The final months of Jochen Rindt’s life were a mix of great success on track and personal tragedy, as explained in a new book on F1’s only posthumous World Champion
It was the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort on June 21, 1970, that changed everything for Jochen. It was the race where the Lotus 72 finally came good, and where the death of his close friend Piers Courage made him question the very reason why he did what he did. Coming so soon after Bruce McLaren’s death, it was a reminder of his own mortality, of the heavily loaded risks of his profession. Piers’ death revived and magnified Jochen’s insecurities about the structural integrity of his Lotus, made him ever more aware of the danger that stalked Grand Prix drivers in that era.
He would never feel quite the same way about racing again.
Shortly after he had taken an easy pole position, Jochen and Nina dined in Bloemendaal with Piers and Sally Courage, Ed and Sally Swart, and Frank Williams. “It was just a merry dinner, lots of laughter,” Sally Swart told Adam Cooper (author of Piers Courage, Last of the Gentleman Racers). “I don’t remember anyone saying anything memorable — we were just having a jolly time.”
The following day, everything changed.
Though Ickx led initially, Jochen swept majestically past the Ferrari and thereafter owned the race. But even before the race was over the drivers knew that another tragedy had befallen one of their brothers. Courage had been battling for seventh place with Jochen’s team-mate John Miles when his de Tomaso left the road on the 23rd lap, crashed and caught fire. The Old Etonian perished in the flames.
“I saw the burning car and I saw Piers’ helmet very near to it,” Jochen said. “For some laps I desperately hoped that he had climbed out and thrown away his helmet, but then I realised that Piers, if he had come out, would never have put his helmet down so near to the car.”
Jochen and Piers were so close that his death hit Jochen very hard. They and their wives had had so many adventures. Nina left the circuit with Sally long before Jochen took the flag, and admits that she was angry with him for winning.
“It was odd, but I was angry that Jochen won. It was sort of, ‘How could he win the race in which Piers was killed?’ It was all just so horrific, so disgusting. I was very angry, though not really at Jochen. I was just angry at the whole thing.”
Jochen’s expression on the podium betrayed his own anguish, and the realisation that he had finally got his hands on a car that could take him to the world title rendered the whole weekend bitter-sweet.
On the way to the airport he discussed his future with Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie said if he was minded to stop, he should do it straight away. But Jochen said: “If I want to keep my self-respect, I can’t quit during the season.”
“It was a bad time, obviously,” Ecclestone said. “I brought Sally and Nina back in the plane to London, and Jochen was just terribly upset about the whole thing. He was talking about quitting immediately afterwards, sure, but I didn’t think he would ever have stopped.”
Jochen left Zandvoort traumatised and deeply saddened. It was his third GP success, but it was victory without joy. The tragedy triggered the toughest time in Jochen and Nina’s marriage, as each coped with their own grief while spending endless hours helping Sally in her darkest time.
“The thing was that Piers dying showed it could happen,” Nina said. “When Jimmy died Jochen was shattered. But I sort of pushed it away. I told myself it was a fluke, it couldn’t happen to Jochen. I was brought up with racing because of my father, and I never regarded it as dangerous. When you are young, you just push danger away. Or you couldn’t survive.
“When it was Piers, when I saw Sally and the kids, I realised that it was really serious.”
Meanwhile, a thought kept tormenting Jochen. At Christmas they had spent time with the Courages skiing in Zurs, together with a friend called Ernst Moosbrucker. “He was such a nice young man, and he died very quickly of cancer,” Nina said.
Now Jochen would wonder, over and again, “Is it better to die the way Ernst did, or to die instantly, like Piers?”
“It was awful,” Nina said. “Jochen would ask that question, and he thought perhaps it was better to go like Piers. We lost all three of them that year…”
Piers’ death was the most traumatic thing Jochen had ever faced in his young life. “He was hit hard by Jimmy’s death,” Nina said. “We’d spent a lot of time with him in Paris, a lot of time. Jochen was completely shattered then because that was the first time for him… But, yes, Piers was more traumatic, emotionally worse, because they were such close friends.”
And it set Jochen worrying that he might be the next green bottle to fall from the wall.
The Thursday of that bloody week after Zandvoort they journeyed to England, to see Piers laid to rest in the Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, in Shenfield. Later that sad day they flew to Rouen with Jack Brabham, for an F2 race.
Nina remembered that flight to France, the terrible strain. The men at least had the distraction and the adrenalin rush of driving again during practice, of losing themselves for a time in what they were there to do. Nina had no such distraction, any more than the other wives or girlfriends did. All they had to do was to sit, and to worry. And try to forget what could happen. What had happened.
“It was so awful. I was sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to go anywhere. It was terrible. I just sat in the car and read my book.”
And then something extraordinary happened, which darkened Nina’s mood further.
“Jean-Pierre Beltoise came and sat next to me. I have never forgotten what he said. It was so stupid. For some reason he reminded me that Jochen had won in Zandvoort, and that there’d been the smell of burning every lap they drove past the place where Piers had crashed. Beltoise had been through an awful lot of hardships in his own career, but what on earth possessed him to say such a thing to me that day?”
She was 26 years old, bereft, scared witless for the safety of her husband. Totally lost. Jochen finished a lacklustre ninth.
Better things came a week later in France, however, where his Formula 1 luck continued and his spirits were better. He slid the 72 to its second consecutive victory after qualifying sixth behind polesitter Ickx, local hero Beltoise, Amon, Stewart and Brabham.
He could barely put a wheel wrong, and now he had an eight-point lead over Stewart in the World Championship, 27 to 19, with Brabham matching the Scot’s tally. The luck was running his way. He hardly dared to believe it.
It continued to hold at Brands Hatch for the British GP later in July, when yet again Brabham was unfortunate. Jochen and Jack shared pole position in 1min 24.8sec, with Ickx next. After the first practice session Jochen had made good after his bitter comments at the International Trophy at Silverstone, when he told his crew: “It’s absolutely perfect! Don’t touch the car, don’t alter anything, it’s bloody marvellous!”
Jack led initially until Ickx squeezed by at Druids. But going into Paddock Bend at the start of the seventh lap the Ferrari suddenly slowed with a broken differential. As Jack moved out to go around him Jochen seized his chance and squeaked down the inside of the BT33 in a beautiful move that left a cigarette paper’s width between the Brabham’s and the Lotus’s rear wheels. No wonder Jack so loved dicing with Jochen! So now Jochen seemed set for his third win on the trot. But Jack stayed with him all the way. The coup de grace came as he swept into the lead again on the 69th lap. Within four laps Jack had streaked away, and began his last 13.3 seconds clear of the man who had vanquished him at Monaco. But…
This time Jack was two corners from the flag when drama struck, as the BT33 ran out of fuel. Jochen swept to the line more than half a minute ahead and Jack rolled silently across in second.
He nearly didn’t lose, however.
After the traditional victory parade lap with the winning car on the back of a trailer, it was discovered in post-race scrutineering that the Lotus’s rear wing support stays were bent and the car was promptly disqualified by autocratic Clerk of the Course Dean Delamont of the RAC.
Three and a half hours later, the RAC finally confirmed that the Lotus did conform to the rules. “When it was announced that he’d won Jochen was just delighted!” Herbie Blash said. Afterwards, Jochen said to journalist Heinz Pruller as they sat in the Lotus caravan: “My luck now really starts worrying me. I know how fast good luck can turn back on you, bringing bad luck with it. And I have had some good fortune during this summer.”
The German GP had moved to Hockenheim that August as the drivers unanimously decided to boycott the Nurburgring while modifications were made, and now the Ferraris were beginning to hit their stride. Ickx put his on pole with a lap of 1min 59.5sec, with rookie team-mate Clay Regazzoni third on 59.8sec. Jochen’s 59.7sec split them and left him alongside Ickx on the front row of the two-by-two grid.
Regazzoni got away first, with Amon, Ickx and Beltoise pushing ahead of the Lotus going into the tight first right-hander. But Jochen got the Matra before the first chicane, as Ickx passed Amon. Jochen did the March by the second chicane, so as the crowd cheered them to the echo as they entered the stadium, it was Ickx, Rindt, Regazzoni.
A classic duel ensued, but Jochen got the last two laps perfectly right and led Ickx across the line by seven-tenths of a second. “A monkey could have won in my car,” he said. “Thank you Colin.”
He didn’t like Ickx, and privately took great pleasure in beating him, but on the podium he offered him the champagne-filled trophy to sup from.
“Jochen was a great character,” Ickx said in 2008. “Like Stewart, one of the first real professionals entering in a new era. They were both turning the page of the Sixties with all the philosophy about racing, security, sponsoring, the basic idea to make money out of racing and not just being a sport or chivalry from the old times. They were going on very well, I must say.”
And he fondly remembered his duel that day with Jochen. “Hockenheim was based then on slipstreaming, so it was easy to overtake. The idea to touch wheels and all these things was hardly acceptable, because if you had any kind of problem…” He mimed running over another car’s wheels and taking off… “If you go up… you never know which shape you were coming back on the asphalt. So when you were on a course like Hockenheim you had to give a sign to the other where you are expecting to come. Look on your right, look on your left… Basically it was a gentleman’s approach. Changing your line to make sure they don’t overtake you, these things were not existing at the time.”
Formula 1 writer Gregor Messer remembers that race like it was yesterday. “August 2, 1970 — that was when I went to my first Grand Prix.
“The 50 laps were full of tension, with Jochen fighting Ickx, and Regazzoni and Amon. When it was over we were really glad that Jochen — our hero! — had won.
“Then a friend suggested we go to the paddock. And there was this huge crowd around the Gold Leaf Team Lotus truck. Jochen was still in his overalls, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, wearing sunglasses. He had a lot of patience and was sitting in the cab of the truck signing autograph after autograph. I still have the picture on the page that my brother tore from the programme, which we got Jochen to sign. There were two big photos in it, one of Jochen and one of Stewart. After we’d got Jochen’s autograph my brother forged Jackie’s on the other photo!”
Jochen’s custom was to give his laurel to the mechanics. Mechanic Dave ‘Beaky’ Sims took it and laid it at the spot where Jimmy had perished. Jochen would have appreciated that, no question.
So now he had 45 points to Brabham’s 25, Hulme’s 20 and Stewart’s 19. Nobody could ever have known it that day, but Jochen had scored the final F1 points of his life. Had done enough to secure the title.
Normally he was happy-go-lucky, but the wing failures of 1969, and the deaths of Gerhard Mitter at the Nurburgring that year and sports car racer Hans Laine there in 1970, and of McLaren and especially Courage, weighed heavily upon him. It was almost as if he felt that he was living on borrowed time.
Dan Gurney was himself feeling lonely and isolated, driving for McLaren alongside Denny Hulme in the terrible aftermath of Bruce’s death and contemplating his own future in a sport in which he’d lost too many friends. He and his wife had talked to Jochen after Zandvoort, when the Austrian had suggested that he could be next.
“Evi and I were talking to him about Lotus,” Dan said. “He said it was so easy to win races like this, that he was going to hang in there even though the cars were an unknown entity as far as reliability was concerned, and that if he made it to win the championship he would retire.”
There was no respite at home, either. Jochen and Nina continued to argue, surrounded by pressures on their marriage. She had spent a lot of the summer with Sally Courage, and inevitably it all weighed heavily on a young wife who had now seen in the most brutal detail imaginable just what could happen on the race track.