The raging Red Bull Sporting Director Helmut Marko is a motor racing legend and a Formula 1 specialist. But certainly not the paddock’s favourite.
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He is an absolute expert. But he is also rarely diplomatic. And he is quite often a sore loser. Born in 1943 in Graz, he went to school with Austria’s first Formula One World Champion Jochen Rindt. For long, the mates’ sporting careers were equally fast-rising, until Marko was urged by his parents to finish his degree at Law School. So while Rindt was already an F1 star in the late 1960s, Marko only moved up to Formula Three in 1969. Jochen’s death in Monza a year later deeply affected him and thus it was already 1971 when Marko finally had his breakthrough winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The distance record which the Austrian set up with teammate Gijs van Lennep in the Martini-Porsche 917K remained unbeaten until 2010. A year later, he drove a 44.7-mile lap of the Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo 33 at 33 minutes and 41 seconds, and this is a record which stands to this day. Marko entered Formula One showing good results in his BRM P153 in his second season. However, he had just signed a pre-contract with Ferrari for 1973, when during the 1972 French Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand, a stone thrown up by Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus pierced his helmet visor. Marko managed to avoid a big accident and stopped the car beside the track but a career that had promised so much was over. He lost the sight in his damaged eye and never raced in F1 again.
Formula 1 means auto racing at the highest level. And keeping the highest level means constant adjustment.
Sidelined, but still in the game
Instead of battling for points in motorsport’s elite category, Marko, who was attested with even more talent, had to watch his countryman Niki Lauda taking his place at Ferrari and winning two titles in three years for the Italians. Despite running two premium hotels – the Schlossberghotel and the Augartenhotel – he never lost contact with motor racing. His first real protégé was Helmut Koinigg, but the young Austrian was killed in a crash in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1974. Marko’s next hopefuls were German Hans Georg Burger and Austrian Markus Höttinger. However, both were killed in Formula 2 accidents in 1980. Marko also helped the young Jo Gartner and ran a young Christian Danner at Le Mans in 1981, but his first real success came with Gerhard Berger. He also took Karl Wendlinger, Juan Pablo Montoya and Craig Lowndes, who all drove for his RSM Marko team in Formula Three, under his wings.
The team later moved to Formula 3000 and finally became the Red Bull Junior Team. His friendship to energy drink tycoon Dietrich Mateschitz earned him the director’s post of the Red Bull driver development programme in 1999 and the advisor’s to Red Bull Racing’s Formula One team from 2005 onwards. In 2007, Red Bull Racing decided to hire Mark Webber to partner David Coulthard. Webber was well-connected with Renault and the team wanted the French engines. Hence, Tonio Liuzzi and Sebastian Vettel were left with Toro Rosso, under the management of Berger. This led to a power struggle between Berger and Marko, who used their drivers as pawns in the fight for Mateschitz’ preference. The following season, Berger dared to drop Marko’s protégé Liuzzi, which ultimately proved disastrous for the Tyrolean. Marko has always had a clear idea about the way he wants things to go. And this way has led the energy drink’s F1 team to four driver and four constructors’ championships in as many seasons. “Marko runs the show at Red Bull. He is the brain behind the Bulls’ success. Horner (Christian, team boss) has quickly realised how wise it is to stay sweet with Marko, not to suffer Berger’s fate”, Supernova team owner David Sears said. But life in the F1 paddock has become “really difficult for Red Bull in recent times”, as Marko puts it. After dominating the Austrian outfit has not been able to adjust to the massive regulation changes ahead of the 2014 season as they had hoped for. And the “Doctor”, as Marko is dubbed by his friend, was quick at lashing out against arch-rival, Mercedes Motorsport boss Niki Lauda and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
Time to say goodbye?
The Red Bull motorsport director mainly blames engine suppliers Renault for delivering what he called “rubbish. We are promised again and again ‘Next time it will be better, the test results are encouraging’. But if you have an engine failure after 50 kilometres, that is incomprehensible. We wanted an improvement and we have taken a step back. The gap to the top now is frightening and unacceptable.” After four years of success, when Red Bull and Marko couldn’t stop singing praise hymns on Renault, all of a sudden the French engine boffins are now scapegoats of public mud-slinging.
Horner has quickly realised how wise it is to stay sweet with Marko, not to suffer Berger’s fate.
Following the season opener in Australia, bosses at Red Bull realised that they had even dropped further in the F1 hierarchy, from runner-up in 2014 to a struggling fourth behind Williams and Ferrari in 2015 as it seems. Marko claimed that Renault’s engine was “undrivable and about 100 HP down on that of Mercedes. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, as we have all sorts of failings”. He went even so far as to suggest “Mateschitz might lose his passion for F1 if matters fail to improve. The technical regulations are incomprehensible, too complicated and expensive. We have let F1 be governed by engineers. They are killing Formula One!”
But Marko has been under fire for venting his anger in the paddocks previously. In 2013, the Red Bull man continuously snapped at then Ferrari ace Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel’s main title rival, saying he was “more of a politician than a racing driver” and that he was “just busy making funny, inappropriate comments about other drivers”. The Spaniard showed a good sense of humour about Marko’s behaviour stating: “Some recent remarks have surprised me, but I can’t see the sense in them. Some people say they don’t read or see the remarks, before adding that they are not influenced by them: so clearly they do read them, maybe at night.” At the end of the same season, Marko stated Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber was “in a downward spiral” and better off “looking for a new challenge.” Speaking to the press, he said, “In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out.” A few days later, the Aussie announced his departure from the team commenting: “Look, everyone at this level has their own agendas and it’s been evident for a long time now that I’ve never been a part of Marko’s.” And Webber had known that for quite a while, for when he held his line in the legendary crash with over-aggressive teammate Sebastian Vettel at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, causing the German’s DNF, Marko had openly defended Vettel and harshly criticised “a certain number two driver.”
Red Bull is facing massive headwind for their public, seemingly unjustified criticism. At a recent press conference Mercedes F1 executive director, Toto Wolff lost his temper. “I think just to get your f***ing head down, work hard and try to sort it out,” the fellow Austrian gave Marko a piece of his mind. He then suggested Marko and Horner should take their ‘wailing’ out of the F1 paddock and to a famous wall in Jerusalem. Also reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton observed more than just a touch of hypocrisy saying, “It’s very interesting to hear that when they dominated for four years, big time.” In the first half of the decade, aerodynamics were the thing in F1 and Red Bull was consistently sailing close to the wind as their designs were often in grey areas of the sport’s technical regulations. Ahead of the 2014 season, new FIA President Jean Todt and his likes introduced new rules focusing more on the engine side.
Mercedes boss Lauda broke down the discussions in his typical manner stating: “Everything comes from Red Bull because they’re annoyed their junk doesn’t work. The pecking order in Formula One has constantly changed of the years. It’s up to the teams to do their homework and sort out their problems. Ferrari is back on the podium, so how is that bad for Formula One?” While Marko will not waste a thought on Wolff’s comments, he may consider Lauda’s words. “My relationship with Niki was and is good. I have no problem arguing with people with class”, the 70-year-old replied. Hopefully, the Renault bosses are regarded by him as people with class, because sorting things out behind closed doors has become vital for both parties. At the Malaysian Grand Prix, the Frenchmen have even threatened to leave Formula One for good. And then, Red Bull would be stranded without an engine, as neither Mercedes nor Ferrari are willing to support their fiercest rivals.
In the 1970s the ground effect cars revolutionised the sport, in the mid-1980s the turbos with up to 1,000 HP motors were invincible, and in the 1990s traction control was key, and in the 2000s high tech electronics and aerodynamics made the difference. In 2009, for example, Ross Brawn’s mastermind idea of the double diffusor earned Jenson Button and Brawn GP a sensational world championship title. “Formula 1 means auto racing at the highest level. And keeping the highest level means constant adjustment”, Todt argued. Hence, at the latest F1 commission meeting in Geneva and the possible directions of the sport in the coming years and Ferrari unveiled a vision of how future F1 cars might look like. The prototype would be wider, run by a 1,000 HP engine, have a lower rear wing and wider rear tyres. The introduction of further changes is believed to have split teams, but a decision will most likely be reached by 2017 when a new tyre contract will be in place and more time can be devoted to making one of the most important changes to F1 for generations. If the controversial Red Bull man will still be part of Formula 1 then it will be a different story.