Having made a fortune out of alloy wheels, Gunter Schmid bought a Formula One team. But he knew everyone’s jobs better than they did…Adam Cooper talks to some of the drivers who rode the rapids of ATS
The Grand Prix history books show that there have been two teams by the name of the ATS. The first was seen only in 1963, and hailed from Italy, while the second was in action from 1977-’84, and had Germanic roots.
The shared name is just a coincidence, but the teams do have two things in common. The first is a Ferrari connection; the earlier effort involved an ex-Ferrari driver and former Ferrari technical staff, while the more recent incarnation produced both a future driver and chief designer for the Scuderia. The other link is their singular lack of success…
While the ’60s team faded without trace, the more modem ATS did at least score a few points. Having said that, three fifths and three sixths in eight seasons wasn’t much to shout about. ATS is remembered not for the results it achieved, but for the way its unique boss ran the show. Hans-Gunther Schmid might have become Germany’s Ron Dennis or Frank Williams, but for a fatal character flaw. He could never forget that ATS was his team. Delegation was not a strong point, and nor was diplomacy. Working for him required the patience of a saint and few could stick it for long. Anyone with an opinion of his own was shown the door. The notorious team manager’s job had the highest turnover in motorsport; among the well-known names who came and went were Jo Ramirez, Vic Elford, Peter Collins, Fred Opert and Alistair Caldwell.
Nor were drivers exempt from Herr Schmid’s autocratic ways. He thought he knew more about set-up than they did, and was often convinced they should be going quicken And these were not talentless also-rans; at various times he employed the likes of Jean-Pierre Jarier, Jochen Mass, Keke Rosberg, Hans Stuck, Jan Lammers, Marc Surer and Gerhard Berger.
No longer in racing, Schmid is now in his 60s. While he no doubt has his own version of the ATS saga, there is no one better equipped to tell the full, colourful talc than the aforementioned seven drivers. Their stories have a remarkably similar theme…
His first step was to buy the cars and equipment of the defunct Penske team, and hire Jarier to drive. They turned up unheralded at Long Beach, and, to everyone’s astonishment, finished sixth.
“The result gave him encouragement,” says JPJ, “but it was the worst thing for him. It made him think that it was so easy to score a point in front of a Ferrari. But it wasn’t because of him and his organisation, it was only because he had an excellent driver like me and a very good car. It wasn’t even really a team there were just two mechanics and we were in the factory which made the ATS rims.
“He’d already decided to modify the car, the bodywork and everything, and that made us less competitive. What’s more, the mechanics were not F1 guys; when I asked them to balance the brakes, put more bias at the front or the back, they didn’t know how to do it. In a way it made me sad to have such a fantastic car – I tell you with a good team I could have been on the podium.
“Schmid tried to apply the methods of the German businessman into motor racing. It was very difficult for him to understand the world of F1, the way to get organised. It was a big joke. He was a funny guy with a strange character. It was very difficult to get along with him. Even with no experience at all he wanted to make decisions on the car.”
But Schmid was ambitious. For 1978 he did a deal with Max Mosley and Robin Herd, and effectively bought the declining March F1 team and its FOCA membership. He set up shop in a factory in Bicester, and started the year with a heavily disguised Penske while a pukka new ATS with March heritage was designed. His new driver was Jochen Mass, who’d known Schmid since the Vee days.
“I was led to believe that Robin Herd would be there the whole year, and since I got on with Robin very well, I thought that can’t be too bad. But they drifted apart after the first race and that’s something I hadn’t really foreseen.
“I haggled with Gunther for the rest of the season. He had business sense, but he couldn’t handle a team as such. The constant coming and going of team personnel… we had a lot of friction that year.
“At Rio I got uptight with him because he didn’t let the guys do their job. The way they worked wasn’t good enough for him. He told every mechanic how to hold a screwdriver. I said ‘Lay off, let them be’. That was the first time we barked at each other. I told him I’d give him a book on psychology and how to lead people. He grew up knowing everything better than anybody else, and treated everybody like total fools. His lack of patience was remarkable.”
Jochen’s season ended with a huge autumn testing accident at Silverstone when the suspension on his ATS failed on the approach to Stowe.
“I broke my knees, legs, shoulder, ribs… I hit the bank very hard, the engine tore off and flew away, and the car caught fire.”
Among the team’s other drivers in 1978 was Rosberg. “I had a fantastic race at Brands,” says Keke. “I was running fourth when the whole thing fell apart; the rear end basically came off the car. Schmid said I drove it too hard, and I said, `If you don’t drive it hard you ain’t gonna run fourth!’
“He had a very, very quick temper. He was trying to run everything himself, but the world was slipping away from him. He had too much on his plate. He would have loved to run the team from Germany, but there were no staff trained for F1. His problem was that he never accepted that it had to be run from England. Anything they did in England had to be wrong…”
For 1979, Schmid signed up Hans Stuck. “I had the choice between Williams and ATS,” says Stuck. “But with Williams the problem was that I’d have to pre-qualify for every European GP, and I would not have had a spare car, and that made it very awkward for me. And of course, no money at all!
“Schmid showed me all the things he wanted to do, the engineers and designers he’d have. And also some money was involved, good money for me, to be the single man in the team having a spare car. So I made this decision to join ATS, which of course was totally wrong…
“He had lots of ideas and he was enthusiastic about everything, but the biggest problem was Schmid himself. He did not let the guys work as they wanted to. He always came to interfere with tyres and ratios and so on, and he would try to teach the drivers how to drive.
“I have to admit his street wheels were very nice and very good, and he was very successful. But for Monaco he brought along some ATS wheels for the F1 car. With lots of luck I was lying in third place shortly before the end, and of all a sudden a front wheel broke down by the swimming pool. It bounced, boom, boom, boom and shunted into the water. And of course he said that I’d hit the guardrail beforehand and all this shit, which was not true.
“In Dijon I had to use qualifiers that Niki Lauda had already run on. The tyres were junk, and the result wasn’t so good. Schmid started to complain, crying and shouting and telling the press. So then Goodyear sent a telex saying he had to pay for the tyres, and he had to pay in advance, otherwise he wouldn’t get any. And Mr Schmid just threw it in the garbage. The next race was Silverstone, and when I arrived the car was not ready for practice because we had no tyres. We had to pull off a fantastic effort to get some money transferred from Bad Neuheim to Silverstone with a plane, a helicopter…
“Of course I wasn’t a star like James Hunt or Ronnie Peterson, but I think I did my job as well as I could. But he always interfered. It was a pity because we had the money and the possibilities, and we just could not put it together. He had good ideas, but the problem was he wanted too many things too quickly. I’d never say he was an idiot, he was right sometimes. What he really needed was a genuine star driver where he knew he could not interfere.”
Stuck finished fifth in what turned out to be his last ever F1 race, at Watkins Glen.
“I had a spin, but with those two points I secured him membership of FOCA, so it saved him a lot of money for the following year. When I came in after the race he said ‘Why didn’t you finish third?’ He didn’t even say thank you…”
In 1980 the man in the hot seat was Marc Surer. “Schmid came to me and said ‘I would like to see you in my car. I have Hans Stuck, but I want to get rid of him. But you have to give me a reason, because it’s very hard for a German team to get rid of a German driver and take a Swiss. The reason could be a good sponsor…’
“At this time I had some money from Buler, a watch company. I signed an ATS contract for $500,000 so Gunther was happy, and I was to pay in four quarters. But in fact my own contract with Buler said I only had $250,000! The first payment went through, then the second, but of course there was no third. And I was so lucky. Right at this time Buler got into financial straits and they sent a letter to all the creditors, ‘Sorry we can’t pay at the moment, you have to be patient.’ So he didn’t find out that I was the fool who signed the contract which I couldn’t stand for!
“However, when I bought a BMW M1, he said to me Did you buy that with the Buler money?’ I changed the number plates on the car and put it in a different owner so they couldn’t take it away. I was really afraid of him…”
Surer’s spell with the team included an incident which has passed into legend.
“In Argentina, we had a new wing which we thought was a lot better. It was designed by Gustav Brunner, and he has proved since that he is a good engineer. But the real engineer in this team was Gunther Schmid. He saw the wing and said ‘I don’t like it. I don’t want this on my car.’ But we’d tested at Silverstone, and it worked better.
“Anyway, we put the wing on, and he came to the track in the late morning. We’d just made a back-to-back test. He got upset that we’d tested this wing without his permission, that he jumped on it and destroyed it! I said it looked like an angry child was destroying his toys. Of course the press took that quote and I had a big problem.”
So what was the Argentina tantrum all about?
“It was not his idea. He could see what the other teams did, and if we did something different, it could not be any good, simple as that. He hated to have the team in England. I went to the factory in Bicester every day, and he’d ring up and say ‘Get me Marc on the phone’. He’d say ‘What are they doing, are they working?’ He just didn’t trust anybody. Whenever we said ‘Sorry we can’t test, it’s raining’, he’d say ‘Oh it’s nice here in Germany.’ One time Jo Ramirez said he could hear in the background the rain pouring in Germany but he just said it’s sunny.”
Surer then broke his feet in a big accident at Kyalami — he was sent out with a soft brake pedal and it went to the floor — and thus Lammers took centre stage, despite having failed to qualify the second car in the first two races.
“My problem was that my main sponsor pulled out,” recalls Jan, “which was unfortunate because I had just been offered a Brabham drive by Bernie. For the same amount that I paid Shadow in 1979, I could have driven for Brabham! Instead I started with Gunther on the basis of running two races at a time.
“He would make judgements on handling and other stuff at moments where he couldn’t possibly know. He was a guy who relied more on his intuition than direct knowledge at that moment. The most annoying thing about him was that he was right most of the time.
“What also made him a character was his German accent. He spoke English well but I don’t think he felt 100% comfortable. When he got upset that didn’t help his English, and he would translate literally from the German then he came across as being very blunt just because the English didn’t quite cut it. When he got really angry his vocabulary got really limited, made him even more frustrated, and that caused stress, and he would just take a flip…”
Nevertheless, Lammers caused a sensation when he qualified fourth at Long Beach.
“There were two things I could never imagine. First of all was being on the second row. The other thing was that I would have to do with that achievement for the rest of my life. I thought I was going to get a bit more on my CV.”
Jan’s driveshaft broke on the first lap, and that was that. Elsewhere, when the car was running well, something always failed.
In 1981 Schmid hired Slim Borgudd, who managed to finish sixth at Silverstone, and then in ’82 he took on rising German star Manfred Winkelhock and Eliseo Salazar. The latter earned ATS massive publicity when he was assaulted by Nelson Piquet after a shunt at the Hockenheim chicane, while Winkelhock became something of a stabilising force, and was in the team for three years. He also helped to win BMW engines for ATS in 1983. At the same time Brunner designed a new car which had a genuine revolutionary touch; it was the first F1 car in which a carbon tub doubled as the cockpit bodywork.
With BMW power behind him Winkelhock had some fine moments, often qualifying in the top 10, but reliability was appalling. Late in 1984 he was joined by a new young team-mate fresh out of Formula Three.
“Schmid helped me into F1,” says Gerhard Berger, “And he was always nice to me. He offered me a car, but didn’t have an engine. I went to BMW and they gave me one, so we put it all together. It was a very good car, I was very happy with it. But he was unpredictable.
“At Monza it was raining, and they were all going out on wet tyres. And Gunther says to me, ‘You go out on slicks.’ It was my first time in an F1 car in the wet, and he sent me out on slicks. I said ‘OK, you’ll kill me, but it doesn’t matter, I’ll go.’ And I was quickest! I overtook Lauda on the outside in the Lesmos, and my number was first on the big scoreboard. I couldn’t believe it. That was typical Gunther. He did strange things, but he knew what he wanted.”
Berger finished sixth that weekend, and it was pretty much ATS’s swansong. Schmid closed the team at the end of the year after contesting 99 races.
But there was a postscript. In 1988 he returned with a new team, Rial, named after another wheel business which he’d taken over. Brunner was again involved, while Andrea de Cesaris was signed up. Amazingly he finished fourth in Detroit – a better result than any achieved by ATS. The following year Christian Danner repeated the feat at Phoenix. But by the end of the year the new team had folded, and Schmid was gone for good.
Perhaps bizarrely, all his drivers retain an affection for him. “If you’re not working for him, it’s good, he’s a nice guy,” says Surer. “When you work for him he thinks he owns you. But we have a good relationship now. I think all the drivers will tell the same story…”
“Basically he’s driving the shipping world as crazy now as he was driving the GP world at that time,” says Rosberg. “And I say all this with a positive feeling about him. But he still owes me some travel expenses!”
“It was a bit tough getting a final payment of him!” recalls Stuck. “I didn’t see him for a long time over 10 years. Then in January 1991 I spent the winter with my family in Boca Raton in Florida. We rented a house, and every morning I went jogging. I always went by a very nice house, and thought it must be owned by a very wealthy person. One morning I jogged by this house, the door opened, and Mr Schmid comes out. It was, ‘Hi, Stuckie!’. We got together for the first time after all our problems, and since then I’ve seen him regularly. We go to restaurants, drive our Harleys and have fun. As a human being, if you don’t have to work with him, he is a very nice guy…”