Marc of respect
In a career knocked back by two big shunts — and finished off by a third — Marc Surer earned more praise than points. Tim Scott tells a story of fortitude, misfortune and missed chances
In the calm after the storm of a grand prix, Marc Surer sat still for a moment in his hire car. And then just drove. Out of the paddock compound, through the city outskirts, heading towards a vast wilderness.
"I just followed signs to Alice Springs," he says. "I felt so much frustration. I thought: simply can't stand this any more. How can I have so much bad luck?"
This spontaneous trip to the outback marked a seminal moment in his career. He had been superb all weekend around the streets of Adelaide for the 1985 Formula One season finale. He had outqualified Brabham team-mate Nelson Piquet for the first time and was headed for a surefire second place in the race when a part costing less than a bar of Swiss chocolate broke on his BMW engine. Another failure. Another result prised from his grasp.
After six seasons in F1, this was both the zenith and nadir of his career at the highest level. Brabham was the first front-running team he'd been with. And yet it had come to nought. Sure, he would return to the safe haven of Arrows for 1986, but after staring blankly at that to-the-horizon highway, his mindset would be different.
"That evening after Adelaide, I just knew that something in F1 was against me," he says. "Okay, so Arrows had me back. But I'd given up thinking I'd succeed in F1. I now knew what a good car felt like, how powerful a factory engine could be. I sat in the Arrows and knew we'd never be at the front."
This dejection was a turning point in the psyche of a man whose whole career had been carved out by a rare depth of determination, a refusal to bow to unrelenting misfortune. As fate would have it, though, his second stint at Arrows would last but five races before a horrific crash in a rally car left him with severe injuries. Twice before he'd made a comeback after being hospitalised, but this time not even his levels of resilience could will a return to an F1 cockpit.
Cool, deliberate, Surer's desire to race had been unwavering from a young age but his path was always fraught with difficulty. With parents opposed to his karting ambitions, he left his Basle home aged 19 to fend for himself. Acting as a mechanic for a karting team, his driving ability was noticed one day and, in his first full season, he became the 1972 Swiss champion.
Car racing was a tougher nut to crack, but after running his own Formula Vee on a shoestring for two seasons, he outpaced Keke Rosberg in a test with German Formula Three team KWS. He paid for the drive in kind, preparing the squad's three Marches while living in a Transit van outside the workshops.
"After qualifying I would change into my boiler suit and rebuild the gearboxes," he laughs. Second in the German series was enough to give him that crucial break.
BMW Motorsport's supremo Jochen Neerpasch had come up with the novel concept of having a junior team for 1977. Along with Eddie Cheever and Manfred Winkelhock, Surer was picked to race Group 5 BMWs in Germany, beginning a lifelong association with the famous Munich marque.
The next year Neerpasch promoted all the juniors into BMW's works Formula Two teams, Surer going with March Engineering. He had to play second fiddle to team leader and champion Bruno Giacomelli that year, but 1979 was his turn.
He duly won the title — but only just. March's curious-looking first stab at a ground-effect car, the 792, proved problematic at the start of the year, its new side-mounted rubber skirts producing far more downforce than the damping could cope with. Surer did not score in the first three rounds, and sneaked to the title with just two wins.
"It was such a terrible season," says Surer. "I was expected to cruise to the title, yet the 792 was not as quick as the old car. To stop it porpoising we eventually increased the spring rates four-fold!"
He managed to get a drive with Ensign for the final three grands prix of the year, successfully qualifying at Watkins Glen. Once within the F1 fold, Surer's efforts, like so many others', were hamstrung over the next five years by less-than-competitive equipment. And fortune refused to shine on him right from the start.
When he joined the ATS team for 1980, he hauled the old D3 onto the grid for the first three races, while team-mate Jan Lammers failed to qualify. Then, as soon as he got his hands on the new D4 at Kyalami, disaster struck. His brakes failed in qualifying and Surer ploughed straight on at Clubhouse, badly breaking his ankles. In his absence, Lammers became the talk of downtown when he qualified the D4 fourth at Long Beach, and then shone elsewhere. On Surer's return, ATS only ran one car, so he had no-one to match himself against.
"That killed my career," says Surer. "My ankles were in pieces. But worse for me was what Lammers did at Long Beach. I should've been in the car when it was good; later in the season, when I returned, others had made up ground and the ATS wasn't special anymore."
But Surer pushed on. Ensign boss Mo Nunn hired him for 1981, but with both scratching around for funds the race-by-race deal died midseason, just after Marc had dragged the N180-B into the points at Monaco. A quick switch to Theodore proved disastrous as the team opted for unproven Avon tyres. The year had, however, provided what Surer considers his F1 day in the sun, down in Rio de Janeiro. The Ensign was really hooked up for that race, and he finished fourth and set fastest lap, the best result in the team's history. "That FL was the highlight of my career. It showed that I could do it."
It appeared that his big chance had arrived in 1982, when Jackie Oliver signed him to lead the Arrows team. Coming on the back of a good year that had launched Riccardo Patrese into the top echelons, the omens were good. But the Kyalami jinx returned. A mechanical failure in pre-season testing propelled him off at Leeukop and he broke his ankles for a second time. Out for four months, that key element to career-building, momentum, had dissipated again.
Surer's three years at Arrows were characterised by an endless search for sponsorship and Cosworth power swamped by the ever-increasing turbo brigade. The early part of 1983 proved fruitful as the turbos suffered unreliability; he scored points in three of the first four races, while at Monaco he was third until a collision with Derek Warwick. But from there on it was a struggle. He soundly outpaced all his team-mates, though, until the arrival of the highly rated Thierry Boutsen midway through '83; they proved evenly matched.
Oliver rated his man: "Marc was a quiet guy, a real team player who rarely made mistakes and always tried hard, despite the fact our cars weren't particularly good. Both Thierry and Gerhard Berger went on to greater things than Marc, winning grands prix, but Marc was entirely comparable to them; he was just unlucky."
Berger was the favoured son of Neerpasch's replacement at BMW, Dieter Stappert, and so the Austrian was eased into Surer's seat at Arrows for 1985. Marc fell back on his other racing activities.
From the outset, he had remained one of the few F1 drivers who regularly raced on his weekends off— be it in BMW's M1 endurance racer or 635i touring car, as well as Ford's ill-fated GpC programme. "I just loved driving," he says. "I was always ready to race if asked."
So, for 1985, he signed up full-time to drive Kremer Racing's new Porsche 962C with his old mate Winkelhock. The duo won at Monza (Surer insists they would have triumphed even if that tree hadn't fallen down), but tragedy followed at Mosport in August when the German was killed during the race.
"We were close, spending time together away from the tracks," sighs Surer. "Seeing this happen to my friend, knowing it could have been me: it was a worse experience than any of my own accidents."
Stunned though he was, this was also the time that Surer entered his finest period of F1. He had received an unexpected call in June from Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone, after Frenchman Francois Hesnault had found the BT54 a bit too much. Finally, after all his struggles, Surer had been given his chance to drive for a leading F1 team, its two world titles in the last four years still a fresh memory. Just his luck, then, that this was the year in which Brabham had begun its irreparable decline. Ecclestone had decided to use Pirellis, and they were struggling to cope with the 1300bhp that the four-pot BMW was pouring through them, especially in cool conditions. Hesnault's nervousness seemed justified...
"You could hardly control the car on bumps on a straight, it was wild," recalls Surer. "And I was used to being careful; Nelson would just turn up the boost and blow the engine. He didn't care. I wanted to finish races."
That proved difficult — the thing just kept breaking. But there was a point scored in Britain and Austria, and a fourth at Monza, by which time the Pirellis were improving. Piquet and Surer now became real factors at the front. But it wasn't to be for Marc: a certain second place went up in smoke at Brands; he qualified fifth at Kyalami, but retired. And then came the Adelaide gut-wrencher.
Surer returned to Arrows for '86, but another project excited him more — rallying a brand-new GpB Ford RS200. Over the past two seasons he had come to relish his increasingly numerous rally outings, using a Renault 5 Maxi on Swiss and German events.
"I fell in love with rallying," he says. "The feeling of sliding a car, the challenge of open roads, all of which are new to you. Maybe I had become bored with F1; the same circuits all the time."
On the Hessen Rally in June, Surer slid wide on a 140mph corner and his RS200 hit a tree. The car broke in half, an inferno sweeping the wreckage, killing his trapped co-driver Michel Wyder. Surer himself suffered serious burns and 12 broken bones, including his ankles, legs and pelvis. Just before passing out, he had managed to roll clear of his burning seat. He was in a coma for three weeks, and was only discharged from hospital six months later. His racing was over.
His passion for the sport remained, however, and at the end of the 1980s he joined BMW to oversee its DTM drivers, before becoming the marque's motorsport director in the Super Touring era. But the confines of his office job, keeping him from his beloved horses in Spain, were too much. He now stays in contact with F1 by commentating on German television.
"I had some bad experiences but I still love the sport, and I think the drivers are under far more pressure today than we ever were. The fascination is that you still don't know what will happen next."