This sort of fell by the wayside a bit – I’ve been trying to do a piece on the three new teams that entered Formula 1 in 2010, but covering six cars and twenty-something drivers in a collective 200+ races over seven years got me haplessly bogged down in fog-laden Wikipedia marshland.
So, since the official Formula 1 Facebook page reminded me that it’s his birthday just gone on 13th June, let’s go for something a bit more focused on one driver. One race. And one glorious, historic day for a man even relatively hardened fans are unlikely to remember in great detail.
Born in Stuttgart in 1980, motor racing was always going to be in Markus Winkelhock’s blood – his father Manfred participated in several F1 races for a variety of backmarkers in the early 1980s, before his untimely death in a sports car crash when Markus was only five years old. His uncle Joachim also had a brief shot at F1, albeit never managing to qualify his AGS car for a race, before having more success in British Touring Cars and German Super Tourenwagen, and winning the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hour race; another uncle, Thomas, has raced in Formula 3 and European Touring Cars.
Markus’s own career advanced steadily over the 1990s and early 2000s, through karting and local series Formula König, to German Formula Renault and Formula 3. Reaching a plateau at this point, he spent the next few years alternating between racing saloon cars in the DTM series (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters), and single-seaters in the Renault World Series, recording respectable but not outstanding results.
Third place overall in the 2005 RWS championship was enough to catch the eye of Colin Kolles, managing director of the newly-formed Midland F1 team, a Russian-backed enterprise that had just bought out and rebranded the dying giant that was Jordan Grand Prix. Kolles invited Markus to test the new M16 car in Spain in December 2005, and afterwards the young German excitedly relayed this “unforgettable experience” to the media as something that gave him a “hunger for more”. A month later, Kolles granted him such a chance, announcing him as one of the team’s official test and reserve drivers for the 2006 season.
While the car never looked like becoming a race winner, Midland gradually ascended from a clear last place to battling the lower midfield over the course of the year, and while Markus didn’t get a chance to race it, he drove in four Grand Prix practice sessions during the season and tested elsewhere, and could consider his efforts with the M16 to have contributed in some small way to his team’s small success. When Midland was sold in the autumn to Dutch luxury car makers Spyker, Winkelhock’s services were retained on paper, but with a swathe of other drivers also suddenly contracted by the new owners, either with more sponsorship than him (Ádrian Válles, Fairuz Fauzy) or the advantage of being Dutch (Giedo van der Garde), another chance of driving seemed distant. Markus returned to racing touring cars in Germany, with little in the way of strong results.
Luck smiled on him in July 2007, however – Spyker released race driver Christijan Albers at short notice after the British Grand Prix, in part due to lack of sponsorship money, in part due to being outperformed by teammate Adrian Sutil, and in part due to a bad-tempered falling out after the previous race in France, in which he had accelerated away from a pit stop before the fuel hose had been removed from the car, leaving a high-octane spray down the pit lane and his team and onlookers “mystified” at his “stupidity”.
Spyker wanted Sakon Yamamoto in the seat, a Japanese driver with a large wallet, but he and most of their contracted reserves either weren’t available to get to Germany at short notice for the European Grand Prix*, or had never driven at the track before. Kolles, still retained as a director at the team, realised that only one man fit the bill – a man with significant racing experience at the circuit, whose father had made his last Formula 1 start at the same venue – and made the phone call. Markus’s moment had come.
Arriving as an F1 racing rookie, in what was once again the slowest car on the grid and with a grand total of three days’ experience driving said car, expectations were as low as could be, er, expected. Grappling with the unwieldy, hideously orange, and terribly-named Spyker F8-VII as best he could, Winkelhock unsurprisingly qualified 22nd out of 22 entrants, four and a half seconds off Kimi Räikkönen’s pole-sitting Ferrari, and a second and a half off Sutil, who was 21st in the other Spyker. But Markus used the small flurry of media attention he received as the new kid on the block to describe just finally being there at 27 years old as “a dream come true”, adding that it had made his mum “a bit emotional” to see him achieve the same heights his father had two decades before.
He could never have imagined what was to come the following day.
The Eifel mountains in which the Nürburgring racetrack lies have a notorious micro-climate of their own, with weather changing rapidly and unexpectedly**. As the cars left the grid for their warm-up lap on the stroke of one o’clock on 22nd July 2007, the track was bone-dry, but heavy grey clouds moved in as they circulated, and by the time the front runners had emerged from the final corner and were pulling up to their starting positions, the first flecks of rain had begun to fall. At the last split-second, as he was approaching the final corner himself, Winkelhock’s crew told him to dive instead into the pits…
Some thirty seconds later, the five red lights went out, and the race began in earnest. In the brief time between the drivers arriving at the first corner on the warm-up and arriving at racing speed, the track had already become damp, and it seemed a distraction, as the two BMW-Saubers collided and spun at Turn 2, followed by David Coulthard’s Red Bull skidding wide at Turn 5. A few more bumps and scrapes and trips over the grass occurred over the first lap, as the precipitation became heavier with every passing second. Räikkönen still led as they reached the end of the lap, and went to make the switch to intermediate (not-wet-but-not-dry) tyres, but the pit lane entry was so slick already that he slid straight on, clattered over the kerbs separating it from the racetrack proper, and was forced to continue for another lap on dry-weather tyres.
Most of the rest of the field managed to make it in to change onto intermediate tyres, but by the time they left the pits the rain was pulsating down, hissing off the tarmac, and the intermediates were already struggling to clear sufficient water from beneath the cars to prevent them aquaplaning and skating off. By the time they had scrambled around to begin the third lap, rivulets were coursing across the track, and a veritable torrent was pouring down the start-finish straight, collecting in a basin at the downhill hairpin of Turn 1. Wet-weather expert Jenson Button, up to fourth place in the conditions, was the first to slide straight off into the wall at that corner, followed immediately by championship leader Lewis Hamilton. Sutil joined them, and then Rosberg, Speed, Davidson, Liuzzi – the world’s most expensive scrapyard grew at an alarming rate.
By this point, despite accidentally skipping a pitstop, Räikkönen, and everyone else, had long since been left in the mist… by Markus Winkelhock. Fitting the full-treaded wet tyres before a pit lane start had been a masterstroke / handsome gamble from Spyker, and Markus was making full dividends in his driving. Even once other drivers had fitted full wets too, they couldn’t keep pace with him, because he had been able to get more heat into the rubber while the track was merely damp than they now could when it was utterly drenched. The hotter the tyres, the better the grip; the better the grip, the faster he could go; and the faster he went, the hotter the tyres got, even as the storm was lashing down.
In short, it was a beautiful upward spiral of performance, and the opposite was true for the other twenty-one runners. As they juddered their way around like grease-coated supermarket trolleys on roller skates on an ice-covered newly-polished parquet floor, the SS Winkelhock sailed serenely along the straights, smooth as a clipper ship, and through the bends as though the car were on submerged rails, like that train in Spirited Away. Having started his own race long after the rest of the grid had negotiated the first corner, he had caught and passed everyone who came into the pits to change tyres a lap after he had, overcame Räikkönen halfway around the second lap, was twenty seconds ahead of his closest rival by lap three, and THIRTY-THREE seconds clear by lap four. I don’t believe in miracles, but as I watched that live on telly, I swear I could hear a divine choir singing something exalted from the great beyond, the realm of the transcendent. It was sublime.
On lap five, the race director showed the red flag, and stopped proceedings on safety grounds.
When the race resumed twenty minutes later, the rain had stopped, and hot July sunshine was steam-drying the circuit as quickly as it had been soaked. Spyker decided, having rolled the dice successfully once already, to keep Markus on wet tyres as he led the field away behind the Safety Car, looking for another favour from the racing gods. It wasn’t to be.
As soon as the green flags were out and actual racing began again, Felipe Massa’s Ferrari and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren immediately got the better of Winkelhock into Turn 1. By the end of the lap he was down to eighth, and soon after was back where everyone had expected him to stay all weekend, holding up the rear of the field until a hydraulic failure brought his race to a premature end on lap 15.
It did rain again, though – from lap 52 until the chequered flag on lap 60.
Despite the enormous acclaim he received for his unexpected star début, from the teams as much as his newly-won fans, money spoke louder, and Yamamoto was in the Spyker for the next race in Hungary, and indeed all remaining races in 2007. Without another F1 drive on the horizon for 2008, Markus returned yet again to DTM for the next three years, finishing no race higher than fourth. A switch to GT sports car racing seemed to suit him far better, and in 2012 he won the premier GT1 series alongside teammate Marc Basseng, and was runner-up in the 2017 Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup***. He is currently second in the 2018 standings of the same series, having just won the British round at Brands Hatch in the Pro-Am category.
Whilst it was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in the grander scheme of the sport, his sole Formula 1 entry places Winkelhock in an extraordinary niche of the record books. He is one of a very, very select number of drivers to lead a race having started outside the top 20, and is the only one to do so on his début. Having restarted the race from an effective pole position, he is arguably the only driver ever to begin the same Grand Prix from the back and the front. Though I haven’t done a comprehensive check, he almost certainly holds a record for the most places gained in a single lap, for the fastest progress through the field from last to first, and the biggest difference in lap times between one driver and the rest of the grid on any single tour. And since it was also his last Grand Prix, Markus Winkelhock is the only driver to lead 100% of the Formula 1 races he has ever entered: a record that can only be equalled, never broken.
So, happy 38th birthday, and here’s to you, Markus.
*Despite being the only race in Germany that year, the race was not called the “German Grand Prix” due to a contractual dispute with the Hockenheimring circuit, which would settle for alternating the race with the Nürburgring for the next several years. It’s the same sort of reason that the series ranked between Formula 1 and Formula 3 was called “Formula 3000” for some twenty years (after its 3000cc engine capacity).
**A trait shared with the similarly famous Spa-Francorchamps circuit, just across the border in the Ardennes forests of Belgium. A further trait of Spa, and of the older, much longer version of the Nürburgring, is that the weather can be entirely different at opposite ends of the vast circuits, magnifying the challenge of the conditions.
***He also did a one-off race for Audi in the Finnish round of the 2014 World Rallycross Championship, because why the diddly heck not?