When we were kings

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Nigel Roebuck

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Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart were the fastest drivers of their era — and best friends. Stewart looks back at Rindt with Nigel Roebuck…

It doesn’t happen often, but just once in a while you get a race that not only lives up to its promise but actually exceeds it. Anyone who was there will tell you that the 1969 British Grand Prix was one such. Stewart versus Rindt. Matra against Lotus. The rest nowhere.

“There were something like 30 lead changes between us,” says Stewart, “although they didn’t necessarily register at the start-finish line because they happened out on the circuit. We’d pass each other on the Hangar Straight and on the approach to Woodcote, but intelligently, not trying to block — in fact quite the reverse, because we were drawing away from the competition. We got miles ahead because we weren’t blocking each other.”

Eventually Rindt’s car suffered problems and Stewart won comfortably. It was, he has always said, the most enjoyable race of his career. “Oh yes — how many times in your life are you going to have a race like that? Jochen and I were so evenly matched on ability and it was the same with our cars. Off the track Jochen was my closest friend, and on it he was a man I trusted implicitly.”

They had met five years earlier, at Reims, and hit it off immediately. “I was doing the Formula Three race for Ken Tyrrell, and also the 12-hour sportscar race in a Ferrari GTO with Chris Amon,” recalls Stewart. “Jochen was there for the F2 race and that’s when I first became aware of him. Actually, I’ll tell you why I remember: it had nothing to do with Jochen — it was more because Nina came along! Hot pants were just coming in, and Nina was wearing them…”

Stewart’s first impressions of her husband were that he was casual and friendly. “Very relaxed — but confident too. And gangly. I remember thinking that he didn’t walk well — kind of hen-toed and awkward. But everyone recognised that he could drive. We became friends very quickly, as did Helen and Nina. We were both new boys and were both seen to have had some potential.

“Some people thought he was arrogant but I never did. Mind you, I saw him throw the odd wobbly. When he got angry he was very demonstrative — he’d stamp his feet! I remember at one race there was a problem with his licence or his medical certificate. He was just raging…”

Did it work?

“I don’t know! I just left — I’d come into the office and he didn’t see me. I saw this and thought, ‘Oops, I’m obviously not needed here…’ “

The name of Rindt first reverberated around the racing world in the spring of 1964 when as a virtual unknown he won the F2 race at Crystal Palace, beating Graham Hill in the process. Throughout the season he was a front-runner in the class, and at the first Austrian Grand Prix — run that year on a rough airfield track in Zeltweg — he was offered a one-off drive in one of Rob Walker’s Brabhams. For 1965 he joined the Cooper team, partnering Bruce McLaren, and at the same time Stewart came into Formula One as team-mate to Hill at BRM.

“The first grand prix was South Africa, in East London, and the race itself was on New Year’s Day. We were staying in the King’s Hotel, I remember, and Hogmanay there was obviously going to be noisy and boisterous and not ideal for the night before a race — I was nervous and well wound up about my first ever grand prix. I wanted to escape. Helen wasn’t there and neither was Nina, so Jochen and I went to a drive-in movie together! Two fellows! Okay, today it would not be unusual, but then it was pretty extreme…”

For Jackie it was the beginning of a remarkable first F1 season — he finished third in the World Championship, beaten only by Jim Clark and Hill, and he won the Italian Grand Prix — but Jochen had a terrible time of it, a fourth at the Nürburgring his best result.

Outside F1, though, things were much better. Increasingly Rindt was becoming the star in F2 and, sharing a NART Ferrari 250LM with Masten Gregory, he also won the Le Mans 24 Hours.

“Jochen didn’t really feature in F1 much at that point,” says Stewart. “It took a while — he didn’t have a car nearly as good as my BRM.”

Was there ever any jealousy in evidence? “No, nothing like that. For one thing, in F2 he was the man to beat. I won the odd race — I remember one at Karlskoga, involving Jimmy and Jochen particularly— but there were some races when he just left everyone behind. In those days Jochen was always a big sideways merchant and I always thought him overexuberant — incredibly spectacular but not, I thought, as fast as he could have been.

“He was certainly confident in his own driving, but in those days you could drive an F2 car like that — you could do anything with it. I was never a sideways driver, but Jochen was. An F1 car was considerably less agile and I think he overdrove to a point where… sometimes if you drive a car too hard it just stalls on you in the same way as when you try and climb too high in a plane.”

For three years Rindt and Stewart stayed with Cooper and BRM respectively but, while Jackie was invariably thereabouts, Jochen struggled with increasingly uncompetitive machinery. Freak circumstances, as in the terrible rains of Spa in 1966 (where his Cooper-Maserati finished second to the Ferrari of John Surtees, having led 20 of the 28 laps) allowed him the occasional opportunity to show genius, but otherwise he was not a contender for victory, and ’67 was even worse: six points in the entire season.

In 1968, while Stewart moved to Tyrrell’s new F1 team to drive a Matra, Rindt transferred to Brabham and had perhaps the happiest year of his racing life, for he got on famously with Jack and much enjoyed the four-cam Repco-powered car — when it was moving. Again there were flashes of what could be — he beat Stewart to pole position at Rouen by more than a second — but reliability was lamentable: eight points this time.

Brabham, who recently declared that, in his opinion, Rindt was the greatest natural driver of all time, desperately tried to persuade him to stay for 1969. And that, given that the team was to use Cosworth DFV engines from now on, might have been the smart thing to do. An offer from Lotus, though, proved irresistible.

By now Jochen’s manager was a certain Mr Ecclestone. “I remember very well,” said Bernie, “at the end of ’68 we had the choice of the Goodyear deal with Brabham or the Firestone deal with Lotus. And I said to Jochen, ‘If you want to win the World Championship you’ve got more chance with Lotus than with Brabham. If you want to stay alive you’ve got more chance with Brabham than with Lotus’. It wasn’t a bad thing to say; it was a matter of fact. That was what the pattern was, for whatever reason: people did get killed in Lotuses. Maybe Colin (Chapman) took things to the edge a bit — and anyone who drove for Lotus was prepared to go along with that and take it to the edge. And Jochen was prepared to accept that.”

Maybe so, but Rindt’s relationship with Chapman was edgy from the start. “He’d done Cooper, he’d done Brabham,” says Stewart, “but there was a big question mark over going to Lotus. When I was first coming into F1 I got offered much more by Chapman than I did by BRM — he doubled the offer, then doubled it and doubled it again. But there were no number twos working well at Lotus — and a lot of them were in hospital.

“Jochen went there but he really wasn’t sure about Colin. He was concerned about the fragility of the cars, and that lasted all the way through.

“Even his road car… he had an Elan Plus 2 and I remember setting off from the house to Clermont-Ferrand. I was driving a Ford of some sort. Nina hated the Lotus and said she’d only go with Jochen if we travelled behind them. ‘It’s going to break down,’ she said. ‘There’s no way it’ll get there.’ She was right to be worried — the passenger door fell off in the road! Helen and I were behind and there were bits of fibreglass going everywhere. We couldn’t get it back on so we just put it in the boot. And Jochen insisted that Nina stayed in the car for the rest of the journey — he wouldn’t have her travel with us!”

In the Lotus 49 Rindt was instantly, as expected, a front runner, but at Barcelona there were major accidents for him and team-mate Hill, both caused by the failure of the high rear wing. Graham somehow walked away without hurt, but Jochen was badly knocked about.

“That was a big shunt,” says Stewart, who inherited victory that day. “He wasn’t well after that. I went to see him that night — he was being looked after by the father of Alex Soler-Roig, who was a very eminent surgeon. There were all sorts of risks of head injury — there’d been an awful lot of blood around his face when he crashed. That wasn’t a good time.”

Rindt’s injuries caused him to miss Monaco, and during his convalescence he wrote a letter — in words of one syllable — to Chapman, detailing his safety concerns about driving for Lotus and suggesting that so quick were the cars that Colin’s absolute obsession with lightness was unnecessary. It was not well received, but Jochen remained unrepentant. When he returned to the scene he picked up where he had left off as the most serious rival to Stewart, but although he frequently led he rarely finished, and Lotus’s lack of reliability— combined with his safety fears — inclined him more and more towards a return to Brabham for 1970.

Close friend or not, Stewart remained the thorn in his side. After Silverstone, one of the great battles of history, came Monza — still a flat out slipstreamer in those days — where Rindt missed scoring that first grand prix victory by perhaps a metre to the inevitable JYS, who also clinched his first World Championship that day.

“He was well pissed off that I beat him at Monza!” laughs Stewart. “He said that Chapman had got the board wrong. I had put the long gear in so as to cross the line without changing, because chances were it was going to be a tight finish. Jochen reckoned that he could have won had he known that it was the last lap. He told me he didn’t know it was and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah…”

At Watkins Glen Rindt took pole position, as so often that year, but this time his luck for once held and he led all the way. “By that time I’d won six races and clinched the championship,” says Stewart. “I remember going to the Jochen Rindt Racing Car Show in Vienna and he had his trophy in the back of the car. Of course I took the piss out of him: ‘He’s won one bloody grand prix and he takes the trophy everywhere…”

By this time Chapman had won Rindt round, shown him drawings of the forthcoming 72, assured him it was going to be a championship-winning car, persuaded him to stay. For the first time in their respective F1 careers it was Stewart who was on the back foot: “I was stuck with the March 701 in 1970 and there was no catching him — not from where I was anyway.”

Initially, though, the 72 looked anything like a world beater. Its disappointing early showings necessitated quite fundamental changes, and in the meantime Rindt was obliged to revert to the 49, now into its fourth season.

It was in this car, as it turned out, that he had his day of days, pressuring Brabham into a mistake at the last corner of the last lap of the Monaco Grand Prix. Believing himself to have no chance, Jochen had been disinterested in qualifying and apparently in the early part of the race, but, as Stewart and Chris Amon fell by the wayside, suddenly there was a whiff of possible victory and in those circumstances Rindt became inspired, his last astonishing lap 2.6sec inside his qualifying time.

One of the great photographs, in Automobile Year, shows Stewart standing out on the track, delightedly cheering his buddy over the line. “Afterwards one of Brabham’s mechanics, who’d seen my joy, said, ‘You bastard!’ And I felt bad about it — but Jochen was my friend…

“I’d bought my house in Switzerland in ’68 and Jochen wanted to live close by. At that time there was a little cluster of us in the area — Chris Amon, Jo Bonnier and so on — and I found a house for him to rent which was about 400 yards from mine. It wasn’t a terribly nice house, but it had a good view and it was fine until he got his own place built. Eventually he bought a patch of land from Bonnier and the house was finished in ’70 — but he was never to live in it.”

The redesigned 72 appeared at Zandvoort and instantly everyone else knew they were in trouble, for Rindt walked the race. Perhaps it was because, for the first time, he had the best car and didn’t feel the need to hustle it so much; whatever, according to Stewart, Jochen changed his driving style in 1970.

“There had been the beginnings of it even in ’69. During that battle we had at Silverstone there were not many times when Jochen was on opposite lock. I think maybe he’d realised that if you wanted to do it that way, okay you’d get the cheers of the crowd, but it wasn’t going to make the bank manager happy. In 1970 he had the best car and he realised that driving smoothly was the way to get the best out of it.”

True enough. For all his bravura in a Lotus 49, there are few photographs of Rindt sideways in a 72. And none at all of him smiling after his Dutch Grand Prix win, for Piers Courage, one of his closest friends, had lost his life in the race. Three weeks earlier Bruce McLaren had been killed in a testing accident at Goodwood.

“We were having a lot of deaths at that time,” says Stewart, “and Jochen was very supportive of any safety moves. The only driver he really did not like was Jacky Ickx, because he didn’t want to do anything on safety. Between Jochen and Jacky the chemistry just didn’t work.”

Was it the case that Rindt either took to you or did not — and that was it for good and all?

“Yes. If he didn’t like you, boy, did you know it! There was one particular guy — a journalist/entrepreneur if you like — and that was like the kiss of death. Jochen hated this guy. If you were doing well you couldn’t get rid of him — but only as long as you were doing well. Jochen didn’t like that.

“He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a hard man — hard with Nina too. But he was very straightforward. He liked making money! He always thought a lot of Bernie and people have suggested that if he had survived he would be running F1 today with Bernie. I wouldn’t have been surprised by that. They were very close.”

Although Rindt and the Lotus 72 were as good as unbeatable through the summer of 1970 and clearly on course for the World Championship, there is no doubt that Jochen was giving increasing thought to retirement.

“We talked about it a lot,” says Stewart, “and I think he was ready to retire. Like everyone else he was terribly upset by the loss of Piers and Bruce and there’s no doubt he was very nervous of that 72 — that was probably weighing on his mind more than anything else. He wasn’t happy with Colin and he wasn’t happy with his contract. He reckoned he was going to go into business and that would give him as much as driving. I think he could have retired at the end of 1970.”

After the victories at Monaco and Zandvoort, Rindt also triumphed at Clermont-Ferrand, Brands Hatch and Hockenheim. A blown engine put him out at the Osterreichring, but still he went to Monza with a comfortable points lead. During qualifying on Saturday afternoon his Lotus 72 snapped left under braking for Parabolica and struck a guardrail mounting post at perhaps 170mph. “I was in the pits when it happened,” says Stewart. “Peter Gethin told me Jochen had had a big shunt, but said he thought he was all right. I went to Nina and said, ‘Look, Jochen’s had a bit of a bang — I don’t know how he is, but it seems he’s okay’. Then I went to the control tower and I found that he wasn’t okay.

“They wouldn’t tell me anything. In 1970 I was Schumacher, if you like, and for them not to tell me anything was not right. I said, ‘Where is Jochen?’ They told me he was at the medical centre and I ran down there. Jochen was lying in the back of an open pick-up truck, in his overalls, and he was dead. I knew that immediately, because his foot was nearly torn off and there was no blood coming from it. An open wound that’s not bleeding means the heart is not beating. There was a priest there who told me he had given Jochen the Last Rites, but there was nobody with him — nobody with him at all.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s dead’. I didn’t want to say it — didn’t want to admit it. Eventually he was taken out of the circuit in an ambulance, and Nina and Helen went with him. It was only when he got to the hospital that they said he was dead on arrival. In Italy, as you know, no one is ever pronounced dead at the racetrack.”

For all his grief, Stewart still had a job to do. “Ken said, ‘Get in the car’…”

Had he not felt like saying he really didn’t want to drive? “No. Never, although I was in tears — I’d just come from where Jochen was. After the ambulance left practice was restarted — and I did the quickest lap I’d ever done at Monza. I was crying when I got in the car and I wasn’t shy about it. Okay, I had the helmet on and not everybody knew. And when I got out I did the same thing.

“Some people would say, ‘Oh yeah, it was a death wish type of thing’, but it was one of these occasions when you recognised where mind-management was. I left the pitlane, got up to speed, went past Parabolica, had a look, got out of it, and on the second lap I put my quick lap in, and at that time it was pole position.

“I got out of the car and, I’ll never forget, someone gave me a Coca-Cola. I took one drink out of it and smashed it against a wall. I’d never done anything like that in my life before. Just the whole thing was so stupid — here is a guy who’s gone. Just like that. And you’ve been with him.

“It’s one of these emotional experiences that the current generation of drivers wouldn’t understand — that you would go back into the car after something like that. Somehow or other, racing drivers dealt with death in a different way then.”

The following day Stewart’s March finished second behind Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari. And although Ickx, the only man able to beat Rindt’s points tally, then won for Ferrari in Canada and Mexico, no one was more relieved than he that the world championship went, in death, to Jochen.

“When I won the championship the following year,” says Stewart, “I was given the freedom of the city of Graz, simply because they knew I’d been Jochen’s pal. Meant a lot to me. And I remember taking my son Paul to the Austrian Grand Prix one year in the mid-80s, driving there and visiting the grave on the way.

“The two truly great drivers I raced against were Jimmy Clark and Jochen Rindt, no question, although Jimmy I always thought was on a higher level because I don’t think Jochen was as precise.

“When I think of Jochen now I remember a great friend and somebody who was really a tough onion to crack as a driver. I don’t remember ever having a cross word with him. And, boy, he was awful good on the track.”

***

Fact File — South Africa 1965 to Austria 1970

GP Starts:

Stewart 59

Rindt 59

GP Wins:

Stewart 12

Rindt 6

GP Pole Postions:

Stewart 5

Rindt 10

***

Guiding hand to young Fittipaldi

It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that Emerson Fittipaldi was a protégé of Jochen Rindt’s, but the great Austrian had taken the up-and-coming Brazilian under his wing during the 1970 season, so much so that Fittipaldi shook hands on a deal to drive for Rindt’s Formula Two team just hours before the Monza tragedy.

“We had breakfast together on Saturday morning at Monza and he invited me to be the driver on his F2 team (Jochen Rindt Racing) that he had with Bernie Ecclestone,” remembers Fittipaldi. “He wanted to stop driving in F2 and asked me to be the team leader in 1971, so I shook hands with him and I accepted. And hours later the tragedy happened.”

As a new boy in Formula One, Fittipaldi had already competed in three grands prix for Lotus as teammate to Rindt before the Italian weekend. But the two had made a firm friendship earlier in the year. “At the beginning of 1970 I’d moved to Switzerland,” says Fittipaldi, “and Jochen and Jackie Stewart were very nice to me, showing me the right places. Then in July I had my first F1 test at Silverstone. Colin Chapman asked Jochen to drive the Lotus 49, and Jochen was quite upset because he was wasting time — he wanted to drive the 72.

“So he did some laps and said, ‘The car is good for Emerson’. I did some laps and came in and said to Colin Chapman that the car was understeering. Jochen came down and leaned in the cockpit and said, ‘I know how to stop that — use your right foot!’. So I did and from then on Jochen was enthusiastic and started showing me my pitboard!”

When, one month after Rindt’s fatal accident, Fittipaldi won the United States GP for Lotus, it confirmed the Austrian’s posthumous title. “I was very reluctant to be the number-one driver because I lacked experience and it was tremendous pressure,” says Emerson. “I had a high temperature the night before the race, but then everything happened in a perfect way in the race. I was very happy that it meant he was world champion.” — MS

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