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On the verge of F1


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Markus Höttinger


Maurer-BMW MM80




P&O Ferries F2 International XXVI BARC '200' (April 7, 1980)

Markus Höttinger, Maurer MM80, Thruxton 1980

Austria had a fair number of top F1 drivers, including two World Champions, Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda. However, it seems almost all of those who reached the pinnacle of the sport were touched by tragedy. Lauda, Berger, Marko and Wendlinger had horrific crashes while Rindt, Gartner, Koinigg and Ratzenberger paid the ultimate price for their passion. The same fate befell a young promising driver that was carving his way to the top in the international motor racing scene in 1980: Markus Höttinger.

Markus Höttinger was born in Neunkirchen, Eastern Austria, on 28 May 1956. His father was a judge in a national court and his mother was a teacher, so young Markus had a good upbringing and soon excelled both in sports and in his studies. After studying at the renowned Militärgymnasium, with distinction, he proceeded to study medicine at the university. As if such a degree wasn't enough, he also successfully applied for a study in journalism and sports sciences while developing his excellent skiing skills while being coached by the famous Prof. Franz Hoppilcher of the Ski Austria Academy – a man considered as the father of modern skiing training methods in Austria and who would go on to coach a lot of champions.

Amidst this meteoric rise Höttinger did an internship at Mercedes-Benz during the 1975 summer break and used his earnings to buy a Ford, which he immediately entered in local club races. The following season he progressed to the Austrian Renault 5 Cup, winning it at his second attempt in 1977. That year he also entered the highly competitive Renault 5 Eurocup, winning the support event for the Italian Grand Prix.

It was during his tenure with the small French machines that Höttinger came to know Helmut Marko – his elder countryman had had a successful career in sportscars and was driving for BRM in F1 when he lost an eye in the 1972 French GP when hit by a stone that pierced his visor. So he turned to his new role as a talent scout, and nowadays is renowned for his powerful role at Red Bull. Speaking to Autosport magazine, Helmut Marko recalls Höttinger as “just a young guy from Burgenland, which is the smallest state in Austria. He was working on the cars himself in the beginning, just with a friend of his. And then I think we did some sort of cooperation in the European championship. So from then on I was following him or guiding him through the various categories.”

By then, Helmut was already a cunning manager and spotted the raw talent in Höttinger, so he spoke to Jochen Neerpasch, the then BMW sports manager. When Eddie Cheever, one of the Munich protégés, was unable to drive in the season-ending Kyalami 1000kms, Neerpasch called up Höttinger to drive an Alpina-entered BMW 320 with veteran Harald Grohs. Together they managed to take third place. Even if it was against frail opposition and they weren't properly fast – in the beginning Markus was more or less five second slower than his BMW team mates – it has to be said that the young man adapted quite well to a far more powerful car and an unknown circuit.

So for 1978 Neerpasch signed him for BMW's development programme. Alongside extensive testing mileage, mainly developing the new 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, Höttinger was assigned to the semi-works GS Tuning squad to drive one of the powerful Group 5 BMW 320s in the DRM. Immediately, he was one of the fastest men in Division 2, and in the third round on the daunting Nürburgring he won his first race. He would climb the highest step of the podium two more times that year, ending up second in Division 2 and joint fourth overall with 117 points, beating experienced drivers such as Armin Hahne, Hans Heyer and Harald Grohs.

His strong performances led to an invitation to drive the Nürburgring round of the World Championship of Makes – to make it easier, let's call it the World Endurance Championship – with a works BMW 320, paired with the far more experienced Hans Stuck. It gave Markus another win at the ‘Ring, as they took Division 1 honours in front of their team mates, who were none less than Dieter Quester and Ronnie Peterson! The promising signs at Kyalami and in the ‘Ring DRM round weren't one-off performances, so Höttinger would be called by BMW to drive by several teams in both the WEC and the ETCC. Although the remaining WEC rounds brought nothing but retirements, his ETCC debut had a far better flavour, as Höttinger won the Zeltweg round alongside Umberto Grano, driving a BMW 3.0 CSL for “dream team” Luigi. 1978 also marked his single-seater debut in the Österreichring European F3 event, driving a Chevron-BMW B38, but after an accident he retired in the first heat.

Obviously such an impressive season reinforced his place in the BMW junior squad, and Helmut Marko recalls that despite the occasional detours typical of a good-looking young man Markus developed a very professional approach to everything in the sport, and became one of the first young drivers to give special care to fitness and eating habits, which could be a big asset further on his career. He really needed to be in perfect shape since BMW filled his calendar with DRM, F2 and the brand-new Procar Series. The latter championship was born after a row between BMW and FISA, as the ruling body imposed a bunch of modifications to accept the Group 4 homologation of the brand new M1, a limited model built almost as a competition car. BMW didn’t agree so Neerpasch approached Max Mosley and the FOCA in order to create a F1-support series with twenty identical M1s that would be sold to renowned teams in order to have the ability of both tuner and driver make the difference. As a huge appeal to fans and sponsors, the first five F1 qualifiers were offered drives in works-prepared cars. Thus, one of the most spectacular, if not the best, one-make series ever was created, and it would support eight European F1 rounds, starting at Zolder.

One of the teams that entered Procar was GS Tuning, which wisely chose Höttinger to drive their M1 against F1 drivers (including Lauda who would do the entire series with a Project 4 car) and several established sportscar and touring car stars. Immediately, Markus was among the best and further impressed the BMW board and several F1 team managers. At Zolder the fight for the lead between himself and Stuck ended in a collision, then he was outpaced at Monaco and retired at Dijon; but at Silverstone he was back to the top and robbed Stuck of his third place after a sensational battle. Hockenheim ended after an early pile-up, but on home turf Höttinger was superb and managed to coax a damaged car to a brilliant second place. In heavy Zandvoort rain Markus took off Piquet, but finished the season with another podium at Monza (3rd), which put him fourth overall with 45 points – only led by the very best of drivers: Lauda, Stuck and Regazzoni! Quoting Marko: “His performance in the Procar really opened up his future. Especially with BMW. Neerpasch noticed his talent and helped a lot.”

On the DRM front, Höttinger drove the beautifully-liveried Jägermeister Team BMW 320, but it was outpowered against the new 320 Turbos and the Ford Capri Turbo that would dominate Division 2 in 1979. Yet, Markus often managed to push the car to its maximum without breaking, so he was often in the points and the best of the older BMWs. By the end of the year the team bought a 320 Turbo and Markus was immediately fighting for victory, taking his lone win at the penultimate round at Hockenheim, enough to be third in Division 2 and eighth overall.

Finally, BMW also allowed Höttinger to prove his talent in single-seaters, arranging a drive for him in a semi-works March-BMW 792 run by Bob Salisbury. The team had a small budget and Markus’ top priorities were his DRM and Procar outings, so he was only entered in five rounds alongside the team's regular driver Juan Traverso. In none of them he could impress, the best Höttinger was able to do were three seventh places, but it wasn't too bad for a rookie who lacked mileage to adapt to the tricky handling of the March 792. BMW had already set its eyes on F1, however, even after a management change. For this, they wanted their young drivers to have a full F2 season in 1980 and Höttinger was drafted in to drive for the newcomer Maurer team.

BMW was the dominant engine in F2 between the early seventies and 1982 and sponsored the official March team, being only occasionally challenged by Hart. As for the chassis manufacturers, March was always on top, challenged by Chevron (shut down in 1980 after the death of its founder Derek Bennett), Toleman and the privately-entered Marches. Occasionally AGS and Minardi delivered a surprise, but in 1979 a new team would arrive with an ambitious programme: Maurer. Willy Maurer decided to build a car for the 1979 season, sponsored by the Berlin-based beverage company Mampe, which is where the MM Mampe Team name came from. And they had a deal for BMW engines. Even if their first season was a total disaster, the new MM80 designed by Gustav Brunner embedded all the lessons learnt the year before so 1980 was approached with renewed optimism. Maurer placed the experienced Eje Elgh alongside Markus.

Sadly, Thruxton seemed to be a sequel of 1979, as Höttinger retired with a broken engine before completing the first lap and Elgh was out with a puncture, and both weren't properly fast.

It all seemed to improve at Hockenheim. For the Jim Clark Trophy both cars qualified mid-field and after the start they ran in the top-10, so all hopes were allowed. Then tragedy ensued… On lap 3 De Cesaris and Winkelhock collided in Turn 1, littering the track with sand. A lap later, desperately defending from a faster Thackwell, Derek Warwick ran wide and spun on the sand, failing to regain control of his Toleman. Derek crashed heavily on the inside Armco barriers, which tore off his right rear wheel that jumped into the track… precisely at the moment Höttinger was passing. He was struck square on his helmet with such violence that the roll-bar was bent sideways. An unconscious Höttinger spun and was hit by Bernard Devaney, stopping against the guardrails three hundred metres after the impact with the stray wheel.

Höttinger was immediately reached by marshals and medical staff but he had severe head injuries. They immediately applied trauma procedures in an ambulance right on the side of the circuit, and if initially the doctors thought him clinically dead, frail electrocardiogram signs made them call a helicopter from Oggersheim, 24kms away, and the race was shortened by three laps to allow it to land. Markus was transferred to Heidelberg hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. There was criticism because the helicopter took so long to arrive, but his condition was probably beyond help even with today's safety procedures, as we sadly saw by the recent cases of Justin Wilson and Henry Surtees.

His death occurred the day before the planned announcement on the ORF TV program Sport am Montag that Höttinger would make his F1 debut in the Austrian GP, probably driving an ATS. It is ironic that the other young BMW protégé, Hans-Georg Bürger, would be killed later in the season in the F2 Zandvoort round. Bürger and Höttinger were great friends and both were considered potential F1 drivers, as Marko remembers: “For sure Markus would have been competitive in F1. Just from his speed and his intelligence. Hans-Georg didn’t have the straightforward approach that Markus had, but he was one of the best Germans at that time.”

His teammate in the BMW junior squad Christian Danner adds that “Markus had the right personality, and was very disciplined.” Even if he hadn't yet reached the age of 24 and had less than ten single-seater outings in his very short career, it couldn't be denied that he had a lot of talent and could have been a top driver, if not in F1 then surely in touring cars and sportscars, especially after his impressive performances of 1978 and '79. BMW would have more back luck with their talents… sadly, two of them would die five years later. They were called Stefan Bellof and Manfred Winkelhock.