Jo Winkelhock Calls It A Day

"Smokin' Jo" Winkelhock has announced his retirement. "After 25 years in motorsport, the right moment has come for me to hang up my helmet" - this simple statement makes him seem older than he is; at age 43, he still is among the most competitive drivers in one of the major European racing series, the DTM. "They were 25 mostly happy years, with many successes, and of course also with some low points." - So let us reminisce, over one more cigarette, about the highs, and the lows that came with a quarter century in motor racing.

A younger brother of the late, great Manfred Winkelhock, Joachim started his career in 1979 in the German Renault 5 Cup, and with arms, elbows, and brains, worked his way through the "crash bang wallop" close-quarters racing in the lower formulae. Not the most likely candidate for single seater glory, he nevertheless became German Formula 3 Champion in 1988, and followed his elder brother's footsteps into Formula 1 - and out again. A horrendous half-season with the AGS team later, his Formula 1 aspirations were shattered.

He turned to touring car racing, and became an employee of the Bavarian Motor Works. It was to be a most fruitful relationship, with the impressive "Triple" of BTCC Champion in 1993, Asia-Pacific Champion in 1994, German SuperTourenWagen Cup winner in 1995, as well as the Macau Guia race win in that same year. "Veni, vidi, vici, fumi" (I came, saw, won, and had a smoke) was his motto in the mid-Nineties. His time in the British Championship, and the mix of tenacity, bravado, and plain hard work with which he won his races in one of the world's most competitive series, earned him not only a nickname that stuck, but also the respect of the notoriously hard-to-please British motor racing fans.

Then his career took another somewhat unexpected turn. With the Super Touring era coming to a close, it was time for a change. Also a successful endurance racer, he already had two Nürburgring 24 Hour victories (1990 and '91) and a win at the Spa 24 in 1995 (as well as a second place in 1997) to his credit when BMW offered him a drive of a different kind for 1999. From 2l four-bangers to a 6l V12, back into an open cockpit after a decade of racing in tintops, behind the wheel of the BMW V12 LMR with its revolutionary single seater style rollhoop, and into the American Le Mans Series.

His first encounters with the New World at Sebring and Road Atlanta were less than lucky; but by Sears Point, and teamed up with Bill Auberlen, Winkelhock was back into the swing of things again. A string of podium places rounded out his season - 2nd at the Petit Le Mans, 3rd at Laguna Seca, and 2nd again at Las Vegas; but he did not win any races that year, at least not in North America.

The most impressive field of prototypes in recent memory gathered at Le Mans that year, and BMW was not the runaway favourite. But chassis #003/99 went the distance without trouble, and guided by master strategist Charly Lamm, the Schnitzer team and drivers Martini, Dalmas,and Winkelhock never missed a beat. When their sister car crashed out of the lead they took over at the head of the field and without "elbows", but with clockwork precision bagged BMW's first victory at Le Mans.

More could have followed, but the LMR program was "Berger'd" out of existence at the end of 1999, along with most of BMW's other non-Formula 1 racing activities. Winkelhock linked up with Opel, and has been a part of their DTM lineup ever since. In these three years with Opel, he only won a single race, but his popularity has never waned. "I have never regretted my move to Opel", he says in his statement, "and I am very glad this relationship will continue". He will work for the marque as a spokesman and development driver for racing cars as well as production vehicles, and as a tutor for young drivers such as those racing in the Formula 3 Euroseries.

" This is a new, very attractive role for me, and I am looking forward to putting my experience to good use."

All we can add to this is that if he could be persuaded to un-retire for the odd endurance race, it would be - "smokin'!"
Johannes Gauglica

 

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