Ferdinand Piech once wrote ‘My desire for harmony is limited’, and if you look at his professional life and the reputations of all those executives that failed to survive close encounters with this most autocratic of engineers, you can see he wasn’t kidding.
In his private life he fathered 12 children by four different women, which is perhaps also indicative of the fact that Piech was not like other men.
Piech was a man who combined the obsessional engineering focus of a Colin Chapman with the commercial nous and global perspective of a Henry Ford. The turnaround in VW’s fortunes that he oversaw following his arrival there in 1993 almost beggars belief.
He inherited a group just weeks from bankruptcy, and left it in 2015 as the largest automotive car company on earth, acquiring some of the world’s most coveted name plates – Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini – along the way. And, of course Porsche.
He may not have had the surname, but Piech was as a much a Porsche as his grandfather Ferdinand or uncle Ferry. His influence at the company began as soon as he joined in 1963 clutching his engineering degree from the University of Zurich. He didn’t like the fact that the company’s new flat six engine designed for the as yet unlaunched 901 (which would become the Porsche 911) had a wet sump for it, meaning the motor would never be suited for racing. Such was the power of the family connection, he simply had it redesigned, a process that took six months, and 911s have raced ever since.
His obsession with racing and conviction that success on track could only come from ultra-lightweight techniques led to some of the most extraordinary innovations seen in motorsport. The 1968 909 Bergspyder hillclimb car weighed just 385kg, thanks to the fitment of titanium springs, a wiring loom made from silver thread and brakes made from beryllium - despite their dust coming in the same toxin category as asbestos, plutonium and mustard gas.
But it was the 917 of 1969 that was his masterpiece, not just because it was the fastest sports racing car the world had ever known, but for the circumstances surrounding its creation. New rules designed specifically to ensure that such a car never got built mandated that 25 must be shown before even one of them could race. In the past you might expect construct a handful at most, and then only over time. It was Piech who through sheer force of character convinced the board to spend the money to make the cars, arguing its superiority would ensure all and more would be recovered from sales to private teams.