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Eric Offenstadt


Matra MS1




1965 Monaco F3 GP


Various drivers have begun racing on bikes. Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Behra, Surtees, Hailwood and Cecotto, for instance, started out by winning two-wheel races. Eric Offenstadt is surely less famous but he is well-known for the role he played in motorbike history. Moreover, his career is somewhat a-typical as he began by driving bikes, then cars, and eventually switched back to bikes. Though his car record is not impressive, it is interesting because of Offenstadt’s involvement in some projects.

Eric Offenstadt is born in Cognac on 26 December 1939. He is not yet twenty when he meets Jean-Claude Bargetzi, the French 250cc Champion. Through this meeting he discovers his passion for motorbikes. Offenstadt begins racing by riding a Matchless. His beginnings are difficult yet encouraging. To avoid trouble, he has to run under a false identity because he is not of age yet (you had to be 21 years old at the time) and he does not want his parents to be aware of his passion.

In 1961, he becomes French 175cc France Champion on an Aermacchi. By now his parents must be aware! The following year he races in various categories: 125cc on a Ducati, 250cc and 350cc on an Aermacchi and 500cc on a Norton. He misses the national title in the latter category, which is won by Georges Monneret. Offenstadt also meets a French biker who is going to be a famous F1 driver: Jean-Pierre Beltoise.

Thanks to an inheritance, Eric Offenstadt decides to buy his first racing car: a Formula Junior Lola Mk5A. He takes part in races in France and in Europe. The season is difficult despite a single victory in a minor race in Schleiz (Germany). But his results allow him to earn the premiums needed to finance the season. At the end of 1963 he has two significant results in Montlhéry: 4th in the Coupe de Paris and 2nd in the Coupes du Salon - with pole position and fastest lap - behind Jo Schlesser (Brabham BT6), the 1963 French F Junior Champion.

In 1964, Eric Offenstadt takes part in the French Formula 3 championship with a Lola Mk55. He wins four races but loses the title to Henri Grandsire (Alpine) who wins just three races. Thanks to this victory, the new French champion is about to become a TV star through the Michel Vaillant role in a TV serial.

Despite this defeat, the 1964 season is satisfying for Offenstadt as he ranks 5th in the Monaco F3 Grand Prix, a kind of F3 World Cup at this time. The winner of the day is Jackie Stewart (Cooper) followed by Silvio Moser (Brabham) and Mauro Bianchi (Alpine).

In 1965, Offenstadt races in two categories and takes part in the beginning of a great challenge: the creation of the Matra team. Indeed, he is chosen by Jean-Luc Lagardère to drive the brand new French F3 car alongside Jaussaud, Pescarolo and Beltoise. This car is the true beginning of an adventure which will allow the French company to win in Formula 1 and sports cars. In the meantime, Offenstadt buys a Cooper-BRM T75 to race as a privateer in F2 races. In the sixties, F2 is much more than F1's ante-chamber: Clark, Hulme, Brabham & Co. participate in many races, even if they are F1's star drivers. Imagine the Schumacher brothers fighting Sperafíco brothers in F3000!

The first race in which the Matra team takes part is the Monaco F3 GP. Offenstadt retires whereas his team mate, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, is 15th. The beginnings are not easy and the relationship between Offenstadt and some members of the team is not really good. After some races, the driver decides to leave Matra. At the end of the season, his friend Jean-Pierre Beltoise wins the French F3 championship.

However, it is interesting to know Mr Boyer’s feelings about Eric Offenstadt. It can help us to understand Offenstadt as a man and as a driver. Says Mr Boyer, Matra's technical chassis manager: “I met Eric Offenstadt at Matra, in 1965, just before he left the company. Eric used to be an original guy. At that time, though he already had ideas, he lacked some technical background. At Matra, he would always try to do what the others failed to. Actually, we always need someone like Offenstadt. He purely dedicates himself to innovate and develop mechanics whereas, at the time when he ran for the company, Matra only focused on victory by using existing solutions and ignoring research.”

In Formula 2, Offenstadt races the European tracks to fight against the best drivers in the world. He is 6th in Rouen, 8th in Enna-Pergusa. These results are not fantastic but interesting all the same: we should not forget that he is a privateer racing against professional teams.

The 1966 season is a crucial season for Offenstadt. After the Argentinian F3 Temporada, of which he takes the very last round, he buys a Cooper T60 chassis and fits his BRM engine to it. Moreover, he hires a mechanic, Dewar Thomas, who is going to prepare his F2 car in a really good way. The beginning of the season is a bit like 1965: his best result is 6th in Crystal Palace. Then Offenstadt goes to Scandinavia. The first race is at Karlskoga where he tangles with Jochen Rindt on the second lap. The following Sunday, at Keimola, he is 6th in the first heat, narrowly tailing Peter Arundell’s Lotus entered by the Ron Harris team. The second heat is even better as he takes 5th just ahead of Arundell. The aggregate results show Offenstadt 6th, 0”18 behind the same Arundell… The winner is Jack Brabham (Brabham BT21), followed by Dennis Hulme (Brabham BT18) and Jim Clark (Lotus 44).

Thanks to this performance, the French driver is immediately hired by Ron Harris who runs the official Lotus F2 Team. Thus, Offenstadt is going to race the French F2 Trophy as a team mate of Peter Arundell and… Jim Clark. And his results are something to show for as he takes 5th at Montlhéry behind Brabham, Clark, Hulme and Stewart, his best result being 3rd at Le Mans-Bugatti behind Hulme and Beltoise but ahead of Stewart, Attwood and Clark.

1966 is a crucial season for another season. Offenstadt is hired by Marius and Patrick Dal Bo to drive their self-built French F3: the Pygmée. At first, Marius Dal Bo was a heater manufacturer based in Annecy. These heaters were so small that they were nicknamed Pygmées. This small family had one passion: racing cars. It was then decided to build Formula 3 single-seaters which could be driven by Marius’ son Patrick. Thus, from 1965 to 1973, this small constructor built F3 cars and cars for Formula France and Formula 2. The Pygmée cars won some F3 races and two French hill-climb championships in 1970 and 1971.

Offenstadt is known for his technical knowledge and he is able help the Pygmée team develop the new F3/66 car. Two races in Germany prove that the French car has real potential: Offenstadt finishes 6th in both. This is the prelude to a collaboration between the French driver and the small constructor in 1968 and '69.

The 1967 season is less impressive. Indeed, Ron Harris decides to ditch the Lotus 44 and asks Frank Costin to build a new car. The latter builds the Protos 16, a peculiar wooden-chassis car. Given his good results in ‘66, Offenstadt is chosen as one of its drivers, alongside Brian Hart, who is to become a renowned F1 engine builder in the eighties. Harris also hires Offenstadt for F3.

In F2 Eric cannot beat his best result of 4th at Hockenheim, in a minor race, after taking pole position. At the end of June he is injured at Reims and replaced by Pedro Rodriguez for the remaining F2 races. Just two and a half months later Offenstadt returns to drive in two F3 races at the end of the season. At Montlhéry he takes second place between Vidal and Pescarolo’s Matra.

In the other F3 races of 1967, driving a Lotus 35 and 41, he puts together a string of satisfying results despite some bad luck. He is second in the first round of the Temporada, behind Beltoise (Matra) but is forced to retire in the following two rounds, in spite of a good performance. At Monaco he is second in his heat, 3” behind Pescarolo (Matra), but he has to retire in the final.

In 1968 Ron Harris swaps the Protos for Italian Tecno cars. Offenstadt scores some fine results at Monza and Zandvoort, as he takes 5th in each race. Nevertheless, the 1968 season is much more dedicated to Formula 3 with the Pygmée team, his best results being 3rd at Montlhéry and 4th at Magny-Cours.

In 1969, Eric drives the very first true Pygmée F2, the MDB12. Despite Marius and Patrick’s passion, the team has no real financial means, penalizing the development and reliability of the cars. Pygmées do not often finish races… Offenstadt is 11th at the Nürburgring, his best result of the season, while retiring in all the other races.

Then comes the Tulln-Langenlebarn race in Austria, where Offenstadt is shaken by a practice accident. He is uninjured but decides he has had enough. He quits motor racing. I guess that at the age of 29 he considers racing in non-competitive single-seaters is no longer worth risking his life for.

Despite his decision, motor racing remains Offenstadt’s true passion and he goes back to motorbike racing as soon as 1970. In fact his come-back is unwelcome. Indeed, Pépé (Eric’s nickname) likes to show off and has a reputation of a smooth talker. Moreover, he is an outspoken person which is not often appreciated. However, he has two undoubtedly great values: he is both ambitious and obstinate. Thus, he wins the Le Mans 1000km on a Kawasaki, takes his category in the Bol d’Or and finishes second in the French championship. The following year, eight years after Colin Chapman did so in Formula 1, he introduces the monocoque chassis in the world of motorbikes by building the SMAC bike. Thanks to his innovation, many specialists - including several British engineers - do not shy away from comparing Offenstadt to Chapman.

Eric races on until 1973, riding a Kawasaki in 500cc World Championship. He takes some good results and even ends up 6th at the 1971 standings. In 1973 he drives the SMAC, but not to very great effect… At the same time Offenstadt does not forget on his experiment being a car racing driver, as the SMAC company also prepares competition cars such as Honda’s S800.

In 1974, he starts working as a technical manager for the Motobécane Racing Department in order to help the French bike company win the French 125cc Championship. He succeeds in 1975, allowing Michel Balloche to win the championship. Offenstadt takes the opportunity for more innovation by implementing electronic injection, a first on a motor bike! Eric leaves Motobécane at the end of 1975, then sells SMAC and starts building a 100% French racing bike: the H.O. (Houzé-Offenstadt). Says Offenstadt, “My very first goal is to build a French motorbike because in my own opinion our technology is at least as good as that of other countries. Unfortunately, French industry lacks initiative.” Offenstadt uses various technical innovations to create the H.O., such as disc brakes and special suspension. The bike shows poor race results but it is considered a milestone in motorbike history. The adventure lasts for four years.

Then, in 1981, Offenstadt buys a… restaurant. It is located near Paris and called La Vigne Gourmande. But two-wheeled racing remains on his mind and true enough, at the end of the nineties, he is hired by Tecmas, a French motorbike manufacturer. Their common goal is to build a bike using a revolutionary suspension set-up. Offenstadt cannot give up his passion, whatever the number of wheels…

Eric Offenstadt record