Bernd Schneider: “The DTM cars at that time were very impressive”
What do Formula 1 World Champion Mika Hakkinen, F1 race-winner Mark Webber and Indycar champion and Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti have in common? Answer: All of them have been team mates to a driver that won international championship titles while they were in the same team. That driver, Germany’s Bernd Schneider, is a bit of an unsung hero, as his Formula 1 career hardly got going. In the 34 races he entered, he only qualified for nine, and he only finished three times in three years. Not his fault, but proof that you need to have the right car and engine under you.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Bernd at the Goodwood Festival of Speed this year for a fascinating chat. Having known him for a long time, my first question was a bold one…. What was your Formula 1 highlight?
He laughed: “My highlight was that I never had a highlight! It’s true – there were no highlights! Of course a good memory is my first Grand Prix in Mexico in 1988. This was fantastic, not just being in Formula 1, but being in the race. It was a nice time and I was really looking forward to “boof!!” my career moving on. But it never happened.”
After three non-qualifications at the start of 1988, Schneider somehow qualified the Zakspeed 15th in Mexico. To say the car and its 4-cylinder engine ‘weren’t good’ is an understatement. There the engine lasted just 16 laps before it blew up.
Schneider had arrived in Formula 1 with all the hallmarks of becoming a superstar, and potentially Germany’s first Formula 1 World Champion. He was the German Formula 3 champion in 1987, a title won by a young Michael Schumacher three years later.
When his F1 offers dried up, it was time to move on. “Of course after Formula 1 I had to see what I could do for my career,” he said. “I ran with Porsche for two years in sports cars and at Le Mans, then I came to Mercedes, and that was the right choice because a German driving for Mercedes is something special. The history is very important, and we still have Hans Hermann, Jochen Mass and Klaus Ludwig. I mean I was introduced to Juan-Manuel Fangio, Manfred von Brauchitsch, Stirling Moss, John Surtees and more. It’s a great issue for me that I am part of that company – or family – after I’ve finished my racing career.”
He joined Mercedes in 1992, racing in the DTM, winning the title in 1995 along with the International Touring Car championship, when the Class 1 series was at its absolute pinnacle, bordering on Formula 1 standards on and off the track. It was a brilliant era. “The DTM cars at that time were very impressive,” said Schneider. “For touring cars it was outstanding how quick they were, and the lap times you were able to do.
As a ‘present’ for winning both the DTM and ITC titles Mercedes arranged for a Formula 1 test with McLaren for Bernd, and his new young team mate Dario Franchitti.
Again Schneider laughed at the memory… “I had that test with McLaren in Spain. That was the only good Formula 1 car I had ever driven – then Jan Magnussen told me that even that was not a good car! But for me it was a good car, and the first time I enjoyed driving Formula 1. The McLaren team was outstanding. They took so much care over me, even though I was only just there to have a ride.
“It was the morning after the Autosport Awards in London which was a fun night,” he continued, “but we had a bus to pick us up to go to Biggin Hill airport at 5am to fly to Jerez. We came down to the reception in the hotel and the people from the banquet were still partying in the bar in their tuxedos while we headed off to the F1 test in Spain! They came out and waved us off in the street. Dario was on that bus too… He’s not a man known for getting up early… But that was a good day at Jerez, I will never forget that one. It was a very good time.”
With costs rising the DTM and its counterpart the International Touring Car Championship were cancelled and Schneider returned to the FIA GT Championship for 1997, teamed with a 22-year-old Mark Webber. The pairing was strong and they won that title too.
With the resurrection of the DTM in 2000 Schneider was able to add four more championship titles to his name before retiring in 2008.
When racing drivers ‘retire’ though, you are never sure what that means. Schneider has been part of the development team for AMG Mercedes on the SLS GT3 car, a role he enjoys. “It’s a bit different from what I’ve done before,” he said, “as it’s a customer car. It’s the first customer car we’ve built, but not only that, we’ve had to build the whole customer service. This was a big challenge to the AMG company. We didn’t have a long time, but it was really enjoyable work.”
You won’t be racing it though as you are retired now?
“I will probably drive at the Spa 24 Hours, and at Malaysia – if I get enough time. They are keeping me busy!”
See what I mean? There is no such thing as a retired racing driver.
By Andy Hallbery