The win that wasn’t…or was it?

In 1964, when the 1800 took on the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in its debut season. BMW wasn’t expecting much from its new sedan, but drivers Rauno Aaltonen and Hubert Hahne were in it to win it.

The win that wasn’t…or was it? 1
March 4, 2016

When BMW arrived in Belgium in late July 1964 for the country’s most famous road race, the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the 1800 ti hadn’t even been on the road for a full year yet, and the car had only been raced a few times. Although it DNF’d its first major outing, the 6 Hours of Brands Hatch in early June, it started to show some promise when it finished seventh at the Nürburgring 6 Hour race later that month.

Nonetheless, BMW didn’t necessarily have high expectations for its new racer. A decent amount of speed and a respectable showing would be fine.

Instead, the 1800’s success at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, one of Europe’s most prestigious long-distance races, secured the Mothership’s Neue Klasse of automobiles a place in history. Driven by German racing hero Hubert Hahne (who’d raced it at the ’Ring with Toni Fischhaber) and internationally renowned Finnish rally ace Rauno Aaltonen, the 1800 raced to a sensational second place overall, single-handedly positioning the car at the top of a new class of sport sedans, a category which BMW rules to this day.

It should have even been better.

“[At the race], it was announced that we were leading but on the same lap as the Mercedes 300SE [of Gustave Gosselin/Robert Crevits],” Aaltonen told Bimmer by telephone from Finland. “We were far ahead of the Mercedes when Hubert came into the pits with 20 minutes to go due to a soft brake pedal.”

According to the Finn, Hahne left the pit after a short repair still in the lead…and finished the race in first place.

“Only after the race, the organizers said the Mercedes had won,” he recalls. “As the timekeeping was manual, there was no real chance to protest and have the result corrected.”

Enter the Finn

Although the team wasn’t credited with the win, second place was impressive even amidst the 1800 ti’s other accomplishments during the 1964 motorsport season.

Hubert Hahne had reached something akin to Teutonic sainthood by dominating the Deutsche Rundstreckenmeisterschaft or German circuit racing championship, the precursor to the various Touring Car Championships. In the 1800’s debut season, Hahne drove it to the win in 14 of 16 races.

The win that wasn’t…or was it? 2

And then Aaltonen appeared.

“The car had already gained quite a reputation,” says Rauno, “and I had initially approached BMW to discuss participation of the new 1800 in some Scandinavian rallies.”

Aaltonen needed to replace his old Saab warhorses, and the new BMW had caught his eye. But after a few test drives and closer inspection, he decided he would rather race it on well-paved tracks than the extremely demanding rally circuit.

“The suspension was too fragile,” he says.

BMW’s then-technical director and de facto motorsport chief, Alex von Falkenhausen, agreed that it would be a splendid idea. He decided to form a “super team” for the Spa 24 Hours by pairing the rallyist with BMW’s main dude, Hahne.

BMW Motorsport didn’t yet exist at that time, but racing was in the company’s blood, and it would prove crucial to marketing the Neue Klasse. The 1500 had been introduced just a few years earlier, as a 1962 model, breaking new ground not only for BMW but for cars in general, redefining how they should look and drive in the early 1960s. One year later, the more powerful 1800 ti debuted, and BMW planned to showcase its capabilities by going racing.

“It was the BMW factory team and not an outside team, after all,” recalls Aaltonen.

Nothing was spared, especially for the 24 Hours of Spa. BMW entered two cars: the #204 for Aaltonen and Hahne, and the #203 for Heinz Eppelein and Walter Schneider.

“We had all the possibilities to get every bit of technical information, and the car was superbly prepared. Alex von Falkenhausen took personal interest in the preparation and the race, as well. I had long discussions with him concerning all technical details of the car. He was not only a very high-ranking manager, but he really knew the 1800 inside and out—and he was a consummate sportsman.”

The 1800 ti turned out to be a perfect fit for the Spa track in its pre-1979 configuration, which ran for 8.76 miles through the Ardennes forest. In qualifying, Hahne and Aaltonen turned a lap of 4 minutes, 55 seconds, good for fourth behind the pole-sitting Ford Cortina Lotus (4:46), the factory Mercedes 300 SE (4:48) and a Lancia Fulvia Sport Zagato (4:46.5).

The win that wasn’t…or was it? 3

“The car’s balance was extremely good, and it was very easy to drive,” says Rauno. “The old Spa circuit was very difficult. Most bends were very long and high speed over hills and undulations. It was much nicer and very demanding, not like today’s Mickey Mouse F1 circuits.”

Though the #203 retired with a blown head gasket after five hours, the #204 car ran like clockwork, Aaltonen remembers, although at one time the water temperature went to 100°C and the oil pressure dropped slightly.

“After dropping the revs by 500 at the gear changes, I could keep the temperatures within reasonable limits,” he says.

Big talents, big egos

Despite the 1800’s excellence, it wasn’t all Freude am Fahren in the BMW camp. Although Rauno insisted that he and Hahne got along rather well, “on a personal level,” the two oversized egos clashed during the race’s final hour.

“The tragedy was the inexperience of Hubert when he came to the pits just 20 minutes before the finish, complaining about a deep-going brake pedal,” Aaltonen says. “He asked for new brake pads, which made no difference.

“I was unfortunately not in the pit when the pads had been changed. I knew the reason immediately. The wheel bearings wear and let the brake disc push the brake caliper pistons further in. There is no problem or danger there. The driver just has to pump the brake pedal once before the actual braking. It was quite a normal occurrence in long events, and especially in Alpine rallies, but not in short circuit races. To understand this phenomenon, you just need experience and technical thinking.”

Despite the delay, Hahne emerged from the pits still leading the race, Aaltonen says. Unfortunately, the racing commissioner saw things differently, and the two were credited with second overall, first in class. Needless to say, Aaltonen and Hahne never drove together again; when Hahne won the Spa 24 in 1966 in a 2000 ti, he did so with Jacky Ickx.

Win or no win, the controversy didn’t stop the party that followed in the white-blue pits.

“The amount of Champagne was not limited,” recalls Rauno. “Many people are still convinced we won.” 

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