It’s Helmut Marko's Job to Make Race Car Drivers Know When They're Not Special. Is That Cruel?

Motorsports A-Z: Helmut Marko, ‘L’ is for the Lord of Darkness.

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Illustration by Jason Holley

Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s 79-year-old Austrian talent scout with a doctorate in law and just one remaining eyeball, is among the most powerful and menacing figures in Formula 1 [fig. 1]. So we approached him with a few pointed questions.

This story originally appeared in Volume 13 of Road & Track.

Road & Track: You’ve gained a reputation in the racing world as coldhearted or even cruel. Does that bother you?

Helmut Marko: No. In motor racing, there is always an excuse for not winning—the engine, the tires, the chassis, and so on. Unfortunately, a lot of drivers are supported by parents who spend a lot of money, sometimes more money than they have, just to fulfill the dreams of raising a son who is a famous race-car driver. It’s my obligation to tell them when they should go in a different direction and stop wasting money.

R&T: As a Le Mans winner and veteran driver in F1 and the Targa Florio, you understand the dangers of racing. Has the racing world sacrificed appeal in the name of safety?

HM: In 1972, at Targa Florio, I drove quite fast, dangerously fast. But that’s the human impulse: If you see the chance of winning, there is so much adrenaline. The fans were certainly drawn by that danger. I am glad that these times are over when two or three drivers a year were killed and another five were seriously hurt—like me, when I lost an eye and couldn’t continue in the sport.

R&T: In his book, Adrian Newey writes that when you first met, you said, “I am Dr. Helmut Marko. I work for Red Bull. You will call me.” Then you walked away. Do you understand why this struck him as funny?

HM: He gazed a little bit strange at me. Look, when Red Bull decided to go into F1, people thought we were just a fun company making bigger parties than the others. My approach was to be as competitive as possible. I am direct about what we expect, and in the end, it worked out.

R&T: You speak your mind about matters that most teams consider private, such as a driver’s standing within the team. Is this a management tool?

HM: We make championships possible. Of course there is a lot of pressure. But if you can’t stand pressure, racing is the wrong business for you.

R&T: Early in the COVID pandemic, you thought of sending your drivers and teams to a camp where they could contract the virus to get immunity before the season began. Were you serious, or were your comments misunderstood?

HM: It was serious. Doctors believed once you had it, it’s over. That you can get it a second and third time wasn’t known then. And we have young, strong people. It’s like a flu. Imagine if [Max] Verstappen would have got it last year at the wrong moment. The championship would’ve been gone if he had to miss one or two races.

R&T: Other Red Bull drivers seem unable to handle the pressure of competing against Verstappen.

HM: To have Max as a teammate is not a nice part of your career. Max is so special. He was trained in a very tough way by his father, but very successfully. For example, when he was under 10 years old, they were in Italy, and as soon as it started raining, all the other drivers went to the cafeteria for a coffee or a cake. Max had to stay out, sometimes with frozen fingers. That’s why he’s so good in the rain. He can adapt immediately.

R&T: And teammates see that?

HM: Yes. They compare their cars with his: “Do I have the same material?” They think, “How can I overcome him?” They can’t, so they try to change the setup on the car or adapt their driving style. Of course you can’t accept that you’re simply not as good as him. At some stage, you have to recognize, bah, there is someone who is special and it’s just not possible to beat him. It’s my job to make them understand that. Is that cruel? I don’t think so.

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