Wednesday, 18 February 2015

SSBB Interview: Jochen Mass

With Goodwood's 73rd Members' Meeting rapidly approaching, here's another look at my interview with Jochen Mass at last year's 72MM. (This originally appeared in Retro Ford magazine, hence the slight Ford bias...!)

As motorsport icons go, they don’t come a lot more prolific than Jochen Mass. He’s raced in more series and disciplines than you’ve had hot dinners (possibly, depending on your own individual keenness for hot dinners); from his early days competing in sprints and hillclimbs in an Alfa Romeo Giulia, he moved into the ETCC in the early 1970s driving Ford Capris, before moving into F2 single-seaters and graduating to Formula One. He debuted with Surtees F1 in 1973, then switched to McLaren in late ’74, going on to become team-mate to Emerson Fittipaldi and, later, James Hunt. In the late seventies he drove for ATS and Arrows. In 1982 he left Formula One, focusing more on the endurance racing he’d been competing in with Porsche, and these days he’s a stalwart of the classic racing scene. He’s also a thoroughly nice bloke, so we caught up with him at the Goodwood 72nd Members’ Meeting to fire a few questions through that mop of tousled hair.

We’d prefer to see you in a Capri, of course, but you’re here driving a BMW 2002 this weekend. How do you think you’ll fare against the competition?
‘Well, it’s a good car, you know, but it always takes a while to get used to driving a new machine. The driving standards here are always excellent though, a lot of very considerate and talented drivers. But there are a lot of Capris on the grid and I’m in the only BMW, so we’ll see! I might have to get a bit aggressive.’

Tell us about how you came to be driving the Capri RS2600 back in the early 1970s.
‘I began racing in an Alfa Romeo, and ultimately came up against some Fords back in 1969. Ford seemed to like my style and invited me for some tests along with a number of other drivers, and I was consistently the quickest in the group. The rest is history!’

You took the RS2600 to victory in the Spa 24hr of 1972. How did that kind of tin-top endurance racing compare to the frantic sprints of Formula One?
‘The tin-tops are much less intense! You have to preserve the car, pace yourself – it’s not all peaky-peaky like F1. That’s a totally different mindset; in Formula One it’s a mad scramble for the finish, whereas endurance racing in a saloon car is more of a mental challenge. In any form of racing the car evolves over time as the tyres degrade, the fuel burns off and means the car’s lighter and the weight balance shifts, all of this kind of thing. But when you’re driving something like the Capri at Spa, all of this evolution happens over a longer timescale, you know? The handling was very good, there was never a concern about the car’s ability, it was all about keeping your head in order.’

In 1980, as well as driving the Arrows A3 in F1, you also raced the Kremer Porsche 935 and the Zakspeed Capri Turbo. Which was the most fun?
‘Ha ha, you want me to say the Capri, don’t you? But honestly, I only actually drove it once, and I’m afraid it wasn’t so good. Well, it was a good car, but not very exciting for me – too much aerodynamic assistance, so the margins between it and its competitors were small, there was little room for driver flair. And it wasn’t as responsive as the Porsche, I’m afraid! But you can’t really compare the Zakspeed with the old RS2600 either, they’re totally different cars – the older one was much more tactile, more involving. I enjoyed driving the RS very much.’

As an ex-F1 driver of the 1970s, what do you make of Formula One today?
‘Ah, they can’t be compared. One is unrecognisable from the other. I don’t want to bitch, but… it could certainly be simplified today without harming the sport. It’s a money game, always has been, but when it gets out of control, the sport pays the price.
'I think the modern cars are too sophisticated, too much focus on aerodynamics, although they’ve clearly reacted to that this year by making the wings smaller and encouraging a bit of oversteer! Ultimately, the sport is for the spectators, and you need a full house. They require noise, smells, thrills, jeopardy!’

Your old McLaren team-mate James Hunt has become known to a new generation of fans recently. Does today’s perception of him match up with your own memories?
[deadpan] ‘Who? Oh, Hunt? Yeah, he was a great philanderer, not overly sophisticated, whatever you’ve heard…
'You know what I remember? He wasn’t strictly quicker than me, just hungrier. He’d lost his Hesketh drive, he’d sniffed success, and he saw McLaren as the springboard. And he naturally fell into the no.1 driver role, got the better engines… that was the way it was. But he was always fun to be around. A circus, you know?’

If you could go for a beer with any of your old racing contemporaries, who would it be?
[thinks deeply] ‘Oooh… Patrese, Lafitte, Stewart, any of them really. I can’t pick a favourite, I’ve always got on well with my peers and contemporaries. Life’s short, and mine has been well-lived so far. I have no regrets. I like and respect everyone I’ve raced with. Well, with a few exceptions…!’

Of all the many races you’ve competed in, do you have a favourite?
‘Ha! I often get asked this – I’m still around! My racing days are not over yet… my best race could be today. But I’d say the 1975 and ’76 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring were the most memorable. In ’75 I crashed out heavily when I lost a wheel at the Fuchsrohre, and of course ’76 was the year that Niki [Lauda] had his crash. Before that I was in first place and had a 30-second lead, but that was lost after the restart. I still feel that I should have won that race.’

Jochen’s enthusiasm is infectious; he can remember every last detail of each car and every race, and the towering legend that precedes him immediately dissipates as you realise that he’s just a regular guy, a genuinely nice bloke with a cheeky grin and youthful twinkle in his eye. As he gets up to continue with his whirlwind social extravaganza in the Goodwood paddocks (it’s incredible to watch, seriously, he knows everyone) he leaves us with a poignant parting shot: ‘You know, a lot of people focus too much on dividing everything in their life into two boxes – these things are shit, and these things are great. But that’s bullshit. Why can’t people accept that it’s OK for everything to be OK? Life’s too short for such extremes, you’ve got to keep everything in proportion and just enjoy yourself. You only get to do it once.’ From a man who’s lived such a full and rich life, it’s impossible to disagree.

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