Jürgen Barth – The Le Mans winner that almost never was
Jürgen Barth is famous for his win at the Le Mans in 1977 and for his 1980 win at the 1000 km Nürburgring, but things could have gone very differently had his family stayed in East Germany.
Jürgen’s story reads a lot like a spy novel. He was born in Thum in1947, in what was soon to become East Germany. His father Edgar was a racing driver from before the war, beginning his career as a DKW motorcycle racer and later moving on to BMW sports cars. After the war, BMW’s factory in East Germany went on to become the Eisenacher Motorenwerk (EMW) and Edgar raced for them. By the mid-50s it became evident that socialism and car racing were not going to mix, and in 1957 Edgar accepted an offer to go and drive for Porsche in West Germany. It was actually his success that was to plunge the whole family into crisis. Edgar won a race at the Nürburgring and, while he was on the podium, the race organisers played the West German anthem by mistake. Edgar failed to notice this and celebrated his win. The government minders who were with him passed this information on to the East German authorities and it soon became clear it would have been too dangerous for him to return home.
At this point Jürgen was 10 years old and curious as to the sudden hive of activity from his mother, particularly the furious packing and trips to the local post office. The Berlin Wall had not yet been built, but East Germany was already tightening its grip, and every time Edgar travelled to the West, Jürgen and his mother had their passports taken to prevent them from following him. One day they simply left the house, changing cars twice, and headed for East Berlin. They arrived on the 30th November 1957 and then took the train towards the West. Their passports were still confiscated, so they planned the crossing on Dead Sunday, a national holiday, counting on the reduced checks to get through without being caught. As soon as they crossed over, his mother asked Jürgen how he would feel about staying in the West, to which he replied: “fantastic – then I won’t need to go to school on Monday!” His mother had packed and posted most of their possessions over in the weeks leading to their defection, so most of his father’s racing trophies made it to their new home.
Barth was also unusual in that he started out as an engineer but went on to become one of the most successful drivers in sports car racing. In 1963 he started as an apprentice mechanic in Porsche and, after three years, he moved to the Porsche Motorsport PR department, where he became heavily involved with their rally efforts in the late 60s. This eventually led to him getting increasingly involved with the drivers, even becoming a navigator for a brief stint. In 1968, he started rallying himself with a 356 at the Stuttgart Lyon Charbonniere and on his first attempt he finished fourth overall in his class, despite being against other newer cars like the 911s. At this time he was rallying with John Buffum, a US soldier posted in Germany who went on to become the most successful US rally driver of all time, winning 11 national titles.
Barth rallying a 911 at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1983
The Le Mans era began with his first race in 1971, and he started to make a name for himself as a driver that was not just fast, but also easy on the cars. His first factory entry with Porsche was in 1976 with a 936 but a gearbox problem forced an early retirement.
Barth in action in the 936
In 1977 he teamed up with Jacky Ickx and Hurley Haywood to win Le Mans. The win was not without drama, Ickx was initially down to drive the #3 car, chassis 002 that had won in 1976, however, his car broke down so Ickx joined Jürgen and Haywood in the team’s #4 car, sister chassis 001. Barth pushed hard, taking advantage of the fragile Renault challenge and went on to win, helping to score Ickx’s fourth Le Mans victory in the process. It was, however, a close-run thing for Porsche; an engine failure very nearly took the Porsche 936 out in the last hour. The mechanics removed the ignition and injection on the failed cylinder, and Jürgen Barth nursed the 936 around the track to finish the race.
Celebrating the win in 77!
Jürgen says the 936 was the ideal car for Le Mans, but he definitely has a soft spot for the 908s as well: “The 936 was very stable and well suited to Le Mans, however the 908/3 was fantastic in other races like the Targa Florio and don’t forget that, despite a design dating back to 1970, ten years later in 1980 I still won the 1000 km Nürburgring with it, albeit plus a turbo!”
Jurgen in the 908/3 that won the 1000km Nürburgring in 1980
Jürgen’s view on modern racing is that technology is driving a wedge between car and driver. He does not mean that less skill is required, his point is that current drivers seem to have less affinity with the car and how it behaves, often relying solely on the engineers and their data, as opposed to using the car’s feedback and instinct as the old guard used to do. Jürgen is convinced that this is the cause for the recent spate of crashes on parts of circuits previously untouched by accidents. A case in point is the Nissan GT-R driven by Jann Mardenborough that flipped off the track and into the spectator area at the VLN endurance race at the Nürburgring. The driver survived without serious injuries, but one spectator was killed and more were injured.The debate against driver aids and the ever-pervasive intrusion of technology is an old one, but it is fascinating to hear an old hand like Jürgen suggesting that the divide between car and driver is now so great that it is having a direct effect on safety. In any case Jürgen definitely prefers the old school approach and is still taking part in classic endurance racing with some success, winning the championship last year.
Many thanks to Jürgen Barth for his time and for the pictures used in this article.