Grand Prix
Autocratic Teuton Schmidt


Grand Prix teams have often reflected the personality of their owners - Williams reflect the graft of Frank Williams, Brabham the corporate style of Bernie Ecclestone, Lotus the innovation of Colin Chapman, Osella the cheerful enthusiasm of Enzo Osella; the relative failure of Renault and Alfa Romeo has often been attributed to the lack of a figure head. But what sort of team would a short-tempered German wheel manufacturer produce? A team like ATS...

Son of a market gardener and a florist, Gustav Schmidt grew up in Mannheim. From an early age, however, he was more interested in flowers than plants. On his 16th birthday, his parents gave him a BMW Dixie, which he fervently stripped down, modified and rebuilt. Soon after he set up a small haulage company, and from 1966 took part in Formula Vee, driving for Austrian team Kaimann (even partnering Niki Lauda in 1969). He wasn't bad, but at the same time wasn't special, remaining in the formula until 1972. His driving style was a curious reflection of his later racing team - Schmidt could be fast, but rough, and tended towards overdriving.

He found himself becoming more interested in the technical side of racing. He rebuilt Vee engines - claiming to get 17kmh more speed out of the units - and modified his cars too. His transport business had turned into Auto Technic Spezialzuhebor in 1969, mainly focusing on making alloy wheels for road cars. Schmidt promoted the brand via sponsoring racing drivers - Manfred Trint, Freddy Kottulinsky, Miko Kazarowitzky, and brought the German Lola franchise from Jo Bonnier. A move into F2 with Jochen Mass in 1976 wasn't a success however - Schmidt was unimpressed by the small audience.

Nevertheless, the strategy of advertising through racing worked - by 1977, he was producing 35,000 wheels a month. He dominated the market in mainland Europe, and the next step was to reach an even wider audience. Schmidt calculated it wouldn't cost a lot more to run in Formula 1 than Formula 2, and the former had a growing world-wide television audience, and much bigger attendance. He dismissed simply sponsoring a team, wanting input and control for his money.

He briefly looked into running March customer cars, but then found out Roger Penske was selling his team to concentrate on Indycars. Schmidt brought the two PC4 chassis, three DFV engines and all the remaining spares for the project for $130,000 - a knockdown rate for a car which had won the previous season's Austrian Grand Prix. Schmidt budgeted $260,000 for the season on top. On the driving front, Schmidt wanted a German driver, and to that end hired Hans-Joachim Stuck.

The team were due to debut at the 1977 United States West Grand Prix, but things were complicated by the death of Brabham's Carlos Pace in an aircraft crash before the race. Brabham offered Stuck the seat, and he promptly left ATS. Schmidt was predictably furious, but hired Jean-Pierre Jarier instead. The Frenchman had been fast but inconsistent in three years at Shadow. He delivered immediate results, starting a fine 9th despite having not sat in the car before practice, and - after a thrilling battle with Gunnar Nilsson's Lotus, eventually securing 6th and a point on the team's debut when the Swede suffered a puncture.

After that high, the season would be uneven, Jarier usually qualifying in midfield but failing to finish, and scoring no more points while getting in the odd tangle. One notable moment came when the spare had was rented to Hans Heyer so ATS could field a German driver at their home race. The popular national racer failed to qualify, but infamously started anyway, and was disqualified after retiring. Schmidt elected to miss the final two rounds of the series regrouping. While the race performance of the team had been only a qualified success, ATS' wheel sales continued to climb.

The problem was, Schmidt kept looking for the cheap way out. At the end of 1977 the Penske was clearly obsolescent, but instead of building new cars he hired Robin Herd of March to redesign the car as the HS1. Mass, now arguably Germany's leading driver, was engaged as lead driver alongside Jarier, but there were no worthwhile results, and few finishes. Jarier fell out with Schmidt, having got fed up with the bias towards Mass. The second car was subsequently driven by a ragtag bunch of drivers - Artuto Columbo, Hans Binder, Jarier again (a reunion which lasted a single weekend before Schmidt and Jarier fell out again), Michael Bleekmolen, Harald Ertl and Keke Rosberg.

Biting the bullet, Schmidt paid for a factory to be built in Bicester, a short distance from March's headquarters. The result was the new ground effects D1, but Mass injured himself testing the thing at Silverstone, and when Rosberg stood in for him it proved to be no real advance on the HS1. For 1979, Hans-Joachim Stuck took over as sole driver, but found the D1 (upgraded to become the D2) no great shakes. A further upgrade to become the D3 at least allowed the tall German to finish 5th at Watkins Glen, but he left Formula 1 at the end of the year.

The next two seasons with the D4 (another upgrade) and HGS1, and drivers such as Jan Lammers, Marc Surer and Slim Borgudd were similarly fruitless. Lammers had inexplicably qualified 4th at Long Beach in 1980, but retired before a lap was out and never showed the same form again, while Borgudd scrapped a 6th at the attrition-hit 1981 British Grand Prix, but generally the team were making up the numbers.

Despite the long parade of mediocre drivers and poor results, ATS continued to do well off the track. Schmidt's other business ventures - a hotel in the Bahamas, a jeweller's chain, a leather manufacturing plant - were all covered by his profits selling wheels, with money left over to buy a yacht (named Wheels) and cover his racing budget (which was also tax-deductible). However, he had a prickly relationship with his native press. The German public were crying out for a German team and a German driver, but the problem was they expected any comers to be as successful as Rosemeyer and Stuck, Auto Union and Mercedes. Schmidt's Cosworth kit-cars and revolving driver line-up wasn't capturing the imagination.

He was also in a difficult position. Racing had advertised his wheels well, especially internationally - by 1982, he was making almost a million wheels a year, and invested in a $7.5m new factory to meet demand. Pulling out of racing would, he felt, have a massive detrimental effect on sales. The budget for the racing team had risen to $1.7m a year for 1982, but he pressed on. Back up to two cars, with the HGS1 revamped as the D5. Driving would be Manfred Winkelhock, whose rough and fast driving style echoed Schmidt's own, but placid personality was a complete opposite, and Eliseo Salazar, who also brought funds from loyal personal sponsor Copec.

For a few races, it looked like it would work. The drivers took a 5th place apiece - though admittedly the Chilean's points came from the FOCA-boycotted San Marino Grand Prix, ATS breaking away from an organisation he felt was Anglo-centric - and thanks to Avon tyres Winkelhock especially was looking like a solid midfielder. However, disillusioned with the political nature of Formula 1 (including Bernie Ecclestone blocking their transporter's progress to Imola), Avon withdrew. ATS signed a deal with Michelin, but the French company used radial tyres rather than the cross-plies Avon had provided, badly disrupting the air flow under the car and turning it into a backmarker.

BMW had debuted their 4-cylinder turbo engine in 1982, and Schmidt used his connections and Winkelhock's links to the Munich company to arrange a supply for 1983. They agreed, and Schmidt proudly trumpeted the first all-German Grand Prix team since Mercedes. He pulled the stops out, hiring Gustav Brunner to design the all-new D6 chassis with composite materials. After the car's more wilful handling was ironed out it was a decent machine, Winkelhock frequently qualifying well. However, what with one thing and another he rarely finished. There never seemed to be many spares for anything, meaning frequent breakdowns as worn components broke.

Schmidt, of course, still managed to fall out with all sorts of people. Probably the worst was the on-again off-again talk of a second driver for the second half of the season. First, Schmidt had wanted the fast F2 driver Stefan Bellof, but he declined. A deal was then done with Austrian driver Jo Gartner to drive a second entry at his home race, and Gartner's enthusiastic management team told the press. Schmidt, already annoyed by technical problems and weather conspiring to prevent Winkelhock from qualifying at the team's all-important home race, was furious as what he was as a premature leaking of the news, and promptly withdrew the offer.

For 1984, Brunner designed another fine chassis, the D7. However, fed up with Schmidt he left for Alfa Romeo before the season started, replaced by Stefan Fober. The season got off to a poor start when the car broke down in practice while entering the pit lane. The ATS mechanics set out to recover it, against regulations. The marshals disallowed his best time, much to Schmidt's vocal displeasure. Offended by his tirade, they promptly excluded the car from the meeting altogether. The job of developing someone's car was made difficult by the general stress of working within the team, Fober was soon out of the door too. To widespread disbelief, Schmidt stepped in himself to take over as chief engineer. This got off to the expected good start when he insisted that the car could use the same settings at Montreal and Monaco, despite the Canadian circuit's long back straight.

Most of the season was a repeat of 1983 - the car was fast (Winkelhock running 4th, in touch with the leaders, for much of the Belgian Grand Prix), but suffered endless faults. Once more there was talk of a second car, despite it being obvious the team wasn't able to look after the first very well. Nevertheless, Gerhard Berger was signed to drive a second car at his home Austrian Grand Prix. Winkelhock was amongst those who thought the team couldn't cope, and he was proven right when his gearbox broke in the warm-up and the overstretched team couldn't fix it in time for the German to start.

Berger's deal didn't cover the Dutch Grand Prix, where Winkelhock gave an unusually thoughtless performance, spinning and losing a lap early on before blocking the leaders back, but the Austrian returned at Monza. There, Winkelhock suffered gearbox trouble again on the dummy grid, and fed up with the ridiculous situation, quit on the spot. Schmidt would announce his sacking to the press the following day... Berger finished the race 6th, but as the second car was a late entry for the season, was ineligible for points. The following European Grand Prix, with Berger as the sole entry, was enlivened when Winkelhock turned up with an injunction demanding payment of the remainder of his salary - this was soon sorted out, but was unwelcome publicity for BMW on their home ground.

The outspoken nature of Schmidt had meant BMW had always been a little uneasy supplying ATS - after all, here was a team manager who wouldn't hesitate to blame their engines in the press, whether it was their fault or not. The rapid descent into farce in the second half of 1984, combined with the difficulties with the popular Winkelhock (who still had links with the Munich company from his BMW Junior days, and had been instrumental in the initial deal) followed by the legal action of the Nürburgring had been enough, and BMW promptly announced they would not be supplying the team with engines for 1985.

That was enough even for Schmidt. Unable to find a competitive deal, and not wanting to pay for an uncompetitive motor, he withdrew from Formula 1 after 1984. Soon afterwards, he sold ATS itself, but only stayed out of the business a year or so before starting a new operation named Rial. And he advertised through racing with that too...