If you love classic racing, you sure know something about a gentleman named Jochen Mass. With a racing career spanning from touring cars to F1 and to endurace Group C cars, he is a hard core racer who does not know the meaning of the word “retirement”. At 73, he still drives Mercedes Benz Museum cars, takes part in vintage racing and you can see him in events all over the world. Born in 1946 in Dorfen, he spent his youth as a sailor navigating the Globe and he begun his career at 26 racing in an Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti Super. Most enthusiasts will remember him for racing with the famous Rothmans Porsches. His career is as amazing as his personality: before the Covid 19 lockdown, EoW had the absolute privilege to interview and spend a lovely hour with this gentleman and talk about his remarkable racing career.
EoW: What got you interested in racing in the first place?
JM: I was a young man who loved cars and who spent his youth in the German Merchant Navy, on a boat sailing around the Oceans. When I finally went to see my first race I got intrigued with the smell, the noise, the visual contact of the cars…for me, small touring cars were much better than ice cream and that was wonderful! I said to myself “this is what I am going to do from this moment on”. There was no romance for the Navy anymore so I discharged and started racing.
EoW: How did you begin your career?
JM: When you start over with new projects you always ask yourself “how do I start?” and you look around for possibilities, especially if you don’t have the money to buy a car. So I went to see an Alfa Romeo dealer, who had a race car, and told them that I wanted to work for them because I wanted to drive their car. I was lucky as they said “Ok, you’ll start on Monday”: I worked for them day and nights and also on weekends and I never cared because I knew where I wanted to go. The key thing is that when you’re young you’ve got to remain independents as long as possible and do what you really want to do because later in life you may not get the chance again. All of this happened in 1967 and 1968.
EoW: Which were the first cars you drove?
JM: Alfa Romeo Giulia Super Berlina, with which I did my first two races in 1968 and then I went on to race 1300cc and 1600cc GTA’s. I raced a lot in these cars over the weekends and I was going quite well with them. Subsequently I got an invitation from Ford to take part in some of their tests, which then allowed me to later become a works driver. I begun racing with Capris in the European Hillclimb Championship and won both the German and European title for Ford in 1971 and 1972. I also did a little more circuit racing with BMW, just because Ford didn’t have their car ready for circuit racing.
EoW: How did you approach the world of single seaters?
JM: I first sat in a single seater in 1971 and I thought “this is fantastic, I love this!”. I begun racing in the Super Vee’ Championship in Finland which I led before Ford sent me over to England to participate in the Formula 3 to take part in the last 6 of the 16 races where I obtain a few victories. Due to this I had to change my license from national to international: Racing in Formula 3 in England put me on a map and allowed me to be asked to receive some offers to become a works driver for various teams. I first became a works driver for March while still driving ford Capris and sports cars in the winter in South Africa. In the 1972 season I went to race in Formula 2, where I led in the first race before the engine broke and then I scored my first victory in my second race, held at the Nurburgring. I finished second in the Formula 2 championship. I then debuted in F1 with Team Surtees in 1973, racing in the German, British and in the North American ones, Canada and Watkins Glen.
EoW: It seems that everything was easy back then. You were racing with Formula and Touring cars as well.
JM: We had less Formula 1 back in the day and people enjoyed seeing the same Grand Prix guys racing with saloon and sport cars! It was great for the spectators. Nowadays the guys who race with GT’s are less known and often people who watch do not know who is racing what. We have good guys who are not getting sufficient recognition by the public and it’s sad.
EoW: How did you learn to drive fast? Was there a person in your life who gave you a few lessons?
JM: No, not at all, I always had a good feeling for cars. I just did what the others did, and I always drove doing what I felt it was right. Of course I watched the best drivers like Jackie Stewart and Peter Revson: they were all very smooth and precise and it was the perfect example to match my style of driving as well. Also when I was 14 years old I drove my mom’s Beetle and thought myself how to do quick handbrake turns, take the corners fast, spinning, driving without the clutch. You know I could also spin the car in roads that were as long as the car! It was great and I learned a lot in those years.
EoW: What do you think about the iconic Enzo Ferrari quote “50% is to the car, 50% to the driver”?
JM: I think that this counts only when you’re driving. I believe that a driver can do his best in a good car and not in a bad car: after all a bad car will always remain a bad car. In the end everything comes down to a good relationship between the car and the driver. In racing history we had examples where we had cars that were so good that winning with them was easy: it was up to the driver as well but most of the performance came from the technical superiority of the cars that were being raced. I believe that Cars are one thing and the drivers another. Spectators enjoy the cars, but the drivers are the real figures and more important than the cars themselves. Manufacturers think the other way round but they’re so wrong. Again, drivers are more important than the car.
EoW: Basically racing is like a good marriage with a pretty woman?
JM: yes, but yelling at the cars doesn’t help!
EoW: Which is the car you remember with more affection?
JM: The Porsches and the McLarens M23 were good and so it was the Arrows A3, a very outstanding car to drive. Arrows was a great team and it had the potential to win more than they had… if only they had won a bloody race it would have been a good push for the team. Sadly it didn’t happen for me neither Riccardo Patrese. Riccardo was a mentor to younger guys: he was quicker than me in practice but during the race he was always behind me and he often crashed because he overtook others when he couldn’t. I once told him “Riccardo you’re a great driver, but first finish a race!”. He did and he was able to conduct a great race and he was very well pleased with it. Never take greater risks when not necessary.
EoW: what’s your most memorable moment in racing?
JM: Being still here. I couldn’t take out each single event and say “that is the highlight of my career”. I look at my years racing, the ups and downs, the successes and the miseries and that is lovely. This is my highlight, the time I spent doing what I love the most. I always look back to review all the events happened during my life and I think that was fabulous: I loved my days at school and in the navy traveling the world. I saw the Panama Canal, North Africa, Argentina, Brazil, North America… it was fabulous! Then, when I started racing and in the first time I did it, it felt exactly as I thought it was! I looked at it and recognized that I had a lot of talent because I had an open perception of things. You know, it was like when you write a story and do not know how to start: you need to free yourself completely to make your task more natural and pleasing to you.
EoW: I might have a silly question for you, but what do you like most about cars?
JM: It’s funny but what I like most about cars are the aesthetics of driving. You know, it’s the same when you’re playing music and there’s an aesthetic feeling about the way you play. As for cars, I have the same feeling into me, no matter what I drive. There is something in cars, in their movement and in the way I manipulate them that makes me fall for them: I can read a car’s character very quickly and figure out what a car likes and not likes. I have raced almost anything during my career, Nascars, Indy Cars, F1’s, trucks… I always found it easy to settle in and drive because it was very easy to feel them. I can identify a car’s strong points and weak points and drive accordingly. Racing is, for me, an extension of aesthetic driving.
EoW: Which road cars do you prefer the most?
JM: Once again, the aesthetics come into place. The 300 SL Roadster, the Jaguar E, the 356 Carrera 2… all absolute fine motorcars that I adore driving. I also adore the Alfas, the Giulia Sprint Veloce and my 2600 Spider that I keep in Hannover. It is so good it hurts! Ferraris are always pretty but I believe they’re too much for a road car. In the end, to appreciate a car I have to walk to it and feel my heart beat. A car to me has to have the right smell: too many new cars have smell too pretentious, too obvious and there’s nothing natural about them anymore.
Perhaps, the best thing about talking with someone who lived through the golden years in racing is that you live moments that you never experienced. When we were born Group C cars were in their final years while we saw very little of the memorable battles of Senna era F1…but speaking with somebody like Jochen Mass, is like living, touching and feeling the things that are the very heart of our passion for cars. The races with the Ford Cortinas, the years where racing was racing and it sparked excitement and enthusiasm. Perhaps we might be creating some sort of hype of events of the past but speaking with somebody like Jochen Mass is truly something we wish to do more often.