Interview: Jochen Neerpasch

Der neue Neubauer?

As Mercedes-Benz racing cars once more become Silver Arrows, it falls to former Porsche, Ford, BMW and Talbot man Jochen Neerpasch to inherit the mantle, if not perhaps the high profile, of Alfred Neubauer. Mike Cotton analyses the past achievements and optimism for the future of a busy team manager whose commitment to the expansion of international sports-car and saloon racing is absolute.

Time has been kind to Jochen Neerpasch. There’s hardly a line on his face today that wasn’t there in 1968, when he was a works driver for Porsche and finished third at Le Mans, and on his recent 50th birthday there certainly wasn’t a grey hair on his head either. He is one of those fortunate, ageless men who will probably look the same at 70, and one can only guess at his occupation then … perhaps a senior manager at FISA, or at Mercedes?

For the present, he is a key figure in Mercedes’ return to motor racing: the company’s team manager and, therefore, the only successor to the legendary Alfred Neubauer, although he doesn’t have the same high-profile place in front of the pits. So professional has motor racing become today that it is full of facets not thought about in the 1950s. Five members of Mercedes’ main board were present when the 1989 programme was announced and they had all contributed to the decision, taken in December 1987, that the Stuttgart company should return to racing after an absence of 22 years. Neerpasch, who had been close to Peter Sauber since his time at BMW, and especially since the Mercedes programme started in 1985, says the decision had nothing to do with Sauber’s existing Group C competitions activities.

“It was a straightforward decision by the Mercedes board that the time was right to re-enter motor racing. It was primarily a marketing decision, I think, because the young generation did not see the success of the Silver Arrows. The main reason for coming back is to prove to the young people that we can do it again. I expect it was the same for Jaguar.

“Let me make it clear that it had nothing to do with Peter Sauber, nothing at all. Professor Dr Werner Niefer was appointed head of the car division, and will be the head of Mercedes Benz AG, and I think it was he who started the discussion about the desirability of returning to racing. When the decision was made, the company looked into the motor racing scene in great detail to see where to begin. Two possibilites, though not the only ones, were saloon cars, where Mercedes models were competitive, and Group C, where the Sauber team was becoming more successful. “Mercedes formed a strategy commission team early in 1988 and I was invited to become involved. I was invited by the board to prepare a plan for the future strategy.”

Neerpasch was, at that time, a director of the IMG organisation (Mark McCormack’s International Management Group), and Mercedes’ board was sufficiently impressed with the presentation, which included an analysis of Formula One, to offer him a coveted position, which he accepted. He has responsibility both for the Sauber Group C programme and for three works-supported German Touring Car Championship teams — which involved him in a trip to Suzuka in Japan for the opening round of the World Sports-Prototype Championship followed by an overnight trip back to Zolder for the opening round of the German series on the same day. The years ahead look very busy for Herr Neerpasch!

By any definition Jochen Neerpasch is a fast-lane man. It was a surprise to hear him admit that he didn’t meet his own standards, but he didn’t judge a season of Formula Three racing in a Lotus 35 to have been a great success in the early 1960s so he decided to concentrate on sports-cars, in which he was very good indeed.

In 1964 he shared a Shelby Cobra with Chris Amon at Le Mans, a year later a Maserati tipo 164 with Jo Siffert, and in 1966 an Essex Wire Ford GT40 with Jacky Ickx. None of these outings produced a result, but in 1967-68 Neerpasch was a fully-fledged Porsche works driver, sixth at Le Mans with Rolf Stommelen in the first year, and second with Stommelen again in the second.

“Without doubt 1968 was my best season, because it started with a victory at Daytona.” He was second at Sebring and Monza, third at Le Mans and Brands Hatch, fourth at the Nurburgring and in the Targa Florio. Latterly, though, he was considering an offer from Ford to set up and develop a competitions department at Cologne which posed him a considerable dilemma. “I knew it would be good for my career, but I was also a Porsche works driver, at the peak of my ability probably. I was 29 and I knew it would mean that I must stop driving.”

The career aspect won, and Neerpasch chose the Ford Capri as his weapon for an extremely successful race programme. Ford of Britain took care of the renowned rally programme which concentrated on the Escort, while the “big Capris” became equally admired on the tracks. They fairly dominated the European Touring Car Championship in 1971 and 1972, winning 13 of the 16 races held in those two seasons and starting the careers of three leading sportscar drivers — Jochen Mass, Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig.

In 1972 though, both Jochen Neerpasch and his assistant Martin Braungart had been lured away by BMW, and Michael Kranefuss took over the successful programme.

Neerpasch stayed with BMW for nine years, presiding over one of the happiest, and most successful periods in the Munich firm’s competitions history. The European Touring Car Championship was won more often than not, Neerpasch was able to set up an independent Motorsport GmbH company within BMW, and a very successful Formula Two engine programme was established.

Also significant was the start of the BMW M1 programme which was devised, originally, to give the company an entry to Groups 4 and 5 World Championship racing, and even into Formula One. Neerpasch confirms that the M1 was conceived as a volume-production sports-car, with more than 400 to be built for Group A homologation, but with an “evolution” version to be powered by a new 3-litre, V8 engine. This, it was supposed, would enable BMW to beat Porsche’s ubiquitous 935 model, and would also serve as a Grand Prix power-unit.

Sadly for Neerpasch though, BMW’s board vetoed the V8 engine for all versions. Just as sadly, the production contract with Lamborghini foundered when the Italian company met with financial troubles and production started much later than Intended, in 1979, and a competitions career had to be started without the vital homologation. Neerpasch’s solution was enterprising but expensive; to do a “one-make” Procar Championship deal with FISA and FOCA, and to have all the top Grand Prix drivers handling the BMWs on race days.

BMW’s board had vetoed formula racing and continued to do so, but a new offer came to Neerpasch from the Talbot company, just established as a new marque re-born from a corporate conglomerate. “Their approach was quite different to BMW’s because they wanted to market the name of Talbot. They didn’t have a high-tech image, in fact they didn’t have an image at all, so it was purely a marketing policy to go into Formula One.”

Having surveyed all the possibilities, and ruled out the inherited Matra V12 because it had not been developed, Neerpasch got close to reaching an agreement with BMW to supply its own 4-cylinder turbo engine, as installed in the 2002 turbo model, to Talbot, “in the same way as Porsche supplied Formula One engines to TAG, from 1984.” just before the contract reached signature stage though, BMW’s board had a change of heart, realising the pitfalls of selling race engines to a commercial competitor, and not only pulled out of the deal but decided to go into F1 with Brabham, a dream which had been Neerpasch’s only a few months before!

Soon after that Talbot was merged into the PSA Group and lost its independence (and therefore the need to promote the Talbot name), and Neerpasch was given a golden handshake.

“I was in Paris, and I soon agreed to join FISA as a consultant. It was the time when FOCA was threatening to become independent, in 1981-82, and FISA decided to build up sports-car racing as an insurance. But then the Concorde Agreement was made to work and sports-car racing was not interesting any more …”

This time Neerpasch left France altogether and accepted an offer to join the board of IMG Munchen, as Vice-President Motor Sports but with responsibilities for other sports as well. “My five years with IMG were invaluable, and I would not have missed them. I gained experience with the controlling bodies of other sports, football and tennis, and I can tell you that they all have the same problems as motor racing. “We all have the responsibility to turn Group C racing into a real World Championship. If you reach that level in any sport it really is very professional and a great deal of money is involved. This has not been so in endurance racing. The downside was that sometimes it was worse than club racing!

“If you really think about a World Championship, it must be the best there is, like Formula One. In that case the public will respond, the media will respond and then industry will be prepared to come forward and pay for it. Bernie Ecclestone is intelligent, he knows that you cannot change the championship from one year to the next. It needs time, and a lot of work, and the goal is to have everything at a high level in 1991 when seven or eight manufacturers will be involved in the new 31/2-litre formula.”

At IMG Neerpasch was responsible for introducing Yves Saint Laurent’s Kouros brand to Peter Sauber, a “marriage” which produced an early success at the Nurburgring on a wet day in 1986. Kouros was mainly interested in five European markets and sponsored the World Championship races at Monza, Silverstone, Le Mans, the Nurburgring and Spa, as well as the Sauber team. That suited Sauber well as he had a very small team, fewer than 10 people on a full time basis.

Today he employs 36 people and expects to have more than 50 on his staff in 1991. The engines, though, are prepared and supplied by Mercedes, and Sauber’s responsibility is to build the cars and run the team, on an exclusive contract with the manufacturer. Sauber has a small measure of independence (or “flexibility” as Neerpasch puts it), which suits both parties ideally. The physical separation of some 160km between Stuttgart and Hinwil (near Zurich) is enough to allow Sauber to retain a feeling of independence, and to prevent Mercedes’ own technicians from becoming too deeply involved in racing when they ought to be designing a new four-cylinder water-pump or working on some other development.

Jochen Neerpasch has been some sort of godfather to the Sauber Mercedes team from the outset, and now has more control than he could have expected back in 1985. The C8 made only one fleeting appearance that year, when it aviated during the first qualifying session at Le Mans and gave John Nielsen a terrifying experience. Most people would have bet against it being seen again, but Neerpasch confirms that Mercedes’ technical department was fully involved in preparing the V8 twin-turbo engine (and that, as everyone believed, Heini Mader’s connection was purely cosmetic). At that time the Daimler-Benz board was, officially, opposed to motorsport participation and Prof Dr Niefer still had a lot of ground to cover.

Competition from the Japanese manufacturers will be fierce in 1991, but so too will be the opposition from Peugeot, Jaguar and Alfa Romeo; Neerpasch also believes that Porsche will have no alternative but to return to sports-car racing. Success will not be related directly to the manufacturer’s resources, but the budget will have a large bearing on the results, just as it does now in Formula One. “Mercedes is fully aware that the level will be very high in 1991, and is fully prepared for that,” says Neerpasch. “We will do whatever is necessary to win.”

The effort will stop short of preparing special cars for Le Mans (although Nissan, to single out one opponent, will), principally because Neerpasch does not think it is necessary. “There is no more difference between a 480km race and 24 hours than between a 1000km race and 24 hours,” Neerpasch points out reasonably. “Le Mans is only one race in the championship, and our main task will be to win titles. I think we can win Le Mans with a detuned ‘sprint’ engine, why not?”

Neerpasch confirms that Mercedes will continue the fight to have two drivers per car in 1991, in the tradition of sports-car racing, and believes that races should last 21/2 or 3 hours. “Not more, I don’t think you can hold the interest of the spectators, but preferably not less either.”

Mercedes’ decision to support three private teams in the German Saloon Championship — those of AMG, Snobeck and Mass/Schons-Jet — is likely to prove extremely popular within Germany, where there is strong interest. The company is supporting the series despite (certainly not because of) regulations which handicap winners, acknowledging that good, close racing is drawing huge crowds and extensive television coverage.

“We hope,” says Neerpsch, “that the success of the German series will encourage FISA to draw up new regulations for a European Touring Car Championship. We cannot expect to export the German regulations, they wouldn’t work in another country, but we do believe that clever regulations can make a series very attractive.”

When Mercedes rejected Formula One it did so for one sound reason: “If we win,” explains PR manager Bernd Harling, “then we are as good as Honda. If we don’t win straight away we would be regarded as failures. We have more to lose than to gain. Better, we think, to reenter a championship that is growing up.” Neerpasch agrees with that, and denies he is a committed Formula One man. “Personally I believer it is the highest form of motor racing, at the moment. It will be difficult to beat, but the Group C championship has a very big future. We are sure of that, and for sound reasons that is where Mercedes wants to be. I believe we have made the right decision, absolutely.” MLC