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Rencken: Personal recollections of Red Bull's Helmut Marko

In the first of a series of features celebrating the former F1 driver’s 80th birthday on 27 April, RacingNews365 Editorial Director Dieter Rencken delves into half a century of memories as he recalls when he first saw the Austrian race.

I am of an age where I can remember Red Bull’s F1 Consultant (Dr) Helmut Marko as a racer - in the 1970 Three-Hour Endurance Race staged on hot and sultry Boxing Day on the extremely tight Roy Hesketh Circuit, situated in my birth town of Pietermaritzburg (South Africa). I recall being impressed, not so much by his driving - clearly top class given he and National F1 Champion John Love placed second, mere seconds behind sports car legend Brian Redman and well ahead of Bruce van der Merwe (father of former F1 Medical Car driver Alan) - but by the fact that not only was he a lawyer but held a doctorate in the discipline. That Marko and Love went onto to win the five-round Springbok Series attests to their class. At the time my parents planned for me to study law, so I optimistically figured I could possibly combine the two and pay for my aspirant racing career by way of legal work… The next time I heard the Austrian’s name mentioned was on radio in those pre-TV coverage days when he won the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hour in a Martini Porsche 917 with Gijs van Lennep, who, too, had raced in South Africa. I was a massive 917 fan - still am - and would shortly view Steve McQueen’s Le Mans movie thrice, so their success truly resonated with me. Maybe I should study more and pursue parental wishes, I reckoned. Picture below: Marko (driving for Lola) chasing Brian Redman (Chevron) in a three-hour endurance event in Pietermaritzburg.

Then came my first Grand Prix - Kyalami, 1972 - and by then Helmut had broken into F1 with BRM, but, frankly, my focus was on Niki Lauda, who drove superbly to place seventh to Helmut’s 14th. Then, in August I learned from Autosport, albeit a copy two months old - sea-freight copies of my ‘bible’ took that long to reach our shores - that Helmut lost an eye via an errant stone during the French Grand Prix after qualifying sixth. I was saddened but back then an average of three drivers died per year, so what was an eye, I reasoned; he’s alive, that’s what counts…then he gradually dropped out of mind unless Le Mans or Targa Florio - he still holds the lap record - were discussed. Until, that is, the 1997 British Grand Prix - my first as an accredited journalist - where his Red Bull RSM team contested F3000 with Juan-Pablo Montoya. I piqued up. When Red Bull entered F1 in its own right in 2005 Helmut became a regular figure in the F1 paddock, and as the team grew in stature so I increasingly came into his orbit, at times discussing his South African exploits, 917s and Red Bull Racing. Eventually I asked him about the eye incident: Any regrets? “Not really, because I can’t change it…” was the pragmatic reply. Helmut clearly loves motorsport, but in a traditional manner. He treats the drivers much as team bosses did during the 70s: direct, to the point; no prisoners taken. Sure, along the way he he amassed a reputation for ruthlessness, mainly where drivers failed to measure up to his high standards - when you’ve won Le Mans and your mates were Jochen Rindt and Lauda, these are lofty indeed. I get it, but Netflixers don’t. The flipside is, though, that the Red Bull Junior programme enabled many to get there in the first place and earn good livings even after they were dropped. Daniil Kyvat is just one, yet today he (and others) squeal ungratefully as though they have a right to eternal sponsorship…

By my reckoning Helmut has been devoted to the sport for over 60 years: He and (posthumous) 1970 World Champion Rindt illegally chased each other through the streets of Graz on 50cc mopeds during the mid-60s. Yet, despite the loss of many mates, an eye and, by extension, arguably at least a grand prix win he clearly loves it as much as he did when I saw the blond, young lawyer race at Roy Hesketh over 50 years ago. In 2021 I was invited to his offices in Graz, from where he manages his two luxury boutique hotels, said to be the best in the Austrian city, between F1 duties. Before I quizzed him he beckoned me to the window opposite his desk: Mounted on a cliff above the hotel gables sits a Red Bull, a nod to his two passions whenever he looks up. I later inspected the car: No fibreglass model, this - a real show car built from used parts. There are a number of F1 characters who perk me up when I see them in the paddock. Jackie Stewart is one; Helmut Marko is another. Happy 80th birthday for Thursday, Herr Doktor!

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