Respected F1 drivers rarely ever leave the world of motorsport. Even after they hang up the racing gloves, there are many opportunities open to a retired driver: commentating, advising, representing, managing teams and drivers. The subject of today’s Driver Profile, Helmut Marko, falls into almost all these categories.
Known to the younger motorsport viewer as the very controversial head of the Red Bull Young Driver Programme, fewer know about Marko’s racing exploits in his own day as a GP Reject. He was no slouch in motorsport by any means: Helmut won the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans and was a highly respected sportscar runner of the period. Attempted stints in F1 yielded no points, making the Austrian eligible for our prestigious club of rejects.
|Date of Birth||April 27th 1943|
|Teams||Écurie Bonnier [privately-entered McLaren] (1971), BRM (1971-1972)|
|Best Result||8th (1972 Monaco)|
Early Years: Schooled by the Best
Born in Graz, Austria, Helmut Marko spent the majority of his childhood in boarding schools. Notice the plural because, as an unmotivated adolescent with zealous parents, Helmut was moved around regularly to further his education.
It is almost immediately that his life came into contact with the racing world. As a teenager at school in Graz, he met and befriended Jochen Rindt, and very soon both boys became best friends over their two shared interests: scooters and the opposite sex. Both were driving on the road long before they were 18: Rindt made excuses with his German passport to successfully convince the law enforcement when they got in trouble. Cars for them were a symbol, and they raised the boys psychologically above their circumstances:
“No-one ever thought that Jochen Rindt, a boy from Styria, which was more or less the worst province to come from then, would make it in international motorsport and be successful.”
Marko admits that the careers of his own and so many other Austrians were and are owed to the success of Jochen Rindt.
Marko remembers Rindt as being a bad-boy figure, and as a result their educations suffered. With their parents fearing disaster, they were sent to the Salzkammergut, a boarding school renowned for turning around hopeless cases like these two. (By coincidence, Niki Lauda and Harald Ertl also wound up in the same school. It’s a small world after all.)
Both Marko and Rindt therefore spent their later teenage years in Bad Aussee, where they had free reign over their own little world. With Rindt breaking his thighbone in some skiing tomfoolery, Marko got their parents’ permission to be Jochen’s chauffeur. The reader can guess what two teenage boys with a VW Beetle at their disposal did up in the Austrian mountains with no seatbelts, no speed limit, and no-one to stop them.
They still failed school, and after a trip to the 1961 German Grand Prix at the end of their final year, the two friends parted ways. Rindt was determined to follow their shared passion for motorsport success, while Marko instead returned home to complete his education.
Helmut did fulfil his parents’ wishes and graduated with a doctorate in law in 1967. From here he went straight into the world of professional racing. No guesses for where his nickname “The Doctor” comes from.
1966-1970: Here, There and Everywhere
Marko’s own first races make for fascinating research. His first three race appearances ended up with DNAs for results. Firstly, the Aspern GT race of 1966 almost didn’t go ahead due to lack of participation and interest, and secondly the 1967 6 Hours of Brno involved all the Austrian drivers being sent home after a “diplomatic incident” at the Czechoslovak border. It was therefore not until his fourth race that Marko was actually able to show up (he also missed the 1968 Targa Florio). The 6 Hours of Nurburgring was where he made his professional debut at the age of 25. Then, as in every race onward, he was referred to on the entry list as Dr. Helmut Marko, and so the Austrian pursued his career as a sportscar driver.
Marko emphasises time and time again that Austria was far from the centre of world motorsport. His friend Jochen Rindt’s move to Formula 1, and his friendship with a certain Bernie Ecclestone at this time, opened many new doors to Austrian drivers, including Helmut. Rindt encouraged his friend to pursue certain races, providing advice and funds where need be. There was even a failed attempt between Rindt and Ecclestone to start a Formula 2 team together with Helmut as their lead driver.
The two friends only raced together on a few occasions, during hill-climbs in Austria or at the occasional Formula Vee race. Marko concentrated more on endurance racing and sportscars while his friend, determined to retire either at the end of 1970 or 1971, was putting all his effort on winning the F1 title. Therefore, much of Marko’s early career consists of endurance races and sportscar events in Central Europe, with success coming surprisingly quickly.
Mind, these races often had low participation and a varying degree of driver skill. However, Marko was scoring class wins from only his third race, and an overall podium in his fourth. Not tied to any manufacturer (they often weren’t in those days) he rode stints in Porsche 906s, BMW 2002s, and Chevrolet Camaros to name some, as the 60s came to a close.
A reader will feel, quite rightly, that Marko’s racing career appears rather episodic, and it must be kept in mind that this is in many ways how racing was at the time that the Austrian took part. For example, one of his first races was the 1968 Stainz Mountain Race, in which he participated with the homecoming hero Rindt, as well as a certain 19-year-old Niki Lauda who was appearing at the same weekends. For the record, Marko finished 9th, Niki 8th, and Rindt destroyed the field with a dominant time.
By 1970 he had been picked up as a top driver for BMW Alpina around the Central European rounds, while in the top divisions he had been hired for Martini International Racing Team to drive the 1000km races and the international rounds in North America. His first victory came in the European Touring Car Championship round at the Salzburgring in 1970, lapping all but one of his opponents.
Jochen Rindt died in the autumn of 1970 at the Italian Grand Prix, famously becoming the only F1 driver to win the title posthumously. Marko has a vivid memory of the evening he heard the news. While obviously shaken, he was also grimly realistic:
“Deaths were commonplace back then”.
Marko possesses a very stark but honest short-hand way of talking, especially reflected in his present-day reminiscences of the death of his countryman and friend Jochen Rindt.
In a morbidly ironic moment, it was at the funeral for his lifelong friend that Marko received a lucrative offer for a Formula 1 drive the following year with BRM.
1971-1972: F1 and Le Mans – A Great Career Cut Short
Before his move to Formula 1, Marko had his greatest achievement still left to run. That was his victory at the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the previous year he had already achieved a class win in the prototype race, though this year he and his teammate dominated from pole, lapping the second placed finisher by two laps. Helmut had been partnered with fellow GP Reject Gijs van Lennep, a member of Dutch nobility who went on to win another Le Mans in 1976 with Jacky Ickx. Marko and van Lennep’s speed record stayed for almost three decades due to the dramatic resurfacing that took place on the Circuit de la Sarthe the following year.
Finally, Helmut’s first official Formula 1 race entry came at the Nürburgring in 1971 for Écurie Bonnier after a few outings in Formula 2 at the start of the year. The Swede Jo Bonnier made regular private entries to F1 races during the 60s and early 70s and, running a modified McLaren M7 (driven to success in 1968), offered his seat to the Austrian for the event. Incredibly, Marko didn’t complete a single lap – on his very first practice lap he ran out of fuel, setting no time. He gave the seat back to Bonnier and withdrew from the event. Bonnier was the only DNQ in that race, and 1971 was the Swede’s last year in Formula 1 before his tragic death at Le Mans the following year.
It is not often that a driver’s F1 career is what is least talked about, but for Marko this is the case. On the face of it, his results were poor and he was off the pace. He never finished a race better than two laps down, and his final race was the first where he was able to crack the top ten in qualifying.
However, the cars he drove were not world-beaters either. BRM, a team experiencing a short renaissance before their eventual decline, ran four cars simultaneously in 1971. Their P153 chassis was quick enough to win a race in 1970, but for the next two years was far too slow to make a difference. The P160 in the hands of his teammates Jo Siffert, Peter Gethin and Jean-Pierre Beltoise was taken to race wins, while Marko only drove it twice, with one of those times being his last race.
In his nine starts, Marko only retired twice, and neither time due to his own error. The first came in his second race, and a legendary race that was. His teammate Peter Gethin would end up winning in the closest finish in F1 history, while Marko suffered an engine problem very early. Considering Gethin’s pace, and the near-identical times the teammates set in qualifying, it’s not hard to imagine that Marko himself could have been fighting at the front in those scintillating laps.
Over the winter period Marko did a series of endurance races in South Africa in a Lola T212, recording a victory at the 3 Hours of Cape Town. Coming into 1972, he continued his full-time F1 stint, with the exception of missing the Spanish Grand Prix to win an Interserie round at Imola instead – his last race victory in the cockpit. His 8th place in Monaco would end up as his best result in Formula 1, and was impressive considering that he was driving a modified version of a car that hadn’t scored a point in nearly two years. He kept his cool among a gaggle of Brabhams and an Eiffelland to finish three laps off the leaders. A fight for the ages.
One of Marko’s greatest racing achievements came very shortly before his career was brought to a sudden end, and that was his second place at the Targa Florio, the traditional Sicilian racing event that dates back to the very beginning of motorsport. Calling the race “totally insane” didn’t stop him grabbing the lap record in 1972. With the race discontinued since the late 70s due to a sheer lack of safety measures and multiple fatalities, Helmut’s record will remain unbeaten.
In Helmut’s own words, “The track was Nordschleife to the power of three”. Here, Vic Elford narrates a mini-documentary about the 1972 Targa Florio, a race Marko almost won.
Sadly, only six weeks later, Helmut’s career in motorsport was over. Finally back in the better P160 car, he was driving in 6th place at the Charade Circuit for the French Grand Prix when his visor was broken by a stone kicked up by Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus ahead of him. Marko’s left eye was permanently damaged. He speaks of suffering for a long time existentially, but would in the end recover to continue a very fruitful career out of the car:
“I do not usually feel sorry for my lost eye. It happened, that’s all. Some drivers are successful on the track but fail in their life, once they turned the page on competition. For me, the situation was clear: a new life began.”
The accident prompted Jackie Stewart to campaign for visors to be made out of bulletproof material, to help avoid such an incident ever reoccurring.
1973-1983: Driver Manager
It was in the early years of Marko’s post-racing career that he began to take up the role of a manager and keep himself in work within the sporting world. The lesson learned from Rindt’s career as well as his own was the importance of pushing for homegrown talent. He was proud of the impact his small generation of drivers had made, and tried to continue Austria’s racing culture beyond it.
Marko took many young drivers under his wing in the 1970s, though unfortunately many of those drivers suffered tragic fates. Helmuth Koinigg, his protégé, made it to F1 himself in 1974 before a fatal accident at Watkins Glen ended his life. Markus Höttinger, a talented youngster, got the necessary support through Marko to succeed in German junior series in the late 1970s. He, too, died in racing, in what was to be his first full season of Formula 2 in 1980. Marko had high hopes for Höttinger, claiming that a seat was lined up for Markus with ATS at that year’s Austrian Grand Prix.
Slowly but surely, Marko moved from driver management to team ownership. Details from this period are sketchy. We do know that Marko’s earliest career as a team manager came in sportscar races in South Africa in the late 1970s. The first major event he brought the Helmut Marko RSM name to was the 1981 Le Mans race, ten years on from his victory. With a BMW M1, he fielded an all-German line-up of Christian Danner, Peter Oberndofer (who became a mainstay of the team) and none other than Prince Leopold von Bayern, who at the sprightly age of 37 was just embarking on his own career. The team managed 49 laps before a crankshaft issue sent them home with a DNF.
Moving into the early 80s now, and Helmut’s work as a manager started to see success at last. When it comes to crazy career stories, few come as short as Gerhard Berger’s rise to F1 from next to no experience. In spite of such little junior experience, he was taken in by Helmut, who saw enough potential in him in German F3 to raise him up to the European level with funding and management, and eventually to Formula 1 all in the space of a year and a half. Stoking the fire of Berger’s F1 career still ranks among Marko’s more positive impacts on the sport over the decades.
1984-1999: Marko, Team Owner
Things began to really step up by the 1980s for Marko. Like Adrián Campos a decade later, he had success from the get-go, and apparently a strong talent for team ownership and driver management. He fielded RSM Marko cars in various series, starting with DTM (or DPM as it was in its early days), and then branching out with regional Formula 3 entries before joining the big leagues of International Formula 3000 in 1990.
Peter Oberndorfer, who had raced for Marko at Le Mans, brought him quite solid success in the DPM/DTM. Taking a win in 1984, he was joined by a few other drivers whom Marko would regularly field (Jörg van Ommen and Franz Klammer being the main two), almost always finishing top 10 in the overall standings each year. One of Marko’s new protégés, Karl Wendlinger, ran full-time in 1989.
Wendlinger and Marko jumped ship from DTM to F3000 completely in the off-season, though without much initial success and in part-time seasons. When Wendlinger got the F1 shot, RSM Marko didn’t resurface until 1996, when they did so with fiery results. Their new lead driver, Jörg Müller, won the series! Not without drama, though…
Muller and his rival Kenny Bräck had absolutely dominated the F3000 season between them that year. With a three-point lead going into the season finale, Muller led from pole. Meeting each other on the straight, Bräck made multiple dangerous swerves at Muller when they were side-by-side. Muller ended up being punted out, and Bräck was given the black flag. The Swede ignored it and continued, taking his car to second and hopefully the championship. However, he was disqualified post-race and the championship went to Muller. At home soil, however, rumour abounded of stewards keen for a German champion. Marko and his drivers causing controversy: it was the first of many times.
1997 brought RSM Marko another young talent by the name of Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian won three races in his debut season and came runner-up in the standings. However, their relationship was frosty to say the least. Montoya complained to Marko that the car’s fifth gear was too long and causing him to lose time on the straights to his competitors – Marko claimed Juan Pablo was lifting on purpose. Marko still claims this. Regardless, Montoya’s case is similar to many others in that he was given lodging at one of Marko’s hotels in Graz, and was helped in spite of his complete lack of funds. Conditions were hard, but ultimately worthwhile for the pair.
“If you crashed the car, you had to wait until the car was fixed before you could get a lift back to the hotel. It made me appreciate what I was doing.”
Montoya calls 1997, his year with RSM Marko, the toughest year of his life, but worth it for the on-track success.
After a year out in 1998, RSM Marko would return in a new and rejuvenated form.
1999-present: Red Bull to today
Around the late 90s, a chance encounter brought Helmut Marko in contact with Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of the Red Bull drinks company, and an eager racing fan. Mateschitz wanted to work with Marko and for them to form a team together. Without the necessary funds at that point to reach F1, the two worked in partnership in junior formulae for a time, with RSM Marko being renamed to the Red Bull Junior Team. They took their first official Red Bull Junior Programme driver, Enrique Bernoldi, under their wing, and the rest is history.
As Red Bull grew in popularity and sales increased, it was directly translated into fulfilling the dreams of the group in reaching the big leagues. Marko’s input on the technical and management side was essential, and when the Red Bull team landed in Formula 1 in 2005, Helmut was changed from team owner instead to chief advisor, a position he holds to the present day. Their record of hiring young talent continued as well, with Marko hand-picking Christian Horner to lead the team. They were all gambles that paid off in the end.
Continuing his ethic, Marko has been instrumental ever since in pushing young talent up through the ranks, including those who lack the funds to do so themselves. Red Bull’s junior programme has been ruthless: for every Sebastian Vettel or Max Verstappen, there have been ten Vitantonio Liuzzis or Sébastien Buemis. Drivers unable to “cut it” immediately and consistently have been thrown by the wayside.
His strong position within the team has allowed him to say basically whatever he wants to at any point. While ruthless to underperforming drivers, Helmut is unwaveringly loyal to his stars. For example, he famously blamed Mark Webber for his collision with Sebastian Vettel at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, when everyone and their grandmother could see that Vettel was at fault. Daniel Ricciardo, who became the next big thing following Vettel’s post-2013 fall from grace, himself lost favour when Verstappen joined the team (to say nothing of poor Daniil Kvyat). As a show of his reputation in Red Bull, when Vettel won his and Red Bull’s debut championship, it was Helmut who joined his apprentice on the podium to celebrate.
“I have a deal with Dietrich: as long as I can do it mentally and physically, I will.”
It is a testament to the man’s vitality that he can handle the pace of modern Formula 1, boasting as he does about his comfort in flying, in living on what he brings from race to race.
Marko’s life is still very busy. In his late 70s at the time of writing, he still attends almost every race diligently, and is prominent in running the Red Bull junior programme as he has been for over two decades now. For rest, Marko makes the occasional trip home to his native Graz when the schedule allows it. He owns two successful hotels there.
Someone looking at Marko’s career with the lens of a modern viewer would say that his current fame outweighs any of his own achievements as a driver. After his own F1 stints were unsuccessful and brutal, he very much pushed the highest of expectations on his own drivers.
The sheer brutality of the Red Bull treadmill has made Marko the face of controversy; and it is a controversy he does not shy away from. While the programmes of Mercedes, McLaren or Renault have yielded little promise for drivers attempting to break through to the top series, Red Bull has consistently offered that chance at a top seat to so many talents who through lack of funds would not otherwise have the means. The programme remains the undefeated top-tier programme with no equal in the sport, and for better or for worse, it has Helmut Marko to thank for its impact on the last two decades of F1 grids.
“[Without Jochen Rindt] I would have pursued a career as a lawyer … But I’m happy with the way my life has gone. And happy to have survived, if a little damaged.”
Sources: f1i.com, redbull.com, driverdb.com, porsche.com, karlskoga.se, theguardian.com, statsf1.com, motorsportmagazine.com, formula1.com, 24h-lemans.com, topgear-autoguide.com, racing-reference.info, racingsportscars.com, snaplap.net, Beyond the Grid