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Hissing, rattling, and hammering. The screeching impact wrenches set the rhythm during tire changes in the floodlit pit. The six-cylinder turbocharged engine of the BMW M4 GT3 (➜ Read also: Engine milestones from BMW) growls into the Nürburgring pit lane with its characteristic motorsport idling purr while the BMW Junior Team pit crew swarms around the race car. The working steps are perfectly choreographed, everything in slick progression. A silver-haired man in a vintage BMW M leather jacket stands close by, seemingly uninvolved. Arms folded behind his back, he watches the feverish activities of the mechanics on the race car, the driver change, the race engineer’s instructions. The sun has just set behind the Eifel hills, the 24-hour race is still in its early stages. Things are hectic. None of this disturbs Jochen Neerpasch’s serenity. Quite the reverse. He guides us during our interview through 50 years of BMW motorsport history with his vast detailed knowledge.
Mr. Neerpasch, you were part of the team setting up BMW Motorsport GmbH, as BMW M was still called back then. What was your biggest challenge?
Jochen Neerpasch: BMW Motorsport was still the job of what we called tuners in the early 1970s. Although they received support from BMW AG, it was very much every man for himself. I was responsible for motorsport at Ford at the time, and we had great success – beating BMW on the racetrack as well. So BMW contacted me to talk me into switching. My brief was to push a coordinated BMW motorsport project forward. The challenge of bringing racetrack success back to the traditional brand was irresistible and I accepted. However, not before I presented to those responsible at BMW how I saw that happening.
What was your vision?
Neerpasch: BMW wanted a formidable team to build up motorsport for the future. I believed that firstly, a separate company was needed for this, and secondly a light racing car approved in series production – the BMW 3.0 CSL. They gave me the go-ahead, and on May 1, 1972, I set to work in Munich. Initially I had five teammates. The technical expertise was already available at BMW back then – the only problem was that BMW was not officially “allowed” to do motorsports. The engineers could only carry out technical developments in this direction on the side, after work. As early as 1973, our BMW beat Ford in the European Touring Car Championship – to the great delight of the BMW board members.
The 24-hour marathon didn’t just begin for Neerpasch when the lights went out for the actual race. He had already met people such as Jean Todt, the former president of the World Automobile Federation, the FIA, in the hours before, attended the BMW M Race of Legends (➜ Read also: Historic BMW Race Cars), and bounced ideas around with the Junior Team drivers. Everywhere Neerpasch went he was greeted with enthusiasm, many happy just to be near him and lap up his advice. Nevertheless, it was perfectly clear: his attention was always focused on the Junior Team drivers.
What were the races like back in the 1970s?
Neerpasch: It was just great motorsport! Hundreds of thousands of spectators at the six-hour races, and many Formula 1 drivers also competed in touring car races. In short: the level was extremely high. And it has to be said: higher than today’s level in touring car racing.
What part do you play in BMW being regarded as a sporty brand today?
Neerpasch: Before us, the racing departments had only one task: to develop race cars. We did not just use our knowledge to make fast race cars even faster. We were also to achieve commercial success with high-performance cars for the road. We were pioneers in that. And we can be proud at BMW that this spirit of racing is still present in every single BMW M vehicle today.
Which direction did the transfer of expertise take: from racing to production car manufacturing or the other way around?
Jochen Neerpasch: That’s a great question. At that time, knowledge flowed from motorsport into series development. Nowadays, motorsport is so deeply ingrained in the genes of BMW M vehicles that production cars are turned into race cars, as can be seen with the current BMW M4 GT3. But it’s not just in the genes of the cars; the motorsport spirit also flows through the engineers, the Junior Team drivers, in short: in all BMW M employees.
We were pioneers.
A few minutes before the official start of the race through the Green Hell. The marshals clear the start-finish straight with painstaking patience, fans with pit lane access now have to get behind the barrier. The tension is there to see on everyone’s face. Everyone, that is, except the former managing director of BMW M (➜ Read also: The BMW M logo and its colors). Nothing fazes or unsettles Neerpasch on or off the racetrack.
Keyword BMW Junior Team: What is behind this?
Neerpasch: A BMW Junior Team existed back in 1977. We are now continuing the idea from back then. The basic idea is to train the young drivers as a team so that they then go on to compete as a team in the endurance races. The drivers learn together, they grow from the tasks. This way they learn faster and more intensively. Everything is approached holistically and together: physical and mental training, media training, tuning the race vehicles. Dan Harper, Max Hesse, and Neil Verhagen even live together in an apartment at the Nürburgring. They live together, work together, drive together, and have been doing so for a good two years. The three young men live and breathe motorsport – all day, every day.
BMW M has motorsport in its DNA.
What is the aim of this Junior Team?
Neerpasch: This intensive learning fast-tracks them. It would take seasoned racing drivers significantly more racing experience to have reached the level that this Junior Team has achieved at a much younger age. The three support each other, analyzing and reflecting on every lap, every race – the three of them, as a team. This unique constellation of tackling everything together – and the emphasis is on together – means that in just two to three years, they will be competing for titles together, shoulder to shoulder with the best endurance teams in the world. That would be the best thing for BMW, the best thing for these young drivers. And I firmly believe in that.
The emphasis is therefore clearly on “team.”
Neerpasch: That’s right! Harper, Hesse, and Verhagen race every race as a team. Other racing teams operate with changing driver combinations. This takes up more time for acclimatization and tuning. This team constellation also makes it easier for them to overcome the setbacks that are part and parcel of any racing driver’s development. Another point is that the race cars from the different manufacturers are very evenly balanced. What this means is that it is the drivers who make all the difference. The better driver team will win the races.
What were the criteria used to select these three drivers for the Junior Team?
Neerpasch: I can answer this question very succinctly. Talent is and always was the clinching factor. They don’t get to buy their way in by bringing in sponsorship money as a sort of dowry. In summary, our strategy was to build a team on talent and then push to success by working hard together.
Shortly before midnight. Neerpasch still maintains his position as a silent observer in the BMW Junior Team pit. He gives the young drivers who have just completed their stint the time they need to collect their thoughts at each driver change. They then approach Neerpasch when they are ready and ask for a discussion. Looking at the young drivers’ faces, you always get the feeling that Neerpasch is finding the right words. In short: he is the perfect mentor.
What marks out the BMW M cars?
Neerpasch: You can drive to the racetrack yourself in a BMW M vehicle (➜ Read also: 7 milestones of BMW M). And then do quick laps there all day in one and the same car. BMW M automobiles are and always have been developed for both aspects. At the same time, BMW M vehicles are good for amateurs as well as professionals. Quite simply, these cars have driving fast and motorsport in their DNA.
The final question is around the future of motorsport: what do you think this will look like in ten years’ time?
Neerpasch: E-drive will be the future focus in racing. But e-racing cars need to become lighter, and their ranges greater before this can happen. You can’t dive into a 24-hour race like this one if it still takes so much time to recharge. Hybrid drives may turn out to be the bridging technology here. There is one thing I am completely sure of, though: There will always be motorsports.
Later on Sunday afternoon. The huge task of dismantling and packing up the racing stables begins while the race is still in progress. Everyone in and around the pits is showing signs of fatigue. Neerpasch, on the other hand, seems so relaxed and cheerful, as if he could start the next long-distance race at the drop of a hat (➜ Read also: Le Mans 24 Hours) with his BMW Junior Team drivers. He says a friendly goodbye and disappears quietly into the hustle and bustle behind the pit lane – Jochen Neerpasch, the BMW M motorsport legend.
There will always be motorsports.
What is BMW M?
BMW M GmbH was founded in 1972 as BMW Motorsport GmbH and is a BMW AG subsidiary. BMW M produces high-performance and particularly sporty BMW models. Many have legendary status and are classics. These include the BMW M1 super sports car and the BMW M3, the base car for one of the most successful touring cars ever.
Author: Nils Arnold; Art: Shin Miura, Madita O'Sullivan, Carolin Wabra; Photos: Felix Brüggemann