Ulf Ehninger from Tübingen in Germany surprisingly won the BOSS GP OPEN class title in 2021. We spoke to the defending champion ahead of the season opener in Hockenheim (6-8 May 2022) to discuss the speciality of running a classic Formula 1 car.
Let’s look back to 2021: What are the strongest memories of your masterpiece?
ULF EHNINGER: «Probably that we made it at all! We didn’t even realise it until Monza. It was only when Thomas Hummer from Pirelli told me at the podium ceremony that we had a chance that we started thinking about it. Before that, we wanted to be completely relaxed about it — it was just for fun. I learned that if I take the pressure off, it works better. Ingo Gerstl helped me to understand the set-up of the car. I didn’t feel comfortable in the car for a long time, now I feel the car and its limits much better.»
Was verbindet dich mit dem Benetton B197?
EHNINGER: «The car is great, I often stand languishing in front of it. Actually, the car is much too beautiful to drive. You should know, that it’s probably also the Formula 1 car with the most kilometres worldwide!»
What do you need to be able to do to drive a car like that?
EHNINGER: «James Hunt once said, ‘big balls’. Before I get into a car like this, I have quite a mental dilemma When you sit in it, however, it’s gone. But it’s still a huge challenge to drive it. After the first free practice session I’m completely blown away — and confronted with a lot of impressions — that takes a lot of effort. Gerstl pulls the trigger, I have to feel my way. Engineer Dario Pergolini helped me a lot with his analysis tools. I can’t even describe the feeling of driving such a racing car. Acceleration is the quickest thing to get used to, but I’ll never get used to the cornering speeds.»
How did it come about in the first place? You don’t buy a Formula 1 car in a supermarket …
EHNINGER: «I drove endurance races for a long time. But my dream was always to drive a Formula 1 racing car, which I wanted to do for my 50th birthday. The fact that I now own and drive one myself and have already driven almost 3,000 kilometres in it — that’s a dream come true. I drove a sports car in the Jim Clark Revival at the Hockenheimring in 2018. We broke the drive shaft. After the repair, we walked through the paddock late at night. As we passed Phil Stratford’s pits, a sticker said ‘Sale’. Rather jokingly, we then called the number and ended up with Kevin Mansell and Phil Stratford, who informed us about the car the very next day. It then took some time, as the car was in the USA, until we could get started. But our goal has always been to run the car ourselves and not have another team look after it.»
That sounds good, but not easy.
EHNINGER: «I do most of the work myself and also drive the truck. The search for parts can be very tiring, it can take three months to find something. In winter, everything is checked — every sealing ring, the entire chassis for possible damage and so on. The spare parts have to be rebuilt. We are currently working on a solution to increase the short running times of the gearbox. After the race at the Red Bull Ring (3-5 June 2022, note), the engine will then come in for an overhaul.»
Why can’t you get enough of it anyway?
EHNINGER: «I think it’s nice to spend a race weekend together with others. I have been super well welcomed into the BOSS GP. It was always said that only the rich ‘snobs’ race there — but it wasn’t like that. So we enjoy spending a weekend like this as a community rather than attending track days somewhere anonymously. Last year the Italians invited us for dinner, and even though we didn’t know Italian and they didn’t know German, we had a delicious evening of conversation.»
Your team ESBA Racing originally comes from endurance racing, how are you set up?
EHNINGER: «As you rightly say, ESBA already existed before the Benetton, roughly since 2016. We had already bought a truck for it, which we still use today to spend the night at the race tracks. Jochen, with whom I’ve been friends for over 30 years, has been with me from the beginning. When I’m driving, he’s with me. When he rides, I’m with him. I met Jens through a friend. He has become a valuable team member and is now also involved with Glickenhaus. He’s passionate about Benetton, and without him it wouldn’t work at all. Then there is Dario, who has brought professionalism to the team.
Can you briefly summarise your racing career so far?
EHNINGER: «Career is perhaps a little overstated (laughs). More than 20 years ago, I really wanted to race on the Nordschleife. Together with friends we built a BMW E36 M3 — without much time or money. Later I also drove an Audi and a Porsche — even the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring twice. The Nordschleife is certainly the greatest track there is.
What I like about the BOSS GP Racing Series is the way the people tick, that you can have fun together and that politics is in the background. With Pirelli, we have a strong partner and are certainly on the right track. I wish, more being done for young talent.»
What are your plans for the new season?
EHNINGER: «In addition to a few races in the BOSS GP, I will also try to drive another historic race car a few times, namely a V8 Star bolide (German silhouette series from the early 2000s, note) — the original Hasseröder car from Harald Grohs.»
Photos: Angelo Poletto/BOSS GP