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Jochen Mass: Doing "Doughnuts" with Mom's VW

Enigmatic engines, brilliant bodywork, living legends: Former Formula 1 driver Jochen Mass participates in the world's best-known classic car races. Read about his fascination with old cars, what it's like to get behind the wheel of a classic, how he went from race car driver to movie star, and which rock star rides shotgun as he speeds down the track.

You've been a sailor, a Formula 1 driver, and now you're a movie star! How does your new role feel?

Jochen Mass: (laughs) You mean "Rush"…

…the epic movie about the Formula 1 duel between Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

I was the only former Formula 1 driver who drove his own car alongside all those stuntmen.

Back then, you were a colleague of James Hunt at McLaren.

Director Ron Howard, who also made "Apollo 13" and "The Da Vinci Code," made a great movie. He initially shot everything digitally. It lets you see immediately what's good and what's bad so you can re-shoot the scene right away.

Are you happy with the outcome?

James Hunt is very authentic, Niki is a little exaggerated. Marlene, his wife – that really could have been her. It's a good movie. The plot is very Hollywood.

What does that mean exactly?

Some minor details. For instance, when Mario Andretti is in last place, and then in the next scene he's suddenly right at the front. Niki is also a little too egocentric and cocky, at least sometimes.

You live in the south of France, but you're still traveling a lot.

Almost more than ever before.

Where did you spend Christmas?

We stayed here. Both my daughters came to visit. But now, I am back on the road.

The first race already?

No, I went to the book launch for "Stars and Sports Cars" by Marianne Fürstin zu Sayn-Wittgenstein at the Mercedes Center in Munich. She's 95 now, and has created a stunning book about the world of auto racing in the 50s, 60s, and 70s as seen through the lens of her camera. She is a wonderful woman.

So you'll be back to that race car feeling again.

At the end of January, I'll be serving as Grand Marshal for the 24 Hours of Daytona. That will be followed by the Daytona 500 NASCAR race. I remember the NASCAR series from the 70s; it's wild. When you hear the "vroooom" of the engines starting, you get serious goosebumps (grins). Man, it's awesome. You can't beat that.

Even at age 68, fast cars still give you an adrenaline rush!

It's more like a unique part of your being.

Now you're getting philosophical.

I was never interested in just driving as fast as possible down the straightaway. What I love is the feeling of being all alone out there, and steering the car in a certain way, so that it drifts for example. I get excited by the feel of a classic racing car. It's wonderful to speed nice and clean around a curve. It doesn't take a powerful engine to do that. Yet they have too much nowadays, sometimes up to 600 horsepower.

Was it always that way?

What, the horsepower? We used to have 34-horsepower Beetles that were pretty impressive! When I was just a 14-year-old kid, I used to go out at night with my mother's VW and do doughnuts on cobblestone streets.

What about racing?

For a long time, it was foreign to me. Over time, however, I realized that I had talent and that race car drivers did something that other people considered too dangerous. 

That's how you set yourself apart from the crowd.

Sure, that was an important reason – not just for me but for all the heroes back then. Everyone knew it was a dangerous activity, but you became somebody. You stood out from the crowd of "normal" people.

Outstanding personalities definitely influenced Formula 1 in the 70s and 80s. Now everything is becoming more mainstream.

The character types were more extreme back then, simply because of the danger.

In nearly every season there were two, three, or four serious, often fatal, accidents.

You had to live with that. We didn't discuss it with each other. Everyone thought about it in private and hoped nothing would happen. It wasn't a public issue. We all lived with the danger, and so the relationship among the race car drivers was more respectful.

You once said that you liked each other in a different way.

We were focused on not hurting each other.

Were there any true male friendships?

I remember fondly how I socialized a lot with Clay Regazzoni and the two Frenchmen Jacques Laffite and Patrick Depailler. For instance, we chartered a little boat (laughs) – little meaning 32 or 33 feet long – on the Virgin Islands or in Hawaii, and had a great time. That was really nice.

You were the designated skipper.

Since I used to be a sailor, they assigned that role to me.

Do you drive in classic car races and events for nostalgic reasons?

I still love the aesthetic part of driving. That's why I like to drive cars from different eras. I feel very privileged that I get to drive these cars.

Where did you travel in 2014?

The 2014 re-enactment of the French Grand Prix in Lyon, France, was outstanding, with cars from the 20s and 30s – celebrating the 100th anniversary of Mercedes' triple victory in 1914. The Grand Prix of 1914 took place just a few weeks before the outbreak of war. Peugeot had cherished hopes of beating the Germans. But the superior strategy of Mercedes meant it was they who went away with the victory – the Stuttgart-based team took the first three places. In 2014, we had the original cars with us in Lyon. And everyone – drivers and spectators alike – was impressed by how fast the cars were, with speeds both then and now of up to 190 kilometers per hour.

During my career, I even got to drive the legendary Blitzen Benz a few times, the record-breaking car from Mercedes with an unbelievable 200-horsepower, 21.8-liter, four-cylinder engine. Then there was the Simplex from 1902, 1903, and 1904 at the London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run. I drove an Autocar from 1904, with a 1.2-liter, two-cylinder motor. But the Simplex, that was the first really good car in its day. It's just amazing. They were made for the street and the racetrack. They were as elegant as the women who sometimes sat behind the wheel. Some of those cars have been in the same family for nearly a hundred years. Where else can you find that?

Your eyes are aglow!

It's just incredible. At the "Stars and Cars" show put on by Mercedes in Stuttgart, for example, I got to drive a W25 Silver Arrow, and afterwards a W125 Silver Arrow from the 1930s. Then I also drove an SSK from 1928 and a Sir Stirling Moss SLR, the record-breaking car that won the Mille Miglia in 1955, absolutely fantastic. When you drive a car like that, you have to place yourself in that era and see the car through the eyes of that time.

How do the philosophies of various manufacturers differ?

Italian engines are fascinating; they're as smooth as velvet. They're just incredibly gorgeous and aesthetically pleasing.

And the playful French…

…who get lost in their cute little engines and build huge, extravagant bodies around them. Typically French: It has to make an impact and have more style than substance. I don't mean that in a bad way. They're outstanding engineers with a lot of courage who do tremendous work. With the Germans, everything had to work well, have power, and be built to last. Only later did they begin to give their creations a striking appearance. Some of the most beautiful bodies were produced in the 30s: Mercedes-Benz in Sindelfingen, Saoutchik in Paris, Erdmann & Rossi in Germany, and other works of art from shops throughout Europe.

The British built technically superior cars.

The Rolls-Royces were great, perhaps the best cars of their time in the 1920s. But later, mistakes began to happen. And the Brits kept saying, "No problem. We can fix it." They put less effort into eliminating defects or building something else. That's why even now in the UK, you'll see a bunch of these little repair shops that can do everything.

Let's not forget the Americans.

They thought: Brakes? Why bother? We have enough room… Fuel consumption? Not important. But for long distances, they've developed roomy and powerful models.

What's your dream car?

This may sound a little silly.

Go ahead.

I love my Mercedes S-Class. It has a lot of room, provides a super comfortable ride, and handles extremely well. Plus, I drive a TD 350 4matic, which uses very little gas and can do more than most SUVs, even in snow.

And among the older models?

I like the SSK and, of course, the 300 SLR Mille Miglia race car of Stirling Moss, Dennis Jenkinson, and Juan Manuel Fangio.

What was the highlight of this past season for you?

Goodwood!

You didn't hesitate there.

That is the prime event for classic cars. It is unmatched. Brilliant!

What is so special about that event, which is sponsored by Credit Suisse?

You feel like you've traveled back in time. Race car drivers, organizers, and most spectators are dressed in the style of the 50s and 60s. During the event, no cars built after 1966 are allowed onto the grounds. The atmosphere and mood takes hold of everyone.

What did you drive?

A number of spectacular cars. A Cobra, a Mustang, a 300 SL with gull wing doors, and a Studebaker Gold Hawk. The "lead swan," just great (smiles).

Why didn't you drive in Monaco?

The Classic GP is back – and it's good. But I don't want to drive there, because there are too many drivers with not enough experience. The risk of crashing a car there is too great. Especially since I'm not driving my own car, but very expensive cars that belong to someone else. However, as an ambassador of sponsor Credit Suisse, I try to bring the wonderful world of classic cars a little closer to the guests. I try to get them excited about it, too.

You drove in the Classic 24 Hour at Daytona for the first time.

A wild race. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was also fantastic. Daytona is a little more driver-friendly, and the banks are breathtaking for novices. It's simply a must!

You had an unusual co-pilot in Le Mans.

Brian Johnson from AC/DC. Brian is a great driver. He had just never driven a Porsche before. He didn't know the car, and he didn't know Le Mans. On top of that, it was nighttime and pouring rain, and our Porsche didn't have good headlights. Brian couldn't see a thing and was totally lost. "Can you drive, Jochen, please…"

You took part in the Mille Miglia for the 25th time.

I drove a 300 SL Panamericana prototype. Because it's so light, it makes a very good race car. This time it was the fastest car among the participants. Many older Italians still remember the original road race from Brescia to Rome and back. The excitement is unbelievable. Young and old jump for joy when you drive past. Kids stand by the side of the road. At one in the morning the fans are still waving at you enthusiastically.

You'd never see that in Switzerland.

Hang on! I was at the GP in Bern. The spectators were pumped up, and even the police were having fun.

But …

… something made me rather upset. I was with my wife at a hotel near the highway, behind the rest stop. I said to her, "Come on, let's have a glass of wine." And the waitress said, "Sorry, we're too close to the highway. I can't serve you any alcohol." That seems a little strange, right, for hotel guests?

Let's change the subject. You also take part in beauty contests.

I think you're confused.

You're part of the jury…

…oh, you mean the Concours d'Elegance…

…yes, in Pebble Beach, California. What impressed you about that?

Everything. Among other great names, there were 30 Ferraris competing in the class I was judging. There was also an unrestored 250 Testa Rossa Scaglietti Spyder from 1957. The car had never been in an accident, although it was used successfully in many races: Nürburgring, Targa Florio, Le Mans. It's the number of high-class cars in top condition that fascinates me over and over – the most beautiful cars from our relatively recent past. And all of them are being driven, from wonderful American-made classics to the best the Old World has to offer.

You wax poetic about wild races and exceptional cars. What role does Formula 1 still play?

I follow it, but I don't go to the races anymore.

Why not?

Because I don't have anything to do there. If I were still a commentator, that would be different.

But RTL replaced you with Christian Danner.

My comments were too critical. You have to entertain the folks at home, after all. I can't talk to anyone these days at a Formula 1 race, no one has any time. Just walking up and down the "vanity mile" in the paddock making small talk isn't my thing.

What does a race car nut do if he's not racing?

He drives a normal car to all of these events.

Did your kids inherit the racing gene?

I never forced them to get into racing, but I wouldn't have stopped them from doing so either. My two girls have other talents. Sydne is studying in Boston, and Jessica has finished her master's degree at Bocconi University in Milan.

And your two boys, Inness and Quintin?

Michael Schumacher took them go-carting a lot. They were pretty good drivers. Today one of them is a skipper on a big sailing yacht, and the other one works in Cape Town for Campari. He's in charge of Africa, the Middle East, and India for them.

The whole family is scattered around the globe.

But we all have a great relationship. That's the important thing, maybe even the most important. I never had a large group of friends – just a few friends, but good ones. I don't seek out large crowds. I never have. But I have a growing number of grandchildren. That's the kind of crowd I like!

This article has originally appeared on the Credit Suisse Classic Car Website.