Grand Prix driver, saloon car champion, F2 race winner, hillclimb star, practical joker… and still an active Red Bull athlete at the age of 76. Dieter Quester’s career has been the very definition of extraordinary
Writer Simon Arron
Snowboarders, motocross riders, skydivers who perform towards the edge of the earth’s atmosphere… Formula 1 drivers seem relatively tame alongside the serial extremists on whom Red Bull tends to confer ambassadorial roles. But its patronage doesn’t extend exclusively to youngsters with fashionably blonde highlights. Dieter Quester was already 54 when he and Gerhard Berger first approached Red Bull patriarch Dietrich Mateschitz about possible sponsorship. That was 1993 – and Quester’s deal continues to this day. “Gerhard and I were the first drivers Red Bull supported,” he says. “We went to ask for some support and Dietrich was still in a fairly small office – everything was completely different to the way it is now.”
We’re chatting at the 2015 Daytona Classic, where Quester is sharing a 2011 BMW B6 GT3 with Alpina scion Andy Bovensiepen. They will challenge for class victory until a couple of Porsche 911s touch and spin, one of them clattering into Quester and necessitating an unscheduled stop that pushes the pair back to third. They’d led for a while, mind.
The Austrian veteran might no longer compete as often as once he did, but in the relatively recent past he has notched up prestige victories to complement those that went before: in 2006 and 2007, he was part of the winning team in four 24-hour races, two apiece at
Dubai and Silverstone. The story began, though, in his father’s wake.
“He raced boats before the war,” Quester says, “and you know how it goes… I began racing speedboats in the 1950s and won European titles in two different classes. My dad never pushed me, but I had very strong feelings about racing. As a kid aged 10 or 12 I used to watch all the local speedway events and motor sport was always a target.”
He took his first competitive steps in hillclimbs, in his everyday road car.
“It was a VW Beetle,” he says, “albeit fitted with an old 1500cc Porsche engine that a friend had lying around. We left the brakes and gearbox as standard, though. Then I bought a Porsche 550 Spyder from a guy called Franz Albert, who contested European hillclimbs and had crashed the car very badly at Ollon-Villars. It was cheap and had to be completely rebuilt. We didn’t have permanent circuits in Austria at the time, but we had airport tracks in Vienna, Innsbruck and elsewhere and there were five or six race meetings annually. First time out I beat the factory Abarths in the 1600 class and things started to grow.
“I then sold the Porsche to America for twice what I’d paid, bought an ex-factory BMW 1800 Ti/SA homologation special and won the Austrian championship with it in 1965. I also entered some races in Germany and the following year BMW asked whether I would like to contest a few races with the works team. I did two or three, but felt my 1800 was better than the factory 2002.
“In those days we drove the cars from BMW’s Munich workshop to the circuits without the aid of a truck or a trailer – we just went on the road. In my first race at the Nürburgring I had a big accident, because I didn’t know the circuit. The team asked whether I had experience of the ’Ring and I’d said, ‘Of course.’ Ha! I had no idea. Things went a bit quiet with BMW after that – no more drives – but in 1968 I turned out again for the factory and won my class in the European Touring Car Challenge, as it was then called. That was really the start of my long relationship with BMW.” He would repeat that class victory the following season.
Quester had also been competing successfully in both Formula Vee and European hillclimbs and during 1969 he was drafted in to BMW’s F2 team, which should have been the cue for his Grand Prix debut in the second-tier class that was an annual staple at the Nürburgring. The team withdrew, however, after Quester’s team-mate Gerhard Mitter crashed fatally during practice.
“The car hadn’t been too bad,” he says. “We outpaced a few of the F1 drivers and it was a fantastic experience to drive a single-seater at the ’Ring, a circuit I now knew very well. Then Gerhard had his accident, a difficult situation for me because he’d become a very close friend after we’d competed together so often in hillclimbs.”
How did he deal with the sport’s fairly obvious perils at that time?
“I never really thought about it,” he says, “and didn’t consider single-seater racing to be particularly dangerous compared with hillclimbs, where we went incredibly quickly in cars weighing 480kg – I used to call them ‘paper dragons’. But I never used to think I might have an accident, even though we were doing more than 200kph with rocks on one side and a 200-metre drop on the other. Armco? There wasn’t any…”
In 1969 he also made his sports car debut at world championship level, sharing David Piper’s Lola T70 in the Zeltweg 1000Kms before it retired with overheating.
Quester remained with BMW’s F2 team in 1970, winning the final race of the year at Hockenheim (after surviving a clash with Clay Regazzoni), sharing fourth place in the final standings with Ronnie Peterson and signing off with victory in the non-championship Macau GP at the campaign’s end.
“BMW stopped its single-seater programme at that point,” Quester says, “but I asked if I could have three F2 engines. They agreed and
I did a deal to run a March chassis, with which we were quite successful. It wasn’t a works effort; we had a small transporter and the team was just me, [engine wizard] Paul Rosche and two factory mechanics. That was it, but I finished third in the championship [behind Peterson and Carlos Reutemann, with one win, three seconds and a third from 11 races].”
From here on his career would mostly be linked to BMW and saloon cars – he shared the winning 3.0 CSL with Toine Hezemans in the 1973 Spa 24 Hours – but there was to be one more significant single-seater interlude, when he raced a Surtees TS16 in his home Grand Prix at the Österreichring in 1974. He finished ninth.
“One minute before the start,” he says, “I noticed that a mechanic had forgotten his toolbox and left it in front of my car. But with about 30sec to go he spotted it and ran on to the track to retrieve it. Can you imagine what would happen now? You’d get a €100,000 fine and all the rest…
“I had a three-race contract to drive in Austria, Italy and America. I thought I was supposed to be part of a two-car team, but in Austria Surtees was also running Derek Bell and Jean-Pierre Jabouille and from my perspective things weren’t so good. That evening I was interviewed on Austrian TV and said I felt there hadn’t been enough mechanics. Somebody mentioned this to John Surtees. I don’t think I was being negative – I was just expressing what I felt, but two days later I received a telex telling me that Helmuth Koinigg would be driving my car at Monza and Watkins Glen, where sadly of course he was killed.
“At that point I had to make a choice. Should I try to find a huge amount of money to chase an F1 drive, when at the same time BMW was offering me a good contract for the European Touring Car Championship? I had possibilities, too, with the Osella-Abarth sports car team and others. Was it better to
pay to drive what might be an F1 shitbox or to take a good salary from a perfect team and represent a factory?”
Not too hard a choice, that one, and more than 40 years later he’s still racing, having added the 1977 European Touring Car Championship title and countless individual race successes to his CV. Does he still relish it as much?
“I do,” he says, “but it can’t be the same as it was when I was 25 or 30. I no longer enjoy the travelling, with all the hassle we have now at airports. It is not the same, but if it wasn’t fun
I wouldn’t still do it.”
On which note, I retained vague memories of Quester taking to the track wearing a monkey mask during a practice day for an ETCC race at Donington Park during the early 1980s.
Fact or fiction?
“That’s not true,” he says. “It wasn’t a monkey, but a monster mask from a movie – The Addams Family, I think. It was green and blue, a very ugly thing. I was sharing one car with Roberto Ravaglia and Gerhard Berger was in the other. Gerhard and I knew each other very well and he was always something of a specialist when it came to practical jokes. He said to me, ‘Listen, I will give you £500 if you wear the mask at the end of practice.’ I thought, ‘OK, £500 isn’t too bad’ – the pound’s value was very high at the time – and put the mask under my seat when I went out. Towards the end of the session I took off my helmet, put on the mask and the marshals couldn’t believe what they were seeing. By the time I got back to the pits the stewards were already waiting. I was fined £2000, got my £500 from Berger and was thus £1500 out of pocket, but the bigger problem was that a report was sent to the Austrian authorities and they came very close to suspending my licence. Berger thought it very funny, of course.
“At one Nogaro ETCC race, Gerhard and I were driving for Schnitzer BMW, with me taking the start. I changed into my overalls and wondered what was going on, because I was aware of Gerhard prowling around. With three or four minutes to go, he came up behind me and poured soap flakes down the back of my overalls. They normally used them to wash the truck. I didn’t have time to change and as I started to sweat during the race the flakes began to bubble up. There was a lot of foam and I had to stop a few laps ahead of schedule, which really upset team boss Charly Lamm because that caused us to lose the race. I have lots of stories about Gerhard…”
One gets the sense of a life well lived away from the full glare of racing’s spotlight, and a career that has perhaps been all the more rewarding because of it.
“I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been able to do what I wanted,” he says. “When I was 15 it was my dream to drive a racing car, then at 20 I wanted to drive a single-seater. All my dreams came true. It has been fantastic and I’ve enjoyed a wonderful time with Red Bull for more than 20 years: we’ve never had a contract, just settled things with a handshake.
“I have nearly always been with good teams – Alpina, Schnitzer and so on – and the only time I had a really shit car was during the very early days of the Porsche 917, when I tested at the Nürburgring long before the chassis was sorted. The 917 was in its absolute infancy and felt very dangerous. I had to ask BMW’s permission to do the Nürburgring 1000Kms, but after the first test they said ‘No way.’ When I drove it on the Sudschleife, all the glassfibre was flying around the cockpit. That’s how new it was. It was useful experience, though.
“I did Le Mans 14 times, often in good cars, and in 1986 had a perfect opportunity with Sauber, sharing with Christian Danner and Henri Pescarolo. We were running third, but Henri ran over a piece of metal that cut an oil line. He stopped by the track for a while, and the oil finally ran out completely as he got back to the pits. Perhaps if he hadn’t stopped we could have saved the car. It’s a race I’d love to have won, but it’s probably too late now…
“I think I was quick enough to be successful in F1, but if I’d gone down that route, who knows? In F2 I raced against lots of drivers who are no longer with us, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been here to do this interview.”