Top qualifying time. Pole position. So far, so good. But what happens to Mike Rockenfeller just before the formation lap is something he will never forget as long as he lives.
Monte Carlo, third race of the Porsche Supercup, May 23, 2004. “Whoever’s on pole position is that much closer to victory.” It’s hardly the greatest of all racing axioms, but it’s more accurate in Monaco than in most places, where the tight streets make overtaking competitors all but impossible. That fact is no secret to Mike Rockenfeller, and the driver, only twenty years old, pursues the top qualifying time in training with an almost ruthless resolve. And with success. The unity of man and machine—Rockenfeller’s perfect combination of patience and aggression—results in a flawless lap: 1:38.53. Pole position. So far, so good.
But what happens to Rockenfeller just before the formation lap is something he will never forget as long as he lives. The start is just minutes away when a cameraman opens the passenger door of his Cup vehicle, climbs into the cockpit with his camera, and zooms in on the German. Not a problem for Rockenfeller: “I knew the TV people.” The door closes—the race is about to start. The Cup model 996 is started with an ignition key. As the light turns green over Rockenfeller’s head, he urns the key. The starter gives its all. “I’ve always started the engine as late as possible.” But this time almost nothing happens—just two or three feeble turns of the engine. Rockenfeller’s competitors stream past him.
Don’t panic! Then it hits him: on the right side of the cockpit there’s an unobtrusive switch for the fuel pump. The cameraman must have bumped it unintentionally. Rockenfeller reaches for the switch with his right hand while turning the ignition key with his left. The flat engine immediately roars to life. Clutch. First gear. Let’s go! Rockenfeller zips into the formation lap in the nick of time, right before his last two competitors can pass him, and is able to push past all of the cars in front of him and start the race back at the pole position. If the last cars in the field had passed him during his botched pre-start, the young driver would have had to start from the back of the grid—and kiss his dream of victory good-bye.
The rest is history. When the race starts, Rockenfeller goes into the first corner in the lead, delivers a perfect start-to-finish victory, and lays down the fastest race lap to boot: 1:39.359. “Winning in Monaco was incredibly awesome,” says the future Le Mans winner and champion of the German Touring Car Masters. One thing did still manage to go wrong, however: “All of the weekend’s race winners were invited to a reception with Prince Albert of Monaco, including me. But I didn’t know about it. When the team directors finally got a hold of me, I was already on my way home.”