Remembering Herbert Müller
© Guido Quirmbach
(www.projectlemans.de)
Translated by Johannes Gauglica

With thanks to Daniel Müller for the use of the images.

Time flies – one is always reminded of this old adage when thinking back of moments of great personal importance and asking oneself, was it this long ago already? I asked myself this question when I happened to come across the website www.herbertmueller.ch a while back. It was 25 years ago, my third or fourth time at an auto race, when I saw the clowds of black smoke in the distance that spelled the end for one of the best sports car drivers of his time, Switzerland’s Herbert Müller.

1940 saw Müller’s first attempts at driving automobiles, in the court of his family’s metal processing factory – and not without processing some metal himself. The wish to match his driving skills with that of others was in his nature, and his father Arthur, an equally avid racer, after some initial hesitation, lent this undertaking his support

In late 1960 he took the start of his first race, in the Swiss championship, which then as now was a mix of circuit races and hillclimbs. In his fourth race, the first of the 1961 season, he scored his first victory at Kandersteg, in a Cooper F3. A year later, a Porsche RSK 1600 was purchased and entered not only in the Swiss championship but also in Müller’s first endurance race, the Nürburgring 1000k where he failed to finish. Seven class wins in Switzerland then earned him a drive with Scuderia Filipinetti, and this paved the way into international motor racing.

Himself the son of an industrialist, Georges Filipinetti led one of the most renowned and charismatic motor racing stables of the 1960s, where a number of young drivers, Jo Siffert among them, got their first break in international motorsports.

Filipinetti was never completely aligned with any one single manufacturer, but Müller (left) – soon to be affectionately known to everyone as “Herbie” - mostly raced Ferraris or Porsches for the team. He built a reputation of speed, and repeatedly made others take note of his performance. This led to Porsche putting works cars at his disposal for races such as the Schauinsland hillclimb in Germany, a European Championship race which he promptly won in 1963.

1964 saw tragedy for the Müller family when Arthur Müller unexpectedly passed away; at age 24, Herbert Müller, racing driver became Herbert Müller, entrepreneur. Married to Marianne since 1960 and a father since 1961, it was not always easy for the man from Reinach to handle all these obligations and still go motor racing.

In 1965, he was European Hillclimb Champion. Today, this championship is a mere shadow of its former self, but in the 1960s this was one of the most prestigious titles European ‘racing’ had to offer. The very best sportscar drivers competed with factory-entered cars, among them such outrageous Specials as the Porsche 909, the Ferrari 222 Montagna and the BMW “Monti”, on the most picturesque (and dangerous) mountain roads of Alpine Europe.

He made good use of his familiarity with twisty mountain roads en route to his greatest international triumph: partnered by Belgian Willy Mairesse, he won the 1966 Targa Florio. A round of the world championship of Makes until 1973, this race did not compare with any other circuit race in the world. One by one, the cars ventured out onto the 72km track through the hills of Sicily. The spectators would line the road much like they do on the special stages in rallying today. The race distance was eleven laps; local hero Nino Vaccarella and Germany’s Gerhard Mitter fought a gripping battle in the pouring rain until they collided. Vaccarella’s Ferrari stopped there and then, Mitter fell by the wayside shortly thereafter. This opened the door for the Porsche 906 of Müller / Mairesse.

Mairesse was Müller’s partner for all endurance races of the 1966 season, be it in a Ford GT40, a Ferrari, or whatever car Filipinetti entrusted them with. Mairesse also met a tragic fate; he never recovered from the after effects of his severe accident at Le Mans in 1968, and later ended his own life.

Müller won the Targa in his own typical style; he was able to keep the car rolling just below its limit for hours on end, and maintain continuous pressure on the opposition ahead of him. Back in the days without electronic driver aids, this was the hallmark of an extraordinarily gifted driver, even though he was never a full-time professional. The day-to-day business of running of his company would not leave him the time to become a full time factory driver. What Herbert Müller could have achieved in such a role we will never know. Formula 1 also became an issue, of course. He only ever drove Formula 1 cars in hillclimbs; although he had the option of contesting selected Grands Prix, he would have had to buy such drives. For Müller, this was out of the question - which is not to say that he never put any of his own funds into his racing career. This usually happened through the purchase of racecars which he also entered under his own name, on occasion

The Filipinetti era ended in 1970. At Le Mans, Müller drove one of the four Ferraris that were taken out of the race in one single accident on Saturday evening. However, Müller then owned one of the famed Ferrari 512Ms, and entered it in the World Championship in 1971 – except for Le Mans, where John Wyer called him into the Gulf Porsche team. Teamed up with the previous year’s winner, Richard Attwood, in what was to be the fastest 24 Heures of all time, they applied pressure on the leading team of Helmut Marko / Gijs van Lennep all the way to the last lap, without breaking them.

Early in July, Pedro Rodriguez was killed in a Müller 512M, at the Norisring.

In 1972, Müller’s own team campaigned two cars, the Ferrari 512M primarily in the Interserie, and a de Tomaso Pantera, which he drove to many class wins. At the end of the year, he got more international popularity than he had wished for. On the Nürburgring in September, he only qualified toward the middle of the pack after some technical trouble in practice; on the rolling start, he collided with the McLaren of German driver Frank Pesch. The Ferrari got airborne and erupted into flames while still off the ground; and on impact into the guardrail, it literally exploded. The images of Müller exiting the burning car, himself in flames, and being “extinguished” by the marshals, went around the world. He suffered severe burns to his head and hands but left the hospital after a short while.

This little barbecue was no reason whatsoever for “cheroot”, as he had come to be known for his passion for cigars, to stop racing – quite to the contrary, the three years that followed would be the among most successful of his career. He was called into the Porsche factory team, and competed in the 1973 World Championship of Makes in a Carrera RSR. On any other day, this car was no match against the Matra, Alfa, and Ferrari prototypes for overall success, but the class win usually went to Müller and his equally fast team mate, Gijs van Lennep.

At the Targa Florio, the faster sportscars in front of them kept harrying each other until none were left, and he was able to win the Sicilian classic again, the final time it counted toward the World Championship. In 1974, he nearly won Le Mans; but as the leading Matra slowed down with transmission problems, the gearbox in Müller’s Carrera RSR Turbo also started acting up, and he had to be content with second place again. Here is the RSR at a still very recognisable Spa-Francorchamps.

Porsche had one more surprise in store for Müller, and gave his team access to a 917/20 (above), the development chassis for the 1973 Can Am winner. With this car, he won the 1974 Interserie and set an all time lap record on the Nürburgring “Betonschleife”, the concrete-paved small loop around the paddock. His lap of 47.8 seconds was matched a year later by Tim Schenken, but never bettered until the day this part of the Nürburgring was torn up in 1982. Three years in a row, from 1974 to ’76, the Interseries champion was Herbert Müller.

After two more seasons with private Porsches, and even the odd Formula 2 race (above), he announced his retirement in 1979; but he was never quite able to stay away from racing. From time to time, he would get behind the wheel of a racecar again, and one of these occasions was the 1981 1000k race on the Nürburgring.

For unknown reasons (perhaps he was distracted by a spin that happened ahead of him on the track), his Porsche 908/3 turbo left the track in the fast Kesselchen section of the Nordschleife, and collided head-on with Bobby Rahal’s (parked) 935. Rahal had abandoned his car in this spot on lap 1, the tanks still almost full. Herbert Müller never had a chance of survival.

Questions were asked: why had the organisers left the 935 in such a precarious position for fourteen laps, in a place that had precious little run-off space to begin with? The Le Mans 24 Hours a fortnight later, also a race overshadowed by severe accidents, saw the first use of a pace car in Europe. Adopted from American motor racing, the pace car (or today safety car) allows for the removal of immobilised cars from dangerous locations in a safe way.

Those who know Herbert Müller still keep his memory alive. On the www.herbertmueller.ch website, friends and family members speak out about their memories of the man, and his legacy for their lives. There is also a wealth of statistics and information on a driver and a man I would like to have known more about in his lifetime.

 

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