It is a sleepy village road on the edge of the historic medieval city of Baelen. Here, an old 19th century paper mill is the home of MEC Auto. Today, legendary racecars with great history are rebuilt and maintained with expert technical skill, in a place where once paper was made and stored. During the last few decades, brothers Mike and Stéphan Kupka formed a small team of people who really know their craft. Just a couple of weeks ago, MEC added the 2014 Historic Group C Championship to the team's impressive success list, when Christophe d'Ansembourg clinched the prestigious title with his Jägermeister-Porsche 962, prepared and run by the squad.
On entering the workshop you really don’t know where to look first. Just next to the entrance there is another Porsche 962 hidden beneath a cover. Behind it on a bogie you find a stripped Porsche 910 chassis. A passageway allows you to cast your eyes on the nose of a green-yellow Brabham BT26, which is jacked up and being re-assembled. "This one has been signed by Jack Brabham himself", Stéphan Kupka, the elder of the two brothers, explains with joy in his eyes. "Two years ago, we took this car to the Historic Monaco GP. Originally, this BT26 had a Repco engine fitted and it was driven by Jochen Rindt, before Jack Brabham converted it to the Ford-Cosworth DVF engine it has now. This is why there is such a huge gap between the chassis and the engine, where the extinguisher sits now." Three BT26 chassis were built; two as racecars for Brabham and Ickx, and one T-car for the 1969 Formula 1 season. In 1970, South African Peter de Klerk drove one of the ex-works BT26 for the Gunston team. "Remnants of Ickx's car turned up during an unfortunate crash at Monaco” tells Kupka.
The front of the car was splintered into more than 50 pieces after that crash. “With no more spares available, I reassembled everything like a jigsaw. And while doing that, I found a wooden piece of the front wing whit the capital letters ’ICKX’ written over it," says Stéphan Kupka, about working painstakingly on the Brabham. "It is a great contemporary document but it is a pity for the original nose cone of the car. But then again, these cars have been built for racing. So we took the reassembled puzzle and built a negative from which we made a newer and much lighter nose to have the car operational again."
Memories of Formula 1 legends
Formula 1 has always been the ultimate discipline for Stéphan, who once dreamed about becoming a race driver himself, which led to him starting out in the cockpit. Today, however, his passion is operating and rebuilding historic Formula 1 cars. "We have been working in historic F1 for 16 years now. And because of that we got to know quite a lot of the big names from the past,” Stéphan says, about some of his once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. "We had a lot of great moments and interesting encounters during the last couple of years. I still remember a chat with Emerson Fittipaldi, for example. We spent more than 90 minutes talking once talking during an event, before his colleagues came to get him because he was already way behind his schedule.
In 2004, the MEC Auto team won the FIA Historic Formula 1 World Championship. "At the end of the year, we were at Monaco for the official FIA price giving ceremony," Stéphan recalls. "The car we used back then, a 1976 March 761, was positioned right at the entrance to the event. That was a great moment for us. With Rodrigo Gallego we had a customer from Portugal, who pushed for getting this project going in a very professional way. 'If the car is broken, it has to be repaired and ready again in three weeks' time for the next race, no matter what it would require.' This was the name of his game. It was great." With no expenses spared and in a most professional way, MEC had a fresh spare engine and a complete spare chassis in the back of its truck for the whole of the season.
When modern Formula 1 first went to Bahrain in 2004, a Historic F1 race was held as a side show, which led to MEC entering the March. "After a battery failure the March was towed away with a marshal sitting in the car and another driving the tow vehicle in front", says Stéphan who is still agitated by the thought of the scene. "The two of them could not work out which way to go, uphill or downhill. In the end, they managed to roll our March while we were waiting for the car to get back in the pits. But there was nothing to be seen. Then, Bernie Ecclestone himself came to see us and told us the March would be delivered at any moment now. 'Let’s have a look at it when its back,' he said. Next our car arrived, having been rolled over in the sand. It looked like a breaded escalope; no oil was left in the car. It was a terrible sight. But Ecclestone said: 'We’re sorry about that. Please give us a quotation for the repair and have the invoice send to us. If you need any help here you can go and ask any Formula 1 team. They have been briefed accordingly and will give full support.' After long hours of work we managed to get the March repaired and back on track. Our bill was paid to the last cent…"