McLaren & Me: Jochen Mass

Jochen Mass

Jochen Mass started 49 Grands Prix for McLaren between 1974-'77, earning eight podium finishes. Sadly his only victory came in tragic circumstances in Spain

I first drove for McLaren in the third Yardley car at the end of 1974. It happened a bit slowly, because John Surtees had a contract and was reluctant to let me go. He wanted to sell me like a football player! So I only did the last two races in Canada and the USA.

The M23 was good, but my experience was not exactly high. I would have needed to work more with the car, but I didn't get much of a chance, especially because the Yardley deal was finishing, and it was the end of the season anyway. I was seventh at Watkins Glen, and I think I won the Prix Rouge et Blanc [the equivalent of Driver of the Day]. So I made an effort, otherwise I would not have got it!

But I was indifferent, I couldn't really judge it – my experience was not good enough to judge immediately the potential of the car. It felt alright, but it didn't feel that I was just now entering a new world of racing, and sitting in a fantastic car. 

At the end of 1974 Denny Hulme retired, so I moved over to drive the second Marlboro car for 1975. I can't remember exactly how it happened, I can't remember who I spoke to, but I'm sure a lot of it was via John Hogan of Marlboro. I think they brought me into the team. 

The first test day at Le Castellet was the first time I really spoke to Teddy Mayer. He said, 'Are you fit? Let's go for a run.' So we ran a lap. I had arrived on my motorbike, because it was not too far from Monaco, so I had my rather slick boots on. So we ran a lap, with me in boots and him in running shoes, and I kept talking to him while I ran. And he said, 'You're fit, alright!'

Emerson Fittipaldi was the kingpin, and naturally everything revolved around him. I thought, 'Let's cross the bridge when we get there, let's see how it develops.'

Denny was nice, he spoke to me often. He said, 'Don't take any s**t from McLaren. If you're number one you're good, if you're number two you get all the s**t.' It didn't reflect on the quality of the car, just the team's attitude was the number one had priority and so on. That I never forgot in a way, but what can you do with this information? As a young driver you think, 'Let's see.' But I thought about him more often, and these foreboding words, later on...

In my second race in Brazil I finished third, Emerson came second, and Carlos Pace won it with the Brabham. I felt good in the race, I overtook Niki Lauda, and I had to bump him a little bit because he wouldn't let me go by. Anyway I got past him, and I felt by the end of the race that I'm going to win a race soon – I felt confident, and so on.

And I did win in Barcelona, but only by the sheer statistics, but other than that, it was nothing. There was a strike over safety issues, and we talked about everything. As a young guy in terms of races, and being in F1 only briefly, I suggested why don't we make it a slow run – we start and we continue in file, and we don't make any race out of it, just to give a demonstration. 'Good idea!' 

The flag dropped, at the first corner the two Ferraris had each other off, and it was a disaster. I drove around thinking what on earth did we just talk about? Then Rolf Stommelen had his accident, Jacky Ickx overtook me with the Lotus under yellows, and then I followed him. Then I re-passed him, just in case there would be a winner, then at least let it be me. I didn't even know if I was leading or not, but then the race was stopped and we saw what had happened. Stommelen's car was over the barrier, and I saw a lot of bits and pieces lying around, officials rushing backwards and forwards, and an ambulance behind the guardrail. Sadly, several people lost their lives. I never felt proud about it or whatever, it was just statistically a Grand Prix win.

I felt I should have won at the Nurburgring, and until today I don't understand why. We had some problems with the Goodyears on that circuit, and we wouldn't have had a race had they not flown in a bunch of new tyres at the last minute. So all the cars had these different tyres. However, the team only put three new ones on mine, and the front right was one of the old ones that didn't last. Of course, I didn't know that, I expected them all to be the same. 

On the first lap I was fourth, and looking at the guys in front of me, I thought I'm going to win this. Then in the Fox Hole the front right de-laminated completely, it just came apart, and I crashed quite heavily. I didn't hurt myself, but it was so annoying. I thought, 'Why on earth did they do that?' I asked them afterwards and it was just a look to the side, and this and that. 'We don't know what happened.' They never came up with a conclusive answer.

During the season, watching Emerson and seeing what happened in the team, I was getting closer to him. Some days I was quicker than him, like Nurburgring, like Le Castellet, and Monaco too. It was encouraging, and for me it was a nice situation in the team. I was on the way up, I felt, so I shouldn't moan, and just do things as well as I could. That's what my attitude was. 

And then at the end of the season Emerson left and the whole thing changed a little bit. James Hunt came in as the superstar and pop star. I knew it would be more difficult, because the whole focus went onto James. A Brazilian was one thing, but James being the Englishman, it was natural that there was a much greater focus on him. You could feel that being a 'goldilocks,' he was well perceived. The press was behind him, and it was good for McLaren as a team.

It was unexpected what happened. Don't forget that March had chucked him out because he wrecked too many cars, and it was not that he was really quick over one lap at that time. He was not the wonder boy like Roger Williamson, who was fabulous. In F3 James was never that strong. We raced against each other briefly, although I didn't do so many F3 races.

But now he was quick. He was doing a lot more testing, so I didn't work as much with the car. I don't want to make any excuses here, but it's the way it was. I was a little bit too easy with everything. I thought, 'Let's see, it will sort itself out,' and so on. It did, but against me.

One of the possible highlights in 1976 was Jarama, where I lying second having caught up to James, and I knew that I could overtake him, I knew where I could get him, because he was taking a slightly different line in one place. Then my engine blew a few laps from the end. How could that be? I didn't stress the engine or anything, it was the only engine that blew in the whole season.

Nurburgring was a major disappointment. Before the start Herbert Linge, who was the chief of the ONS-Staffel marshals, told me the track was drying out. He had just come back from a lap in a course car, and I asked him how wet it was. Everybody had the same information, but I just decided to put on slicks. And the guys called me crazy.

It was a difficult on a few stretches where there was water running still, and I aquaplaned a little bit, but then it settled, no problem. Everyone else had to pit, but then Niki crashed and the race was stopped. After the restart, I finished third. When I look at the pictures of me standing there at the end I had a long face. I had a long face mainly because of Niki's accident, and I was worried about him, but the other thing is I would have won it, and it would have been nice, finally a German winning the German GP at the Nurburgring after the war, and the last race there on top of it. It was really a great shame.

I could have won that race in Japan easily, had I focussed on it. I should have just stayed ahead of James, and then pulled into the pits on the last lap or just before the finish, instead of dawdling behind him. I knew I could have gone quicker, but I was losing attention. Remember when Senna fell off in Monaco when way in the lead? You lose concentration when you have that situation, and it was the same with me. I just touched the barrier with the front right, and when I came to the pits Alastair Caldwell barked at me. 

Of course it was nice that James and McLaren won the World Championship. It's not that I disliked James, but he was an eccentric, and he was extrovert. I was always Hermann the German and that sort of thing! It's not that there were any real misgivings or any hatred, not at all.

In 1977 James, Mario Andretti and Jody Scheckter all had these experimental Cosworth engines. We didn't know about it, just these three cars were always first on the grid and lapped everybody. Where did we suddenly lose our knowledge of driving a car fast? It was ridiculous. 

It was only years later that Keith Duckworth came up to me and said, 'You guys didn't have a chance.' He told me about these engines, they had 60-70bhp more. I spoke to Alastair a few years ago and he said it never happened. But the team guys didn't know, it had to be a secret, or otherwise everybody would have moaned and groaned. Basically they wanted to prove that they could do it with these motors, and they wanted Ford to chip in money to build them for everybody. But that didn't come forth.

In Canada James crashed into the back of my car. My mistake was I backed off early and I stayed on the left to give him the line to let him go through. And he must have just looked in his mirrors very intensely to see what Andretti was going to do, and he hit me in the back. He never blamed me, he didn't utter a word to me, not at all. He got upset with a marshal, and I think he had enough to worry about at that moment.

That year I felt it was getting more difficult. McLaren didn't improve the performance of the M26, and I felt Marlboro was also looking at new drivers. Age-wise, I was a bit too old. Gilles Villeneuve had come in and driven at Silverstone, and he was bloody quick, and I wasn't by comparison. Maybe I had peaked already and was losing a little bit. 

Then for 1978 Patrick Tambay came in, the shining boy and a good looking chap. Marketing wise, he was interesting. I was the avid non-smoker, you never saw me with a cigarette in my mouth! So I was not that interesting any more for Marlboro. Meanwhile I chose the wrong straw for '78 with the ATS...

I enjoyed the years with McLaren when I look back. They were good cars, solid cars, and it was a very, very professional team. I loved the guys, I loved the mechanics, the New Zealanders. And one thing was for sure, you had confidence in the team and the car, save for that one stupid tyre at the Nurburgring. The guys were so conscientious, how that snuck in still beats me.

I got to drive an M23 again when Ron Howard was making Rush. I'd driven at Goodwood a few times, but it was nice to drive it on a track – actually Snetterton – and go faster. And of course it now has a better engine than we had, with more torque.

The funny thing was when I went to the girl who was giving out the costumes. They had all these re-made overalls, and she said, 'What's your name? I said, 'Jochen Mass.' She said, 'I know, but what's your real name?' I said, 'No it's me. I'm Jochen Mass.' She almost fell off her chair!