Long before he played a part in the already historic career of double World Champion Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing’s Helmut Marko (or Marko Helmut, as our Negative Camber likes to call him) was himself a very accomplished racing driver in his own right. But just as his stint in F1 was beginning, the sportscar specialist suffered a bizarre incident during the 1972 French Grand Prix which would bring his own burgeoning career to an abrupt halt.
Born in Graz, Austria in 1943, Helmut was famously school chums with future star Jochen Rindt. Having already been offered a positive leaving certificate just to clear out of their secondary school in Graz, the two troublemakers relocated a hundred miles away to a boarding school in the town of Bad Assee where their exploits continued. On one such nocturnal occasion, as the young men raced precariously around the local mountain roads, Marko demolished his father’s Impala in an attempt to avoid an oncoming truck whilst driving around Rindt’s own Simca on a blind bend. Luckily, Marko escaped injury as he leapt from the Chevy just moments before it went over a bank, destroying itself in the process.
Even despite the shenanigans, Helmut managed to earn a law degree in 1967, giving him the official title of Dr. Marko. He meanwhile took his racing from the roads to the track, moving into Super Formula Vee in 1968 and up to F3 in 1969. 1970 saw the Austrian’s first attack on Le Mans, where he would finish 1st in the 3.0 class and 3rd overall in a Martini Porsche 908. That same year, his good friend Jochen Rindt would be killed at Monza on his way to becoming Formula One’s only posthumous World Driver’s Champion.
The following season, Marko would make his own inauspicious GP debut. Driving an old McLaren for Jo Bonnier at the German Grand Prix, Helmut would be sent out by the team during the first practice session, only to run out of fuel on his first lap. Immediately moving on to the Yardley BRM squad, Marko would complete three of the next four GPs in respectable 11th, 12th and 13th places, only failing to finish in Italy.
1971 would also mark a return to Le Mans with Martini Racing, but this time behind the wheel of the mighty Porsche 917K. Teamed with Gijs van Lennep, the pair would set a distance record of 3,315 miles on their way to the overall victory, a mark which would stand for thirty-nine years until it was beaten by Audi in 2010.
Marko would return to Formula One with BRM in 1972, contesting four of the first five races with finishes of 10th in Argentina and Belgium, 14th in South Africa and a career best 8th at Monaco. In an Alfa Romeo Typo 33, his prowess in sportscars would again come to the fore at the Targa Florio as he set an all out lap record which still stands to this day. Shortly thereafter, the F1 teams moved to Clermont-Ferrand for the 1972 French Grand Prix. Marko got a great start, having qualified the BRM on the 3rd row, ahead of the likes of Francois Cevert, Ronnie Peterson and Emerson Fittipaldi, and appeared to be heading for his first points paying finish. While running in 5th place, however, directly behind Peterson, “Super Swede” put the wheels of his March into the dirt on the inside of a corner, kicking up a fist sized rock directly into the BRM’s path. Marko had no time to react as the rock pierced his visor and struck him squarely in his left eye.
The Austrian managed to throw his car into a spin in order to keep from hitting the guardrail, though he collapsed after leaping from the BRM. Vic Elford, stationed nearby in a Porsche 914 safety car, rushed Helmut to the track’s mobile hospital, beginning a sorry and inexcusable string of events. From the circuit, Marko was sent to the Hotel Dieux hospital where, even despite his injuries, he was made to fill out paperwork and declare who would pay for the medical costs. Only then did the doctors tell Helmut that they could not help him.
He was then placed on a stretcher and driven to St. Jacques eye clinic. Alone in the back of the ambulance, which was being driven at breakneck speeds, Marko had to hold on to the railings to keep from tumbling off onto the floor. After enduring an operation at St. Jacques in which the doctors were convinced they had saved the sight in Marko’s left eye, he returned to Graz, only to be hospitalized again, where it was determined that his sight could not be saved after all.
With his driving career now over, Marko began managing up and coming drivers, most often fellow Austrians, working initially with Helmut Koenigg, Markus Hottinger and Jo Gartner before more successfully managing the early careers of Karl Wendlinger and Gerhard Berger. He also started RSM Marko, a F3 and F3000 team which raced under the Red Bull Junior Team moniker and took the 1996 F3000 title with Jorg Mueller.
Having earlier struck up a working relationship with Dietrich Mateschitz, Marko began overseeing the Red Bull driver development program which led to his working closely with a young Sebastian Vettel. The closeness which developed between the two came under a great bit of scrutiny when, during the 2010 Turkish GP, the Red Bull pair of Vettel and Mark Webber took each other out while running first and second. While many saw the accident as being the German’s fault, Marko was quick to lay blame squarely at Webber’s feet. This single mindedness towards his own protégé has garnered Marko a nickname from some in the F1 paddock: “Dr. Evil”.