Everyone knows the rules of racing: fail to qualify and you’re out. Unless it’s Hockenheim in 1977 and your name is Hans Heyer…
By Gary Watkins
There’s a good chance that any self-respecting motorsport aficionado of a certain age will have witnessed Hans Heyer at the sharp end of a major sportscar or touring car race. After all, he did drive for Ford, Lancia, Porsche, Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes during a career that spanned nearly 1000 races. You are, however, unlikely to have seen him racing a single-seater. Unless, that is, you were present at the 1977 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
By rights, you shouldn’t have got to see him compete that day. Heyer’s only Formula 1 start in an ATS-run Penske was not only a rare appearance in an open-wheeler, it was entirely illegal. He hadn’t qualified and only started the race courtesy of a massive amount of front and some handy collusion from what he calls the “grid girls”.
Heyer had ended up as third reserve after qualifying. “I had a camshaft problem,” remembers the driver who still wears his trademark Tirolerhut headgear. “I only got one-and-a-half clean laps and I hit traffic.”
A time that left him four-tenths off the back of the grid didn’t thwart Heyer’s ambitions to start his home grand prix, especially when he found out that the grid boards would be held by members of a local karting club. “They were all my old rivals and I came up with a plan,” he says.
Heyer’s Penske was pushed into the collecting area together with fellow reserves Patrick Neve, who was driving Frank Williams’ March, and McLaren privateer Emilio de Villota. The outside hope was that one of the 24 qualifiers would have a problem on the warm-up lap.
“I spoke to the ‘grid girls’ and I persuaded them to leave the gate open and then give me a signal,” says Heyer.
Exactly what happened next is lost in the mists of time, although it is clear that no one on the grid had the hoped-for problems. Contemporary reports indicate that he briefly sat at the back of the grid – ‘off the road’, according to Autosport – and went when the flag dropped. Heyer suggests he merely drove out of the collecting area and started the race.
That tallies with the memory of Ian Dawson, who ran de Villota’s McLaren. “There used to be a little infield area that led out either on to the back of the grid or the pit lane,” he explains. “When the race began, Heyer just drove straight out. I remember Frank and Patrick [Head] getting pretty excited about it.”
The bosses of the newly created Williams Grand Prix Engineering team weren’t the only people who were confused. “On German TV the commentators were saying, ‘What is happening? There should only be one ATS’,” laughs Heyer. It seems the race officials weren’t so observant. The driver of the extra car was never shown the black flag, though his race turned out to be short lived. Heyer managed just nine laps before a gear-linkage problem brought him into the pits to retire.
Heyer owed his place in the second ATS Penske to a sponsor new to motor racing. A certain Willi Maurer, who would become famous for the Formula 2 cars that bore his name, had approached Heyer at the Essen motor show offering to sponsor his exploits in the German DRM Group 5 series with Zakspeed.
Heyer knew ATS boss Gunter Schmidt, which resulted in a one-off deal for Hockenheim to race the second ATS Penske PC4 with the name of Maurer’s Mampe drinks company on its flanks. “It was their car, but all the mechanics were mine,” explains Heyer. “I did one hour of testing at Hockenheim before the race. That was my only experience of an F1 car.”
Heyer would never race a formula car again. His family had been against him racing single-seaters after Gerry Birrell, one of his team-mates at Ford in 1973, was killed in practice for that year’s Rouen Formula Two race.
“My father told me not to race formula cars,” says Heyer. “We had a big family business and he reminded me that I had a lot of responsibilities.”
That explains why Heyer was happy to accept his punishment for starting illegally. “Huschke von Hanstein [boss of the Germany motorsport federation] said, ‘I will have to make an example of you, what am I going to do?’. I said, ‘Why don’t you ban me for five F1 races?’. I knew it would make no difference because there was no chance of me racing an F1 car again.”