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Friday favourite: How a sportscar friendship prevailed over F1 rivalry

Formula 1 isn’t usually a category that can be associated with selflessness. But Manfred Winkelhock’s gesture in qualifying for the 1984 South African Grand Prix to a driver from a rival team he’d frequently collaborated with in sportscars underlines why Marc Surer picks him as his favourite team-mate

Manfred Winkelhock, Marc Surer, Porsche 962C

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Of far greater importance to Marc Surer than the results he achieved in his on-and-off partnership with Manfred Winkelhock between 1977 and 1985 is his friendship with the exciting German driver. The late elder brother of the no less flamboyant ‘Smokin’ Jo’ Winkelhock shared BMW, Ford and Porsche machinery with Surer in endurance racing, most notably beating the factory teams with their privateer Kremer-run Porsche 956 at the shortened Monza World Endurance Championship round in 1985.

They were also team-mates in European Formula Two, and rivals in Formula 1, but that fact made no difference to their congenial relationship. The choice of Winkelhock, who died in 1985, as Surer’s favourite team-mate was therefore never in doubt for the Swiss.

Surer remembers “we became friends very quickly” after meeting when they joined the BMW Junior Team in ’77 together with Eddie Cheever. Together, Surer and Winkelhock won the 2.0-litre class in the Nurburgring 1000km that formed part of the World Championship for Makes. Rising star Surer was then based near Stuttgart, near where Winkelhock grew up in Waiblingen, so they socialised frequently. That continued when racing against each other in F1 from 1982 onwards.

“We went out in the evenings together, so we spent time privately and also at the track sometimes we had dinner when we didn’t have an engagement with sponsors,” says Surer, who recognises that Winkelhock “was more of a family man” following the birth of son Markus in 1980. “But anyway,” he adds, “we had a lot in common. We had a lot of fun.”

Both drivers were thrust into F2 for 1978 with the works March-BMW team. But unlike F3 graduate Surer, Winkelhock was new to single-seaters and didn’t get a second full season for 1979, when Surer won the title before making his F1 debut at Ensign.

“He had no experience in formula cars and was always over-driving the car,” says Surer. But in touring cars they complemented each other well. Winkelhock was “less sensitive for the set-up of the car, he could drive with the car which was not perfect” in a way Surer says he struggled to do.

Surer (left) was never team-mates with Winkelhock in F1, but the two were great friends from racing together in F2, touring cars and Group C

Surer (left) was never team-mates with Winkelhock in F1, but the two were great friends from racing together in F2, touring cars and Group C

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Even if I said ‘come on, we have too much oversteer, I cannot drive the car like this’, he’d go out and do the good time anyway,” Surer notes admiringly. “He was just over-driving [around] problems which I sometimes couldn’t. He just forced the car through the corners.

“We could live always with the same set-up, we never had a problem to say ‘I cannot drive the way he wants it set-up’. We were very similar.”

Surer’s F1 career had struggled for momentum after breaking both ankles practicing for the 1980 South African Grand Prix with ATS. He’d twice scored points upon returning to Ensign for 1981, switched mid-year to Theodore, then landed at Arrows for 1982 when Winkelhock joined the grid at ATS. The same year, they collaborated on the Ford C100 programme in the WEC.

"Manfred had the idea and said, ‘if we drive side-by-side, nobody can overtake us’ and so we did!"
Marc Surer

The Zakspeed-run Fords were frequently unreliable, retiring within four laps of each other due to overheating issues at Le Mans, but for the Brands Hatch season finale they locked out the front row courtesy of well-timed laps in changeable conditions. Surer nabbed pole on intermediate tyres in the car he shared with Klaus Ludwig, while Winkelhock was second on Goodyear’s qualifying slicks with Klaus Niedzwiedz. But their part in a race that is remembered for Jacky Ickx’s storming drive to claim the title turned out to be little more than a footnote after “we touched slightly” and Winkelhock was fired into the barriers.

“Always the driver who did the best time in practice was allowed to do the start,” remembers Surer. “Peter Ashcroft came from Ford and he said, ‘BBC is broadcasting the race live on TV, can you try and come back as 1 and 2 in the first lap? Can you agree together how to help the other?’ And we said, ‘Okay, with Manfred I know it was no problem at all’.

“It started to rain before the race, and I said, ‘what are we going to do? In the rain it’s unpredictable’. And then Manfred had the idea and said, ‘if we drive side-by-side, nobody can overtake us’ and so we did!

“There was always one on the outside of the corner who had the better line, because on the inside was more slippery and tighter, so the one on the outside had to lift a little bit to stay side-by-side and we both did. It worked so well, we were still leading, so we did another lap and another lap and the rain got stronger and stronger…”

Surer and Winkelhock drove side-by-side in their Ford C100s for the early laps of the 1982 Brands Hatch 1000km before making contact

Surer and Winkelhock drove side-by-side in their Ford C100s for the early laps of the 1982 Brands Hatch 1000km before making contact

Photo by: Motorsport Images

But the Fords didn’t have it all their own way, as Hans Stuck in the Sauber-BMW loomed large in the mirrors. Autosport’s Quentin Spurring wrote: “Stuck’s progress continued, and by the fifth lap, he was up with the Fords, which came out of Surtees side by side again and set off that way towards Pilgrims Drop. In the kink just a short way down the straight, Surer got his C100 out of shape, his car kissed Winkelhock’s, and Manfred suddenly found himself on the grass and heading for the barrier.”

Without his dance partner, Surer couldn’t hold off Stuck, who took the lead starting lap six. Amid worsening rain and with the guardrail damaged, the race was stopped after nine laps. Winkelhock transferred to the Surer/Ludwig car for the restart on a drying track, but it was never the same competitive proposition as Surer spun at Paddock Bend, then lost three minutes in the pits to a misfire on the way to finishing fifth.

“We touched because of aquaplaning,” says Surer. “It was really difficult to put the power down in these conditions and so it happened. But there was no blaming each other.”

More from the favourite team-mate series:

They had to wait until 1985 before racing together again as team-mates, but Surer reveals their collaboration had continued informally in F1, specifically during qualifying for the 1984 South African Grand Prix. ATS had BMW turbo power from 1983, but Arrows remained part of the dwindling group of teams using the long-in-the-tooth Cosworth DFV well into the next season along with Tyrrell.

At Kyalami’s high-altitude, the normally-aspirated cars were “so lost without the turbo”, prompting Surer to seek an out-of-the-box solution. He approached Winkelhock for a tow in qualifying, and the ATS man agreed.

“He said, ‘you go out one lap after I do my fast lap, and when I have finished my fast lap, I do one extra lap and give you a tow,’” chuckles Surer. “And I was the fastest of these four drivers with [Tyrrell drivers Stefan] Bellof and [Martin] Brundle because I got this tow from Manfred!”

Out of an F1 drive for 1985, Surer joined Winkelhock in a Kremer Racing 956 for that year’s WEC. Second in the Mugello opener, they famously won at Monza when a tree felled by galeforce winds blocked the track before the Lesmo caused the race to be halted 34 laps from the end. The first Group C win for Kremer was somewhat fortunate, as its car had been running out of sync due to an early second stop triggered by contact with Mauro Baldi’s Lancia.

Winkelhock agreed to give Surer a tow in qualifying for the 1984 South African Grand Prix, helping him to top the DFV brigade

Winkelhock agreed to give Surer a tow in qualifying for the 1984 South African Grand Prix, helping him to top the DFV brigade

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“It was a present,” admits Surer, who had been due his final stop shortly before the stoppage. But he is adamant “we would have had a chance also at the end” had the race run to its conclusion. In light of what happened a few months later, it stands as a bittersweet memory.

Fourth at Silverstone, both Winkelhock and Surer missed Le Mans due to clashing F1 commitments in Montreal. Winkelhock had joined RAM, while Surer landed a drive at Brabham in place of the disappointing Francois Hesnault. Reunited at Hockenheim, their 956 suffered a fuel leak that resulted in another dramatic pit fire, mere hours after the works Porsche team’s own incident. But what followed at Mosport was much more serious.

"We could live always with the same set-up, we never had a problem to say ‘I cannot drive the way he wants it set-up’. We were very similar"
Marc Surer

Winkelhock was gravely injured when a puncture caused his car to leave the road and crash heavily at the fast downhill Turn 2 left-hander. Surer accompanied his co-driver to hospital in Toronto, but nothing could be done. Winkelhock died of head injuries the following day. It was left to Surer to notify his wife and manager of the sad news.

“Even now when I think about it, it’s horrible,” he says. But Surer has happy memories of Winkelhock, describing their friendship as “unique”.

“Maybe there were some other drivers having that,” he adds, “but it was very unusual. Even fighting each other, it was always with no problem because you can trust the other one.”

Victory together in their Kremer Porsche at Monza in 1985 is a bittersweet memory for Surer

Victory together in their Kremer Porsche at Monza in 1985 is a bittersweet memory for Surer

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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