Retrospective: BMW Procar

Race of champions

One car, one aim – provide extra thrills for Grand Prix spectators. For two glorious years Procar did exactly that, could it now be on the brink of a spectacular return?

In the aftermath of the deal that will lead to Liberty Media taking over the running of Formula 1, one question kept cropping up: how do you make the sport more accessible and entertaining to new fans? Executives spoke about harnessing the power of social media, reducing ticket prices and improving the racing. 

But could it be that there is a simpler answer? Bring back a short-lived and almost forgotten racing series that has gone down in racing folklore as one of the most exciting and addictive cult classics of all time: Procar. 

Christian Horner seems to think so. The boss of Red Bull last season called for the return of the support series that ran for only two seasons between 1979-1980 and in which drivers such as Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Alain Prost and Emerson Fittipald go wheel to wheel in a single make series. And he hasn’t given up on the idea.

“When first I suggested it last year it was a romantic idea,” he says, “but I think it has merit – it would add an extra element to Grand Prix weekends. The difficulty is finding a way to do it without compromising any of the commercial deals the teams have. I haven’t discussed it in detail with Bernie – he’s had other things on his plate recently – but it would be a great way to make Formula 1 events even more appealing.”

Fans were treated to a nostalgic taste of the BMW M1 Procar Series – to give its full name – at the Austrian GP last June. It wasn’t quite as exuberant as the original, but it gave a taste of what was surely the most spectacular one-make series the sport has ever seen: over its two-year life no fewer than seven past or future world champions took part in Procar races, and a total of 35 drivers who started at least one Grand Prix featured on the entry list at some stage. It was also the last time that F1 drivers competed in support events on race weekends, before increasingly restrictive contracts and busy PR and briefing schedules made it impossible.

So how did it come about and why does it still hold such appeal? We tracked down some of the key figures to find out.

The series was the brainchild of then-BMW Motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch. The company was developing the Giugiaro-styled M1 as a Group 4 racer, but hadn’t built them quickly enough to homologate the required 400 examples of the 3.5-litre powered machine.

The only short-term option was to have a bespoke series, and helped by his strong F2 connections with Max Mosley – boss of March and Bernie Ecclestone’s right-hand man at FOCA – he pushed through the concept of a Grand Prix support event. 

“The person behind it was Neerpasch,” Mosley says. “He invented the name and came up with the whole idea, and we did it. We were very friendly in those days because of F2, and then Bernie obviously was in touch with them. Neerpasch wanted a presence at the F1 races, and the feeling was that if the F1 drivers were involved, then a lot of privateers would come along. That was the key to the whole thing.”

“I brought it about,” says Ecclestone. “It was something that we thought would be a good support event, which it turned out to be. BMW was happy and made a super car. And we put it together. It was a good series.”

“The way Bernie was selling it to the race organisers was that it was a much bigger and better show,” adds Mosley. “It was, ‘You’re getting more for your money.’ I think he realised quite early on that if you could have a Renault 5 race at Monaco, which was mind-numbingly boring, why couldn’t you have a proper race? Nowadays they look a bit primitive, a little like a DeLorean or something. In those days, they were it. If I had been little bit richer and slightly less grown up I would have wanted to buy one!”

Getting FOCA on board was crucial. It was agreed that the fastest five drivers in Friday’s F1 practice would qualify to take part in Saturday’s Procar race in works cars, and start from the first five grid slots. 

Unfortunately Ferrari and Renault wouldn’t let their guys play, due to a Michelin/Goodyear clash, but the other teams were on board. Initially the difficult bit was persuading the big names actually to do it, but the prospect of earning some hard cash – personally distributed by Mosley – did the trick.

“They could not make up their minds if they wanted to do it or not,” says Ecclestone. “Everyone seemed to be happy except Mario Andretti. He thought it was too much to do during the weekend. Then I explained to him what we had in mind was rewarding these people with a little bit of cash, and suddenly he thought he wasn’t too busy after all! 

“They got bonuses if they didn’t damage the car, all sorts of things. Carlos Reutemann was always collecting for that, he wouldn’t damage his car. It wasn’t a ‘brown envelope’, they got rewarded for their participation. The day job was all right, but not compared with today.”

“I remember Andretti saying he wouldn’t do it, but when the time came, he did,” adds Mosley. “As far as I remember it was something like $9000 if you were on pole, and then $6000, $4000, $3000, like the F1 points in those days. We used to deduct money if they damaged the cars. Reutemann would be in the middle of a shunt and still emerge without a scratch.

“I think it was Bernie’s idea that they should be given cash. If you say you are going to transfer some money, it’s not very exciting. If you put cash on the table… I once got photographed paying Niki Lauda behind the pits at Zandvoort.”  

In fact Lauda was so impressed by the Procar concept that he put together a deal to run the whole series in his own entry, backed by Marlboro and run by F2 team owner Ron Dennis, whose Project 4 organisation had built most of the M1 race cars. Niki could still use F1 practice to guarantee himself a top grid slot.

“The BMW project was very lucrative because of the failure of Lamborghini, who were the other party making the cars,” says Dennis. “We’d made 25, and they’d made one. BMW became very pressured in respect of making the cars quickly, and that was something which we were heavily rewarded for, and that provided me with the money to be able to build the first carbon-fibre F1 car…”

Alongside the established stars, the Procar series attracted three other classes of driver – BMW protégés and other youngsters on the fringes of F1, big names from the touring car world and finally one-make specialists and gentleman racers who could enjoy the chance to share a grid with the stars.

The first race at Zolder in May 1979 proved to be a disappointment. To the surprise of the sceptics the F1 drivers did take part, and those who ‘qualified’ on Friday were Lauda in his Project 4 car, plus Andretti, Jacques Laffite, Clay Regazzoni and Nelson Piquet in the Bob Sparshott-run works machines. In addition Hans Stuck, Elio de Angelis and Bruno Giacomelli all appeared in private entries.

At first the cars proved to be difficult to drive with the base set-up established by BMW development driver Marc Surer – it turned out that Goodyear had elected not to use the tyre construction that the Swiss driver had chosen, for cost reasons. In the race accidents and mechanical failures claimed many of the big names, and de Angelis proved to be a surprise winner for Osella.

There followed some controversy as FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre – wearing his FFSA hat – announced that the new series was a “publicity demonstration,” and would not be welcome at the French GP at Dijon. Ecclestone pointed out that Procar was part of the package, and in the end the Dijon event did go ahead, albeit officially billed as a ‘show’.

“It was guerrilla warfare with Balestre,” Mosley recalls. “We were always trying to think of something to annoy him, and he was always trying to think of something to annoy us…”

After the shaky start at Zolder the series began to establish itself. Procar became an entertaining part of European F1 weekends, while also appearing at Donington Park for the Gunnar Nilsson charity event. The cars were soon dialled in as teams and drivers explored set-ups. “I did one race in Monaco,” says Emerson Fittipaldi. “I never liked to do other races when I was in F1, but it was a lot of fun to drive and it was a very good idea from BMW. It was a big car for Monaco!”

The F1 stars enjoyed driving the cars, and not just because they knew they’d start at the front.

“As an F1 driver you had the advantage of being used to a mid-engined car,” Surer says. “A lot of typical touring car specialists were not so good in this car. It took them a long time to adapt to this nervousness. The F1 drivers could live with that, because it was closer to a single-seater. The car was fastest if you drove with very little rear wing, but then it was more nervous.”

“I liked the car a lot,” says Christian Danner, who entered in 1980. “It was mid-engined and you could drive it with very little steering effort. It was not like an arms-and-elbows car, it required a lot of precision.

“The only trouble was it didn’t have a 12-cylinder engine, which people had expected. The sole racing unit they had available was that straight six, which is a really stupid engine. It was so heavy, and not just because the block was big and crankshaft so long. The masses that you had to move to get revs were so high. It had good torque, but it took forever for the revs to come up.”

Top private entrants such as Schnitzer, Eggenberger, Sauber, Heidegger, TWR and Helmut Marko supported the series, and inevitably everyone was seeking an advantage over the works machines.

“It was exciting,” says Marko, who ran BMW rising star Markus Höttinger. “Always with Grands Prix, and against the Grand Prix drivers, so it was a really good challenge for the youngsters. It was the usual things, set-up, friction, trying to go as easy as possible on the bearings, tyre management, the normal stuff.”

“Scrutineering wasn’t that strict,” says Danner. “Our Cassani car wasn’t 100 per cent straight. We just cut the corners off the square front spoiler, so ours was kind of round. That reduced the drag a lot, and changed the airflow around the side of the car. And you know those things [louvres] on the rear window? If you put the third one the other way around, immediately you had much better airflow to the rear wing!”

Lauda proved to be the star of the first year, winning in Monaco, Silverstone and Hockenheim and pipping Stuck to the title.

“They were easy to drive, nice and powerful,” says the triple world champion. “I was lucky that I had the one Marlboro car, while the others were switching cars. This was an advantage. Ron Dennis was very good and we won the championship.”

Lauda retired from F1 after the ’79 season, but was later tempted back by his former Procar team boss: “I knew Ron anyway from Rondel Racing, and he was a known, good quantity. He developed, I developed, and we met again. He came back to me, and it served us both.”

There was a change for 1980 as the F1 drivers were no longer guaranteed the top five starting slots, so the rest had more of a chance to qualify at the front and win races. As well as the GP supports BMW retained Donington and added high-profile stand-alone events at AVUS and Norisring, although the F1 drivers still made the effort to take part. Piquet won the last three rounds to secure the championship, beating Alan Jones and Stuck.

By now series instigator Neerpasch had left BMW, and the Munich manufacturer was focusing on its F1 turbo project with Ecclestone’s Brabham team, so had other priorities.

“It was a one-year deal, and it was renewed for a second year,” says Mosley. “And after that BMW probably thought it was too expensive, and they’d had the best out of it.”

So Procar quietly faded away after two spectacular seasons, leaving nothing but memories and a roll call of drivers that – as well as those already mentioned – included Patrick Depailler, Didier Pironi, John Watson, Jochen Mass, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Riccardo Patrese, Arturo Merzario and Jean-Pierre Beltoise.

“I think it was the best series ever around F1,” says Surer, who still drives his tweaked M1 road car. “It was expensive for BMW, who paid the drivers and paid Bernie for permission to do it. As soon as the car was homologated for Group 4, in 1981, they stopped Procar and we did Le Mans and long-distance racing.

“This car is deep in my heart. Paul Rosche gave me a special engine and, with the set-up I have on mine, it’s the best road car you can find. People still look at it and say, ‘A BMW? I haven’t seen one of those yet. It must be new…’”

So could we see Procar’s return? Commercial deals probably rule out many teams and drivers, but Horner hasn’t given up. “If we weren’t able to make it work with current drivers, I still think there would be a place for it for the stars of yesteryear – there are plenty around.”