Gartner – It Was 20 Years Ago Today
In my country, the only way a racing driver can make the “mainstream”
news is by being in Formula 1, and/or dying in a crash. On Sunday,
June 1, 1986, shortly after 3am, Josef “Jo” Gartner
lost his life on the Ligne Droite des Hunaudières at Le Mans.
At 7am that day, I woke up and heard the news on the radio. Forgive
me for writing myself at age 15 into this story; but you see, this
is personal. I do not think I have ever idolised anyone - but in
many ways, Jo Gartner came closest.
At the time of his death, he was 33 years of age
and had just begun his second decade as a racing driver. Before
he began driving racecars, he designed them. A graduate of the Vienna
Technical College, he went into the services of Kurt Bergmann in
1972. From his shop on the outskirts of Vienna, “Master”
Bergmann had conquered the Formula Vee and Super Vee universe with
his Kaimann cars, a “garagiste” if ever there was one.
Much to his dismay, his young engineer, and chassis wizard, developed
the ambition to drive these cars himself, rather than build them
for others. In 1976, “Jo. Gartner” (his first name abbreviated
so it would fit on his overalls) entered in his first hillclimb,
finished the first heat in second place, and the second heat in
the greenery. School fees.
From then on, he never looked back, in part because
he didn’t have the time to stop and turn around. Two up-and-down
years in Super Vee, followed by a dismal season in Formula 3, with
Renault works engines that turned out to be duds; then the move
into Formula 2. He was up against several fellow countrymen at the
time: Walter Lechner (father of Walter jr. and Robert, and now himself
a successful team owner), Markus Höttinger, Gerhard Berger.
They were opponents for sponsorship money and media attention in
the small Austrian market, scrambling to get whatever headlines
and funds became available through the retirement of “Niki
Nazionale” Lauda. When The Rat returned and once again stole
the show, the struggle became even fiercer.
Yes it was all about Formula 1 back then, as it
is now. With hardly any information about other forms of racing
to be found anywhere in the media, I was all about Formula 1 too.
As of 1980, Gartner toiled away in Formula 2, his own team owner
and chief engineer most of the time, redesigning first a Toleman
chassis (1981), then a Spirit (1983) and campaigning them under
his own banner, as well as doubling as performance driving instructor
and writing car reviews for a newspaper – three lives rolled
into one. A year with the Merzario team was cut short by poor results
and ever-growing “artistic differences”, and is best
1980, the Procar series for (supposedly) identical BMW M1 supercars
was in full swing. To replace Markus Höttinger, who had died
in an F2 accident at Hockenheim, Dr. Helmut Marko signed Gartner
up for his Procar team. Their personalities did not mesh. Helmut
Marko, power broker: best known these days as the man behind the
motorsports activities of Red Bull, he was already an influential
man back then. A notoriously hard taskmaster, and a man you did
not cross. If you had to have the last word against Marko, that
word had better be “yes sir”. At the abrupt end of their
working relationship, Marko and Gartner were not on speaking terms;
Marko later firmly sided with Gerhard Berger, in his bitter rivalry
with Gartner over that elusive F1 drive.
called this period, and what went on behind the scenes, “ridiculous”.
Back then, nobody was laughing. In their constant fight for funds
and media airtime, for The Drive, no holds were barred. Both eventually
got their chance in Formula 1; while support from BMW got Berger
behind the wheel of a BMW-engined ATS, Gartner bought a ride with
the troubled Osella team.
he managed to qualify, Jo was relegated to also-ran status with
the aging F1 rental car. He did manage to shine: the 1984 Italian
Grand Prix at Monza saw Jo Gartner cross the finish line in fifth
place, on his last drop of fuel, demoting Gerhard Berger to sixth
spot, while Lauda won. Don’t look for it in any race results
or points tables, though: as he hadn’t been nominated by Osella
before the start of the season, Gartner was ineligible for points.
After the last race of the year, the Portuguese Grand Prix, where
Lauda snatched the title away from Alain Prost by that famous half-a-point
(I was in Paris at the time, fairly alone in my delight), Gartner
and Berger both scrambled to get the vacant seat at ATS for the
next season. Berger made it, Gartner was never to return to Formula
It was time for Plan B, and this included sportscar
racing. Although he only ever drove nine races in Group C and IMSA
GTP, and at least initially only saw endurance racing as a stopgap
before another assault on F1, it was probably a happy time for Gartner;
he got paid for driving, he didn’t have to worry about car
engineering and preparation (although more often than not, he did),
and recognition came. His best result in 1985 was third place in
the Silverstone 1000k, with Tiff Needell, for the Porsche customer
team of John Fitzpatrick. At Le Mans, Gartner and veteran David
Hobbs shared the driving between them for most of the race, after
Guy Edwards had proved too far off the race pace; they finished
1986 began with
a bang, first into the wall at Daytona, then onto Victory Lane at
Sebring, in Bob Akin’s Coca-Cola 962. Back home, that bang
was barely perceptible, as Berger had the headlines to himself with
his full-time F1 gig with the newly renamed Benetton (ex-Toleman)
team. Berger won his first Grand Prix that year, in Mexico. Gartner,
together with Hans-Joachim Stuck and Bob Akin, won the 12 Hours
of Sebring, famously crossing the line on three wheels, and no one
knew about it. Janos Wimpffen kindly provides an excerpt
of his write-up of the race in “Time And Two Seats”:
had shown the Marches to be considerably more fragile than the Porsches,
and the rougher Sebring track was not expected to compensate for
it being a shorter race. It was unlikely that one of these would
survive at the front, despite Whitney Ganz taking the pole in Phil
Conte's Buick powered car. The Brun team was not present but the
European entrants were represented by Jöst, which along with
the Corvette GTP, became an early retirement. The two Jaguars were
trying to keep to a strict pace, which backfired on them when the
Porsches proved too quick and both XJR-7s retired during mid-race.
It was thus
clearly another inter-Porsche squabble. The principals were the
Daytona winning trio of Holbert/Bell/Unser, Jr., Akin/Stuck/Gartner
Drake Olson / A. J. Foyt, and the second Busby car of Brassfield/Morton.
The car's owner also did a stint in this car. However, after misjudging
a maneuver past a back marker, hitting a tire wall, and breaking
the car's nose, Busby decided to let the two professionals handle
it the remainder of the day. A more permanent stop was made earlier
by the Leven 962, which had a broken head stud.
quickly pulled out a sizable lead from the start of the race, and
a few laps later he began to shift earlier, select taller gears,
and generally settle into a reduced pace for the long haul. He even
allowed the John Paul, Jr. / Whitney Ganz March to usurp the lead
until a minor problem dropped them back to third. The Buick recovered
enough to give the team a good long spell among the leaders until
finally giving up in the eighth hour.
car made a couple of extended stops to deal with a brake line problem,
which allowed Hans Stuck / Jo Gartner's Akin entry to catch them.
The conservative approach taken during the opening hours was forgotten
as these two went wheel-to-wheel for a long time. Defending co-endurance
champions Stuck and Bell were in opposing cars and greatly enjoying
the opportunity to race one another. The interim decision went to
Stuck when Bell chose the wrong moment to glance in his mirror.
When his gaze went forward again, he found the next turn approaching
him a little too rapidly. The car had little damage and soon returned
to the fight. A. J. Foyt had been having a tougher time while mixed
up with tail-enders; the hard knocks had begun to loosen enough
components to eventually retire the car.
the delay of the Holbert/Bell/Unser Jr. team, the Brassfield/Morton
962 of Jim Busby broke off its second nose piece. It was left lying
on the track at Turn 11, requiring a caution period to remove it.
The Akin/Stuck/Gartner Porsche was beginning to build a lead that
looked impregnable as the night time hours ticked by. Stuck had
a bout of misfortune/fortune when a wheel came off. It happened
just before the entrance to the pits so a quick stop resulted in
little delay. However, the errant object struck Jay Jensen of Jim
Downing's GTP Lights crew, giving him a concussion.
Meanwhile, back at the GTP front, the Akin car continued in first
place while the Busby 962 damaged yet another nose piece. By now
the front of the car was so battered that the fiber glass section
couldn't be undone. Darin Brassfield was sent back out in "as
is" condition. Some time later he did the pit crew a favor
by hitting a back marker and completely dislodging the piece--honest,
it was an accident. The Holbert team could only capitalize briefly
on the Busby car's troubles, as suspension breakages destined them
to a distant third place finish.
With a huge
lead over the Busby car, Gartner took the Akin car out for the last
stint. The strange humor of the gods of Sebring made sure he had
to work for it. Three minutes from the end, his car lost a wheel
for the second time. He limped back to the pits, and returned to
the track to complete one more lap. Coming into the last turn of
the last lap, the brand new wheel fell off and Gartner scraped and
sparked his way along the pit wall under the starter's flag.”
Then it was
on to Le Mans: amid talks about a possible Porsche factory drive
(in 1987), Gartner drove the 1986 24 Hours for the Kremer team,
with partners Kunimitsu Takahashi and Sarel van der Merwe.
I have heard
a number of different reasons given for what happened that night
on the Hunaudières – a suspension that had been fixed
earlier in the race finally giving in under the stress; the modified
underbody playing havoc with the car’s aerodynamics; a broken
gear selector failing to disengage fourth gear as Jo changed up
into fifth – and I confess that it doesn’t make much
of a difference to me. The ill-fated Porsche’s chassis number
was later assigned to a new tub; sadly, you cannot do that with
people. Someone I admired for his resilience, resourcefulness, and
his refusal to quit, was gone.
Following his success at Monza in ’84, Jo
got quite a bit of media attention over here in Austria; among several
other things, he got to do a prime time radio show. While he came
across as a dry engineer in interviews, he impressed more than a
few people, talking for an hour or so about his life as a racing
driver, and life in general. His sense of humour came across, too:
when he mentioned his family’s auto repair shop in Vienna,
he followed it up with “Joe’s Garage”. Today,
Jo’s garage still exists, not far from where I sit now and
write this text which, I fear, is getting far too long; I pass by
it every other day, and it serves as a reminder of June 1, 1986
- the day Jo Gartner, sadly, made the headlines.