Duerheimer steers Bentley back to the track
CEO's racing passion began on two-wheelers
When former Volkswagen Group chief Ferdinand Piech asked Wolfgang Duerheimer in 2011 to become CEO of Bentley, Duerheimer's answer was: "If I say yes, can I bring back Bentley racing?"
Piech said yes, but only if Bentley was making money.
"Bentley back then was financially not in a very positive situation," Duerheimer said on the sidelines of the Shanghai auto show in April. "So I gave everything to turn the company around, which I achieved."
Mission accomplished, Piech granted Duerheimer his wish and in December 2013, Bentley debuted its GT3 race car, returning the brand to the track after a 10-year hiatus.
Duerheimer, 58, is a strong believer in the old adage "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," but his love of racing comes from a place where money is the means rather than the end.
His personal racing passion is on two wheels, not four.
Duerheimer grew up in the village of Martinszell, in the Swabian region of southern Germany, and got his own motorbike at age 14. Appropriately, given his current stewardship of an iconic British brand, it was an old Triumph, which he modified and hammered around on through the local fields. "I had a lot of proving ground," he said.
That sparked a lifelong passion for off-road racing called trials. It's a relatively cheap motorsport, but his extreme competitiveness necessitated a new bike from Spanish maker Montesa each year, and that required money.
Living near the Alps, he built up his bike fund over the winter holidays teaching skiing.
The summer job was less fun.
"I worked in a cheese factory making camembert," he said. "It was tough but it was the best paid job in town."
Duerheimer's dream of turning professional burned so strong he strung lights along nearby forest tracks to practice into the night, but he hit one insurmountable barrier: His talent fell short of his lofty ambition.
"I realized in practicing with two good friends that my talents are limited, and I would never become a world champion," he said.
He decided to focus on the technology instead.
Duerheimer's hero was famed German speedway racer Manfred Poschenrieder, whose workshop was in the nearby town of Kempten.
"I admired his professionalism. He was a constant winner," he said.
Duerheimer hung around the workshop every Monday before school to check what state the bikes came back in and how many trophies were unloaded.
He asked Poschenrieder for an apprenticeship at his engine rebuilding and tuning business, but the racer wasn't keen on it. Duerheimer pleaded and was given the task of removing a V-8 diesel engine from an old logging truck.
"It was full of grease and oil, the ugliest engine I ever saw, but this was the entry ticket," he said.
The ultimate prize was to work on Poschenrieder's own race engines, "the finest engines on track," Duerheimer recalled.
He went on to study motor vehicle engineering in Munich and while there happened to read about BMW's problems with the rear suspension on its racing trials bike.
"I wrote a letter to the testing department saying I would like to help them solve this," Duerheimer said. BMW liked his idea so much the company paid him to write his thesis on the problem. His solution was the paralever, which enabled the bike to retain its rear suspension travel while accelerating over rough ground. It ended up being fitted to all of BMW's flat-twin motorbikes.
Duerheimer worked at BMW from 1986 to 1999 and joined three rounds of the grueling Paris-Dakar off-road race in North Africa, which has classes for cars and full-size trucks as well as motorbikes.
These days Duerheimer occasionally drives one of Bentley's old race cars, but he lets the professionals pilot the GT3s.
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