Le Mans, September 1968. Not June? Not this year.
This year, the 24-hour race is postponed after summer-long civil unrest in the staunchly patriarchal France of Charles de Gaulle, although that’s another story. As far as we’re concerned, the story is at Le Mans, in September. It’s the final leg of the World Sportscar Championship and the decider between Porsche and Ford. Who will prevail? The 4.9-litre GT40s are narrow favourites after wins at Spa and Watkins Glen but one unbelievably juicy and almost incomprehensible sub-plot brought about by the calendar change is that Ford’s new motorsport chief is at the wheel of the #33 works Porsche 908.
Fast-forward 20 years. In another life, the same man is tasked with leading Mercedes’ return to factory motorsport operations after 33 years of self-imposed exile. It’s a shrewd bit of HR, and not only because Mercedes-Benz goes on to secure the 1989 World Sports-Prototype Championship, in the process taking an emphatic one-two at Le Mans with the handsome Sauber-Mercedes C9. Arguably the more momentous development that year is our man’s establishing of an all-new junior driver programme for the Silver Arrows. Its inaugural trio of signings includes the fresh-faced son of German bricklayer and devoted father Rolf Schumacher.
Yet here’s the remarkable thing about Jochen Neerpasch. The exquisite intrigue of 1968, the rehabilitation of Mercedes into motorsport more than three decades after the Le Mans disaster, giving arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time his first big break: any one of them would be legacy-defining events for most people, but that’s not quite the case for this 83-year-old.
Neerpasch is best known, and best known by far, for founding BMW Motorsport GmbH after leaving Ford in 1972. It means that 2022 marks 50 years of arguably the greatest entity the car industry ever gave to petrolheads of ordinary means. That roaring, oversteering, vivacious but otherwise usable, incognito and mostly affordable entity known as the M car.
So happy birthday, M, and what better way to celebrate than to join the dots between street and track with a race weekend, a road trip and a rendezvous at division HQ in the Munich suburb of Garching?