When Hans Stuck Sr let his son loose at the ‘Ring it was the start of a great career. By Gary Watkins
Hans Stuck Jr was always going to be a racing driver. You don’t have a lot of choice when your father is a pre-war Auto Union ace with a string of grand prix wins to his name, is still competing into his seventh decade and just happens to run the driving school on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Even less so when he lets you take your first laps of the famous 170-corner circuit at the age of nine…
“I was sitting on two cushions so I could see where I was going and my father was in the passenger seat,” explains Stuck. “I did those first laps of the Nordschleife in a little BMW 700, and I was hooked.”
Hans Stuck Sr had, at the age of 62, hung up his helmet by the time his son made his race debut, nine years after his first try-out on the most daunting circuit in the world.
“I had to wait until I was 18, because in those days in Germany you had to have a road licence to race,” he says. “I did a 300km event in a BMW 2002 at the ‘Ring in 1969. The 2002 had a mechanical throttle linkage that used to pop out whenever the car landed hard after taking off. I stopped 17 times to fix it on the way to finishing third.”
A successful part-season with a 2002 run by BMW tuner Hans-Peter Koepchen in 1970 included a victory in the first Nürburgring 24 Hours with Clemens Schickentanz that attracted the attentions of the BMW factory. The first, admittedly short, stint of three spells as a works driver with the Munich marque began before he was whisked off to Ford by its new competitions boss, Jochen Neerpasch, to mount a successful assault on the German DRM series in a Capri RS in ’72.
In at the deep end…
There can be few drivers with so little single-seater experience prior to lining up on the Formula One grid: Stuck’s open-wheel career had spanned just six starts when he made the trip to Buenos Aires for his grand prix debut in January 1974.
Stuck’s rapid rise from touring car coming-man to F1 driver came courtesy of two lucky breaks: first Neerpasch switched from Ford to BMW, which was just beginning its long association with March in Formula Two, and took his star driver with him; then two months later Jean-Pierre Jarier decided that he’d rather drive for Shadow than stay with March. Suddenly 23-year-old Stuck, who had dovetailed an ETC campaign with a handful of F2 appearances in 1973, was promoted to the F1 squad before he’d even made his first start as a full-time member of its junior formula team.
Stuck recalls a baptism of fire in the Argentinian Grand Prix: “I remember going out for first practice. I thought I was doing OK, going around the fast double-right `Curvón’ at the back of the circuit in fourth gear. Then Emerson Fittipaldi came around the outside of me as though I was standing still. I thought I’d better go home at that point, but I knuckled down and gradually learnt my way around.”
Win or you’re out…
As ultimatums go, it was to the point: win or you are out. Stuck had secured his big F1 break with Brabham after the death of Carlos Pace in a light aircraft accident at the start of 1977. Two podiums and a mixed season in the BT45B later, Bernie Ecclestone delivered the bombshell ahead of the late-season United States Grand Prix.
“Bernie told me that if I won the race at Watkins Glen I would have a contract for the following season,” explains Stuck. “If I didn’t I’d be out of a drive.”
The German did half the job by claiming pole position for the only time in his F1 career and then led the early laps, but he knew long before he spun off on lap 15 that he would be leaving the team. “The clutch cable broke just after the start and from that point I knew I had no chance,” he recalls.
Stuck underachieved during an F1 career that petered out with seasons at Shadow and ATS, but he has no regrets about turning his back on single-seaters before his 29th birthday. “I didn’t want to stay with that crazy man Günther Schmid at ATS and I didn’t have any better offers, so I walked away from F1. I knew that outside F1 I could race much more competitive machinery.”
Stuck had never left the BMW fold and eased straight back into a full-time ride. He dovetailed a campaign in the BMW Procar series with Ron Dennis’s Project 4 squad with a season racing a Schnitzer 320 Turbo in the DRM.
“If you’re an F1 driver, your dream is to drive a Ferrari. If you are a sportscar driver, you want to race for Porsche.” Stuck fulfilled the second of those ambitions in 1985. And so began arguably the most successful period of his career.
“The year before I’d been driving a BMW 635CSi in the ETC, but they appeared to be concentrating on F1 with Brabham,” he says, “so I felt there wasn’t much of a task for me anymore. I knew Stefan Bellof was leaving to focus on F1, so I phoned Porsche. They said they thought I had a lifetime BMW contract, but after I told them that wasn’t the case we did a deal in five minutes. I’d been racing a 956 for the Brun team in 1984 and had won the Imola 1000km when Stefan drove with me at Brun, so Porsche knew exactly what I could do.”
It was the start of a beautiful relationship that continued until the end of 1997. In that time, Stuck became a world champion, twice won the Le Mans 24 Hours and secured back-to-back titles in Germany’s own sportscar series, the Supercup. Factor in five more podiums at Le Mans, two victories with customer teams in the Sebring 12 Hours and a brace of wins in the Global Endurance GT Series as late as ’96, and it is easy to understand why the name Hans Stuck will forever be associated with Porsche.
Yet Stuck has other reasons for looking back fondly on his time with the Weissach manufacturer: he may already have been a superstar when he arrived, but it was only while he was there that he became the complete driver. “I learnt so much at Porsche,” he explains. “Peter Falk (race director) would let you go in a certain direction when you were developing the car, even though he knew it was wrong. There has always been a special way allowing the drivers to gain experience at Porsche.
“I also learned a lot because I drove so much. I was the main man for a long time: I don’t think anyone drove more miles in a 962 than me.”
“Our car used to say ‘BEST’ on the side. It wasn’t just short for Bell and Stuck; I think it described our partnership as well.” So says Stuck of the driver with whom he shared all his major triumphs in the halcyon Rothmans Porsche era: “Derek Bell was my favourite team-mate from my days at Weissach.”
It is no secret that Stuck and Bell formed a strong friendship after teaming up in ’85 and remain close to this day. They claimed no fewer than six world championship sportscar wins, notched up a pair of Le Mans 24 Hours triumphs and, by rights, should have claimed World Endurance Championship crowns together in both ’85 and ’86. The works team had skipped the Norisring Supersprint in ’86, so Bell and Stuck found drives in privateer 962s. Both finished outside the points, but the Briton came home four places ahead of his good friend and, courtesy of a bizarre tiebreak rule, was handed the crown at the end of the season even though they finished equal on points.
“This aggravated me for about six months,” offers Stuck, “and then I forgot about it. Your second world title is never going to be as important as the first.”
The pair’s Le Mans triumphs in 1986 and ’87 were achieved with Al Holbert, another favourite Stuck co-driver. “Al was underestimated as a driver,” he says. “He wasn’t only fast, he was very gentle on the car. He was very good on fuel consumption and looked after the tyres.”
Austrian Jo Gartner was another driver rated by Stuck, particularly after they triumphed at Sebring in a Bob Akin-entered 962 in 1986: “Jo was very technical, very strong on set-up and very quick. I recommended him to Porsche and I know they were talking when he was killed at Le Mans. That makes his death even more of a tragedy. He could have achieved great things.”
Quick in a quattro…
Think Hans Stuck and several images come rapidly to mind: a Capri RS hooking a wheel over a kerb at Spa-Francorchamps, a BMW CSL in mid-air at the Flugplatz or a 1000bhp turbo M1 Bimmer being hauled back from some incredible angle. Yet a driver who spent much of his formative years sideways went on to achieve great success in four-wheel-drive machinery both with Audi and, very briefly, Opel. “No oversteer! I liked four-wheel drive from my first lap in the Audi,” says Stuck. “I reckon I was up to speed in five laps.”
Stuck hadn’t been sold on the idea when Audi boss Dr Ferdinand Piech called to tell him that the Ingolstadt marque was stopping rallying to go racing: “When he told me they would be racing an Audi 200 quattro, I wasn’t very impressed. Then they showed me the car I would be racing in the US (in Trans-Am) and I jumped at it.”
The move to Audi from Porsche was effectively a free transfer between two closely-connected German makes. Remember, Piech is also a member of the Porsche family. “When Audi asked if I could do some races in the US, Porsche set me free because they no longer had a full programme in Europe.
But whenever I was needed by Porsche, Audi would release me. There was an unspoken word that I would drive a Porsche at Le Mans.”
Stuck was a multiple race winner in the Trans-Am silhouette series and in IMSA GTO the following season in the 90 quattro, but his biggest success came when Audi switched to the DTM with the so-called V8. A total of 11 wins and the 1990 title explain why Stuck is happy to say: “I put my years at Audi up there with the other successful periods of my career.”
No Berger beef…
“Gerhard Berger called me into his office and asked how old I was. When I told him I was nearly 48, he shook his head and said, ‘Too old to be a racing driver’.” Stuck appears to bear no grudge when he explains how his Le Mans career was brought to a premature end after the former grand prix driver took over at BMW Motorsport prior to the 1999 season. But then he did get the last laugh more than four years later: “When BMW decided to bring out the V8-powered M3 GTR for the 2003 Nürburgring 24 Hours, Berger had to call up and ask if I could drive. That was nice.”
Stuck had been brought back to BMW by Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, BMW Motorsport boss back in the ’80s and now a board member. “Kalbfell and I had kept in touch and he always used to say that he would find a way for me to ‘come home’. There was stuff like a secret M5 DTM car in the early ’90s that never happened.”
Stuck was already talking to Kalbfell about driving a new sports prototype designed and built by Williams, BMW’s new F1 partner, when it became clear that his days were numbered at Porsche. The deal was done even before Porsche motorsport boss Herbert Ampferer told him that his services would not be required for 1998: “You should have seen the look on his face when I told him that I had signed for BMW four weeks before!”
Reborn in the USA…
One door closed at BMW, another opened. Denied the chance to race the BMW that went on to win Le Mans in 1999, Stuck was sent across the Atlantic to drive for the BMW North America-backed Prototype Technology Group, and another successful period began.
“I enjoyed those years in the US,” says Stuck, who took four wins in the GT class of the American Le Mans Series in 1999-2001. The last two came with the M3 GTR, the same car with which he went on to claim another big endurance win in last year’s Nürburgring 24 Hours. “Driving a car like that in your 50s, with team-mates like Jörg and Dirk Müller, is something that I can only describe as a little bit of magic. To win the 24 Hours again at the ‘Ring last year was amazing.
“If someone looks at the history books and sees that this guy Stuck has won that race three times — in 1970, 1998 and 2004— they would never believe that it is the same person. I feel privileged that I still race with a factory contract at my age.”
So what does the future hold? “Long-distance races for now,” says Stuck, who is a class winner this year in a Schubert Motors M3 in the Nordschleife’s dedicated series, the Langstreckenmeisterschaft. “I’m going to Dubai in January to do a 24-hour event. I am a BMW driver and an ambassador for the company. I don’t see any other programme for me right now.”
There is something else on the horizon, however: a return to single-seaters. Stuck will join the likes of Alain Prost, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell, Alan Jones and other F1 veterans in the Grand Prix Masters pilot race at Kyalami in November. “I can’t wait to do it,” says Stuck. “I drove one of my old F2 cars a couple of times at the vintage event at Lime Rock back in 2001-02. I enjoyed it so much that I thought, ‘Where have I gone wrong for the past 20 years?’
Where else could Stuckie bring his career to an end? It has to be on the Nordschleife, and a plan is already in place: the 2009 Nürburgring 24 Hours won’t just mark his 40th anniversary as a driver, it also offers the chance to contest the event inextricably linked with his name with a third generation of Stuck racers.
“Johannes is already racing and is doing the German Mini Challenge one-make series, and my little one, Ferdinand, is in his third season of karting in Germany,” explains their father. “He’s 14 now, and 2009 will be the first chance for him to do the 24 Hours. The plan is to do it all together, in a BMW of course.
“That would be a proud moment for any father, but I also think we will be doing something unique for one of the 24-hour races in Europe. There has been an Andretti family team racing at Le Mans: Mario and Michael shared a Porsche with John, which was father, son and nephew. We will be a father and two sons. I don’t think that’s been done over here before.”