham, March or Lotus to have a hope of winning. Helmut had the works Lola T240 which wasn’t in the same class.
I recall flying from Madrid to Frankfurt with him after the F2 international at Jarama and him telling me just what a physical effort it had been wrestling the car from kerb to kerb. Lauda, at this point, was in a works ‘renta’ March.
In those pre-Ryanair days much time travelling around Europe was spent changing planes at strategically placed hubs. When we arrived at Frankfurt, Helmut and I went our different ways, him back to Vienna and me back to Heathrow and a press day at Motoring News. I hadn’t been back at my desk for more than a few minutes before the phone rang.
“Hi, I’m one of your readers,” said the voice. “I’ve just been watching over the fence during testing at Goodwood this morning. Did you know that Helmut Marko is testing an F1 McLaren M19 here today?”
‘Bloody Helmut,’ I thought. ‘That was a rotten trick to play on me.’ Then the penny dropped. The guy testing the McLaren had been Mark Donohue. Our correspondent had seen ‘Mark’ from a distance painted on the side of his helmet and reached the wrong conclusion.
Understandably so. But it’s a shame Helmut Marko never got that sort of opportunity.