A year of living dangerously

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Drivers knew the risks associated with motor racing in 1970 – but some were not prepared to accept them any more

“I think,” said Jacky Ickx, “that in those days not winning was not so crucial, not such a… drama…”

Ickx was talking about the 1960s and ’70s, and he was right, of course. Forty years ago there was far less hype in the sport than now, and also far less money. Although sponsorship was creeping in by the late ’60s you raced primarily for a team, so if the rewards for winning were less significant, so also were the penalties for losing.

“On the other hand,” Ickx went on, “I think perhaps we had pressures of a different kind. In those days when someone… was going, it was always accepted in a way: you do — and you die — for the sport. What has changed in life generally is not to accept to die in a certain way any more. In racing the progress made in safety is wonderful, because now you can do it and you’re almost at risk zero…”

Forty years ago it was not like that. On the morning of June 24, 1970 the Grand Prix drivers assembled at St Paul’s Cathedral for a memorial service for Bruce McLaren, who had been killed while testing at Goodwood three weeks earlier. The following day they went off to Shenfield, to a small country church, for the funeral of Piers Courage, who had been killed in the Dutch Grand Prix four days before.

In between times they had a meeting in London, at the Dorchester, urgently to discuss whether or not to race at the Nurburgring, where requested safety changes had not been carried out. Ultimately they concluded that they should not, and — at less than six weeks’ notice, remarkably — the German Grand Prix was transferred to Hockenheim. A year later, with trees knocked down and more barriers installed, they returned to the Nordschleife.

It was Jackie Stewart’s accident at Spa in 1966 that set in motion a sea change in the way safety in motor racing was perceived. Although Stewart’s injuries were not life-threatening, he was trapped in his BRM — soaked in fuel — for a long time. As there were no marshals on hand, it was left to fellow drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant to release him from his car.

Not surprisingly, the experience made a deep impression on Stewart, and fundamentally altered his approach to the job of Grand Prix driver. Prior to that, he had invested in the best helmets and fireproof overalls — commonsense things — but had not otherwise given safety a great deal of thought.

Neither had anyone else, for that matter. The perception was that motor racing was dangerous, always had been, always would be, and how could it be otherwise? Rudimentary rollover bars had been made mandatory in 1961, and that was about it. In ’67 Stewart insisted that seat belts be installed in his BRM; his fellow drivers were slow to follow suit.

Initially, it must be said, Jackie did not get a great deal of support for his quest for improved safety, most notably from the circuit owners who didn’t care to spend money simply to appease a prima donna or two. There was remarkably little interest from the sport’s governing body.

It was a fearfully dangerous time to be a racing driver. A couple of months after Stewart’s accident, John Taylor was killed. In 1967 Lorenzo Bandini and Bob Anderson, in ’68 Jim Clark, Mike Spence, Ludovico Scarfiotti and Jo Schlesser, in ’69 Gerhard Mitter…

There seemed no end to it. Not only were the cars relatively frail, but many of the circuits — bordered by earth banks, in some cases by trees, even houses — were lethal. The consequences of a mistake — or a car failure — were invariably profound. At the time Stewart’s preoccupation lay with the installation of Armco barriers, so as to keep cars from hitting trees such as had killed Clark. Later came the advent of catch fencing, a necessary evil that was better than nothing: runoff areas were a concept still far in the future.

Forty years ago, too, the drivers raced a great deal more than they do today, for they were neither contractually confined to F1, nor sufficiently rewarded by it, and thus it was the norm also to compete in F2, sports cars, whatever. Clark and Mitter, for example, lost their lives in F2 cars, Spence in a Lotus turbine at Indianapolis, Scarfiotti in a Porsche at a round of the European Mountain Championship.

Think of Mario Andretti, at that time racing Indycars, and fitting in as many F1 and sports car races as his schedule allowed. The comfortable cliche was that a racing driver kept going in the conviction that, ‘It’ll never happen to me’, but Andretti never saw it that way. “Honestly, I never thought I’d live through it,” he told me recently, “because I was racing so much. The law of averages was somewhat against me — I thought it would get me. After losing so many friends you figure, ‘Well, I’m bound to be next…’

“You couldn’t dwell on it — if you did, you couldn’t make sense of it — but what I always said to myself was, ‘Would you want any other life?’ And the answer was always no — a resounding no! — so that justified the risk.”

“When you’re young,” said Ickx, “you can climb a mountain and have no fear — you don’t have that instinct of self-preservation. If you start in motor racing worrying about the danger, you’re going to be beaten non-stop. It’s only later that you become more aware that it’s a calculated risk.

“Jackie [Stewart] worked very hard on safety — and undoubtedly that did change the face of F1. I agreed with the need for better safety, although not with threatening strikes and things like that. That would be my only comment — I have a lot of respect for what Jackie did.”

Stewart was indeed hardline — “I want Spa stopped, and I say this categorically, because I don’t believe the place is safe or right for modern racing” — and what he did took a great deal of moral courage, for it is a brave man who stands up for what he believes in, knowing his opinions will make him — in many quarters — a pariah. “We all agreed with what Jackie was doing,” said Chris Amon, “and I also think we were only too happy to let him take the stick for it.”

When Jim Clark died in 1968, Amon was moved to say that, “We all felt we’d lost our leader. But, apart from the grief, Jimmy’s death also frightened us — if it could happen to him, what chance did the rest of us have?”

Perhaps, even more so, Amon’s words resonated when Bruce McLaren was killed on Tuesday, June 2 1970. A summer’s morning at Goodwood, a routine test in the new Can-Am car, a rear bodywork fastener left undone, a solitary brick marshal’s post… and Bruce was gone. Here was the safest of all drivers, one who was never going to die in a racing car… and it could happen to him. I recall the jolt I felt on hearing the news — not Bruce, surely not Bruce?

Three days later the drivers began practice at Spa, and a jittery weekend passed without serious incident. But a fortnight after that I was at Zandvoort where McLaren returned running Dan Gurney — responding in the team’s hour of need — and Peter Gethin, subbing for Denny Hulme, who had severely burned his hands in an Indianapolis testing accident just days before Bruce’s death.

Jochen Rindt, at last satisfied with the readiness of Colin Chapman’s new Lotus 72, dominated on a grey day in Holland. But my memory necessarily dwells on that moment when a cloud of black smoke, out on the far side of the circuit, began suddenly wafting into the sky.

Courage’s de Tomaso and Jo Siffert’s March were missing at the end of the lap, but soon it was announced that both drivers were safe. Only some little time later came those words over the PA that I can hear to this day: ‘And we have to tell you that Piers Courage died in his car…’

They didn’t have formal ‘podiums’ in those days, but as Rindt stood there, the garland round his neck, never was there a more poignant victory scene. Jochen may have won, stated his case to be World Champion, but his face showed only grief for the loss of a close friend.

It was a curious season, 1970, not least because for months it had looked as if the reigning World Champion — Stewart — would have no car to drive. In ’69, driving the Cosworth-powered Matra M580 for Ken Tyrrell, Jackie had swept to the title, but by the end of the year Matra had decided its cars should be powered only by its own engines. Stewart tested such a car, and concluded that the V12 couldn’t compete with a DFV. Sad, because he revered Matra, but there was no alternative but to look elsewhere.

After considering Brabham, McLaren, BRM (with a Cosworth engine!) and Lola, Stewart and Tyrrell settled on March. It was that or nothing.

March, a new company, had appeared the season before in F3, its ambitions apparently boundless. Amon, disillusioned by years of unreliability at Ferrari, was persuaded to join the fledgling F1 team, and Porsche stumped up to put Siffert in the second car, simply to keep him from the clutches of Ferrari.

A customer car was sold to Andy Granatelli, for Mario Andretti to drive in selected Grands Prix, and finally it was announced that Tyrrell would run two more, for Stewart and Johnny Servoz-Gavin.

The company name was made up of the initials of the founders, two of whom were Max Mosley and Robin Herd, but the cynics reckoned March stood for ‘Much Advertised Racing Car Hoax’. To this day, Amon awaits payment of three-quarters of his 1970 retainer.

Herd produced a simple car, the 701, and if none of the drivers enthused about it, the fact was that — initially, at least — it got the job done. Stewart and Amon set identical times at Kyalami, the opening GP, and started from the front row.

The race, though, was won by Jack Brabham, 44 years old and beginning what would be his final season as a driver. The Brabham BT33 was only one of several cars superior to the 701, and in very short order Tyrrell concluded that he had to build his own car, as soon as possible.

Everything was conducted in masonic secrecy, amazingly maintained right up to the formal announcement in late summer. What says much about the difference in F1 between then and now is that folk began to have their suspicions when it was noted that some of the Tyrrell mechanics had taken to flying back to England after races. This was unheard of: you packed the cars away, and then you climbed aboard the transporter…

As other cars — notably the Lotus 72 and the Ferrari 312B — developed, the March 701 was gradually left behind. Rindt’s fantastic highwire act at Monaco brought a final victory for the Lotus 49, but once the 72 was into its stride Jochen was near unstoppable.

After beating Ickx’s Ferrari at Hockenheim, Rindt self-deprecatingly said that, “A monkey could have won in my car”. But if he were happy at last to have a winning car, still he didn’t like the 72: simply, he didn’t trust it.

“At that time,” said Stewart, “we were having a lot of deaths, and Jochen was always very supportive of moves to improve safety. I was president of the GPDA, and there were some guys you might not depend on for support, but you could always depend on him.

“Jochen was very nervous about the 72 — in fact, we talked about it a lot. He wasn’t happy with Colin, he wasn’t happy with his contract and so on, but I think what mainly weighed on his mind was the fragility of the car…”

The Lotus 72 had inboard front brakes, and at the Osterreichring, in August, Rindt’s teammate John Miles had a terrifying experience when a brake shaft failed.

“Maybe Colin [Chapman] did take things to the edge a bit,” said Bernie Ecclestone, then Rindt’s manager, “and anyone who drove for Lotus was prepared to go along with that and take it to the edge, too.

“Jochen drove for Jack [Brabham] in ’68, and enjoyed it, but at the end of that year we had the choice of the Goodyear deal to stay with Brabham, or the Firestone deal to go with Lotus. 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…”

Rindt died during final qualifying at Monza on September 5. Back then there were no chicanes, and the lap speed — even with only 450bhp —was a genuine 150mph. Some drivers, including Rindt and Stewart, ran without wings in a trade-off for straightline speed.

Hulme, who was following Rindt, reported that the Lotus 72 twitched under braking for Parabolica before spearing left into the barrier, where it hit one of the support posts. The World Champion elect died almost immediately. Sally Courage, who had spent a lot of time with the Rindts in the aftermath of Piers’s death, at once boarded a flight to Geneva, to meet up with Nina as her father brought her home.

“At first,” said Stewart, “they wouldn’t tell me how Jochen was, but they said he was at the medical centre, so I ran down there. Jochen was in the back of an open pick-up truck, and he was dead. There was a priest who had given him the Last Rites, but there was nobody else with him…

“Later on practice was restarted — I was crying when I got in the car, and I wasn’t shy about it. I remember it all so clearly: I left the pitlane, got up to speed, went past Parabolica — and my next lap was the fastest I’d ever done at Monza. When I got out of the car, someone gave me a Coke, and I took one swig from it and smashed the bottle against the wall. I’d never done anything like that in my life before, but… the whole thing was so stupid — I mean, you’ve just been talking to this guy, and suddenly he’s gone. It was one of these emotional experiences that the current generation wouldn’t understand.”

Thus Jochen Rindt became the only posthumous World Champion in the sport’s history. Ickx, the only man who could have beaten him to the title in the races subsequent to Monza, won two of the three, and was relieved when a car problem kept him from victory in the third.

“Not winning at Watkins Glen was such a release,” he said. “How could you beat someone not able to defend his own chances? The fact that Jochen won the World Championship was the most perfect solution. As for me, not having won it doesn’t create any kind of sorrow at all. Now, when I think back, I feel so sad for all those around me — probably more talented than I was, and certainly more dedicated — who didn’t have that extra piece of luck that made you a survivor. That was the thing about that era — survival.”

“The great majority of today’s drivers will be able to retire on their own terms,” said Andretti, “but that was a statement we couldn’t make. Safety had to improve, and people who didn’t understand that were living under a rock. The sport got more commercial, and people who came in as sponsors, spending millions of dollars, wanted to celebrate — they did not want to go to funerals. I don’t believe racing would ever have made it into modern times if it hadn’t addressed safety in the way it finally did, and someone had to pioneer that, because the sanctioning bodies never gave a thought to it. And, no question, the guy who did the most was Jackie Stewart.”