Mountain Climbing In Romania With The Original BMW M Man, Jochen Neerpasch
Story by Alex Seremet and Daniel Butnariu
Photography by Mihai Barbu, Radu Tuta, and Alex Sobran // Period photos courtesy of Porsche Archive
“There are no speed cameras after this point.” As soon as this information is relayed to the man in the driver’s seat, Jochen Neerpasch, my body pancakes to the seat while the engine of the BMW M5 goes to work. It is the first time I’ve seen Neerpasch drive, and what a performance it is. The road is wet and slick in some places, dry and silty in others, and not always in perfect condition, but the car eats the tarmac in front of it without seeming to notice the flavor.
With delicate but deliberate movements of the wheel, Neerpasch steers the sizable sports sedan through tight hairpins and distended sweepers, always keeping the tires hooked on the ideal line. There is no hesitation, no need for continuous corrections mid-corner, his eyes just aim and the BMW M5 just obeys. We make a fast but smooth ascent towards the mountaintop, with no perceptible application of the brakes. Turn after turn.
I wouldn’t search for Jochen Neerpasch on the internet if you want to get a complete picture. You will find very little compared online relative to the impact of his career in motorsport. His heyday (a long one at that, from the 1960s to the 1990s) as a racing driver and team director means that his achievements are largely confined to print media, and it’s more often than not in German. Ask your typical M4 driver today who Neerpasch is and you’ll likely get nothing.
To us, this just makes his story even more intriguing. His automotive career is so rich and diverse that it is hard to map all its milestones without starting a book about them all. What others may call a defining moment, for Neerpasch it is just a side note that he’ll downplay if you can get him to talk about it at all. For instance, you need to ask him specifically about the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans if you want to hear about it. He’s not standoffish, just more humble than most would be with his history.
Typically scheduled for June, the infamous French endurance race was postponed several months in 1968 due to social unrest in the country. And so the 24 Hours was pushed into autumn, into the rainy season, when moods and weather turn bleak and nights come early and are stubborn to leave. All told, the drivers would have to contend with about three extra hours of racing in the dark.
The Porsche works team led the early part of the race, but technical problems cut any enthusiasm down quickly: the clutch failed on the #31 Porsche 908, and the remaining three factory cars were plagued by alternator failures. One by one, they abandoned the race. All but the white and orange #33 907 LH, driven by Rolf Stommelen and Jochen Neerpasch.
In order to reduce strain the alternator as much as possible, the team made a… let’s call it a brave decision to race during the night without headlights or windshield wipers. Relying on the lights of the rest of the field, the #33 Porsche managed to survive for four hours like, driving near blind at night, in the rain.
Stommelen and Neerpasch emerged in the first rays of daylight with the car intact, and were close the lead cars. When the morning came proper, the #33 was unleashed. Remember, this is back when car preservation meant every lap couldn’t be driven at ten-tenths like today. Given the go ahead to go for it, the #33 set a lap time of 3:38.1, the lap record of the race, at an average speed of 222.3km/h (~138mph).
At the end of the long day, after a long heroic fight that trimmed the number of cars from 54 to just 15, the #33 managed to finish in third place, a mere six laps behind the race-winning GT40 and just one behind the second-place Porsche 907. Neerpasch and Stommelen added the result to their strong season, which saw the pair take gold at the 24 Hours of Daytona that same February. It would be Neerpasch’s last year as racing driver, but he would waste no time in continuing an even more successful career as a race team manager, with Ford and then famously with BMW at the very start of the the marque’s Motorsport (now M) division.
Back in the present day, Neerpasch proves that he’s retained more than just a bit of his talent behind the wheel. We are gathered at the Transfagărăşan in Romania, and if you haven’t heard of this mountain pass, you can take the word of someone who you certainly have heard of, Jeremy Clarkson, who said it could be “the best driving road, in the world.”
High praise from a man who’s been on more “good driving roads” than perhaps anyone else living, but on this day it’s hard to grasp the appeal of the Transfagărăşan. Four days prior, it was snowing in the Romanian Carpathians, and now we are treated to rain punctuated by strong gusts of wind that turn the drops into cold needles that hit you horizontally. Quite simply, it really sucks to be standing out here.
Every now and then, the false promise of sunshine seeps through, only for the wind to shift the cloud cover once again. Neerpasch waits patiently as another video shoot is being set up. He is rushed from one car to another, from one location to another, all day. He always complies politely, always unshakably calm, one shoot after another, hour after hour. When the time comes to have some actual fun, the sun finally shows itself and Neerpasch takes hold of a BMW steering wheel with a little “M” on it that wouldn’t be there without his work in the 1970s.
Smooth and fast, he rarely speaks while he drives, but his smile grows. The frigid wait was worth it. The drone operator laughs out of surprise and admiration as his little copter is outpaced on the final straight by Neerpasch’s M5. Neerpasch is surprised too. He examines the car more carefully than he did when he got in at the bottom of the route. It felt different from the one he drove a few hours ago he tells me. He finds the reason for this in the word “Competition” below the M5 moniker on the trunk. It’s a very different machine than the CSL and M1 that Neerpasch is famous for establishing BMW Motorsport with, but he still seems very much at home.
It is an understatement to call riding shotgun with him a privilege, but Neerpasch is far more than just a fast driver. In fact, he’s greatest achievements happened at a desk instead of a driver’s seat. From the birth of the racing version of Ford Capri to the BMW 3.0 CSL to Mercedes’ return to Le Mans to the launch of Michael Schumacher’s career in Formula 1, the list of his managerial successes runs long. Above all else though, Neerpasch is tied closest to BMW Motorsport and BMW M, which he started from an empty office in 1972 after hitting it off with Bob Lutz.
On our last day of filming on the Transfagărăşan, it is time for a special reminder of that past. It’s all but impossible to put a genuine works CSL on a public road in Romania (or anywhere for that matter), but we’d arranged for the next best thing.
Tontsch Automotive brought along their CSL replica for Neerpasch to test on the mountain, and even after a long and careful inspection by the man responsible for creating the racing icon, he’s impressed with the build. Ever since we learned about the existence of this car in Romania, we dreamt of inviting Neerpasch to drive it. This was a dream that I thought could never happen, but every so often these fantasies cross over into real life.
The road is closed, just Neerpasch and the BMW. It is still cold and wet despite the snatches of sunshine, but the tarmac on the south face of the mountain is dry, and the clouds are trapped behind the the mountaintop, so we head to the south face.
Neerpasch is never one to drive in the slow lane, or slowly in any lane, and soon enough, the straight-six fills the valley with echoes. Several seconds later, a small dot comes into view far below on the winding road. The faint roar becomes louder with each ascending corner. The dot manifests briefly as a car before it disappears again behind a rock face. On the final straight to the top, it appears again, a streak of white, blue, violet, and red. There is another close ground-to-air race with the drone, and like that it’s over, we’ve reached the end of our two-day trip to the Transfagărăşan (which celebrated its 45th birthday this year). It is time to say our goodbyes, but when Neerpasch gets out of the car it is clear that he is taking something back home from this experience. Back in the cold, with no more fun cars to drive on the docket, he is still smiling.
Before we sign off, there is one more detail about the 1968 Le Mans story that you’re not likely to come across online. After its triumph over Ferrari in 1966 and ‘67, Ford found itself facing another showdown, this time with Porsche. Such were the points standings that the winner of Le Mans, the last race in the World Sportscar Championship season, would be crowned the champion.
At this time, Neerpasch was not just a Porsche factory driver—he had just been hired by Ford to create and run the Ford Germany motorsport department. He was such a good driver and he was so promising as a manager, that both rival companies accepted the compromise of a Ford manager racing for Porsche against Ford cars in the most important race that either of them would contest. That was a very special compliment for the man behind the steering wheel from both companies. And to his credit, he gave it all he had for Porsche in that race. For drivers like him, even at age 80, it just seems like there is no other option.