Klaus Ludwig – What A Career

Klaus Ludwig will not now take part in the Nürburgring 24 Hours, for reasons explained in our coverage of that event. Nevertheless, his drive in the Viper on the Nordschleife earlier this month (May ’03) qualifies as a comeback of sorts and we hope you enjoy this look at the man's career – as remembered by Gary Horrocks.

Gallery Of Klaus Ludwig Images

The simple mention of the man's name brings back memories. Chasing down Brian Redman while coping with a “sticky” throttle at Sears Point. Taking back-to-back wins at Laguna Seca in 1986 and 1987. Laying down a blazing qualifying attempt at the last second to take pole. There are just too many to list them all.

When I heard that King Klaus was coming back, even if for a few races this season in Germany, a rather dismal day at work suddenly became much more bearable. Klaus, to me, was truly a magnetic figure, who burst onto the IMSA scene in the early ‘80s with the outrageous Zakspeed Mustang. His flamboyant driving style immediately caught my attention, especially in the flame throwing turbo Fords.

The first time I saw Klaus race was at Sears Point in 1981. This was my first road trip to a race, and even today, many things from that event are still fresh in my mind. And while it may have taken 12 hours for my dad and I to drive there, it was worth it.

This was very much a transitional year in IMSA, as the future belonged to the GTP, such as the Lola T-600, and the past was the Porsche 935. Somewhere in between was the Zakspeed Ford Mustang. Blatantly based upon the European Group 5 Zakspeed Capri, this car was absolutely spectacular. The first thing I saw at the track when we arrived on Saturday was a burnt spot in the hills, which later we found was where a Porsche 935 burnt to the ground the day before. In hindsight, maybe there was something very symbolic about that.

dailysportscar.comIn the race, Klaus, in the Mustang, jumped out to a big lead, only to be caught and passed by Brain Redman in the Cooke-Woods Lola T-600. As the race wound down, Klaus put on a charge, and was right on the tail of the Lola entering the last turn before start / finish. In front of them was a slow monster of a Datsun V-8 Turbo, driven by Paul Newman. This car was a beast in the corners, and when Brian had to brake hard to avoid the Datsun, Klaus was caught out, and the Ford and Lola touched. Both cars spun, but Klaus was able to gather himself back up quicker, and was able to hold off Brian for the win. I immediately had a new hero. Legend has it that the Ford suffered a stuck throttle, and that was the reason Klaus dropped back. Looking back, I find it difficult to believe that anybody could drive that fast at that track with a stuck throttle, using the ignition switch as an engine control. But that is what I wanted to believe.

The next time my dad and I got to see Klaus run was in 1984 at Laguna Seca, where Ford entered two of the exotic front-engined Mustang GTPs. For this race, Klaus was partnered by another European legend, Bob Wollek. Both Fords were fast and were obviously the class of the field. Klaus had an early problem that caused an unscheduled stop, leaving Bob in the lead. Coming down the hill into the tight last corner, Bob’s Ford went silent. As was common in this program, the car was out. Oh well, Klaus was running well and was storming through the field. But on the very next lap, at the very same point, the remaining Ford went silent. For me, the race was over, and I don’t even really remember much else of it. It was a long drive home.

dailysportscar.comIn 1985, we again made the trek to Laguna, mainly to see Klaus debut the Ford Mustang Probe, which in my eyes is the most beautiful racecar ever. The car, as was common for the Ford IMSA Prototype effort, really showed promise, but did not last the race. This event was also one of the first races for the Nissan GTP, at this time in the black markings of California Cooler. This car ran so badly that every time it went by, I barked at it. I’ve never claimed to be smart. Who knew what that Nissan would turn into in three years.

dailysportscar.comWe returned again to Laguna in 1986 and 1987. The first of those two years, Klaus drove the Probe to its only victory, which was one of the few times it actually finished a race. In 1987, the Ford GTP program was gone, a victim of internal politics, but Klaus was back. This time he was in a Bayside 962 Porsche. It just didn’t matter what the car was, he won yet again at Laguna.

I saw many other IMSA races in the GTP era, but those are the ones that really stood out for me. Looking back, I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness Klaus get those victories at Sears Point and Laguna.

Flash forward to 1997. When I heard that the FIA GT Series was coming to Laguna, it didn’t take much convincing to get me back there again. The racing was great - the best in years - and I believe this race was instrumental in the revival of interest in sportscar racing here in the States. The opportunity to see those cars race in 1997 and 1998 was great, but to see Klaus again take back to back wins, this time for Mercedes, was simply amazing. And to top it off, I got to see him win the FIA GT Championship, in his first ‘final’ race, in 1998.

Now I am not writing this to be the end all story of Klaus’ career. I’ll leave that to better and more knowledgeable writers. This is simply a tribute from a fan and an admirer. OK, maybe my wife might think it was a bit beyond that, as I considered naming one of my children Klaus; didn’t happen though. We had two girls. Probably just as well.

dailysportscar.comKlaus had started racing in open wheelers of course, but as with so many others, doors closed, and he went to sportscars and sedans. Initial success came in 1974, racing a Zakspeed entered Ford Escort, followed by victories in a Ford Capri 3.4 liter RS3100 in ’74 and ‘75. This connection with Zakspeed would continue to feature, on and off, throughout the remainder of his racing career.

When the Group 5 era opened up in the late ‘70s, the Porsche 935 became the car to have. While sportscar racing worldwide was in another down cycle, the German Championship was striving. Klaus found himself in demand with Georg Loos and then the Kremer Teams. He was very successful driving for them, and in 1979, he had a dream season, winning 10 of 11 German Championship races, and also won Le Mans, leading the Kremer team to a rather unexpected win in the revolutionary Kremer K-3 variation of the 935. Just as Klaus was to be rewarded the Porsche Cup for his dominating performance, Ford came back into his life.

The Zakspeed connection was revived, and Klaus was signed to lead the team in their incredible Group 5 Turbo Capri. Another German Championship was earned in 1981, this time in the Capri. At this time, working with long time friend and confidant Michael Kranefuss, Klaus came to the United States, helping to revive the sagging image of Ford. This was a major undertaking, and one of the major parts of the initial plan was the presence of Klaus in a rebodied Group 5 Capri, suitably modified to resemble a Mustang. The IMSA circuit was the intended target, and soon the underdog Ford was taking on Porsche, and eventually winning. This led to the spectacular, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts with the Ford Mustang GTP and Ford Mustang Probe.

Also, in 1981, Ford was preparing to enter the upcoming Group C series, and to prepare, a new Ford endurance racer was designed and raced as a Group 6 configuration C-100. An evolution of this car emerged in 1982, as a true Group C car, but owing to corporate politics and poor planning was also not successful, despite showing some tremendous potential. The program was cancelled in 1983, but Zakspeed was allowed to continue development with its own motor, and was able to have some success in the German national series with their variation, designated as a Zakspeed C1/4.

As the Ford prototype program ended in Europe, Klaus was able to hook up again with a privateer effort, driving a Porsche. The combination of Klaus, Joest Racing and a Porsche 956 was strong, and resulted in back to back victories at Le Mans in 1984 and ’85. Other victories occurred in Porsches, on both sides of the Atlantic, and his success was so great, that by 1988, Porsche forgave his earlier defection, and signed Klaus as a factory driver.

Ford was not entirely out of the picture for Klaus though, as he was an integral part of the success of the all-conquering Ford Cosworth Sierra in the various worldwide touring car series. This again led Klaus back to the German home series, which was now the DTM, winning the series in 1988.

First, his success was with Ford, but he then signed with Mercedes, where more success followed, including championship wins in 1992 and 1994. A short term with Opel in the DTM was mildly successful, but when Mercedes decided to get back into sportscar racing, they brought Klaus back. The Mercedes team absolutely dominated the short-lived FIA GT series in both 1997 and 1998. Klaus, who had earlier in the 1998 season announced that this was his last season, teamed with Ricardo Zonta to win the finale at Laguna Seca, and also the Championship.

In what was supposed to be a one off, Klaus teamed yet again with Zakspeed to win the Nurburgring 24 hour race in 1999. But in 2000, Mercedes called again, and Klaus answered, helping promote the “new” DTM Series. While he was not able to take the Championship, as Bernd Schneider was absolutely unstoppable, he was able to finish a strong third in the final points, helped along by a couple race wins. Now, after spending time commentating in the television booth for the DTM coverage, it appeared that once again the competitive juices were flowing, as Klaus planed to race at the Nurburgring, in the Viper again - a full 34 years after he started. And in many ways, it should have been back to his roots yet again, teaming with his old Zakspeed team.

Klaus was one of the most dominant drivers of his era. It is, in hindsight, rather unfortunate that he chose to be so loyal to Ford, as who knows what he could have done with a factory deal with Porsche while they were dominating Group C. If he was in a more competitive drive consistently through the ‘80s, his already impressive resume might be even yet more impressive. But then again, fans like myself could have missed some spectacular drives here in the States.

Klaus, thank you – for so many memories. What a shame that the Viper drive at the ‘Ring didn’t happen.

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