The Erzherzog Johann BORG is a boarding school in Bad Aussee, a small town in the Austrian state of Styria. The school has two chief reputations. It owes the first to its 1952 foundation by Wilhelm Höttl, a former Austrian member of the Nazi SS. Höttl had switched allegiance to the OSS in 1945, and thanks to his resulting links was able to set up his school as one which accepted ‘difficult’ children with rich parents. This resulted in the school’s other claim to fame: four different Formula One drivers frequented the boarding school’s halls over a period of under 10 years. All of them would lead a life filled with hardships, and even tragic ends.
The first were old friends Jochen Rindt and Helmut Marko. The former would become the first and only driver to be crowned World Drivers’ Champion posthumously following his grisly death in Monza in 1970, and the latter’s racing career ended in a freak 1972 accident that cost him his eye. Later, triple-champion Niki Lauda also attended the boarding school, and famously barely survived a 1976 accident at the Nürburgring. One of the four drivers who saved him from the fiery wreck of his Ferrari was a former classmate, the fourth driver in question. He was best-known for his impressive facial hair, but his tale just may be the most tragic of the quartet.
Early life and career
The son of a civil engineer, Harald Ertl was born on August 31st 1948 in Zell am See, near Salzburg. Harald grew up in Austria, attending the Erzherzog Johann BORG until the age of 16 when his family relocated to Mannheim, in Germany. There, he developed a taste for mechanical engineering in school, a passion which would guide him to motorsport. Upon graduation, Harald furthered his mechanical education with manufacture engineering studies at university in Karlsruhe before embarking on a journalism career, which would remain his day job throughout his racing days.
Before F1: single-seaters
Harald got his start in motorsport in 1969 when he purchased an Austro Vau Formula Vee car. He raced the car around Germany and Austria at first and was immediately competitive, scoring six victories and finishing third in the Austrian championship. The next year, Harald switched his Porsche-backed Austro Vau for a Kaimann chassis and expanded his operations to the whole continent, duly finishing second in both the Austrian championship and the European Cup. Harald remained a successful Formula Vee regular until 1974, winning the Battle of the Nations against American opposition in 1973.
It was obvious that Harald had talent, but he had also displayed quite the knack for spectacular accidents while in good positions. While rival Helmut Bross called Ertl an “unforgiving trickster [who] was never a danger to other drivers”, Kurt Bergmann, the Kaimann boss, described Ertl as “oscillating constantly between genius and madness”. Indeed, by 1970, ‘Ertling’ had become synonymous with totalling a Formula Vee car. His hirsute appearance also earned him the nickname of a legendary Central European mountain spirit, and while esteemed colleague Denis Jenkinson referred to him as “Harry Hurtle”, Harald would remain known as “Rübezahl” to his Germanophone friends.
Ertl got his first taste of Formula 3 in April 1970, blagging his way to a drive in an Eifelland-backed March in a race at the Nürburgring. Finishing third, Harald decided to enter further races in France, Scandinavia and the Netherlands with results being encouraging enough to continue the following year.
For 1971, Harald struck a partnership with Alfa Romeo dealer Helmut Hähn to contest Formula Three events with an Alfa-powered Lotus 69. Scoring a couple of top tens in British F3 and good results in Germany, he turned to the German championship with Manfred Weissmann in 1972. However, results weren’t forthcoming aside from some good non-championship showings, and Harald’s open-wheel progress floundered for several years.
1974 was to be Harald’s breakout season, competing in the second half of the Polifac Trophy in a Rheinland-Toyota, with the German F3 Championship run as a sub-class of the trophy. As the season progressed, Harald began to record class podiums and fourth place (and the class win) at the season-ending Nürburgring race to secure fifth place in the German championship.
These results combined with two mechanically-impaired European Formula Two outings in Hockenheim allowed Harald to flex his marketing muscles and land a full-season F2 drive with Fred Opert Racing for 1975 alongside the likes of Hector Rebaque, Bill Brack and Masami Kuwashima. After initial issues, Harald was soon qualifying well, but race results weren’t forthcoming, aside from a third place at the Nürburgring and a fight for second at Hockenheim. Nonetheless, those successes allowed him to dream of Formula One.
Discussing his ambitions with flatmate and colleague Jochen von Osterroth, he was inspired by Torsten Palm’s purchase of a Hesketh 308 to get in touch with his old Formula 3 rival James Hunt to ask for advice on the matter. Hunt recommended another year of F2, but Harald was determined. A proposed partnership with Erich Zakowski – of Zakspeed fame – fell through, negotiations with Hesketh’s Anthony “Bubbles” Horsley broke down when the 308’s price was hiked after Hunt’s Dutch Grand Prix win, and Surtees and Williams were reluctant to sell him a car. Instead, thanks to sponsorship from Warsteiner brewery, Harald paid cash to acquire a private 308 from Bernie Ecclestone. He was finally ready for his début.
The team was run on a bare-bones budget from a friend’s workshop near Hockenheim. To make savings, the only employees were Surtees man Ali Strasser and Goldie Hexagon Racing mechanic Jonathan ‘Wingnut’ Greaves, and rain tyres were acquired from Max Mosley in exchange for a crate of beer. Plans to rent out the car proved unnecessary, as the budget extended to three races starting with the 1975 German Grand Prix.
In his first F1 qualifying session, Harald beat Gijs van Lennep, Lella Lombardi and Tony Trimmer to 23rd place, and started 22nd after Ian Ashley was injured in a practice accident. Despite stalling at the start of the parade lap, Harald was 18th by the end of the first lap and he made steady progress up the ranking thanks to attrition. However, his rear brakes began to suffer and by the end of the race, van Lennep and Lombardi had passed him. Harald was left to finish eighth, capping a mixed début.
For the next race in Austria, Harald started from a lowly 27th place while Hunt in the sister car started in second place. While Brett Lunger in another Hesketh lost place after place in the race, Ertl made steady gains through attrition before retiring with electrical issues shortly before the race was rained out. Things went rather better in Monza, where Harald started from a career-best 17th place. A series of incidents left Harald 12th, but he soon had to pit for a new wheel after a coming-together with Hans Joachim Stuck. Down in 17th, Harald embarked upon a spirited drive through the field to ninth place out of 14 finishers. In the closing stages of the race, he proved so quick that the likes of Lauda, Hunt and Tom Pryce had trouble lapping him. Reporting on the race, Denis Jenkinson agreed as much:
[Ertl is] well aware of his ability, but he wants to race for enjoyment and to succeed at the game and satisfy the people who are sponsoring his efforts, and this he is doing eminently.
Despite these results, the team was running out of money. Harald attempted to buy a drive with RAM Racing, but the Hesketh team’s implosion over the off-season provided another opportunity. As Hunt left for McLaren, Lord Hesketh ran out of personal finances and Harvey Postlethwaite left for Wolf-Williams, Horsley retained the rights to the name, produced an updated chassis and secured notorious sponsorship from Penthouse magazine and Rizla rolling paper based on their raucous reputation. In need of a driver with money, a deal was duly struck: Harald Ertl would be spearheading Hesketh’s challenge for 1976.
The season started in Brazil, but a lack of cash delayed Hesketh’s appearance to the second round in Kyalami. It was immediately clear that the team’s season would be filled with hurt, as Harald qualified last among healthy cars. Harald spent much of the race in last position, only a series of spark plug issues for Jacky Ickx saving him from finishing there.
In the next rounds in the United States and Spain, the grid was limited to 20 and 24 cars respectively. Harald never stood a chance, once again setting the second-slowest times over a second behind the last car on the grid. In Belgium, there was room for 26 cars, and Harald was joined by Guy Edwards, who would be completing a part-season for Hesketh. This time, Harald was able to put the car on the grid in 24th place, notably ahead of Lunger, Edwards, both Williams and even Emerson Fittipaldi. The race was more encouraging than in Kyalami, but ended after just over 30 laps when the Cosworth engine failed.
Next was Monaco, where despite a respectable showing on Thursday, he ultimately failed to qualify by 1.5 seconds. Things were marginally better in Sweden, where Harald qualified 23rd, ahead of Lunger, Loris Kessel, Michel Leclère and Jac Nellemann. Once again Harald started well, but a lengthy pit stop ruined his race, and he ultimately spun and stalled the car after 50-odd laps.
Affairs were worse in France, as Harald failed to qualify once more. However, he wouldn’t let his weekend finish there. Back in this era, the fastest non-qualifier was usually kept as reserve in case of an emergency drop-out, and Harald duly lined up in 27th. Never mind the fact that Damien Magee and Ingo Hoffmann were meant to be the reserves, or that no one dropped out. Harald took the start anyway, immediately setting off a stewards’ inquiry. Before the matter could be resolved however, the differential failed and the case was dropped. Hans Heyer’s legacy as the only man to DNQ, retire and be disqualified from the same race remains intact.
Harald’s Brands Hatch start was very much legal, lining up in 24th position and avoiding the first-lap chaos. The race soon became one of attrition, and Harald was left to cross the line in eighth position. Content with this position, Harald returned to the pits sans helmet or balaclava, wind parting his luxuriant beard and sending his moustache flailing almost to his ears. After James Hunt’s controversial disqualification, he was elevated to seventh place, his best result in Formula One.
That result was followed by arguably Harald’s finest hour. At the Nürburgring, one of Harald’s better tracks, he qualified the Hesketh in a fine 22nd place. Harald was one of the few to stay on grooved tyres on the drying track, falling behind the slick-shorn Niki Lauda on lap 2. Suddenly, at Bergwerk, the Ferrari snapped into the barriers and bounced into the middle of the track, on fire. Brett Lunger was unable to avoid the wreckage, and Harald collided with both cars.
Ertl and Lunger rushed to help Lauda, joined by Guy Edwards. The heat proved overpowering at first, until Harald rushed down the track to acquire a small fire extinguisher from a marshal. Keeping the flames at bay, Harald allowed Arturo Merzario to stop by the wreckage and rush into the blaze. 50 seconds after the initial impact, the quartet of drivers had pulled Lauda out of the Ferrari.
They were all awarded a medal for their trouble at the next race in Austria, for which Harald qualified a commendable 20th. He soon passed a gaggle of drivers to reach 14th place, and would remain unpassed on track until the chequered flag. Thanks to attrition, Harald came home eighth, ahead of the Surtees of Pescarolo and Lunger, the Tyrrell of Alessandro Pesenti-Rossi and the Brabhams of Lombardi and Kessel.
For the Dutch Grand Prix, Harald was paired with German sportscar ace and F1 podium-scorer Rolf Stommelen. To general surprise, Harald came out on top in qualifying and started 24th. Unfortunately, Harald was unable to prove himself in the race, spinning on lap 50 and failing to find his car’s reverse gear. Stommelen was left to finish 12th and last. Harald impressed again in Monza, qualifying in 19th position and again holding his own in the wet weather. Harald was running in a commendable 12th place of 19, only for his transmission to fail two laps from the end.
Making the trip to North America for the only time, Harald qualified 23rd for the Canadian Grand Prix only to be involved in a practice accident with Chris Amon. Both were injured: Harald’s back pain caused him to withdraw, and Amon’s leg bruising prompted him to retire from motorsport altogether. In Watkins Glen, Harald duly outqualified new teammate Alex Ribeiro to start in 21st place, only for a promising start to be wasted when Merzario crashed his Wolf-Williams into the Hesketh on the ninth lap, leaving Harald five laps down.
Harald was the only Hesketh driver to make the trip to the first championship Japanese Grand Prix, where he promptly qualified 22nd out of 27 entrants. The wet weather once again played into Harald’s hands, as the Austro-German made his way to seventh place, only losing the spot to Jacques Laffite on the final lap. With three top-ten finishes over the year compared to a concurrent anonymous Formula Two campaign, Harald prolonged his deal with Hesketh as the team’s namesake Lord returned to finance the development of the new 308E. This time, Harald had to contend with a full-time teammate in the form of British F3 champion Rupert Keegan, whose father managed new team sponsor British United Air Ferries.
The cash injection was immediately visible at the team’s first appearance in Spain, as Harald qualified in 18th position, though worryingly for him, Keegan was two places up the grid! Ertl was soon running in 12th position, but his radiator was punctured by yet another occasion of contact with Arturo Merzario, ending his race.
In Monaco, the writing was on the wall for Harald: 0.96 seconds behind Keegan and failure to qualify. He bounced back in Zolder, starting the race from 25th position, but again a full second slower than Keegan. The variable weather on race day played into Harald’s hands, and as others fell by the wayside, Harald reached the heights of seventh place before pitting for slicks. As the track dried, the race settled with Harald in eighth position, which he kept until Hans Joachim Stuck passed him in the dying laps. It was downhill from here.
Harald scraped onto the grid in Sweden just ahead of Keegan, but recurring mechanical issues left him to finish a lowly 16th, three laps behind even Keegan. Business was even worse in France, as Harald failed to qualify while Keegan started 14th. Rather than attempting the same trick as the previous year, Harald had had enough. Harald complained to Horsley about the preparation of the car, only to receive a message prompting him for his next sponsorship payments. Remarking that “those guys take my 40 thousand Marks every race for a paid vacation”, Harald left the team.
Ertl did not return to Formula One for over a year, when he leveraged his touring car successes to purchase an Ensign N177. Bankrolled by Sachs, Harald painted both the car and his helmet with a striking black and blue livery and entered the tail end of the 1978 season, starting in Hockenheim. Qualifying 23rd in the unfamiliar car, Harald took advantage of the early start lights to gain several places on the first lap. Surprisingly he managed to hold his own against the likes of John Watson, Riccardo Patrese and even Gilles Villeneuve to reach the dizzying heights of sixth place with a handful of laps remaining. An upset point was suddenly on the cards, but with three laps remaining, an engine piston cried enough and the Ensign ground to a halt in the Stadium.
Harald qualified again in Austria, but no miracles were to be had. He dropped back from 24th place until the race was stopped due to excessive rain. He predicted that tyre strategy would play a major role in the race when interviewed during the stoppage, but his chance to demonstrate this evaporated on the restart when he collided with Patrese to avoid the stalled car of John Watson. This would be Harald’s final F1 start. Without the benefit of organisers’ discretion, Harald didn’t prequalify for the Dutch Grand Prix and failed there in Monza as well by just 0.03 seconds.
At the same time, ATS boss Günther Schmidt sought a driver to replace the injured Jochen Mass. Harald jumped into the car for the main qualifying session, but while he beat his teammate Michael Bleekemolen by half a second, this was three tenths too slow, leaving Harald with the distinction of having both failed to qualify and prequalify for the same Grand Prix. An inconsequential test of the Kauhsen prototype in 1979 aside, Harald’s link with F1 would subsequently be as a pit reporter for television. That is, until Günther Schmidt came knocking again to invite him to drive a second ATS at the 1980 German Grand Prix.
Formula 1 had changed significantly since 1978, notably with the proliferation of ground effect aerodynamics. Adept at wet-weather driving and familiar with Hockenheim, Harald did well in the Friday rain, but as the weather improved on Saturday, he failed to get to grips with the radically different handling of the ATS D4 and wound up over 2 seconds behind the next slowest car of Keegan. Admitting that the new cars were capable of speeds far beyond his control, Harald would never drive in F1 again.
Most F1 backmarkers of the 1970s had a sideline in the racing business, and journalism aside Harald’s was touring cars. His career in the discipline began with his F3 days with some European Touring Car Championship appearances in 1971 in an Alfa Romeo. He switched to a BMW 2002 in 1972 as his ETCC form picked up and began to compete in the newly-created Deutsche Rennsport-Meisterschaft. He scored his first notable results in the category immediately with second place at the Nürburgring, also securing second in class at the Nürburgring 1000km with Ernst Furtmayr.
By 1973, Harald prioritised touring cars over single-seaters. Slim pickings were available in DRM, but his ETCC results improved as he joined Team Schnitzer. Top-ten finishes quickly turned to contention for wins. At the Zandvoort 4 Hours, he and teammate Henri Pescarolo dominated until the Frenchman spun off, leading to an offer from Burkhard Bovensiepen’s Alpina team for Silverstone’s Tourist Trophy.
Partnering for the two-heat event with Derek Bell, Harald easily kept the pace in his heat as the likes of Stuck and Frank Gardner fell by the wayside, enough to win the heat by 12 seconds. Bell similarly held his own, inheriting the win in his heat with Dieter Quester retired and securing the overall win for himself and Harald. The Austrian earned the Driver of the Day award for his trouble but lost something more crucial. Before the race, Harald had promised Bovensiepen that he would shave his signature facial hair in case of a win, and the Alpina boss duly pulled out the razor. Unfortunately, no photos exist of a clean-shaven Rübezahl.
This resounding success led to a works BMW drive for 1974 alongside the likes of Rikky von Opel and Helmuth Koinigg, but aside from pole position in Monza the results didn’t follow, and Harald instead focused on his single-seater career. When his Hesketh tenure came to a halt in 1977 though, Harald had somewhere to go: DRM.
Early results in 1977 weren’t promising, but he soon got the attention of Toyota Deutschland, who trusted him with a brand-new Group 5 Celica for the rest of the season. Results followed immediately as Harald secured a win at the non-championship ADAC Trophy in Zolder, as well as pole position at the season-ending Kyalami 1000km with the legendary Klaus Ludwig. On the side, attempts at Formula 2, sportscars and the ETCC were wholly unsuccessful, and this contrast was enough to convince Harald to commit to another full DRM campaign for 1978.
Banking on his trusty sponsor Sachs, Harald ran a BMW 320 in Division 2, the Group 5 category. As Groups 1 and 2 ran in different races but competed in the same championship standings, Harald faced title opposition he never faced on track. His main rival in Group 2 was Markus Höttinger, but Toine Hezemans put up serious opposition in Group 1 with three early wins. Unlike the Dutchman, Harald kept the pace the whole season, and five wins at the Nürburgring, Avus, Kassel-Calden, Hockenheim and the Norisring were enough to secure Harald’s only motorsport title.
For 1979, he rekindled his ties with Erich Zakowski, driving a Zakspeed-prepped Ford Capri to race wins at Zolder and Mainz-Finthen. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be sufficient in the high-scoring DRM, as five retirements left him tenth in the championships standings. 1980 was somewhat more successful as Harald secured four wins, but a lack of reliability left him seventh in the championship as Hans Heyer took the title.
Harald only raced outside of DRM sporadically. In 1979, he shared a Lotus Europa with Heyer at the Nürburgring for both the 4 Hours and 1000km, but like his two Interserie entries that year, no results were to be found. The following year, he won his class at the Donington Group 5 International, coming third overall behind former teammates Klaus Ludwig and Guy Edwards.
By this point, Harald was 32 years old and had decided to hang up the gloves and go back to journalism. This didn’t last long, as in 1981 he turned to speed records. BP wanted to promote their new liquid petroleum Autogas and hired Harald and his friend Gerhard Freudenberg to retrofit a BMW M1 with the goal of breaking the record for a liquid petroleum gas-powered car. More funding was secured through technical partners including bodywork designed by Walter Wolf and springs from Harald’s trusty sponsor Sachs. On October 17th 1981, Harald supposedly drove the car up to a recorded speed of 301.4km/h. Unfortunately for the publicity, the attempt wasn’t independently adjudicated and BP’s Autogas was sentenced to use in cookers and heaters.
Caught by the speed bug once again, Harald began to plan a return to racing for 1982. He set his sights on the Renault 5 Turbo Cup, a minor championship in small but fun touring cars, but these plans would never materialise. On April 7th 1982, Harald left Mannheim for his holiday home on the North Sea with his wife Vera and his three-year-old son Sebastian. His brother-in-law Jörg Becker-Hohensee was flying the Beechcraft Bonanza carrying the Ertl family as well as his own wife Gabi and daughter Alexandra, when the light aircraft’s engine failed. The Bonanza crashed into a field outside Giessen. Vera and Sebastian survived, but everyone else onboard, including the 33-year-old Harald, was killed.
Today, Ertl is chiefly remembered for his impeccably-maintained facial hair and for rescuing Niki Lauda from his burning car, but his life was that of a journeyman, splitting his time between journalism and racing. In Formula One, his main talent may have been the hunt for sponsors, but he must also be remembered as a skilled wet-weather driver and talented hand in a touring car. His 1973 Tourist Trophy win and 1978 DRM title speak for themselves.