Procar: The ultimate one-make racer

Cars with more power than grip and top F1 drivers made the M1 Procar series very special. For many, it provided the best one-make racing ever seen, remembers Alan Henry

The rolled, they slid wildly and, despite paying lip service to aerodynamics with nose spoilers and rear wings, they had a surplus of power over adhesion. Small wonder that the BMW M1 Procar series, which provided the supporting races at European Grands Prix throughout 1979 and 1980, is still recalled by many as the best one-make racing series ever devised.

Ironically, just as the McLaren-BMW F1 GTRs are today enjoying a level of international racing success never originally envisaged when Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray outlined plans for the ultimate road-going super performance coupe in 1989, so the BMW M1s were never really intended for the racing series which made their name.

The BMW M1 had been conceived as a basis on which to challenge Porsche in the World Sports Car Championship, but production delays meant that the central-engined, Lamborghini-built coupe was simply not ready in time. The plan was to race the M1 in the ‘silhouette’ Group 5 sportscar category, so called because one of the few restrictions on competing cars was the requirement to retain the outline of the road car from which they were derived.

Unfortunately, by the time it was ready to go, the sportscar championship rules absurdly volatile at the best of times were changed. Henceforth a fixed number of the basic model had to be sold before the car could be homologated for racing purposes.

For the sake of racing credibility, BMW competitions manager Jochen Neerpasch put his head together with Max Mosley, today’s FIA president but then a leading light in the Formula One Constructors’ Association, to come up with a high profile series of Grand Prix supporting events.

The M1s would not only be sold off to private entrants, but BMW would also field five ‘celebrity’ cars to be driven by the fastest F1 drivers in the first practice session of the weekend. The races were billed as pitching the eager privateers against F1 ‘s leading lights, with separate championships for both seeded and non-seeded competitors.

The first round took place at Zolder, as a curtain raiser to the 1979 Belgian GP, and immediately threw up more than a handful of organisational problems. However, there was no question about it; the Procars certainly looked the part. The 3.5-litre straight-six engines developed about 470bhp, but in Procar specification had their rev limiters set at 8500rpm 500rpm below their intended limit in an effort to keep them reliable.

Sadly, it wasn’t sufficient to keep all the M1s running in anger. For the first few races the cars proved worryingly unreliable. Moreover, with the Procars running on Goodyear rubber, there was no way in which Ferrari F1 drivers Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve, or Renault’s Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Rene Amoux, could take any part in the proceedings as their GP teams ran on Michelin’s products.

The format of the races also provoked an unholy row between the sport’s governing body, FlSA, and the Procar Association. The sport’s masters dismissed the one-make series as a publicity stunt and, emboldened by this stance, the French Federation attempted to ban the Procars from the French GP programme. But then F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone signalled that the series had his blessing by pointing out that if there were no Procars, then there would be no GP.

So the M1s were there as usual. It was all wild and woolly stuff. Niki Lauda, who shrewdly had himself organised as a non-seeded runner with a Marlboro-backed M1 run by Ron Dennis’s Project 4 organisation, won the first year’s championship. The high spot of his season was elbowing a path ahead of Clay Regazzoni’s M1 to win the supporting race at Monaco, thereby confounding the cynics who said that it was impossible to pass on this absurdly confined street circuit.

Nelson Piquet was also as keen as anybody to get a run in the Procars. Paid only a modest stipend by Ecclestone for driving his works F1 Brabhams, the Brazilian was inevitably a quick enough qualifier to get a place in the Procar field. It was great pocket money for him, and would continue to be so through into 1980 when he succeeded Lauda as the second and last Procar champion.

Procar also threw up some very talented drivers of its own, most notably the young German Hans-Georg Berger, who almost won the 1979 round at Hockenheim. Sadly, Berger’s talent was never to reach fruition, for he was killed in a bizarre accident on the warm-up lap of the 1980 European F2 race at Zandvoort when his Tiga slid off the circuit and hit a catch fence supporting post.

My most vivid memory of the Procar era is of the Hockenheim race in 1980. No longer an F1 driver, Hans Stuck nevertheless wanted desperately to win the German GP supporting race. From the start, he was locked in a wheel-to-wheel battle with Ligier driver Didier Pironi until the impassive Frenchman forced him up one of the chicane escape roads. Pironi just scrambled home the winner by less than a second from Manfield Schurti, with a furious Stuck recovering to finish third.

That wasn’t the end of the matter. Stuck uncoiled his six-foot frame from the confined cockpit of his M1 to unleash a furiously vocal critique of Pironi’s driving – straight to the Frenchman’s face. `Hanschen’ was visibly quivering with rage, but Pironi just faced him down with that impassive stare which he’d made his hallmark. Didier, quite frankly, couldn’t have cared less.