Remembering an unsung WRC co-driver

Manfred Hiemer, who read notes for Erwin Weber and Armin Schwarz in the WRC, died last month

Network Q Rally of Great Britain Rac Cardiff (GBR) 23-26 11 2000

Not every World Rally Championship competitor is destined for greatness. Some will fall through a lack of the required talent, but normally poor timing or fortune can be all it takes to dictate the direction of a career.

Manfred Hiemer was certainly a good enough co-driver to achieve a lot more than just the one WRC podium he managed to attain. But the unavoidable reality that a proportion of you reading this feature right now may never have even heard of him means he never quite got the chance to rake in any big success.

An unassuming individual who wasn’t interested in the limelight, in some ways that was how Manfred liked it. But he was as motivated to win as anyone, and as such left a big impression on those who worked closest with him.

Last month, the German sadly passed away aged just 62. To remember a life well lived and celebrate a character held in high esteem, DirtFish picked up the phone to the driver who gave Manfred his highest profile shot in the WRC – Armin Schwarz.

“He has been a very good friend to me, and we shared all the years in Škoda together and also in Hyundai,” says Schwarz.

“He was a very, let’s say, Bavarian character, very nice to chat to. I had good fun with him, we had good parties, but really when it came down to his job, his pacenotes and everything, he was very professional and he was very, very keen to work at his best to get the best result out of it – even at times when it has been not that easy.

Test Skoda Fabia Wrc 2004

“Like the Hyundai time, it was not that easy to work but he had always full commitment and we had good fun whatever we did.”

Hiemer’s early adult life was spent in the army but, seeking a new challenge, he stumbled across rallying.

“I met him very, very early on when we both actually started back in the early ’80s,” Schwarz remembers.

“Of course you keep seeing each other because you are doing similar championships, you are doing similar rallies. And like that, we always had a talk together, had some parties together and so on, and like that I knew him for quite a long time before we got together in the rally car.”

Manfred’s first-ever event was back in 1981 when he was just 19 years old, but it was in the early ’90s when he rose to prominence in Germany – winning the national title in a works Volkswagen Golf alongside Erwin Weber.

This was the start of a prominent partnership. Stepping up to the European championship and a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Galant for ’92, the pair became ERC champions at their first attempt and would work their way up to the WRC with Seat as the Formula 2 era began.

Working with a factory team was a great coup, and the two Germans were an integral part of Seat’s world championship success in both 1996 and ’97.

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 20-25 01 1996

But for ’98 Manfred was in need of a new in-car companion, as Weber took the decision to retire.

Step forward Schwarz, who conveniently was on the hunt for a co-driver after losing both his Ford drive and his co-driver, Denis Giraudet, who rekindled an old link with Didier Auriol at Toyota.

“We had some plans to work together, to drive together,” Schwarz says, “but the point is always when you have nothing to drive you have nothing to offer to a co-driver. You need to have, first, your program fixed before you can talk really seriously to a co-driver.

“When I know I get a solid drive with Škoda on their development of the Octavia, then I had a chance to talk with Manfred about a serious commitment doing the world championship.”

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 18-21 01 2001

The pair had driven together on select rallies in 1998 but 1999 was the true start of their partnership: working with Škoda to try and bring it to the front of the WRC.

History tells us that was ultimately a failed mission, but Manfred was a very useful asset for the project according to Schwarz.

“At the end of the day we were like an old couple arguing about a couple of things!” he laughs.

“But we had a really good time and built a really good friendship sharing all these times in WRC. He was working as hard as I did to come to Škoda because it really was the formation of a new team – it was not only the build up of a car it was also to work on team structure and everything.

“Manfred was doing his best to bring all his experience that he had made with Mitsubishi and Seat where he had been before, and yeah, he put a lot of effort into it to build up Škoda to what it has been in the 2000s when we run the WRC car.

“He was quite a relaxed character – there was nothing he wouldn’t do,” Schwarz adds.

“There was no time he would say ‘that’s too early to get up’ or whatever. He was always on it and there was no commitment he wouldn’t make; he would always do everything to help you fulfill your targets and get you going.

Rally Montecarlo 17-20 01 2002

“So that altogether made him so special, because he was working hard. But he never forgot about the fun factor, so that made him so special.”

Manfred’s biggest success in a rally car was the 2001 Safari Rally – an event remembered for being Škoda’s only podium in the WRC. The cumbersome Octavia WRC wasn’t good for much more, but the Safari wasn’t their only strong performance.

“I think it was in 2000 when the car was not really ready to compete with the big teams and the big cars, we put up a best time, fastest time, in Catalunya in the worst weather conditions you could have,” Schwarz shares, recalling the pair’s run through Alpens – Les Llosses on the first afternoon of the event.

“Especially when the road condition got worse the team-play in the car needs to be high.

“Everybody needs to perform very well, not making any mistakes or not hesitating with anything, and that showed the working relationship is very good.

“And also when we came to Kenya, we both knew what the car could do if everything fits together. And there Manfred was really keeping an eye on everything that the team was doing.

“We had a lot of discussion. We had the board members there talking to him what is needed to get a successful rally and actually we both together made a promise to the board that we definitely have a chance to finish on the podium.”

Safari Rally Kenya Nairobi (EAK) 25-27 02 2000

John Archer can attest to that professionalism.

Now on-event engineer for Hankook, Archer worked in the powertrain department for Hyundai when Schwarz and Hiemer joined in 2002.

“It was the very first test when Armin joined Hyundai in Monte Carlo [where I first met Manfred],” Archer tells DirtFish.

“He’d obviously come from Škoda – a car that was probably similar to the Hyundai at the time. It had plenty of potential but a lot of issues.

He was sitting back laughing, saying, 'This is great, so much downtime because this animal's in the car!' John Archer

“They joined the test and I can remember because Armin had done a lot of damage on the test with gearbox-related stuff. And Armin being Armin, he was a very talented driver but he was comparing the car completely to the Škoda, which didn’t really gel well to start a new career in a new team.

“But Manfred was just sitting back laughing, and he would have ‘ate’, as we called it, 60 cigarettes in a day. He was sitting back laughing, saying, ‘This is great, so much downtime because this animal’s in the car!’

“But he said, ‘You’ll never change him but you will make things work.’ Then we had a move to, as Manfred called it, Armin’s favorite test road which was a big move for the team at the time to go and finish the test in Monte Carlo on the Škoda test road, as he called it.

“I don’t know what happened, but everything seemed to gel with Manfred, Armin and the team at that test and they became part of the family. So many good memories with him.”

If the Škoda period was difficult, the move across the service park to Hyundai was perhaps even more so. Across two seasons before Hyundai pulled the plug on its program in 2003, Schwarz and Hiemer only managed to amass three world championship points.

Manfred remained as serious and as committed as ever, but also able to see the lighter side and enjoy himself when he could.

“He was just so easy to get on with,” Archer says.

“He came and did his own thing – he never expected anybody to put his helmet in the car or his notes and stuff, and his notes were his, nobody touched them but him.

Rally Costa Smeralda Porto Cervo (ITA) 07-11 04 1992

“He was always fully prepared – not like the newer generation where you sometimes have to take them by the hand and do everything for them. He had his little routine – his cigarette and his coffee, as long as he got that in the morning he never asked for anything special in the car.

“His belts were always correct, he never complained. You never ever heard him complaining ‘my seat’s not right, this is not right’. Even when we changed test cars during tests, he never said ‘oh I don’t have my pen holder, where’s my bag?’ He just got on with the job.

“Again if there was an engine problem or something, he would’ve just looked at you: ‘Is it fixable?’ You’d give him the nod, he’d ask, ‘Do I need to go to the control, will we be late?’ ‘No, stick around you’re fine.’

“He could read the situation better than any of the rest of us. I never saw him stressed.”

Omv Adac Rallye Deutschland 25-28 2005
That was the biggest struggle that you could have, if he ran out of cigarettes Armin Schwarz

But like the best of us, Manfred did have his vice. Cigarettes.

“I can remember one time in New Zealand he overslept, but his biggest issue that morning wasn’t about the fact he hadn’t got his race suit on – I don’t even think he had underwear on when he arrived at service – it was ‘where is my first cigarette?'” Archer recalls.

“Because he wanted Armin to stop on the road section to get cigarettes but neither of them had money, so it was the first thing he asked for when they arrived at the time control: ‘please give me a cigarette!’

“But he was also… can’t say he was blind, but he served his time in the army before he became a co-driver, and he said spending that much time in the snow, especially when we were in Sweden or Monte Carlo, his eyes never stopped running.

Rally Svezia

“And he said it was because of being snow blind. It didn’t bother him when he was in the car but when he got out of the car, his eyes were just… real big issues.”

Schwarz has similar cigarette-based tales to share.

“I will keep him in my mind as he was. I think he would love to see me sharing stories that we both had together, and it was not always related to the car, to the sport, to rally itself – it was just the time that we spent together and what we experienced together,” he says.

“In Rally Liepāja I had a talk with one of our mechanics that we had at Hyundai [Archer] and we got to old stories: ‘You remember that? You remember that?’ Always it turns down to one point: if he had no cigarettes, it was bad. Really bad.

“That was the biggest struggle that you could have, if he ran out of cigarettes. That was his way probably to calm himself down and there are a lot of stories about that, when he ran out and how he tried to get cigarettes at the next service point or to get out of a plane because he couldn’t smoke on the plane, things like that.

“That was funny and that I will still keep in my mind.

“Like in Kenya, at that time the stages were 100km or more so you did an hour and a half driving time, and what I never will forget when we had a flat one time during the stage and I got out of the car and came around with the jack to jack the car up, Manfred was standing there and he already had a cigarette!

Safari Rally Kenya Nairobi (EAK) 25-27 02 2000

“That was the first thing he did before changing a tire in the stage,” Schwarz chuckles, “so this is what I am talking about, the character.

“He was changing [the tire] as quick as he could, but there was also something he needed desperately and it was a cigarette!

“These are things I will keep in mind. He was funny, he was professional and he did always his best to make the results.”

Perhaps more so than anyone else given he preferred to keep his private life just that, private, Schwarz was “very close” with Manfred, labeling him “a very good friend”.

The pair stopped working together as Manfred elected to step back after the 2004 season where they had returned to Škoda to pilot a Fabia WRC. Schwarz stayed driving professionally for one more year but always kept in touch, right to the very end.

Acropolis Rally 2004

“Munich is not that far from where I live and there have been, not only once, we came back from long rallies and we ended up in a Bavarian beer garden having some traditional food and some beer!” he smiles.

“That was just normal and also we shared birthdays together and going out with friends watching other rallies. We were very close.

“The only thing that I must say, that I see now getting older, is you start to lose friends.

“The more I get my memory up about the good times we had altogether, it was not just with Manfred, it was the whole championship. I have been recently talking with Alister [McRae] about Colin, and it’s the same story – he has so many stories you share, so many things you share and events and people are just gone.

“When you get older, you are thinking more about ‘hey, hopefully you keep your friends as long as you can’.”