Manfred Winkelhock 1952-1985
In three weeks in 1985, Germany lost not one but both of its' Grand Prix drivers, both while driving Porsche 956 cars in the World Endurance Championship. The most noted of these was Stefan Bellof, who looked to be a future World Champion. The other was Manfred Winkelhock - older, less naturally gifted and less famous, but no less of a loss to motor racing.
Winkelhock was something of a late starter in motor racing in general, taking up competition in 1976, aged 24. That was in a Volkswagen Scirocco in the national one-make series, at the suggestion of friends in order to curb his aggression when driving road cars, and even then he kept up his career as an electrician. The slow start was soon made up for when he attracted the attention of BMW, and became one of their anointed Junior Team drivers along with Marc Surer and Eddie Cheever, driving Group 5 cars. By 1979 he was driving a Ralt-BMW in the Formula 2 series, the first of three seasons in the category which showed he had steel, determination and speed, but was a little unrefined.
His tenure in F2 is still largely remembered for his spectacular destruction of a works March-BMW at the Nurburgring's Flugplatz corner. He also entered various sportscar races, including the Le Mans 24 Hours, in a BMW M-1. By 1980 Winkelhock had already been given his first Grand Prix opportunity, subbing for the injured Jochen Mass at Arrows after the first man to get called in, New Zealander Mike Thackwell, had failed to qualify at Zandvoort. With no experience of Formula 1 or the Imola circuit that was hosting the Italian Grand Prix for the only time, Winkelhock didn't do any better.
His full-time Grand Prix career would start in 1982, when he was already closing on 30, an old age to start Formula 1 even then. He was signed by ATS, ran by compatriot Gunther Schmidt to promote his own brand of alloy wheels. The team had started in F1 in 1977, running Penske chassis before switching to their own in-house efforts. Schmidt had already carved a considerable reputation as one of the series' genuine maniacs, but had a patriotic side and usually tried to run at least one Germanic driver. After a dour 1981 with first Dutch mobile perm Jan Lammers and then occasional Abba session drummer Slim Borgudd, Schmidt had regrouped for 1982 and would be running cars for both Winkelhock and Chilean Eliseo Salazar.
The DFV-powered A5 actually started off pretty well on Avon tyres, with both drivers running reasonably in midfield. Winkelhock had a memorable start to the season at Kyalami, first joining with the rest on the drivers' strike, then further inflaming Schmidt's temper by sticking the thing in the wall when he did go out and practice. In the race, he shadowed his experienced team leader to finish 10th. At the second round in Brazil he drove well to finish 7th, after being unable to hold off Michele Alboreto for the final point. However, the whole water-cooled brakes controversy saw winner Piquet and runner-up Rosberg disqualified, and Winkelhock promoted to 5th for his first points in only his second race.
The brakes fiasco was to have repercussions that badly affected Winkelhock's season, however. It reignited the FISA/FOCA war, and led to the FOCA teams announcing their infamous boycott of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix. ATS were FOCA members, but broke ranks and turned up, Schmidt claiming that the Anglo-centric organisation didn't have his interests at heart (despite ATS being based in England). Avon, however, were reliant on a transport company owned by Bernie Ecclestone, which suddenly wasn't able to transport the tyres to Italy. After scratching around on the first day of practise on borrowed Michelins and Pirellis, Schmidt arranged to have some flown in from the Avon factory, but after the race would tear up his contract with the British company, instead signing with Michelin.
In the race itself, Winkelhock ran fairly well in the reduced field as part of a small group tailing Jean-Pierre Jarier's Osella, but was forced to pit to have an ignition problem seen to. This cost him the best part of four laps, but the German drove hard on his return to the race and managed to stay classified, finishing 6th of the seven surviving cars (Teo Fabi's Toleman having completed less than 90% of the distance). However, he was then disqualified due to being 2kg underweight, probably due to materials lost during the repair stop.
After that, the season got worse. Michelin probably made the best rubber in Formula 1, but their tyres were radials, tailored to turbo runners Renault and Brabham as opposed to the cross-ply Avon tyres the car had been designed for. They upset the ground effect of the D5, and on long straights caused a lot of porpoising, creating large handling problems. This wasn't initially in evidence as the next few races were on slower circuits. Winkelhock qualified 12th at Zolder, only for the clutch to break, then 14th at Monaco, fending off Niki Lauda's McLaren before a differential sheared. The series' first ever visit to an unready Detroit levelled the playing field, and Winkelhock started from a superb 5th with high hopes for a good result in the race. However, his exuberance got the better of him, and first he bent his race car on a formation lap, then got a bad start in the spare and hit a wall trying to make up for it.
However, the fine run ended with failure to qualify in Canada after a heavy crash on the first day of practice, and then the season moved to a series of fast tracks which highlighted the car's problems on Michelin radials. The cars also began to suffer considerable reliability troubles as spares became scarce and the chassis were regularly being rebuilt rather than replaced after crashes. Over the season Winkelhock proved to have the edge on his more experienced team-mate Salazar, however, and was retained for 1983 as the team's sole driver. Better still, his old employers BMW would be providing the team with engines after relenting to Schmidt's fervent lobbying.
Gustav Brunner's all-new D6 chassis certainly looked the part in a smart black/yellow scheme, but initially it suffered from severe handling problems and Winkelhock was a backmarker in the first two races. Revised aerodynamics saw an improved showing at Ricard, where Winkelhock started 10th and kept the works turbos in view until exhaust problems and a collision with Mauro Baldi. A weight reduction programme for the D6 led to 7th on the grid at Imola, though technical problems held him back in the race. At Monaco he made the right choice in damp conditions and started on slicks (like winner Rosberg), but ploughed into Raul Boesel in the early stages.
While the car was clearly fast, the season was blighted by reliability problems once more. While Winkelhock was on occasion responsible for crashes, more often the car let him down. His best performance of the year was probably that at Spa, where he qualified 7th and ran 6th early on, matching Piquet's pace before the engine began cutting out. The electrical fault was fixed, only for a wheel to fall off on resumption and pitch Winkelhock into the catch fencing. He ran in the points at Silverstone too, but Goodyear (who Schmidt had switched to after the Michelin trouble in 1982) were losing the tyre war, and the exhaust went shortly before he was caught by Niki Lauda.
The low point was team and driver's home race at Hockenheim. There, the car experienced technical trouble in the first timed qualifying session, preventing Winkelhock from setting a time. Then it rained on Saturday, consigning him to non-qualification. Schmidt was predictably apoplectic after this humiliation, cancelling plans for Jo Gartner to appear in a second ATS at the Austrian Grand Prix in his fury. There were rumours that Winkelhock would be replaced by Johnny Cecotto or Stefan Bellof - despite the whole thing being beyond his control - but his relationship with Schmidt was surprisingly cordial. Both men had tempers, but understood each other - Schmidt liked Winkelhock's bravery, while Winkelhock took Schmidt's explosions in his stride and just got on with driving the car.
The season finished without points, however. The car only ran without problems in one race, in the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. The unusually warm British weather suited the Michelin and Pirelli runners, something that combined with low attrition to leave Winkelhock 8th. At least he had the satisfaction of being the leading Goodyear runner, ahead of Rene Arnoux's Ferrari. Despite the season being frustrating, all concerned signed up for another year, though Schmidt was unimpressed with Goodyear and signed a deal with Pirelli. Brunner turned out another good-looking chassis, but left for Alfa Romeo before the 1984 season started, fed up with Schmidt. The owner would grow ever more eccentric as the year went on, with a foul-mouth tirade at the Brazilian marshals seeing the car excluded from the season opener at Jacarepagua. After a respectable run in South Africa was ended by a misfire, there came what was to be Winkelhock's high watermark in Formula 1, at Zolder.
There he qualified a fine 6th, and ran a strong 4th in the race in touch with the leaders before the Pirelli tyres faded and then the engine failed. However, the track produced something of a freak race - it was about the only time the formidable McLaren-TAG cars of Lauda and Alain Prost were properly out of the picture, instead being dominated by the ultimately disappointing Ferraris. It was also about the only time the Pirelli-shod ATS D7 looked really good. It was also one of only two races where a Pirelli runner would score points, Senna's Toleman being promoted to 6th after the Tyrrell disqualification to equal the placing the Brazilian had scored at Kyalami.
There was no sign of reliability improving, especially with the team's rapid staff turnover (Brunner's replacement, Stefan Fober, would disappear after the Monaco round) and Schmidt's reluctance to invest in a large cache of spares meaning the car was always breaking down. The ATS began to slide down the grid, especially when Schmidt took to engineering Winkelhock's car himself - notably insisting on setting up the car in Montreal with settings identical to those used at Monaco. There at least he finished in 8th, hindered by a broken clutch. By now even Winkelhock's elastic patience was coming close to snapping.
By mid-season funds were running low, so the team once again began to look for a second driver, eventually settling on Gerhard Berger. Winkelhock was aghast - ATS couldn't run one car, let alone two. Berger arrived for his home race in Austria, and Winkelhock's misgivings were proven to be correct. There didn't seem to be two healthy D7s at any point in the weekend, and Winkelhock's was then pushed off the dummy grid after recurring gearbox troubles. His growing unhappiness was evident at the following Dutch Grand Prix too, despite Berger being absent. Winkelhock dropped a lap down after an early spin and proceeded to block most of the leaders when being lapped before spinning out altogether.
Berger was back for the Italian Grand Prix, and once again Winkelhock's car failed on the dummy grid. His patience finally exhausted, the German stormed away from the circuit, swearing to have nothing to do with the shambolic team ever again. Rather redundantly, Schmidt fired him a few days later. Winkelhock instead shook down Erich Zakowski's new Zakspeed car, which was planned to make its' debut at the European Grand Prix. However, the German team decided they weren't ready, and deferred their first appearance until 1985. Winkelhock was present at the race, however, to present a writ against ATS for owed salary. The money was eventually secured, but the ATS team's mistreatment of BMW's favoured driver and general habit of generating negative publicity saw the Munich company withdraw their support, effectively closing the team at the end of the year.
In the meantime, Winkelhock was unemployed. However, on the night before practice at the season closing Portuguese Grand Prix, the father of Teo Fabi passed away, and the Brabham driver returned to Italy. Brabham's third driver throughout the season had been Teo's younger brother Corrado, who was obviously unavailable for the same reason. Instead, BMW's Paul Rosche suggested Winkelhock, who had experience with the engine and was free. After some frantic phone calls he was flown down to Estoril, but there was no fairytale. Brabham were built around Nelson Piquet by this stage - an approach which would lead to their downfall when the Brazilian eventually left - and the second car had rarely matched his speed. Winkelhock was also surprised by the poor handling of the machine compared to the D7, but very much liked the organised and professional team. However, qualifying 19th (albeit after limited running) and finishing 10th meant there was never a realistic chance of a seat with Brabham in 1985.
For Winkelhock, Formula 1 wasn't the be-all and end-all. By now he was 33, and had never seen himself as world champion material in the first place. He just wanted to drive a reliable car as quickly as possible, to enjoy his racing. Winkelhock was noted for his exceptional patience (he lasted nearly three years at ATS...) and his friendly manner. Despite his occasionally brusque on-track manner he was a popular figure in the paddock, always ready with a smile and resigned humour when his cars inevitably broke down. There was some small joy within Formula 1 when he signed for the RAM team for 1985. It was felt by many that both parties were due a break - John MacDonald's organisational skills would help Winkelhock, while Winkelhock's speed would finally give RAM a decent driver. That Gustav Brunner had left Alfa Romeo and would be replacing Dave Kelly as the team's chief designer was also a good sign. With Hart engines and Pirelli tyres they weren't going to be a front-runner, but there was much optimism that Winkelhock could break the team's points duck.
Early on it looked like that might be the case as Winkelhock reeled off a string of top 20 qualifying positions - again, nothing earth-shattering, but unheard of for a RAM. However, once again he was saddled with a car that broke down too often, while the Hart engine was underdeveloped and the Pirelli tyres were tailored for Brabham. Winkelhock's iron will remained, however, best shown at the Portuguese Grand Prix where his determination to finish on Pirelli wet weather tyres that went beyond ineffective and towards dangerous. His effort wasn't rewarded, though, and as money got tight and reliability problems prevented development the RAM began to slide down the grid.
Winkelhock had been taking part-time drives in Group C endurance racing throughout his time in Formula 1. In 1982, he had driven the ill-fated Ford C100, which only yielded a 5th place at the Brands Hatch 1000km. 1984 had saw him take selected races driving one of Kremer Racing's Porsche 956 cars, an arrangement which continued into 1985. Reunited with BMW Junior team-mate Marc Surer, the year started off well, with 2nd at Mugello and then victory in the Monaco 1000kms - albeit a slightly lucky win when the race was stopped early after a tree fell onto the track. The pair also finished 4th at Silverstone, but both missed the Le Mans 24 Hours to attend the Canadian Grand Prix instead.
After a fuel fire caused retirement from the Hockenheim round, the pair qualified 4th at the Mosport 1000kms. The car lost nine laps early in the race after Surer collided with Geoff English's GTO class Camaro, but Winkelhock was gaining ground on the second stint - losing nine laps was not necessarily a disaster in endurance racing. On lap 70, his car went straight on at Turn 2 and ploughed into a barrier head-on. The cause has never been established due to the level of destruction, but a deflating front tyre was the consensus. Winkelhock remarkably suffered no broken bones in the massive crash, but did have severe head trauma. He never regained consciousness and was declared dead in hospital a few hours later. Grand Prix racing mourned. This wasn't the loss of a legend as Villeneuve's death had been, or the loss of a bright young talent that was never fulfilled as Bellof's passing would be three scant weeks later (also driving a private Group C Porsche). It was the death of a very pleasant, popular man who might not have been renowned world-wide or even exceptionally gifted, but that hit everyone who had met the charming German hard.