Former racing driver and manager, Jochen Neerpasch, is the father of famous Junior Team Schumacher, Frentzen and Wendlinger at Mercedes and the founder of BMW M division. We met him for an interview with the occasion of the launch of Blue Hero huge painting which present the motorsport activity of Jochen Neerpasch.
How did the Junior Team see the light of day?
We very much focused on BMW finding and supporting young drivers. That is why we began to search for talents in Formula 3. We then founded the Junior Team in Mercedes and we wished to join the F1 with it. It was about Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Hein Harald Frentzen, who were beginning to turn successful in racing. But in order to gain more experience so that they could be prepared when Mercedes would join F1, we wished to help them compete in F1. For Schumacher, there came an opportunity to make his debut with Jordan in 1991 at Spa, after Jordan remained without one of their drivers. Eddie Jordan did not know Schumacher and wasn’t interested particularly in him, but in the sponsors that Mercedes would provide for Schumacher. Still, Eddie Jordan wanted to put a clause in the contract that specified that the contract with Schumacher would be extended if he wished so. But I disagreed, because I knew that in the 1992 season, Jordan would use the Yamaha power units and I had no idea how reliable they would turn out to be. After the first race, Jordan wanted to sign a long-term agreement with Schumacher, but Bernie Ecclestone came to intercede the contract with Benetton, where Schumacher would have had a better future. Jordan was furious and Schumacher did not want to leave, because he was impressed by the atmosphere within the team. Schumacher eventually jumped ship over to Benetton, where there was a clause in the contract that if he would be let go if Mercedes joined F1. Unfortunately, due to the AEG problems, the Daimler member company, that had to let 20,000 people go, Mercedes canceled the F1 program. I believe that it would have been better for Daimler to postpone it by one year and not quit F1. The car was ready and so were the drivers and I believe that Michael Schumacher could have become a world champion with the Silver Arrows as early as 1994 or 1995.
Was Schumacher the most talented of the three of them?
It is interesting to say that at the beginning, Heinz Harald Frentzen was the fastest of them all. But later on, Schumacher grew massively and he was very willing to learn and collaborate with the engineers. Frentzen was very talented, but he had so much else on his mind when Schumacher was exclusively focused on F1. After a while, all of them were just as fast, but Schumacher was the most interested in F1.
Mercedes will retire from DTM to join Formula E, which is, among others, much more low-priced. From this perspective, how do you see the future of Formula 1, also going into the direction of electrification?
After Ecclestone’s departure, it is difficult to foresee which way F1 is going. I think that the new managing team want to go back to simpler cars in terms of technology, because the cars of today are complicated even for the drivers. I think thinks shall simplify for the future and budgets will be reduced, because they are currently gigantic. In the 60s and the 70s, a Formula 1 team had 30-40 people and today, Mercedes holds a team made up of 1,000 people.
What is it that you prefer? F1 or GT?
It depends on the company you’re working for. F1 is not for all of the constructors. For me, my career focused on endurance racing. For me, the most spectacular race in the world is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. From the perspective of a constructor, I believe it is useful to take part in the competitions where cars similar to the series production ones run.
How different where racing cars from the series production ones back in the 70s?
At that time, racing cars where much closer to the street-legal ones. Let’s take for example, the DTM cars. At that time, there were Group 2 regulations specifying that 1,000 street-legal cars had to be built in 12 consecutive months in order for the model to be homologated. There were also various possibilities of modifying the cars, but they were not too many. If we look at the DTM cars of today, these are the real racing cars and only the silhouette of the car reminds us of the series production car.
What should be done to make the FIA World Endurance Championship as attractive as in the 80s, when Group C was just as popular as Formula 1?
The most enticing development currently belongs to the GT Class. The current LMPs are extremely complicated and expensive. Audi has won so many times, because no one else could keep up with them in terms of performance. Regarding the GT, it is becoming more and more popular because there are 6-7 constructors involved and the racing car is similar to the street-legal car. This germinates a fierce competition as at the Daytona, where, for example, at the last lap, there are 8-10 cars within a split second. I believe that Le Mans will follow the trend of having less complicated cars in the LMP1 class. In America, the LMP2 racing is turning popular. Still, I believe that Le Mans is still in need of the LMP prototype class.
What is more important from your perspective? Is it the Le Mans or is it the World Endurance Championship?
I believe the top thing is to win at the Le Mans. It stands as the most important race in the world. Everyone especially prepares for Le Mans.
How do you see the evolution of motor racing in 20-30 years from now?
No one can anticipate what will come and I believe things will progress step by step. In the 70s, we had to build 1,000 cars in order to get a racing car homologated, but they were tough to sell, not because they were more potent, but because they provided little comfort. Later on, this incumbency died out, but now it is terribly expensive to convert a street-legal car into a racer. For example, the street version of the BMW M1 used to cost 100,000 DM, the M1 in Group 4 was 150,000 DM and the 320 Turbo of the Group 5, used by the Junior team, reached 500,000 DM. Therefore, it is way more economical to build a racing car for the street, because readjustments for racing ar not priced that high.
But what is your take on the electric racing cars?
I honestly haven’t watched any of those races. I believe that such races are on the verge of success, because the electric cars do have a future, but I have no idea which the road to success is. I myself am not attracted by such kind of racing, but the Formula E Championship is highly financed, there are 5-6 constructors involved, yet I think it is just a marketing stunt. The fact that you must change batteries throughout the race makes it no genuine race for me.
Which was the purpose of founding the BMW M division? Was it to build sports cars or manage the competition activities?
Its purpose was to create a company that could produce racing cars and engines, that would allow the technologically high development level for the series production cars. Such a division also allowed us to sell and subassemblies for racing cars, with which we were able to finance the activity itself.
How complicated and stressful was the M1 project?
The collaboration with Lamborghini started off well, as the Italians were highly professional and our endurance drivers performed the endurance tests. It was a great partnership, but exactly when the series production was set to start, Lamborghini financially collapsed. BMW was then planning on buying Lamborghini, but things were pretty confusing and we weren’t sure on what we were to buy exactly. Additionally, the ownership structure was far from clear and we were afraid others would cut in following the transaction, asking for money. That is why we diverted to another production site. Thus we got the bodies from Sant Agata and assembled the cars at Bauer in Stuttgart. It turned out to be a baffling procedure, but there was no other way out for us. The plan was to build 400 units during the first year in order to homologate the cars and join the Group 5 racing. But the change of the production site held us down and we were unable to build the 400 units. That was when we found the Procar series, a single-brand competition in which only BMW M1 cars participated. It was a smash and Bernie Ecclestone was overjoyed, because the races took place on Saturdays, ahead of the European Formula 1 Grand Prix, which doubled the audience.
Is it true that the M1 was supposed to have some other engine?
The initial plan was for the M1 to feature a Formula 1 power unit, a 3.0-liter V10, but we realized that it was way too expensive and that was when we decided to use the 6-cylinder engine.
Why do you think that BMW never built a supercar after the M1, even though it held the necessary technology?
It is a good question, but I don’t know the answer. At the beginning of 1980, when I left BMW M, BMW decided to join Formula 1 and it was a top priority. Then again, the M1 was a troublesome car, meaning that we weren’t earning money with it, due to the complicated manufacturing procedure. If the development of the M1 would have proceeded, I believe the M1 could have been today, just as important as the 911.
What do you think about the BMW M Performance models, that are right between the genuine M models and the series production ones?
Many times, customers do not want top performance, but just want a sporty looking car. That is why this idea worked just as well. It is the same with the M SUVs. They are heavy and over-motorized vehicles, but if customers demand them, why wouldn’t they be produced?
What could you say about the competition with the BMW Alpina or Schnitzer tuning houses?
When we founded the BMW M division, the tuning houses were furious because they were receiving money from BMW to compete and, at least throughout the first year, they were far from delighted by the idea of a BMW own motorsport division. But eventually, tuning houses benefited from the racing engines developed by us and the competition between them and the BMW M division was profitable.
You were a mechanic, a pro driver, a manager. What would you choose today?
If you are asking whether the decision to quit racing and go into management would be correct, I can say yes. I love being a manager, but also a racing driver, driving to the limit in a competition is the most fascinating thing to do and I can say that I miss it these days. But if I had to choose once again, I’d choose just the same.
Which would your favorite car be?
In racing, the BMW 3.0 CSL is my favorite. Of all the street-legal cars, my favorite is, of course, the M1. I had one when I moved to England. Now, at 79, my favorite would be the M4, which I would gladly lap around Nurburgring with, a few times. But I can’t afford to buy the model. These days, I own a single car, a BMW X3 xDrive 35d, a very good vehicle, which is also spacious enough for my two dogs. I have owned several cars that, if owned them today, I’d be a rich man.