Interview: Dr Helmut Marko

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“Talent? That’s not enough. They need to be desperate.” Dr Helmut Marko, the man behind Red Bull’s ruthlessly efficient junior programme, explains what he looks for in young drivers

The public persona of Red Bull’s ‘driver chief without portfolio’ Dr Helmut Marko is very different from the man behind that mask. And he doesn’t give a fig about that; part of him even finds it amusing that he’s perceived as some malevolent ogre, co-conspiring with his friend, Red Bull’s mysterious owner Dietrich Mateschitz, in the mountain lair that is the headquarters of the evil empire. 

In reality he’s just a crazy ex-racer every bit as in love with it all as when he and his school buddy Jochen Rindt were terrorising the rural roads around Graz, trying to see how fast a car could pull a sled before the rider of the sled fell off (about 45mph), or racing a VW Beetle against a Chevrolet with the driver of the latter not allowed to pass on the straights, but only into the corners. The Chevrolet belonged to Marko’s parents and had been sneaked out of the garage without their knowledge in the dead of night. 

Another snapshot: after a stunning performance in the ’72 Targa Florio for Alfa Romeo, 28-year-old BRM F1 driver Marko has been given a try-out by the Ferrari sports car squad at his home circuit for the Österreichring 1000Kms. He finished second after leading, impressing them enough that at the following week’s French Grand Prix he had in his briefcase an unsigned Ferrari contract for ’73 for both sports cars and F1. In the race he was running in a strong fifth place when a stone flicked up from Ronnie Peterson’s March cost him his left eye. 

And just like that, a potentially fantastic racing career was brutally extinguished. “When you are racing you are very small minded; it’s the only world that exists. Then suddenly I was out of it and looking around. I did some other business – real estate and so on – and then I got offers from Ford and Renault to look after their Formula Ford and Mexico series. It was quite interesting, I always got to run it my way, not in the chain of command. That doesn’t work with me. I had my freedom and a budget.” Starting as he meant to go on, then…

His early forays were with young Austrian talent – Helmuth Koinigg, Marcus Höttinger, Hans-Georg Bürger (sadly all killed racing) and Gerhard Berger. “It wasn’t driver management as such, just drivers I had sympathy with and seeing what stupid mistakes they were making.” From there, into running his own team in F3 and F3000 (latterly backed by Red Bull) and finally selling up to Christian Horner, combining the Red Bull backing with that. Marko would never fit into a conventional organisational hierarchy. He’s retained the fierce independence of his youth and even within such an informal organisation as Red Bull, he has no official position and doesn’t report to anyone, not even his friend Mateschitz. But he is the man responsible for who gets on, who stays on and who gets taken off the conveyor belt of young talent that is the Red Bull junior driver scheme. As such he’s been instrumental in spotting Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz. And responsible for the termination in F1 of Jean-Eric Vergne, Sébastien Buemi, Tonio Liuzzi, Jaime Alguersuari and others. So what is it he looks for? 

“Talent, obviously. But that isn’t enough. I’m looking for guys that really desperately want it. In my day it was sleeping in the car, not arriving to an F3 race in your father’s helicopter. I recall Helmuth Koinigg [Marko’s first protégé, killed in the 1974 American Grand Prix] fighting like hell to do it against parental opposition. They were pharmacists so for them motor racing was something unserious. It was a personal engagement, a personal will to do it. Austria is a small country and support then was minimal, so you had to want it really desperately. So I’m looking for that kind of desire. It’s a different world now but I want drivers who want it very, very much. We have two at Red Bull like that with Ricciardo and Max – ‘I want to be in the car, I want to beat everyone.’ I would say that on the present F1 grid that maybe only half the drivers have this approach.  

“But yes he has to be quick and have the car control. We took a Dutch driver [Richard Verschoor] last year, and that was purely from watching him in the support race at Sochi, when he won the race by overtaking on the outside with a completely unexpected manoeuvre. So just this one special move in this case. After that he won the Dutch and Italian F4 championships with us. I talk with the drivers, try to find out how eager they are. Are they smart? Are they aware? There are drivers well progressed on programmes elsewhere and you ask them what’s the weight of your car? Dunno. What’s the power? Don’t know… In the simulator with an engineer all day and I say the name of the engineer and the driver says ‘Who?’ If you are working half a day with the guy and you don’t remember his name….

“When I was helping Gerhard Berger and he was at McLaren alongside Senna, he became paranoid that Senna was getting better equipment and at Suzuka I was timing them through the Esses and Berger was faster there. He very often was on Friday. Then at lunch time Senna came to see me and said, ’Where am I losing against Berger?’ He had this overall picture of what was going on and I think you need this to be a very great driver. Senna would build up this picture then put it all together and everyone would say it was a talent of a different level. But it wasn’t. It was a very high level. But there were others like Berger who had a similar talent, but not the same ability. It’s just an intellectual capacity. A combination of everything. That’s why I try in a personal discussion to find out about what the intellectual capacity is when the helmet is on.

“Another good example is Mark Webber – with whom I now have a good relationship; we shook hands and had a good talk – but he never could overtake properly because he didn’t have the concept in his head. There were days when he could be unbelievably fast. At the Nürburgring Vettel could never get anywhere near him and he won there even with a drive-through. In sector three in Barcelona, there was no way Vettel could compete with him and on fast corners on his day he was just unbelievable, faster than Seb. But he never could put the whole thing together for a championship. Thay stupid crash in Korea. He was ahead of Alonso. But he was bothered that Seb was in front, which didn’t matter.”

Desire, talent, smartness. It was once a good summary of the young Marko making his way in the sport (very much against parental wishes). At the Formula Vee support race to the 1969 German Grand Prix on the Nordschleife, he won by running his only rival – a young Niki Lauda – onto the grass near the end. They are firm friends now, but weren’t on that day. “Yes,” Marko smiles. “Well, Niki took over my BRM drive and then later got the Ferrari drive that I would have had, too. So yes he basically took over my career.” Does he still remind Lauda about that? “Sometimes!”

Talking to Marko it becomes very clear what a debt Austrian motor racing owes his old school buddy Rindt and how much that influence pervades current F1. There would likely have been no Red Bull in F1 without him, maybe no Bernie Ecclestone either. It was a young Mateschitz’s visit to a hillclimb as a casual spectator and his getting a picture signed by Rindt that ignited his passion. “Jochen made everything possible,” says Marko, “the Österreichring, the whole racing movement in the country. He was unstoppable. We were both thrown out of school in Graz because we were too difficult to control and sent to a boarding school. At the summer holidays we were not in the best of moods and said, ‘No we don’t go home, we go to the Nürburgring.’ He had a car because his parents had left him a spice mill and he was the only son. We slept on the grass and woke up to the sounds of F1 engines practising. Jochen said immediately, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ but for me it was like they were from the moon and it seemed impossible and I went on studying. He went on racing after high school with the money he was able to use. My parents said, ‘No way are you getting a penny for racing.’ I finished my studies [in law] and with money I had made from working went to Sweden for two months, bought a Formula Vee, paid my way with prize money and won the championship then sold the car at a profit.”

He was an operator off the track and made very smart deals, as befitting a law graduate. Well educated and socially at ease, even today he’s a patron of the arts and enjoys painting. He was in fact a very cultured tearaway. Did young Marko have the sort of stuff that 2017 Marko looks for in a driver? “The speed was OK but I didn’t pay enough attention to the technical side and I was physically nowhere near doing Monaco on the limit for the whole distance. So I would say I took it too easy on myself. So maybe that’s why I’m so tough on the youngsters; I know what I threw away. There was no data system so no one could see what you were really doing. A very popular reason for retirement at that time was a claimed stuck throttle. Or if you crashed and got out and saw the tyre was now flat you thought, ‘Good, I’ll say it was a puncture’.”

Not that’s he’s a fan of data-logging and telemetry. “No, I think it’s all wrong. The driver should be the factor that makes the difference. You had to find out yourself as a driver where to go quick. But nowadays Verstappen is told Ricciardo is braking five metres later in T1 and Ricciardo is told in T9 Verstappen is a bit slower in, but comes out faster. So they are educated to go to the absolute limit. It starts in the junior categories. Right from the start you have to be smart and hard-working, looking at the data all the time and you have an advantage if you can use it in the right way. In 2-litre Renault we have three drivers. Two of them arrived one hour before qualifying, the other was there much earlier looking at the data and he was the fastest one. But is that really what we want to see? I think it should really be drastically reduced.”

But that’s how racing is now and the Red Bull juniors have to excel at it regardless. One young guy who made a major impression on Marko immediately was a 16-year-old Sebastian Vettel, having his first race as a Red Bull driver in Formula BMW. Marko’s craggy face cracks into a broad grin at the memory. “This kid with a brace and whiskers. He was officially our first driver in the new junior team we’d just established. He’d finished first or second in the first race, I don’t remember. He was driving for this very experienced German team owner but he was saying to him: ‘This is not right, we need to do this better’ etc. That struck me. We almost didn’t sign him because Old Vettel [Sebastian’s father] had signed commitments everywhere! He won 18 of the 20 races that year and was unhappy he hadn’t won the other two. He leaves nothing on the plate. Even now on the plane home he’ll be making notes all the time. It’s a very special approach, leaving nothing to chance. He’s unique in this paddock for that.”

Such professional behaviour sets the bar high for Red Bull juniors – and many have not lived up to it despite being possessed of the raw ability. “The problem with many of them is once they get to F1 and they have a bag carrier and a PR lady, they think they have made it. Actually the hard work should only just be beginning and the pressure is only just being applied now. Often they are surrounding themselves with the wrong people – Jean-Eric Vergne was an example. There can be a father in the background saying they don’t get the right treatment. There is always a reason but you can’t foresee what it will be when they are 14-15. They all had potential but there was always a reason – with the exception of Buemi who was wrong time, wrong place. If it was now I think he would have made it at Red Bull.”

Which in a parallel universe would have left no room there for one of either Ricciardo or Verstappen. Marko firmly believes this is the strongest driver pairing in the pitlane. “They are a fantastic pair. Max jumps in the car and is immediately quick, no matter what, new circuit or whatever. In the rain he’s in a class of his own, looking for where the grip is, and immediately he has a feeling of the limit. Nearly everyone else has to find it, he is immediately on it. Ricciardo is quiet, smiling but in the car look at his overtakes. Ambush. His mascot is the honeybear — it’s very dangerous but sweet looking. He isn’t scared of anything. Senna was never as relaxed as Ricciardo and that for me – to be so competitive but enjoy life – is amazing. Max is similar but there is more tension there. 

“Max is a driver I had the longest discussion with ever. We were watching him and talking. He came down to see me. He has a supermarket sponsor. I asked him about the supermarket and he knew how many people it employed, where its headquarters were, how many outlets it had. I had an advantage because I’d researched it before. By contrast, once we signed an American driver [Scott Speed] and when he told me he was going from Graz to Munich I said he should stop at Salzburg. ‘Salzburg? What is Salzburg?’ Mozart, I said. ‘Mozart? What is this?’ Unbelievable… If I was going to Red Bull to talk about a contract I’d make sure I knew all about the place. 

“Max is not an intellectual, but was educated by watching with his father and by the internet. That helps if you can use your intellectual capacities in racing. The way he overtakes, he has that concept that Webber never had.” 

Inevitably, one day that pairing will be split up and the next on the conveyor will be given a try. Sainz? “The first time we put him in an F1 car [Silverstone test 2014] he was quicker than Vettel! That test was the only reason I put him in the Toro Rosso. If his head is free he can deliver. He’s much better since we took Max into RBR. He’s realised the clique around him doesn’t make the decisions. It has to be him.”

A tough task master, sure, but no evil ogre. 

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