Young, gifted and black
Maurer was born in Germany, but only stood tall in Formula Two due to a British backbone. In five seasons its pretty cars came from nowhere, caused a storm, then were gone. By Gary Watkins.
An ambitious team owner with a wallet to match; a young and gifted engineer earning a reputation for designing beautiful racing cars; the mercurial talents of a driver now regarded as the lost Schumacher; and controversy and catastrophe by the bucket load. The story of Maurer, played out in an overlooked era of Formula Two, just about had it all.
Willi Maurer may have been just 27, but he had the keys to the Berlin-based Mampe drinks fortune. When the first F2 car to bear his name rolled out at Hockenheim in April 1979 few could have predicted the impact the team would make over the next five seasons. A talented group of people ensured that Maurer was a major F2 player for more than half that time.
The names Gustav Brunner and Stefan Bellof are those most usually associated with Maurer. The designer is remembered for what he went on to achieve in Formula One with Ferrari, ATS, Rial and others; the driver for what his death at the wheel of a Porsche 956 at Spa in 1985 prevented him from achieving. Maurer was the launch pad for both their careers.
Behind the scenes, however, there was a core of motor racing stalwarts, predominantly British, whose role in the success was just as significant. Without the likes of Paul Owens, who became defacto team principal, and Paul Brown, who put Brunner's theories into practice during two stints at Maurer, it is unlikely that the team would have notched up its four wins and a further 12 podiums in the European F2 Championship.
The British invasion started one year into the life of the Maurer F2 team. Willi Maurer had been tasked with promoting the Mampe name and had placed sponsorship in the German DRM Group 5 sportscar series, first with the factory Ford Zakspeed team and then Kremer-Porsche. One of his drivers had been Armin Hahne and they hatched a plan to take the 23-year-old into F2.
A quarter of a century on, driver and team owner appear to disagree on why they chose not to buy an off-the-peg chassis. Hahne: "I'm not sure why he wanted to go F2, but I think he wanted a car named after him." Maurer, meanwhile, maintains that it was the cheapest option. "I had discussions with March and Ralt, but we didn't have the money," he says. "It also made more sense for promotional reasons to have a German car."
The first example of a line of BMW-powered chassis to bear the initials MM — that's for Mampe Maurer — suggested it was the wrong decision. The car, schemed out by Brunner, turned up at a handful of races in 1979 and made no impact whatsoever.
Driver and team owner decided to go their separate ways for the following season. Maurer had found another young hotshoe, an Austrian by the name of Markus Höttinger, and had brought in two-year F2 veteran Eje Elgh for his experience. The Swede's signing proved to be a turning point.
"The first car wasn't very good and it didn't handle at all," he says. "There was a lot of work to do." Elgh suggested the solution lay with some of his old mates from Chevron with which he had been a race winner in British Formula 3 back in 1977. The likes of Dave Wilson, Brown and then Owens had been left out in the cold upon the demise of the Bolton constructor in December 1979 but now found new employment with Maurer.
They had to agree with Elgh's assessment upon arrival at the team's base in Speyer, near Hockenheim. "A lot of the engineering on the car was frightening," says Brown. "You could pick up a wheel and it didn't compress the spring — it just twisted the chassis."
Mechanic Ian Harrison, now boss of the Triple Eight touring car team, says their first job was to "drag the car into the 20th century". He remembers: "We had to re-engineer it, stiffen it up and put some proper sidepods on it to create some ground effect."
Their efforts were beginning to bear fruit when the team was hit by tragedy in the spring of 1980. Höttinger was killed in a freak incident at round two at Hockenheim. So freakish, in fact, that the 23-year old wasn't even involved in the accident.
"A wheel came off another car [Derek Warwick's Toleman]," explains Brown. "Markus was nowhere near the accident, well out of harm's way. The wheel went 50 feet up in the air and came down on his head. He was killed instantly."
Within weeks, Maurer was without both its original drivers. Elgh had been persuaded to try out old team boss Tim Schenken's Tiga F2 car at Silverstone, only to crash and break his arm. The momentum of the season had been lost, but the MM80 was still good enough to lead two races in the hands of stand-in drivers Beppe Gabbiani and Patrick Gaillard.
Owens had joined as an engineer. "I only went to the races and got some development bits built back home," he explains. "They wanted me to stay on into 1981, but I said only if we could run the team out of England."
Maurer duly moved to Chevron's old paint shop and then on to a newer factory in West Naughton in Greater Manchester. Brunner was now on board full-time and the result of the new collaboration was the striking MM81. "It was a very good car," says Elgh, who had done enough in a non-points race at Monza at the end of 1980 to be retained to drive alongside Colombian Roberto Guerrero. "It was great in the fast tracks, because it very clearly had a lot of downforce."
This explains why Guerrero gave Maurer a maiden victory at Thruxton in April 1981. That should really be maiden European F2 win, because a Mazda-engined MM80 had already triumphed in the South African Formula Atlantic series. Elgh won at Vallelunga in May and looked a genuine championship contender until the team's Pirelli tyres fell behind the Bridgestones supplied to the Honda-backed Ralt team which went on to take the tide with Geoff Lees.
Elgh's last task as a fully-fledged Maurer driver was to set up an MM81 and put down a marker time at a test at Paul Ricard over the winter. The team was trying out a number of hopefuls to replace a driver who was convinced he would land an F1 deal for 1982. Some-time grand prix driver Mike Thackwell, reigning French Formula 3 champion Alain Ferté and Austrian Peter Schindler were joined by an obscure German Formula Ford racer with only a handful of F3 starts under his belt.
Little was known of Bellof, but Elgh did not hesitate when asked for his recommendation. "When I saw what Stefan was doing in that car I have never been more sure of anything in my life," he says. "I went to Maurer and told him to sign this guy. I said that Bellof would be a world champion some time in the future."
On the evidence of the first two races of Maurer's 1982 campaign, he was going to be an F2 champion in the near future. Bellof blitzed the opening rounds at Silverstone and Hockenheim, leading nearly all the way in the latter.
By rights Maurer shouldn't have been able to compete with the works Ralt team and its light and powerful Honda V6s. But Bellof wasn't the Anglo-German organisation's only secret weapon. Willi Maurer had chosen to switch from Mader BMWs to short-stroke Heidegger-tuned units developed specifically for the team. Then there was an ingenious system that gave the car more downforce than anything else on the grid. Most teams used dual springs to get the car as close as possible to the road, but Owens came up with a primitive version of what Colin Chapman had pioneered on his twin-chassis Lotus 86/88 Fl cars.
"It was such a simple idea," says Harrison, who had returned to the team after a year with Alan Docking's Toleman squad. "We had a one piece body section that stretched from the nose to the back of the car. On this were a series of balls that fitted into slots on vertical fences on the side of the venturis. The whole thing was tied down with old-fashioned spring clips to give it some flexibility."
The bodywork would slide down over the venturis at speed to replicate the sliding skirts that had been banned in F2 since the start of 1980, while the chassis would be pushed down under
load and locked in place by a bayonet on each spring/damper unit.
This system was connected by four cables to a mysterious lever in the cockpit. "On his in-lap the driver would push the lever at high speed and then stand on the brakes," Harrison adds. "The car would pop up and then be able to pass the static ride height test in the pitlane."
This lever, not to mention the smoke and sparks that used to pour off the bottom of the MM82s at high speed, led to a series of protests. "I lost count of the tribunals I went to," says Owens. "The regulations stated that you couldn't have any device that lowered the car, but they said nothing about anything that locked the car down once it got there." The system was never declared illegal.
Bellof's title challenge quickly went off the rails, however. His speed was never in doubt — witness a total of five fastest laps that year — but poor reliability from the Heidegger BMWs and the superior organisation of the works Ralt and March teams meant the German failed to win again.
"We didn't have the resources to challenge consistently," says Harrison. "Paul Owens ran a good team, but he had to battle for money all the time.
I'm not sure that Maurer really understood racing and never quite spent enough. March and Ralt were proper teams, run by racing people. They were bound to come out on top."
Neither Bellof nor Maurer would win again in European F2. The team boss, stung by criticism in the German press, decided to relocate the main race operation to Bavaria for 1983. Brunner had left for ATS and the relationship with Heidegger ended up in the courts. The team lost its potency, though Bellof was deprived of another Silverstone win by a last-lap throttle failure and Ferté, who had now joined the team full-time, had victory at Pau taken away in the scrutineering bay.
Owens began withholding spares until he was paid by Germany. "I needed money to pay the staff and the overheads in England," he recalls. "I was a director of the company, so it was my head on the block." Owens quit at the season's end and Willi Maurer decided to leave his own F1 car on the drawing board and place his protégé with Tyrrell. The decline had been almost as rapid as its rise — Maurer Racing had run its course.