In recent weeks, in this space, which I used to refer to as a column but have at last learned to call a blog, I have chronicled the claims to fame of not one but two relatively unsung McLaren heroes: John Watson and Patrick Tambay.
Last week I focused on a man who never drove for McLaren in Formula 1 but, given his birthplace and his friendship with a fellow Kiwi, Bruce McLaren, most assuredly should have done: Chris Amon.
Like Watson and Tambay, Amon is something of an unsung hero now, 37 long years after he drove the last of his 96 grands prix, not one of which he won, despite having driven in racing’s premier league for Reg Parnell Racing, Ian Raby Racing, Cooper, Amon (yes, his own équipe), March, Matra, Tecno, Tyrrell, BRM, Ensign, Wolf and, oh yes, Ferrari, too, lest we forget.
Today I propose to devote my blog to yet another unsung hero, very much a McLaren unsung hero this time, namely Jochen Mass.
Jochen was born in 1946 in the small town of Dorfen, in the district of Erding, Bavaria, Germany, where by all accounts he had a conventional and unremarkable childhood. On leaving school he went to seek his fortune, as the saying goes, as a merchant sailor, spending three years at sea, before returning to Germany, now determined to find work as a mechanic. That he did, taking a job at an Alfa Romeo dealership in Mannheim, a city in the north-western corner of Baden-Württemberg.
He soon showed that he was every bit as keen on sitting in the drivers’ seats of those fragile but nimble late-1960s Giulias and Giuliettas as he was on lying underneath them with spanners to hand, and duly began to prep them for and race them in local sprints and hillclimbs. He was quick, too.
Chris Amon: The one that got away
In the early 1970s, having outgrown the Baden-Württemberg club racing scene, he progressed to proper touring cars, and by 1972 had got his hands on a gutsy Ford Capri RS2600, co-driving it with fellow German tin-top ace Hans-Joachim Stuck to victory in the famous Spa 24-Hours that year, victoriously sharing it with Dieter Glemser in the Silverstone Tourist Trophy that season, and rounding the year off with a fine win in the Jarama 4-Hours, driving alongside Gérard Larousse and Alex Soler-Roig.
Jochen was duly crowned 1972 European Touring Car Champion. The boy from Bavaria had arrived.
In 1973 he tried his hand at Formula 2, in a Fina-sponsored Surtees TS15. He started his F2 campaign competently, albeit without troubling the scorers conspicuously, but he began to attract more positive attention when he took the pole at Hockenheim, his home F2 race.
The next day he failed to convert P1 on the grid to anything like P1 at the flag, but, when the F2 circus reached Götene, Sweden, he found he could do no wrong. He took the pole, won the race by 30 seconds from the next man (Patrick Depailler in an Alpine A367) and notched up the fastest lap, too.
He followed that triumph with second place at Nivelles, Belgium, and victory in a second Hockenheim race, thereby very nearly becoming European F2 champion in his rookie year. (He was pipped to the title by Jean-Pierre Jarier, whose last-gasp win at Estoril, Portugal, clinched it in his favour.)
No matter. The boy from Bavaria had really arrived now – and that same summer John Surtees decided to give him a taste of F1. Jochen’s grand prix debut would have come at Silverstone, but he was one of the many drivers eliminated in the startline shunt caused by McLaren’s Jody Scheckter, and sadly he failed to make the restart.
So it was that Jochen’s F1 debut would have to wait a while – which, fittingly enough, since Surtees had declined to make a car available for him at the next grand prix, the Dutch at Zandvoort, meant that he would break his F1 duck in his home grand prix at the legendarily daunting Nürburgring Nordschleife.
Jochen already knew the Nürburgring Nordschleife rather better than the back of his own hand – he remains a seriously rapid 67-year-old ’Ring-meister to this day, incidentally – and duly drove hard and well to seventh place at the flag. Jochen’s was a fine grand prix debut, make no mistake.
For 1974 he was named as one of Surtees’ full-time works F1 drivers, but sadly the team’s new TS16 was neither quick nor reliable, and Jochen endured a very poor season. Apart from a 17th-place finish at Interlagos and a 14th-place finish at Brands Hatch, he DNF’d in every round.
Well before the season had come to an end, it had become clear that Surtees and Mass were never going to enjoy a marriage made in motorsport heaven, and it was therefore with a grateful shudder that Jochen found sanctuary at, yes, you guessed it, McLaren, whose boss Teddy Mayer offered him two drives at season’s end, in Canada and the USA, alongside the team’s regular drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Denny Hulme.
In the first of those two grands prix, on the sweeping flat-out curves of Mosport (Canada), Emerson was at his brilliant best, winning the race from pole. Jochen had a troubled outing, finishing eight laps down as a result of a number of niggly reliability issues, but earlier in the weekend he had shown promising pace, qualifying 12th to Denny’s 14th.
At Watkins Glen (USA), where Emerson won McLaren’s first ever drivers’ world championship with a doughty fourth place, Jochen finished a very creditable seventh.
Teddy was a happy man – and so it was that in 1975 McLaren’s two works drivers would be Emerson and Jochen.
Be in no doubt that, in the winter of 1974-’75, with Jackie Stewart retired and Niki Lauda yet to win his brace of mid-to-late-1970s drivers’ world championships with Ferrari, Emerson was primus inter pares, or first among equals, in F1. Emmo – not that we called him that in those days – was the main man, and it showed. He had about him a swagger that bespoke an inner confidence. As a result, no-one expected Jochen to get near him in 1975, truth be told.
As things panned out, the small-town boy from Dorfen came a lot closer to matching his charismatic Brazilian stable-mate than most of us had predicted. Their playing field was totally level. Both men were supplied with identical McLaren M23s, balanced and reliable, and both men entered every race. For the first time in many years, McLaren fielded no third car in any of the season’s 14 grands prix.
So how did Jochen fare? First, let’s look at the stats. Emerson won twice, in Argentina and Great Britain, while Jochen won once, in Spain.
Neither man scored a single pole, in terms of outright pace the McLaren M23 no longer quite a match for the Ferrari 312T, the Brabham BT44B or the Shadow DN5, which between them took 13 poles, the rogue 14th P1 going to Vittorio Brambilla in a March 751, at the weird and unwonderful Anderstorp (Sweden), where qualifying shocks tended to be de rigueur.
Emerson scored points in seven 1975 grands prix, and so did Jochen. But Emerson was usually ahead on the road, and he ended up with twice as many points as did his team-mate. Nonetheless, considering that Emerson was a double F1 world champion, whereas Jochen was in his first full F1 year, his performance was judged by us pundits to be good, perhaps even very good.
The McLaren hero who won for Ferrari
At season’s end, Emerson made the shock decision to leave McLaren for his brother Wilson’s fledgling all-Brazilian Copersucar-Fittipaldi team. Hindsight tells us that that was an error, for the man who had won 14 grands prix and two drivers’ world championships with Lotus and McLaren never won a grand prix again in the five long years he spent flogging that dead, it patriotic, Copersucar-Fittipaldi horse.
Who, then, would join Jochen at McLaren for 1976? The answer, indeed the only realistic option, was one James Simon Wallis Hunt.
James had driven for only one team in F1 hitherto – the eccentric Lord Hesketh’s eponymous one-car outfit – and, like Jochen, he had won just one grand prix (the 1975 Dutch). James had made his F1 debut in 1973, as had Jochen. Most press-room pundits therefore expected honours to be pretty evenly shared at McLaren in 1976, and all of us felt certain that the Colnbrook boys would grievously miss Emerson’s experience, poise and speed.
The first grand prix of the 1976 season was the Brazilian, at Interlagos. But the Interlagos I am referring to is the old Interlagos, not the current one. Today’s 2.7-mile (4.3km) post-1989 incarnation of that charismatic switchback is challenging enough, but the old 4.98-mile (8.00km) version was something else. Like the old Nürburgring and the old Spa, the old Interlagos was a racetrack on which good drivers shone and great drivers sparkled. To do well there, you had to be not only fast but fearless, too.
Tough, brawny, swarthy Jochen felt sure he had enough of the right stuff to beat the effete blond English public schoolboy with the posh voice and the roving eye, and as qualifying began he attacked the majestic Brazilian circuit with grim determination.
His trusty McLaren M23 was feeling good, and he was able to hold it in beautifully controlled powerslides through Subida do Lago, through Curva do Sol, through Laranja, and through Mergulho. As he drove down the pit-lane at the end of the session, he felt sure he had driven it as fast as it would go.
As he clambered out of his car, sweaty and breathless, he asked the McLaren team manager, Alastair Caldwell, how he’d fared.
“Well done, Jochen, good job, you’re P6,” answered Alastair.
“And James?” Jochen asked.
“Pole,” came the stark monosyllabic reply.
Herman the German, as James thereafter took to referring mockingly to Jochen, never won a grand prix ever again. James won six grands prix that year alone, and the drivers’ world championship with it.
Fast-forward to Saturday May 8th 1982. The Formula 1 circus is at Zolder, Belgium, and the qualifying hour is 50 minutes old. James has been retired three years; Jochen, sadly now regarded as an F1 journeyman, is in a March 821, which is no-one’s idea of a quick F1 car; and the great Gilles Villeneuve is in a flame-red Ferrari 126C2, on a white-knuckle lap, using all the road and more, absolutely flat-out, desperate to do his damnedest to beat the 1min16.501sec lap that his Ferrari team-mate and cut-throat rival Didier Pironi has just posted, and which is a crucial tenth faster than Gilles’s best so far.
As Gilles powers his Ferrari towards Terlamen Bocht, ‘bocht’ being the Flemish word for ‘bend’, he realises that he is about to catch Jochen’s March on the preceding straight. Jochen sees a flash of rosso corsa in his mirrors and pulls to the right, away from the racing line, so as to allow Gilles to pass him on the left. But Gilles has already committed to passing Jochen on the right, and what follows is a classic, if tragic, racing incident: the Ferrari strikes the March at around 145mph (233km/h).
Gilles’s Ferrari is launched into the air, flies awhile, then lands on the grass verge, nose first. The force of the impact cartwheels Gilles’s body out of the Ferrari’s cockpit and tears his helmet from his head.
Jochen stops, jumps out, and runs back to Gilles’s wrecked car, but there is nothing he can do. There is nothing anyone could do.
Gilles is rushed to hospital, and is pronounced dead on arrival.
Gilles’s death was profoundly shocking to Jochen – understandably so. But, in those days, F1 folk did not stop or take stock when deaths occurred. So Jochen duly drove in the next day’s Belgian Grand Prix, retiring after 60 laps with engine failure.
However, he started only six more grands prix.
At the next one after Zolder, Monaco, he failed to qualify.
He finished seventh, 11th and 10th in respectively Detroit (USA), Montreal (Canada) and Brands Hatch (Great Britain), then he DNF’d at both Zandvoort (Netherlands) and Paul Ricard (France).
In the latter race, the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, Jochen’s retirement had been caused by a lap-11 shunt, and on that day he decided to give up F1, immediately, once and for all.
A family man by now himself, he offered the following words by way of explanation: “Gilles was a racing driver, so he was aware of the risks he was taking, but I felt desperately sad for his wife and children. It’s maybe not as hard for the one who suffers the accident; perhaps it’s harder for the ones left behind. So when I had a very similar accident [as Gilles had had] a couple of months later [at Paul Ricard], but survived it, I felt very strongly that someone up there was pointing at me and telling me that I’d better quit. That Paul Ricard shunt was an incredible experience for me. As I was flying through the air, everything was like it was in slow motion. It was a peaceful feeling – I know that sounds perverse but it’s true. I was filled with beautiful emotion. Even though I was in the middle of a big accident, I didn’t feel any fear. I just had a slow-motion dream about my wife and kids.”
Jochen still loves racing, and his day-job is demo-driving the wonderful old racing cars that reside in Mercedes-Benz’s fabulous museum in Stuttgart, Germany, at historic events the world over.
He gave up being an F1 driver at the right time.