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“Tragedy at the Glen: Remembering Helmuth Koinigg”

October 8, 2012

Helmuth Koinigg. © Copyright unknown.

October 6th 1974. For all intents and purposes, this should have been that most joyous of occasions in motorsport.

A season long title battle between two hard chargers drawing to a climax in the final World Championship race of the season upon the rolling hills of Watkins Glen in the outskirts of New York.

Climax to a Year Long Battle
McLaren and Ferrari – a story that is still being played out nearly forty years later. Even after fourteen events, Emerson Fittipaldi (McLaren) and Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari) could not be separated.

Locked together at 52 points, the pair had already seen off the challenge of Niki Lauda – the aspirant Austrian, at one point a distinct threat, now rendered inert after having retired from the previous four events, three of which he started from pole position.

South African upstart Jody Scheckter was still in with a shout, however the Tyrrell racer was some seven points adrift with only nine available. An attempt to overhaul such a margin against one driver would be tough; to do so against a pair of top gunners in their prime…

Qualifying had thrown the cat amongst the pigeons. Carlos Reutemann, driving for Argentina and Brabham Ford, secured pole position, with Hesketh’s wily, dangerous and fast James Hunt alongside.
None of the title contenders fared terribly well. Scheckter registered the outside of the third row, while Fittipaldi garnered a passive 8th to Regazzoni’s 9th spot.

Beyond the Big Picture
Further down the order, a pair of Surtees Ford machines waited patiently, led by 25-year-old Helmuth Koinigg. Surtees’ squad had endured a trying 1974 season, that had seen them take only a single points finish {note 1} early in the year.
Entering what was his third World Championship Grand Prix, Koinigg set the 23rd best time, only 2.78 seconds off of the pole.  Koinigg’s effort had even put him ahead of double-World Champion Graham Hill (admittedly long past his prime), and Vittorio Brambilla, while Tim Schenken brought up the rear. José Dolhem {note 2} – Koinigg’s older, but equally inexperienced teammate split the Brambilla / Schenken duo.

Where tension dominated the top half of the field, vivid anticipation commanded the rear end. As the flag dropped, Reutemann pulled into the lead, although shadowed by Hunt. Growing distant in their mirrors, Carlos Pace led Lauda and Scheckter, while the quick starting Fittipaldi and Regazzoni rounded up the top seven.
As the laps ticked over, Regazzoni found himself unable to pierce the top six – the championship was slipping away from the Swiss master, as Fittipaldi’s second crown drew ever closer.

Further down the order, Koinigg enjoyed a reasonable start, taking two spots in the opening laps and eyeing up the top twenty.  A 10th place finish at Mosport Park two weeks earlier had buoyed the Austrian and while the TS16 chassis had enjoyed enough reliability to occasionally pull a surprise result together.
It was not to last.

With one-sixth of the race in the bag, Koinigg began to suffer a slow rear puncture that finally gave way as he exited the Chute.  Robbed of control on the approach to The Toe hairpin, Koinigg ploughed through two sections of catch fencing, before steaming toward the guardrail and piercing the lower section on impact. Tragically, the upper section of the barrier remained rigid, decapitating Koinigg as the accident unfolded.

What should have been a harmless incident at an insignificant speed brutally killed the 25-year-old instantly. For shame, it was the second fatal accident of the season and the sixth of the decade, but the manner of the death made it especially gruesome.
Interesting both Regazzoni and Jean-Pierre Beltoise (BRM) had similar accidents at that corner during practice; however both emerged rather unscathed, even if their respective cars had not.

Sign of the Times
The race continued of course. A sheet of tarpaulin was placed over Koinigg’s car and body and the Grand Prix unfolded despite the desperate scene.
With news slow to spread to the paddock, Dolhem continued to circulate around in the second Surtees until the twenty-sixth tour, at which point the Frenchman was called into the pits to park up for the day.

It mattered little that the GPDA had complained about the effectiveness of the guardrail prior to the race weekend. Recommendations had been made, but these had either been misconstrued or lost in translation.
Not that it mattered on lap ten of the US Grand Prix. By then it was far too late.

Meanwhile, Reutemann pulled away from Hunt, until the Hesketh’s failing engine demoted the Englishman to 3rd behind the persistent Pace.  Both Lauda and Scheckter fell by the wayside thanks to respective suspension and fuel pick-up issues, allowing Fittipaldi to take 4th and the championship. Regazzoni, his Ferrari suffering from dire handling and tyre wear issues dropped down the order, eventually finishing 11th.
Yet while a champion was crowned and a victory was celebrated, there would only be sombre thoughts with the Surtees crew, as once again death overshadowed Formula One.

Of Helmuth…
Born in Vienna toward the end of 1948, Koinigg enjoyed a relatively comfortable upbringing, although this did not lead to easy drives from emptied wallets.
A student of engineering and journalism, Koinigg was an aspirational young man with plenty of potential inside and outside of the car.

Despite his background Koinigg was often shy of funds, with the Austrian eventually entering touring car racing in the late 60s. As is sometimes the case with racing on a budget, Koinigg’s first racing machine – an Austin Mini Cooper S, picked up from Niki Lauda – proved to be rather “difficult”.
Last place in his first outing at Aspern against such motorsport luminaries as “Pal Joe” and “PAM” proved to be less than impressive. It may well have been 11th overall has Karl Wendlinger Sr bothered to start the race…

Yet Koinigg’s efforts had been noticed by fellow touring car racer Dr Helmut Marko. Seeing potential, Marko arranged a drive for Koinigg in Formula Super Vee with his Team McNamara project in 1970.
A move Bergmann Racing the following year was a catalyst for Koinigg and he too his Kaimann entry to 3rd in the series. Runner-up overall followed in 1972, before Koinigg finally took the European Super Vee crown a year later.

Forays into Formula Ford, European touring cars and DRM (a previous iteration of DTM) would to much to further harness Koinigg’s talents. Amidst all this, there would also be numerous endurance racing entries too, with a notable 7th overall taken at the 1973 Nurburgring 1000kms.
It was becoming clear that while Koinigg may not have been world champion material, there was certainly more than a touch of talent at his fingertips.

A Bright Future Rendered Dark
As 1974 turned, the popular Austrian married a stewardess and soon found money to drive a customer Brabham for Scuderia Finotto {note 3} in time for his home Grand Prix at the fearsome Österreichring.
Unfortunately, the troublesome Brabham BT42 {note 4} chassis was now nowhere in terms of pace and Koinigg’s best time was nearly two seconds beyond the cut-off point, placing him 31st overall.
Crushed, Koinigg took in the rest of the Grand Prix weekend and watched as the latest Brabham design took the race win at the hands of Reutemann.

Like Marko several years earlier, John Surtees had been impressed by the young Austrian and brought him in to pilot TS16 at Mosport for the Canadian Grand Prix following a test at Goodwood, although it is not inconceivable that a little Austrian cigarette money helped the deal along…
It didn’t matter. Koinigg rewarded Surtees’ faith by qualifying 22nd and finishing 10th – a drive that didn’t go unnoticed, not least by Roger Penske and Fittipaldi. At last he was being recognised as a driver with potential at the top. There were even talks of a seat with a number of teams for the 1975 season, but alas…

There are simply too many stories that read like Koinigg’s. Too many drivers, who untangled the strands to get to the top level of motorsport and too many who died once they got there, not counting the nameless ones who never even made it that far.
The carnage would continue of course. By the time the decade drew to a close, Grand Prix racing had also lost Mark Donohue, Tom Pryce, Barrie McGuire and Ronnie Peterson.
And then came Professor Sid Watkins.

* {note 1}
Surtees poor 1974 season was not helped by constant upheaval within its driver line-up. Indeed seven drivers in total drove for the team that year, although original pairing Carlos Pace and Jochen Mass lasted a good portion of the season, their seats would eventually be filled by Dolhem, Koinigg and Derek Bell.
Dieter Quester and Jean-Pierre Jabouille only entered the Austrian Grand Prix; with Quester coming home a respectable 9th in what was he only Grand Prix start
{note 5}.
Things would get worse the following season, when using the now heavily outdated TS16 chassis, the squad failed to score a point despite having the talented John Watson behind the wheel.
There would be a minor upshift in form through 1976 and 1977, when Surtees collected 7 and 6 points respectively; however after another tough year in 1978, Surtees’ Formula One effort closed for good at the beginning of 1979, despite a new car having been built for the season.

** {note 2)
Although the 1974 US Grand Prix would be Dolhem’s only world championship start (the Frenchman had failed to qualify for the French and Italian Grands Prix earlier that year), his family would become quite well versed in motorsport.
Indeed Dolhem was the half-brother of future Ferrari driver Didier Pironi, although the latter would achieve far more success and notoriety than his elder sibling.
In 1971, the inexperience Dolhem jumped straight into Formula 3, before promoting himself to Formula 2 by the end of the year. A full season of F2 the following year brought little in the way of success, but that did not stop Surtees from taking him on for F2 events in 1973 and ’74.
After the Watkins Glen tragedy, Dolhem did not race in 1975, but eventually found a way back into F2 in 1976, where he stayed racing on and off until the end of the decade. Dolhem would take 4th overall in the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hour Race, some eleven shy of the factory Renault team piloted by Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud.
Dolhem was killed in a plane crash just outside the city of Saint-Etienne in April 1988 at the age of 43.

*** {note 3}
Scuderia Finotto were not a racing team as such, but rather private entrant Silvio Moser. The Swiss racer started his career in hillclimbing events, before building a solid reputation in Formula 3, Formula 2 and in sportscars.
Initially running under the banner of “Silvio Moser Racing Team”, the 26-year-old Moser entered a customer Brabham for the 1966 German Grand Prix; however he did not qualify. Rather than press on, Moser returned to Formula 2 for the next few seasons, but did return to Formula One three years later – again with a customer Brabham.
This time he did make the grid for seven Grand Prix and even scored a point at the 1969 US Grand Prix. A change to the Bellasi F1 chassis for 1970 would prove less fruitful, with Moser failing to qualify for four out of five events.

A deal with businessman Beat Schenker saw Moser return his team to Formula One in 1974 under the name Scuderia Finotto; however they never made their first race of the season.
One week prior to the Spanish Grand Prix, Moser was killed during the Monza 1000 kms race at the age of 33.
His cars were still entered into a limited number of world championship events that season with the Brabham BT42; however despite the best efforts of Koinigg, Gérard Larrousse and Carlo Facetti, strong results were not to be found.

**** {note 4}
The Brabham BT42 was of the first Formula One designs to come from Gordon Murray. A reshuffle at the team instigated by Bernie Ecclestone ensured Murray slotted into the position of chief designer in 1973, replacing the departing Ron Tauranac.
Reutemann would guide the BT42 to two podiums in 1973, but by the following year it was already being out-classed. Unwilling to fall behind the game, Murray introduced the BT44 chassis, followed up the BT44B a year later – a car that would five wins in total for Reutemann and Pace.

***** {note 5}
Quester did attempt to qualify for the 1969 German Grand Prix at the Nordschleife
{note 6} as an invitational Formula 2 driver with BMW’s fledgling F2 effort.
The German racer set a time that would have put him 21st on the grid; however he and teammate Hubert Hahne withdrew when fellow BMW racer Gerhard Mitter was killed in practice following a suspension failure at the Schwedenkreuz curve.
Quester still races occasionally today at the age of 73 and is sponsored by Red Bull. In 2006, he won the Dubai 24 Hours alongside Hans-Joachim Stuck, Philipp Peter and Toto Wolff.
A year later, Quester would retain the Dubai 24 Hours, while also winning the Britcar 24 Hours (2006) and the Silverstone 24 Hours (2007); the latter of which he claimed by 30 laps.

****** {note 6}
During the opening lap of the 1969 German Grand Prix, Mario Andretti collected Vic Elford in an accident that saw the latter severely injure his arm.
As a result of this accident and Mitter’s earlier fatality, the circuit was removed from the Grand Prix calendar for 1970, only returning a year later when Armco barriers were finally fitted.

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3 Comments
  1. I was at the ’74 race at The Glen and Helmuth’s crash occurred right in front of my cousin and me. I will dispute the punctured tire theory. If you have a tire going down and you enter a turn at a normal race pace, you’re going to spin, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Also, there was no communication between the driver and the pits in those days, so how could anyone know that he had a slow puncture? There was not even a hint of a spin. He made it about half way around the turn and left the track going straight forward at a speed HIGHER than normal for the turn. You have the rest of the story correct, though.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Helmut Koinigg – Wanderings of a Motorsport Historian
  2. Helmuth Koinigg – Wanderings of a Motorsport Historian

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