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Saving the best for last – By Jochen Mass

Submitted by on June 11, 2015

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Jochen Mass

Throughout the many years of his career – alongside successful touring car racing and a few years in Formula 1 – Jochen Mass was always happy and just as successful in sportscar racing. Starting in 1971 with a two-litre Chevron in the South African Springbok Series, through Georg Loos’ Gulf Mirage, an Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 in Willi Kauhsen’s team and sportscar service with Porsche, where he was contracted as a works driver in 1976 and drove with Jacky Ickx for many years, his career also brought him into Peter Sauber’s team. This is where he crowned his CV with a Le Mans victory and became definitively one of the most successful sportscar drivers in the world.

Thanks to AUTOMOBILSPORT, Jochen Mass reminisces for  on his time with the Sauber team, his Le Mans victory in 1989 and on his time with Mercedes juniors Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger.



Inch perfect in 1991

I had already had eleven successful years as a Porsche works driver and had a good season in 1987 with the Bruce Leven Porsche 962 in the IMSA Series, where we secured victories or podium places in almost every race.

I also had a reputation in Europe as a reliable driver, which caused Peter Sauber to come knocking and ask if I would like to come and drive for him.

At Porsche, the works activities in Group C were gradually nearing an end, so I thought to myself that this was good timing and I switched to Sauber for the 1988 season.

There was already unofficial factory support from Mercedes-Benz for the Sauber team in 1987, but it was still through the back door. Peter Sauber – extremely conservative, as I knew him – had intentionally kept the team small in the beginning, to ensure it didn’t grow too fast and become unwieldy. Overall, it was a very positive story, although it also initially led to situations that we can all smile about from today’s perspective. When we trained at the start in England, I said over the radio that I was about to drive out. I sat in the car and was ready to go.

Suddenly I heard ‘wait a minute, Jochen, until the second car is back in the pits. We don’t have enough mechanics’. This conservative approach may perhaps have gone a bit too far sometimes, but it certainly didn’t do us any harm..

Over the years, Peter Sauber had gradually pieced together a good team of people, among them Leo Ress, who was a brilliant designer. I really liked Leo; he really was an excellent aerodynamicist, engineer and suspension man. When Walter Näher joined us later from Porsche as race engineer, he worked with us drivers to put all of that into practice.

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Mechanics at work as Mass takes notes 1989

The Tyres are the Achilles Heel

As a new member of the team, I was obviously eagerly anticipating the task ahead. We had our first test day in Jerez, which went really well, despite the C9 not exactly being an easy drive in the beginning. There was still a lot to do on the suspension peripherals, including tuning the shocks. I asked if the team had already done any damper testing – so we went with the Bilstein people to Hockenheim and retuned the suspension. We were able to test a lot there and it brought us a good deal further forward. This fine-tuning of the grey areas could only be done with the Bilstein people.

It was remarkable to see how the car noticeably developed and its handling characteristics improved. I had complete faith from the very beginning in the Sauber team, which had already been successful in 1987. It was quickly apparent, however, that the Achilles heel was the Michelin tyres, because they weren’t a good match for our car. It took quite a while to get that sorted out.

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On the way to victory at Jerez in the C9 with Jean -Louis Schlesser

Our engineers were obviously thinking about how to achieve maximum downforce with as little drag as possible, i.e. a good compromise between top speed and the high downforce for high cornering speeds – that’s generally not always compatible with a car’s tyres. Michelin had basically made good tyres, but, in this case, for other cars. These tyres just didn’t work on our car. They weren’t in harmony with our car’s colossal downforce. Again and again, this caused the tyres to start deforming and it was for this reason alone that we ultimately withdrew our cars from the Le Mans grid. Klaus Niedzwiedz blew a tyre during training on the Thursday at around 300 km/h in the braking zone at the end of the long straight.

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3rd at Brands Hatch in 1989

Thankfully, not too much happened; he was able to keep hold of the car, but the risk of starting the race like that was obviously far too great.

The Mercedes team was officially back racing for the first time. And especially after the serious accident in Le Mans in 1955, I and a few others pleaded not to run. We got the tyre problems under control in 1989 through testing in Clermont-Ferrand. In these tests, I drove over a measuring device that was able to measure the weight of the vehicle at different speeds. Over the course of several runs, I drove at up to 350 km/h, each time faster than the last, along a wall with markings leading me to a gate where ultimately the weight was measured. The tyres weren’t changed as a result of this, but instead, the Michelin people told us where we had to reduce the downforce so that the tyres worked better with the car.

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The start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans 1989

We went back to Le Mans in 1989, with our cars set up with very little downforce as a result of the tyre tests. We were very fast on the long straights – around 406 km/h in qualifying – but not particularly fast through the slow corners due to the lack of downforce. I often had Streitzel Stuck and his Porsche breathing down the back of my neck braking into the bends. That got to be a bit of a pain after a while. I thought:

My god, now we have such a good car and the tyres aren’t playing ball!

However, the extra speed on the straights enabled me to stay in front of him and we were able to win the race in the end. The Le Mans victory that year was another highlight for me personally; it really was a dream come true. I mean, I’d been driving for a long time – around eleven hours altogether. Manuel Reuter drove five hours, Stanley Dickens – a good guy, very solid – drove eight hours. Manuel also drove really well, but he had the misfortune to drive over an exhaust on the track, causing severe damage to the right underside. He was also a bit nervous – after all, it was his first time racing at Le Mans.

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Le Mans 1989

After Le Mans, the next stop in the 1989 race calendar was Dijon-Prenois, a very demanding track. The Michelin tyres were truly awful there. We had to battle with porpoising [editor’s note: a pumping, up-and-down rocking of the car], so we drove with a lot of downforce, which sucked the C9 hard to the asphalt and made the tyres ever flatter due to the increasing pressure. We had to lift off in the bends until the car rose back up a bit. That’s why the Porsches won – we couldn’t drive right. The Michelin people filmed the car in Dijon for the first time and suddenly realised with a shock that the tyres were being pressed right down to the rim. The tyres really had pressed all the way down to the tread; the flank was almost completely gone. That, of course, always comes with the danger of a tyre breaking up and exploding. The plan was therefore to do some test driving in Monza. Schlesser and Baldi took on the test – at 340 km/h, each of them had a set of tyres flying around their heads. The car sustained a lot of damage from the exploding tyres, but otherwise, thankfully, nothing happened.


Mass played critical role in developing the C11

I recommended to Peter Sauber that we run on Goodyears. “Do you think so?”

he asked. “I know so,” I said. From my time at Porsche and my Formula 1 experience, I knew what a massive difference the structure of a tyre can make. We changed to Goodyear and didn’t look back – our tyre problems were dealt with in a single blow. Obviously, I had nothing against Michelin, but the tyres simply weren’t a match for our car.

We made a lot of positive progress with the Sauber C9 – we were able to win Le Mans and the first world championship. Then came the C11 – for me, the best Group C car to date. However, there were no plans for us to go to Le Mans in 1990; the disputes between the ACO and the F.I.A. were boiling over. They were already noticeable in 1989, with the result that, despite our win, we didn’t get a single point and no prize money – nothing. For the Le Mans victory, I received a little trophy and a glass car – for winning a 24-hour race, mind you! It was a joke.

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Victory at the Nurburgring in 1989

It was also a shame, because I would otherwise have won the driver’s championship that year – but the withheld points meant I was denied it in 1989. It really annoyed me that, in 1991, we then broke the engine in the

C11 because an alternator bracket that also supported the belt drive for the water pump broke off. It was a part that cost pennies! It wasn’t so much about me, although I would obviously have liked to win one more time, but about the fantastic C11 and the success for the team – we had a four lap lead up until that point.

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Spa 1990

Mentor for three juniors

Ahead of the 1990 season, Jochen Neerpasch summoned me – he had a proposal to make. He explained his plans for a junior team. He had already asked Jean-Louis Schlesser and he had turned it down right away – it wasn’t for him, and the other drivers weren’t in the frame at all. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher had already been picked as the drivers. I have to go back a couple of years at this point. I had a Formula Opel-Lotus team in 1987. Together with Opel, we had organised a tryout course, with around 30 drivers invited to attend. Three stood out from the pack – Marco Werner, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jürgen von Gartzen. I brought Werner and Frentzen into my team. Marco Werner, honest as he is, came to me and said, “Listen, there’s a faster guy out there.

His name is Michael Schumacher”.

Schumacher was driving in Formula Ford at the time. His manager Willi Weber was very consciously keeping him there – he was waiting for a better offer. Michael asked me a few years later in jest why I didn’t want to have him in Formula Opel-Lotus – I told him that, if it had been up to me, I would have wanted him, but Willi had other plans at the time. At Sauber, I obviously didn’t have to teach the juniors how to drive fast; the three of them could do that well enough. They only came to us in the first place because they were already fast in Formula 3 – and I knew that these three would also be fast in Sauber Group C. The cars were fundamentally not difficult to drive. And also because I already knew Heinz-Harald and, more distantly, Michael Schumacher, I took on the task. I wasn’t supposed to play the part of driving instructor, but mentor the youngsters in appropriate behaviour within a team, demonstrating the willingness to compromise and to work together with a team partner and their driving desires and sensitivities.

My area of responsibility also included a substantial proportion of the fine-tuning work, which was initially handled by us older drivers because we knew the cars better. I generally brought the cars to a point where they were good to drive for all of us. But I also often gave the juniors input and we tried out different settings together. The junior team was really good, although Heinz-Harald left us really early because he couldn’t make up his mind. It really annoyed me that this lad was so stubborn and got himself into such a fix. He was determined to get into Formula 3000, signed for an obscure team that also wanted to get into Formula 1. It was a Dutch team, a dodgy bunch that influenced him a bit too much. Heinz-Harald then hired a new manager, Ortwin Podlech, who set about looking through all his contracts, cancelling most of them, tightening them up and modifying them – then things began to move forwards for him.

I later talked to Heinz-Harald about this at length during a flight. It was clear as day that a works contract with Mercedes-Benz for such a young driver would at some point lead to Formula 1. I later brought him to Williams, where he was given the chance to try out. Frank Williams called me afterwards and said, “Your boy here, he’s really good!”

Michael, on the other hand, was a very focused driver and always working on improving himself. Occasionally, in one of those few cases when I was actually faster than him, he came to me and asked how I managed to be faster. I said, Michael, presumably because I’m stronger than you are.

That was all the motivation he needed to get into power training – that’s what he was like. He always needed that kind of trigger, but then he got on with it right away.

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Final iteration C291

Later, when the C291 engine came along, the engineers were thinking about how to integrate a twelve-cylinder engine into a car with the most effective underbody. The engine gave the car a low centre of gravity. It was a really complicated 180-degree V engine, with its ancillaries mounted on top, which made access difficult for the mechanics. The mechanics initially needed a very long time to be able to work on the engine.

However, within a few months, things had developed so that, instead of the initial six hours, we needed ‘just’ two for an engine change.

The Sauber team was great, the cars ran fantastically well and we also had really good engine people at Sauber. If the task had been to build a ten-cylinder with a sensible cylinder angle, they would have achieved everything demanded by the rules in no time at all. The problem with the

C291 was the big diffuser that complicated the engine construction. It was because of this alone that all the ancillaries had to be mounted on top of the flat-twelve, with the exhaust system running upwards away from it – overall a pretty thankless task.

In spite of all this, the C291 was fantastic. Above all, it was light. The other Group C cars with turbocharged engines had to weigh 1000 kg, although they would perhaps have weighed 840 kg without the additional weight. The C291 weighed 740 kg and had a power output of around 650 hp.

The engine ran like a turbine. It was set up for 15,000 rpm and we ran it at 13,500 rpm. Things developed very well. The car was so fast at the end of the season with Michael Schumacher in Autopolis – it was sensational.

And the win by Michael and Karl was a great way to finish.

Originally Published in issue 4 of AUTOMOBILSPORT

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