One for the pros

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Procar involved some stunning BMW M1s and a bunch of F1 drivers who were let loose on the track before a Grand Prix. No wonder they wanted a reunion
By Adam Cooper

BMW celebrated the 30th anniversary of the M1 in style by running a pair of demonstration Procar races at the German Grand Prix meeting. Ten of the Group 4 racers, both privately owned and from the company museum, recalled the legendary Formula 1 support series of 1979-’80.

Also gathered was a collection of drivers who took part in the original series, including Niki Lauda, Marc Surer, Christian Danner, Dieter Quester, Helmut Kelleners and Harald Grohs, while former BMW motor sport boss Jochen Neerpasch – the man behind the Procar series – drove the legendary Andy Warhol art car. Current BMW drivers Christian Klien and Jörg Müller also took part.

Neerpasch, with Warhol contemporary Frank Stella sitting alongside him in the passenger seat, was supposed to pace the field for the demonstrations. Alas, at the start of the Saturday morning event he had a clutch problem, so mayhem ensued as everyone else went past and the supposed parade quickly developed into a race. “It was fun because Neerpasch didn’t start and I just took off and did my own thing,” grinned Lauda. “There was no restriction!”

“I think we made a good show,” said Surer. “We didn’t really race hard – but it ended up like a race! I went into the lead on the second lap, but it was better for the show if Lauda won, so I backed off on the last lap and let him past again…”

For the Sunday lunchtime run (held just before the Grand Prix) a rolling start avoided any embarrassment, and this time everyone duly followed Neerpasch around. “My co-pilot was so happy,” said Jochen. “He said, ‘this is one of the great moments in my life’! They think the Warhol car is worth between 20-30 million euros, so it was not easy for me. But I forgot about all of this when I was driving.”

The Procar series, which supported European GPs, is fondly remembered for its unique format. Regular drivers fielded by teams such as Osella, TWR, Sauber and Schnitzer were joined at each race by works cars for the top five drivers from Friday F1 practice, although even in those days tyre contract clashes meant that the Ferrari and Renault guys were not allowed to participate. But the list of those who did take part is
an extraordinary one, and it includes Mario Andretti, Patrick Depailler, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Alan Jones, Jacques Laffite, Nelson Piquet, Didier Pironi, Alain Prost, Clay Regazzoni, Carlos Reutemann and John Watson. In addition the likes of Lauda, Surer, Hans Stuck, Bruno Giacomelli, Arturo Merzario, Eddie Cheever, Jan Lammers and Elio de Angelis appeared in private entries.

The series came about because BMW had nowhere else to race the 3.5-litre machine after the original plan to build it at Lamborghini fell apart. Munich was unable to take up the slack, and could not produce the car fast enough to homologate it. “It was quite complicated because we could only build 200 a year,” says Neerpasch. “And before you could race in Group 4, you needed to make 400. So we produced a racing car without the possibility to race, and that’s why we thought about Procar.”

Bernie Ecclestone agreed that a Formula 1 support series was a good way to go, and his FOCA partner Max Mosley – close to BMW from his March F2 days – agreed to help push the idea along. “The first race was at Zolder,” recalls Neerpasch. “And people didn’t believe that we could have five F1 drivers in the Saturday race. Max was there with a case of money. I’ll never forget this. He was in front of Mario Andretti and he took 1000, 2000, 3000 – I don’t know exactly what currency it was – and then finally Mario agreed, and all the others came! After that it was automatic. The F1 drivers liked Procar and they could make money by winning it.”

“We drivers had fun,” says Lauda, who won the title in 1979. “We were always there, hitting each other, which we couldn’t do in F1. And we earned good money.”

“It was good racing,” says Surer, who was reunited with his ex-BMW Switzerland entry at Hockenheim. “In the first year you could really see an advantage with the factory cars, but by the second year everyone knew how to do it.”

Surer knows more than most about the M1. A works F2 and sports car driver when it was being developed, he has owned a road-going version ever since, although his original 100,000kms car had to be replaced a decade ago after someone crashed into it. He has no doubts about the M1’s qualities – and its faults. “I did a lot of testing with the road car, but it wasn’t handling well,” he says. “It was too high, and so on. My own car has a different set-up, and I have a wing that Dave Wass of Arrows made for me. Now you have cars which have 600bhp for the road, but they are all heavy, they don’t have the direct steering, they don’t have the same feeling. With this car, it’s a real driving machine. In modern cars you have all the electronics, and more power, but you never have the same feeling…”

The Hockenheim demo run was an eye-opener for Peugeot Le Mans racer Klien, born long after the original series. “I was surprised,” he said. “The car is 30 years old, but it had really good handling, it was really well balanced. You had to drive it with the throttle, but what was amazing for those times was the power. You can rev it up to 11,000rpm.”

Sadly after Neerpasch left BMW the M1 project was effectively canned, in essence because the company’s racing philosophy switched to F1 and turbos. Outside Procar the M1 had limited success in Group 4 guise, while a Group 5 version – which owed little to the original – was also seen. A total of 455 road and racing cars were built between 1978-’81, and the Giugaro-styled M1 remains a stunning machine that does not look out of place today. Indeed, in April BMW unveiled the ‘Homage’ concept car (left), which may yet form the basis of a revival. “You never know,” says Neerpasch, who has contributed to a book about the 30th anniversary. “They are so enthusiastic, maybe sooner or later it will come to production. It’s a fantastic design – it’s an M1 for nowadays.”

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the Procar series is the head start it gave Ron Dennis prior to his takeover of McLaren. His Project 4 team built many of the customer cars on BMW’s behalf, and then ran Lauda to the inaugural title. He extended his ties with Marlboro owner Philip Morris, and built a rapport with the Austrian that was to prove invaluable. “I have fond memories of the series because it made us a lot of money and that allowed us to build MP4/1,” says Dennis. “We were able to fulfil the objectives of BMW as regards car production. It was very profitable. It created the opportunity to talk about F1 – it was definitely beneficial to be present at Grands Prix at a time when we were trying to find a way in. And the relationship I built with Niki was the catalyst to being able to speak to him about coming back to F1.”

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