Marc Surer drove F1 cars with explosive power – and for team managers with explosive tempers.
1979: Ensign N179 and Arrows A2
Surer won the Formula 2 championship with BMW in 1979, and had his first chance to drive a true Formula 1 car that year. But he only got the Ensign onto the grid once in three attempts, and admitted the car was disappointing compared to his well-sorted F2 machine.
“Just after I had driven the one of the best Formula 2 cars, with a lot of downforce – the skirted car, it was a disappointment. The Formula 1 car had less grip in the corners even with bigger tyres so it was for me it was a step down.
“OK, it was probably the slowest car in Formula 1. But to come from the top Formula 2 car and to jump into a bad Formula 1 car was a big shock. It took me a while to get used to it, that you can have so much more power and some less grip.”
He soon got his first taste of what a more competitive F1 car felt like. Arrows – a team which would play a big part in his future – invited him for a run in the A2, which Jochen Mass scored points with that year.
“The Arrows was an impressive car,” remembers Surer. “I was impressed how easy to drive it was.
“They didn’t allow me to go for a time, they said it’s just for an impression and for photoshooting and whatever and so I cannot really compare. But my feeling was it’s not so impressive to drive a Formula 1 car as I thought.”
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1980: ATS D3 and D4
Surer landed a full-time drive for 1980 not with Ensign or Arrows, but ATS, thanks partly to his backing from Swiss watch brand Buler. The team started the year with the Nigel Stroud-designed D3 from the previous season, but soon replaced it with a new chassis penned by Gustav Brunner and Tim Wardrop, which was clearly inspired by Williams’ successful FW07.
The D4 was “a much better car” compared to the Ensign, Surer noted. “It had downforce. We had grip. It was a big step forward. It felt really like a Formula 1 car.”
But despite the presence of some top names among the management team, ATS boss Guenther Schmidt made life unpredictable. “It was a very funny season because we had a very talented designer, Gustav Brunner, and we had Jo Ramirez as the team manager,” recalled Surer. “The team was based in England and Guenther Schmidt was sitting in Germany.
“But you know Guenther Schmidt, he wanted to know everything, and he didn’t trust this young designer. So whenever Gustav Brunner wanted to try something he had to get the approval of Gunther Schmidt.”
At his first grand prix as an ATS driver Surer witnessed a notorious example of Schmidt’s temper when a new front wing the team successfully tested at Silverstone was introduced.
“Guenther Schmidt came from Germany to Argentina and he said ‘what the hell is this, what is this front wing?’ They said we tested it at Silverstone, Jo Ramirez explained it was faster.”
Schmidt wasn’t having any of it: “‘But I told you I have to approve it, I don’t want to put things on the car without my approval’. And he jumped on the wing and broke it so we couldn’t use it.”
Schmidt did not jump on the new D4 when it arrived in Kyalami, but misfortune kept Surer from racing it. Ahead of Friday qualifying he and the team discovered a problem with the car.
“The wheel bearing gave in and pushed the [brake] pads back. I had to pump the pedal. It was Friday and there was the first qualifying [session]. I came in and said ‘I cannot drive the car like this’.
“[They] said come on Marc, just do one lap so we have the time so you are qualified in case it rains on Saturday. So we put new tyres on and I [went] for one fast lap even with this brake problem. But what I didn’t expect, because [there was] more grip with the fresh tyres [it] pushed the pads back in more and even with pumping the pedal, I had no brakes.
“I didn’t have enough time to pump the pedal. I tried it once, twice and I was in the catch fence and in the wall.”
Surer felt the car enjoyed the peak of its performance during his subsequent enforced absence. “It was an improvement, but I think everybody else improved as well. People started to learn that with a skirted car you need a stiffer chassis.
“So the car came out and I was in the hospital, I think the car was a big step forward but until I was back. [Then] everybody else has realised as well you have to have a stiffer chassis and everybody stiffened up their cars.”
1981: Ensign N180B and Theodore TY01
Lacking a full-time drive for 1981, Surer began the season back at Ensign on a race-by-race basis. Driving as a substitute in a rain-hit Brazilian Grand Prix at Jacarepagua, he claimed a superb fourth place. But Mo Nunn’s team was in a dire financial situation and looking for a driver with more backing.
“Before Monaco we had to send some money to Cosworth to get the engine,” he remembered. “So it was really from hand to mouth.”
The engine turned out to be worth paying for. “I had some friends who put some stickers on the car to finance this race. But of course I know they cannot finish the season without a big sponsors.
“Then after the race, [I got] sixth place, very happy. And then Mo Nunn came to me and said ‘I’m very happy but I have also bad news: Eliseo Salazar will take over the car because we need him, we cannot survive without that’.”
Surer was soon back in a car at Theodore, taking over from Patrick Tambay who had moved to Ligier. But after a promising first race at Paul Ricard, a forced changed in tyre supplier hit the team’s form hard.
Surer felt his driving, like Jacques Laffite’s, suffered particularly from the change of rubber. “We were the only ones who were really braking into the corners,” he explained.
“I had this style from karting. I needed a stable rear to do that. And with the Avon tyre the rear end was so loose especially as the car was set up with the Michelin tyres.”
It also disturbed the balance of a car which had been designed for Michelins. “They had this big front wing on top of the chassis, like a plate. Which gave a lot of downforce, which was fantastic, because on the Michelin you always had understeer so you wanted more downforce at the front.
“But with the Avon it was the opposite. The car was oversteering on the straight! It was so bad to drive. We changed back to normal front wings and it was at disaster, the car was so bad.”
1982: Arrows A4 and A5
The 1982 season saw Surer begin what turned out to be a productive association with Arrows. Unfortunately, his progress was delayed by injury following another crash at Kyalami.
After his return, he campaigned the A4 initially, then switched to the team’s new chassis late in the year. “The Arrows A4 was a weak chassis,” he said. “You could not really set up the car perfectly. It was difficult. Also when I was in hospital the others hardly ever qualified the car.”
Nonetheless he took the car to six top 10 finishes and two points scores – points were only awarded to the top six at the time. He ended the year with seventh at Las Vegas in one of his two outings in the A5.
“Later in the year we got the A5 which was basically just a stiffer chassis and I could drive it again,” he said. “I was confident, even with the pain in my legs, I was doing much better.
“They improved the chassis and it was easier to set up. but it was not such a fantastic car.”
1983-84: Arrows A6
His second year at Arrows got off to a much better start following the team’s switch from Pirelli tyres. “I remember the Arrows A6 with the Goodyear tyres as probably my favourite car of all of them,” he said.
“It was a car you could play with. I felt the relation, horsepower to the handling, it was just perfect. I could play with this car like I did with a Formula 2 car. It was a relation between power and handling.”
He finished the first four races in the top 10, including three points scores. But it was his performance in the next race at a damp Monaco which helped secure the team’s future, as it had just landed a major new sponsor in Barclay tobacco.
“In Monaco I was lucky,” Surer remembered. “I started with the slick tyres in the wet. I was running in third position behind the Williams until [Derek] Warwick knocked me off. The turbo was a bit faster on the straight and he tried to attack me, but he only made it to my rear tyres, he pushed me and I crashed.”
Warwick – who will feature in a future instalment of My F1 Cars – apologised to Surer afterwards. “It was 100% his fault. But the positive thing about it was because I was running in third position most of the race Barclay was so impressed they signed the contract for the whole season with Arrows.”
No more points followed that year and the team slipped towards the rear of the field as their normally aspirated Cosworth V8 was out-gunned by the turbo opposition. For 1984 the team finally had a single turbo-powered car, but Surer preferred to stick with his tried and trusted A6 while Thierry Boutsen drove the new car.
“We had to start the ’84 season with the old car because we had only one. First they said from race to race we’d change. Actually it was my decision to say I’ll stay with the A6 until we have two A7s ready.”
Surer “thought I’d have maybe a chance in some places with the A6 because, as I said, I loved this car.” But another change of tyres – this time Goodyear’s switch from cross-ply to radial construction – transformed the car’s handling for the worse.
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“I had to take the ‘turbo tyres’ which didn’t fit the A6 at all. And that made the A6 a beast. It made things which were the advantage of this car the year before, with these new tyres which were made for 800 horsepower or whatever, suddenly you didn’t get the temperature into the rear tyres and all these problems. So it was not a happy time [while] I had to wait for the A7.”
Nonetheless he managed to qualify first among the normally aspirated cars at Kyalami, thanks to Manfred Winkelhock giving him a tow in his BMW-powered ATS. “I asked him can you give me a tow. So he said ‘OK, if I’ve done my qualifying lap, be there, and I’ll make one extra lap and give you tow.'” Surer claimed 23rd on the grid, and raced to an impressive ninth place on a track which favoured the turbos.
1984: Arrows A7
When he finally got his hands on a turbo F1 car Surer found he had plenty of grunt, but little else. “It was not really a good car. It was the first experience of the turbo and I didn’t really think it was a very good car.”
The much larger turbo engines forced major design compromises. “It was a different philosophy,” said Surer. “With the Cosworth, the Cosworth was part of the chassis. With the turbo, you could not do that so you had to make a frame.
“For an engineer those days it was not so easy to calculate how stiff this frame had to be. And I had the feeling the car was steering at the rear, I remember I said that many times, when I accelerate. That’s because the car was twisting because there was such a lot of – not power, torque. The torque with the turbo was the impressive thing.”
1985 Brabham BT54
If the power of the BMW turbo in the Arrows was impressive, Surer’s next experience was something else. Left out in the cold when the 1985 season began – Arrows replaced him with Gerhard Berger, so Surer went rallying – he got an unexpected call-up to join top team Brabham, BMW’s works team at the time, alongside then two-times world champion Nelson Piquet.
Surer played himself in when he took over the cockpit Francois Hesnault had vacated at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. “Canada was not easy because it was cold, the tyre didn’t work very well,” he said. “I didn’t feel very well in this car. I finished the race, that was my plan, just to get some miles on the car. But I didn’t really impress nobody.”
After a few tests with the team, Surer became convinced there was a problem with his chassis. But the new driver was reluctant to be seen making excuses.
“I could not use the set up from Nelson and my car was really doing strange things. [But] being new in the team, to come and say something is wrong with my chassis is a bad excuse.
“Especially if you know other drivers are waiting just to get this chance. And we had Olivetti as a sponsor, they would love to have an Italian driver. So I was really under pressure.
“But I knew something was wrong with my chassis because when testing I was driving the T-car [spare car] of Nelson and in one test I was faster than him. It was easy and I could use more or less the set-up Nelson drove. And then I came back in my car and I felt something wrong.”
Another test at Zandvoort, finally convinced Surer to raise his concerns with Brabham’s ace designer Gordon Murray.
“He said, ‘it sounds like a soft chassis – we will do a new chassis for Nelson anyway and then you can have his T-car’.”
The handling of the BT54 was transformed – but it came too late for Surer to keep his place at the team. “At Brands Hatch, the European Grand Prix, I had the first time a new chassis and I was running second, then the turbo broke.
“Then we went to South Africa, I was third, but we had a problem with the engine with the spark plugs again. Then I went to Adelaide, I was third and the injection pump broke.
“After I had this T-car of Nelson I was there. But it was too late because they already had signed contracts with [Ricciardo Patrese] and [Elio] De Angelis.”
1986 Arrows A8
Berger left Arrows for Benetton at the end of 1985, and Surer returned to his former team. But the reunion did not go well.
“I have bad memories of this year because Arrows had three different chassis,” he said. “I went to test in Brazil before the first race, I did a time. They had only one chassis there and Boutsen could not drive, it was Christian Danner and me.
“I did a time which I could not repeat in qualifying even with more horsepower and qualifying tyres or whatever we had. So I said, what’s wrong here? In the end I found out the three chassis were all different. I got the oldest one.”
Surer was rebuffed when he asked to try the team’s other car. “They said no we tried that last year, it’s very slow on the straight and you should not try it.
“But I think they were lying to me. I think their driver was Boutsen and I was the driver they had to take And they had no money to build a new chassis. And with my experience the year before I knew what a difference a chassis can make.”
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After a pair of ninth places, Surer’s season came to a shocking end when he crashed his Ford RS200 in the Hessen Rally. Surer was seriously injured and his co-driver Michel Wyder was killed after their car caught fire.
Surer did not return to an F1 cockpit until the following year, and it convinced him not to return.
“I had a chance to do an official test in Hockenheim and I did a time which would have been good enough to qualify for the race.
“But I was sitting in the car and saying ‘what the hell am I doing here?'” he remembered.
“I was really feeling in the wrong place. Then I knew that was the moment, I said no, no, I will not come back.”
Surer drew a line under a career in which he had a fleeting taste of extreme F1 power, wrung excellent results from sub-par cars and come tantalisingly close to finishing on the podium on several occasions.
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