Jürgen Barth

Date of Birth : December 10 1942

Biography Jürgen Barth

Jürgen Barth e was born in Thum in1947, in what was soon to become East Germany. His father Edgar Barth was a racing driver that started his career as a DKW motorcycle racer. Edgar Barth later moved on to BMW sports cars. After the war, BMW’s factory in East Germany went on to become the Eisenacher Motorenwerk (EMW) and Edgar Barth 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. By mistake the West German anthem was played while Edgar Barth was at the podium. Edgar Barth wasn’t even aware as he was so thrilled by his victory.  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.

Leaving East Germany

Jürgen Barth had an age of  10 years at that time 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.  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.

Porsche apprentice mechanic

Jürgen 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.

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.

Le Mans Victory

In 1977 he teamed up with Jacky Ickx and Hurley Haywood to win Le Mans. The win was not without drama,  Jacky 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 Barth and Hurley Haywood in the team’s #4 car, sister chassis 001. Jürgen 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.

Jürgen Barth says the Porsche 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!”

After his race career

Jürgen Barth’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.  In any case Jürgen definitely prefers the old school approach and is still taking part in classic endurance racing with some success, like at the 2014 Daytona Classic 24h