Unlike most 24-year-old men, Sebastian Vettel will spend this weekend driving a Formula One car as the sports’s youngest back-to-back drivers’ champion, in an excellent place to make it three in a row. Like everyone with titanic achievements, he didn’t do it by himself. A major contributor to his success was a strange Austrian man with eclectic and wide-ranging footprints in motorsport over the past 40 years: Helmut Marko.
One could be forgiven for not knowing much about Helmut Marko before the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, when, after his protégé Sebastian Vettel had plowed into Red Bull teammate Mark Webber’s car and took himself out of the race, Marko blamed Webber for the crash. Red Bull’s Dr. Evil is not a man of the spotlight, managing his drivers from behind the scene. Based on Sebastian Vettel’s performance as of late, you could say Dr. Marko—he earned a law degree in 1967—is not half bad at spotting talent.
Marko was a racing mate of the fabulous Austrian driver Jochen Rindt, who lived very fast and died very young, at the age of 28, after his Lotus failed him in Monza, becoming Formula One’s only posthumous world champion soon after (that photo of his widow Nina posing with Jochen’s trophy on Jackie Stewart’s side is one you will most likely never forget). A year after Rindt’s death, Marko made it to Formula One as well, but his single-seater glory would have to wait until he became a talent spotter decades later: over his ten-race career, he scored no points.
His life in F1 may have developed very differently had it not been for a stone thrown up by Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus at the 1972 French Grand Prix, which hit Marko in the eye and blinded him on the spot. His racing career was over.
It was in endurance racing, in the years before his accident, where Marko set awesome records. In 1971, he drove a Porsche 917 with a magnesium chassis to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, completing an incredible 3,315 miles with co-driver Gijs van Lennep, a record which stood for 39 years. A year later, he drove a 44.7-mile lap of the Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo 33 at 33 minutes and 41 seconds, and this is a record which stands to this day. That’s almost 80 mph on twisty, narrow, Sicilian public roads.
Later, he turned his attention to hotels and property before returning to motor racing as a talent agent. He’s responsible for bringing Gerhard Berger, Karl Wendlinger and Juan Pablo Montoya into the sport, but it wasn’t until his partnership with Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz that Marko returned to ruling the world like in his sports prototype days.
When Mateschitz picked up the ruins of Jaguar Racing in 2004, Sebastian Vettel was a precocious teenager racing Formula Three cars, already under Marko’s wings. Barely five years later, Vettel and Red Bull were challenging for the Formula One title. And when you look at a modern Formula One driver’s outfit and see a closed-face helmet, you’re seeing yet another mark of Helmut Marko’s contribution to the sport and to driver safety: helmets since his accident come with bulletproof polycarbonate visors.