A Klaus encounter

He keeps retiring, but Klaus Ludwig just can't stop racing. Motor Sport has an appointment in a van with the tin-top legend — and then teams up to go racing
By Andrew Frankel

It's October at the Nürburgring and, as ever here at this time of year, everyone's talking about the weather. What's unusual is that it's not the rain, fog or snow that so often plagues the Eifel mountains in autumn that's started tongues wagging but precisely the reverse: there's not a cloud in the sky.

We're here for the ADAC Westfalen Trophy meeting, the last historic event of the year on the 'Ring's calendar. I'm in the endurance race, a two-hour, Sunday afternoon event combining `Oldtimers' and `Youngtimers' into one 150-car grid using both the modern Grand Prix track and the fabled Nordschleife. Youngtimers are not new cars but slick-shod racers of all sorts from the '70s, with RSR Porsche 911s at one end of the grid and steroidal Golf GTis at the other. My car is most definitely an oldtimer: a 1963 'Pintail' Mercedes-Benz 220SE saloon, prepared by none other than Mercedes-Benz itself, the first of its classic cars Mercedes has ever permitted to race.

Improbably at this large but determinedly grass-roots meeting, Klaus Ludwig bounces into view. That's three-time Le Mans winner, triple DTM champion, double DRM champion and FIA GT Champion Klaus Ludwig. Even more implausibly and for one race only, we are to be team-mates. You can find out how that worked out overleaf, but for now the chance to download the man known in his homeland as `König Ludwig' and here simply 'King Klaus' is not to be missed.

Rather charmingly for its debut into the world of historic motor racing, Mercedes-Benz has brought along no trucks, transporters, motorhomes or any of the paraphernalia you might expect from such an organisation. Like almost every car in the race, the Fintail has been towed here behind a van, while the back of another van, a converted post van with a table and chairs in the back to be precise, will provide a more than adequate environment for our interview.

Indeed these back to basic surroundings rather suit our subject. Not for him the wealth to wheel route to motor sport success preferred by his mainly monied contemporaries. "When I was young I couldn't even think about racing," he now recalls. Agonisingly he grew up almost next door to the Nürburgring and lost no opportunity to visit the track as a child. His one bit of luck was that his father's best friend married the daughter of the 'Ring's racing director — which is how, after the 1957 German Grand Prix, a seven-year-old Klaus found himself sitting on the very next table to Juan Manuel Fangio, who had just won the race of his life. "I remember looking up at him and seeing this old man sitting there and he just looked tired. So tired. He wasn't giving any autographs at all. But he did one for me and I still have it."

But that was it. While the men who would become his rivals worked their way up through the usual formulae of racing, Klaus earned a living selling toasters in the family shop. "There were five of us, my mother, father, me and two others. I did no karting, no nothing while I was a kid. I sold radios and food mixers." Indeed he was 18 before he could afford any kind of car at all. It turned out to be an NSU TT. "I did a few slaloms, won them all easily and thought, 'I can do this."

The NSU merely lit the fire. It was too complicated and unreliable to use as a proper racing car, so he got a BMW 2002 and started proper racing on his beloved Nürburgring. "I did 12-, 24-, and 36-hour races with the BMW club of Bonn, made a bit of a name for myself and then people started asking me to drive for them." Then a friend who worked for Ford in Cologne suggested he buy a Weslake Capri and let Klaus race it. "It was an old car, but a good one and I got noticed some more." Paying most attention was Ford itself, who duly snapped him up and sent him to race new Cologne Capris and Escorts with Zakspeed. He came third in the DRM in 1974, and second only to Hans Heyer in '75 and '76. But even now that he was fully on the radar of what was then the second-largest car company in the world, his payment comprised no more than a company car and expenses. When not racing, Klaus served in the shop.

But at least racing no longer cost Klaus any money and by 1978 he'd started his love affair with Porsches, courtesy of Georg Loos's 935. It led to one of Klaus's greatest moments. "We were at Hockenheim in the support race for the German Grand Prix. The 935 was fantastic and I won the race 45 seconds clear of the field. That evening Colin Chapman came up to me by the hotel pool and asked, 'are you the man who won in that red Porsche? Well done. Congratulations.' I can't tell you what that meant. To me, Colin was The Man."

Even so, Ludwig's career path now looked well defined and while he had briefly raced a March in F2, he was never to seriously set foot on the single-seater road to Formula 1. Instead it was the Kremer Brothers who turned Klaus into a superstar. The weapon with which he was equipped has become a motor sport legend. The Kremers' take on the Porsche 935 was so much better than the factory original that Porsche all but stopped making them thereafter. Featuring over 30 metres of tubular steel to improve rigidity, more efficient air-to-air intercoolers to replace the factory water-to-air units, better weight distribution, lighter bodywork and improved aero, Klaus and the 935 K3 were almost literally unbeatable. In the 12 rounds of the 1979 DRM championship, Klaus won 11 and came second in the 12th. He also chalked up his first Le Mans win in filthy weather conditions after the legendary reliability of the works Porsche team temporarily deserted its pair of 936 prototypes. Klaus would never be short of a drive again.

Which is not to say he would not be short of money. At the end of 1979 his old friends at Ford came knocking, this time with proper remuneration in their hands. Ludwig told the Kremers that he didn't want to go but they needed to pay him more than the 70,000DM he was then earning with them. They didn't want to pay, Ludwig left, Kremer sued and Ludwig lost, putting him financially, in his words, "back to zero".

But he was at least happy. For the next nine seasons he raced in America, a period he describes wistfully as "the best in my racing life" even if, on that side of the water he was not as successful as he'd like to have been. His chief weapon of choice, the Ford Mustang Probe was a fabulous car, "a sports car with a carbon-fibre chassis long before Jaguar" but its little 2.1-litre engine, when boosted to provide the requisite 750bhp, was fragile. "Shit, it was so quick," he muses. "We were fastest everywhere, but after half an hour or an hour, everything exploded..."

In Europe in general and France in particular the usually Porsche-powered Klaus fared somewhat better. He returned to Le Mans in 1983 and came sixth in a 956, but the following year was back on the top step driving for Joest, though the victory came thanks in no small part to the absence of a works team. But the factory turned out in force in 1985 yet Klaus, still in a private Joest 956, beat even the works 962 to take his third win in the French classic.

And then Klaus says, "We would have won again in 1986 but for Jo's crash," and the mood in the back of the van changes completely. Jo Gartner was killed at 3am when mechanical failure pitched his 962 into the trees on the Mulsanne Straight. In the process it demolished over 100 metres of barrier which took over 2½ hours to replace. Stuck behind the safety car with no thermostat in the radiator, the water temperature in Ludwig's 956 dropped, its oil thickened, and the pump that circulated it blew, wrecking the engine. Joest's secret lay in its Goodyear tyres which had less rolling resistance than the factory Dunlops, meaning the car was able to run less boost and use less fuel. But that was not what was occupying Ludwig's mind. "Jo was a friend. I saw the accident and thought `f**k this, I'm going home'."

Fact is, and Ludwig is not afraid to admit it, he was scared. Indeed the true scale of his achievement in winning Le Mans three times can only be seen when you learn how he hated the place. "I was frightened there. All the time. Every lap I ever did I was scared. You sat in these cars made out of folded aluminium and went down the Mulsanne at whatever they would do and you knew, you just knew that if anything went wrong, you didn't stand a chance. One year the 962 did 399km/h (248mph) down the straight, with low-drag bodywork, so no downforce. It was wandering around in the road with me sitting inside shitting my pants."

But though Ludwig went, he would be neither the first nor the last driver to find it easy to stay gone. In 1988 he was back, but as a works driver in the number one 962 partnering Derek Bell and Hans Stuck as the factory made one final effort with its ageing and outdated sports car to deny Jaguar victory in France.

And what everyone remembers is that Klaus was at the wheel when it ran out of fuel, returning to the pits on the starter motor, losing more time than would separate the car from the winning Jaguar at the end. Ludwig mounts a robust defence to the oft-peddled claim that it was his fault — his case is that the 10-litre reserve simply didn't work — but regardless of who was to blame, the undeniable fact is the car recovered all the time it had lost and regained the lead from the Jaguar, when it lost six minutes — getting on for two laps — repairing an intercooler. It was that which really ended Porsche's seven-year run of winning Le Mans.

Still spooked, Ludwig turned down a works Mercedes drive at Le Mans in 1989 ("a big mistake, in that car I could have won the race with one hand on the wheel") and, as he entered his 40s, turned his attention to tin-top racing. He had already the DTM championship the year before driving a Ford Sierra and would do it twice more in 1992 and '94 driving for Mercedes. He then spent two seasons driving for Opel before retiring from racing altogether, aged 46. But once more he was tempted back, this time by Mercedes to contest the 1998 FIA GT Championship in its CLK, even venturing back to Le Mans. The car was good enough for pole in France but retired before nightfall. Elsewhere however, it was the class of the field, providing Klaus with his last major championship at the age of 49.

But he was not quite finished. When he returned to the revived DTM in 2000 he was in his fifties yet still good enough to win twice and come third in the championship.

Since then he has raced "for fun" and often here, at the Nürburgring. He first won its 24-hour race back in 1987 driving a Sierra Cosworth with Steve Soper, did it again in a Viper in 1999 and came second as recently as 2006 in a 911. He loves this place as much as he loathes Le Mans, describing it as his home and citing only Silverstone as a circuit to rival it.

And then there's a knock on the door of the van. Our 10-minute chat has turned into a two-hour meander down memory lane and now we must prepare for our race. Klaus is 62 and wears his years well. He springs out of the van and walks towards the pits, the locals at this club meeting visibly stunned to see their hero in their midst. He is as relaxed as I am nervous. Then again, he isn't about to share a car with 'King' Klaus Ludwig.