Hard and fast

Jacky Ickx was blindingly quick in the wet and a man who raced purely for the satisfaction of winning. Although he has long since retired from racing, he never forgets the passion of the fans and all the people who worked behind the scenes to make possible his many victories in sports cars and single-seaters
By Rob Widdows

Jacques-Bernard Ickx is a complicated man. The thinking man’s racing driver, the thinking woman’s idol.

Here is a man who is many things to many people. An emotional, soulful and reflective fellow. A hard, and mighty fast, racing driver.

Talking to Jacky Ickx is never going to provide what is nowadays known as a ‘sound-bite’. You are immediately fully engaged, aware that frivolities will be hit hard over the grandstands. For example: “What fascinates me about this motor racing is not the glory but the people, the contact with the people. The sport does not exist without the affection, and the passion, of the people. You journalists always ask me: do I have any regrets? I always say no, because I have no right to regret anything. I achieved so much more than I ever expected. I was gifted, and I received so much. But I have never shown enough gratitude to the people who helped me, who worked in the teams, the people who worked anonymously to give me my success.

“When you are young you think everything is somehow due to you, but that’s an excuse. Racing is a selfish sport and today, yes, I regret that I have not shown enough gratitude to all those people who anonymously shared this passion for the sport with me. This is my only regret, but it is an important one for me.”

Here is a man who commands your attention, who chooses his words with care. He is a student of the Tyrrell University, graduating with honours in the art of racing and in life itself.

“I was a young kid at the time and Ken was like a father to me. He was very tender, but very strict, and I had so much respect for him. Ken was a key point in my career, gave me the chance to drive his Formula 2 car at Goodwood. I think I spun eight times at the chicane and then, at the end of the day, I crashed at Madgwick and his lovely little car was destroyed.

“I thought that was the end of it but Ken, he knew that to go quick you have to learn by making mistakes. So I have wonderful memories of Team Tyrrell, learning from Ken, sharing a car with Jackie Stewart, this kind of thing.”

We are talking at the Goodwood Revival where Jacky is driving the Ford GT40 pace car for a demonstration run by DFV-powered cars, and where he is Clerk of the Course for the RAC TT Celebration race. He is told that the old Tyrrell transporter is in the paddock, home now for the cars of marque enthusiast John Delane.

“Yes, beautiful memories,” he says after a long pause for thought. “We lived and travelled as a family in those days, there were none of these mobile homes; none of these huge transporters, and we were all together. Ken’s wife Norah was an outstanding support for all of us, the mechanics, the drivers, everyone; she was so much a part of the team. Tyrrell changed my life; without his help I don’t know how things would have worked out for me.”

Ickx is an elegant, articulate and intelligent human being who becomes almost mystical in his musings on the twists and turns of his career. He is best known, of course, for his Grand Prix victories at Ferrari and his success in long-distance sports car racing. He claims, however, that he was always holding something back, never going right to the very edge.

“I have said this, yes, and I suppose it is true,” he begins, after another lengthy pause for thought. “I was just so young when I went into Formula 1 and it was very, very dangerous. It was, I suppose, a very glamorous, adventurous, even romantic life but you could die, and many people did. There was so little safety, the smallest mistake could be fatal. But I was lucky, and I was gifted, it was something I discovered I could do, and do well, which was important to me as I never found this at school.”

Roy Salvadori is also here at Goodwood, another man so important in Jacky’s early career. “Roy gave me my first Grand Prix drive, in that big Cooper-Maserati alongside Jochen Rindt at Monza in 1967. It went that way because Ken would have loved to have kept me in his team, but he went with Matra, and there was only one place for a Tyrrell driver and that was obviously going to be Jackie – the other driver had to be French, of course, which was normal for those days, and that was Jean-Pierre Beltoise. So I had to make my own way, first with Roy in the Cooper, and then to Ferrari for ’68.”

Outside the fans are queuing for a word with the man who became a hero for so many racing enthusiasts. They are clutching pictures of his victories, some in the red cars from Maranello, others the white cars from Stuttgart. Jacky sits forward, looks me long and hard in the eye.

“If you think about it, there is always something a little – how do you say in English – controversial, a little subjective, in all the comments made about Ferrari, about Enzo. This has been the same since the 1950s, always controversy with Ferrari,” he smiles. “You hear all the drivers talking about the man, the politics, the racing strategies and they all have their opinions – he was a great man or he wasn’t, there are so many opinions. But I am one of the very few drivers who never had many comments to make about Mr Ferrari, or the team, because I was always given the best possible cars and I never felt any disadvantage between one car and another.

“He was very smooth, very sweet to me, always extremely friendly to me,” he goes on, choosing each word with care. “So I have only positive thoughts about my time at Ferrari. When you’re young, and you’re going to such a great team, you are arriving in a unique place. Imagine, just into Formula 1 and now I am with Ferrari. I was only 22 when I signed, the youngest driver, at that time anyway, to drive with the Scuderia. But when you are so young you do not realise how lucky you are. You have a tendency to think that all your dreams are reachable, and that is also an advantage because you have no fear of anything – you want to climb that mountain, you climb it, that’s it. You don’t ask yourself too many questions about your goals.”

His first win for the Scuderia came at Rouen in heavy rain; later at the Nürburgring, again in appalling conditions, he drove through the mist and the driving rain without his helmet visor for most of the way. A reputation for fearless speed in the wet was beginning to build. Then he broke his leg in Canada, missed two races, left Ferrari and joined Brabham in 1969 alongside Jack, finishing runner-up in the championship. In 1970 he returned to Ferrari, a horrendous crash in Spain putting him in hospital with severe burns. But he was back in the car at Monaco, just two weeks later. So was he fearless? Peerless in the rain?

“Well, nobody dreams about racing in the wet,” he smiles, “but wet conditions were part of motor racing, they just made the job that much more risky. I remind you that racing was very dangerous in those days, safety was almost non-existent, just straw bales, that kind of thing. But yes, it’s true to say I drove reasonably well in the rain. That came from the fact that in the early days I did a lot of motorcycle racing and trials riding, and there you learn to feel the brakes, to use the throttle properly, to be smooth, and that gave me a slight advantage over other drivers in the wet. It’s hard, you know, to speak about yourself in this way, you are simply trying your best, performing as well as you can. I never did Spa in the rain, where it could suddenly rain, and that was dangerous but not like it is now because we had treaded tyres at the time; now, on slicks, you slide on a few drops of water.”

Ickx is arguably most famous for his extraordinary number of victories in sports cars, including six wins at Le Mans, four of those with Porsche. He thinks of La Sarthe in 1969, when he started last and finished first, and the 24 Hours in 1977 as perhaps his greatest victories. Many consider his maiden victory in 1969, sharing a Ford GT40 with Jackie Oliver, to be Ickx’s greatest achievement in the 24 Hours race. Considering the traditional Le Mans start to be dangerous he walked to his car, fastened his seatbelts and got away last. During the race the new Porsche 917s proved unreliable and in the final hour Ickx and Hans Hermann in a Porsche 908 battled it out for the lead. At the finish Ickx won by less than 120 yards, and his safety protest resulted in all drivers starting the race with belts secured from 1970 onwards.

“Yes, it was good to win with Jackie [Oliver] but it was a tragic event because there were two terrible accidents early in the race, a privateer in a 917 [John Woolfe] was killed and Willy Mairesse was terribly injured. The margin between success and tragedy is fractional. It was a great battle from starting last, but in a way our win at Sebring in the GT40 was better, and my proudest win at Le Mans was in 1977 when I switched cars during the race and won from the back.”

That weekend in 1977, the Porsche 936 he was sharing with Henri Pescarolo stopped early on and the team transferred him to the Haywood/Barth car which was languishing down the order. By early Sunday morning he had got it into the lead before an engine problem brought him back in. Superb work by the German mechanics had the engine back on song, albeit minus a cylinder, and Ickx went on to win the race. The stuff of legends.

“Yes, it was the race of your life, la course de votre vie, in a way. A day when your guardian angel is driving more than you, when you are driving with the power of somebody else, you know? Everybody surpassed themselves, drivers, mechanics, everybody. We were at the top, top limit and we won; it was a real sensation, a dream in a way.

“But you don’t win these races alone; it’s always a team effort,” he stresses. “If one person in a team is not doing his job properly, you cannot even dream about winning. To achieve so many wins in long-distance races takes a whole pyramid of people, and it is something you share equally with the people at the bottom and at the top of the pyramid. I was always surrounded by a lot of talent, by a lot of talented co drivers too – Mass, Redman, Andretti, Bell of course – and they are a big part of the success.”

To be the best is a leitmotif of conversation with Ickx. To him, this is what motor racing was all about, the reason for being there. Not the raw speed, the fleeting thrill, rather the winning, the simple satisfaction of being the best.

“I think this is true of everything in your life, you know, to do it properly, to be the best. For me it was never just the speed, being quicker through a corner, except maybe the old Raidillon at Spa, places like that, where you go flat out, where you hold your breath. No, for me it was the satisfaction of the winning. And then, looking back, it was also the passion of the people who came to watch,” he smiles.

“I love these people, I like to spend time with people who love the sport, like today when they ask me for the autograph. These are the people who make the sport and we have to understand this. We are all together in this passion and it is the people who make the occasion and the real success of a great motor racing event is as much up to the people as to the drivers, the teams. This is the human side and we must not forget this in motor racing.”

Later, walking through the Goodwood crowd, we cannot take two paces forward without a photo of a 312 at the Nürburgring or a page from A History of Le Mans being thrust forward. He pauses for every one. “Fantastic, they have so much passion,” he grins.

This man, let us remember, raced an extraordinary variety of cars. He began on motorcycles, becoming European 50cc Trials Champion. In 1965, racing a Lotus-Cortina, he was Belgian saloon car champion. Two years later he was in a Matra Formula 2 car at the Nürburgring, qualifying ahead of all the Grand Prix drivers except Hulme and Clark. Between 1967 and 1979 he raced for Cooper, Ferrari, Brabham, McLaren, Williams, Lotus, Wolf, Ensign and Ligier, winning eight Grands Prix. In 1979 he won the CanAm Championship and took the first of six victories at Le Mans. In amongst all that, Jacky Ickx won at Bathurst and, having ‘retired’, took a famous victory in the Paris-Dakar rally in 1983.

At Goodwood this year, a mighty cheer went up as Jacky pulled away from the grid in the Ford GT40. Just some pace car laps, but the lines were perfect, the gearchanges so precise, the braking a smooth but decisive action. He is retired these many years, in love with Africa and his desert rallies, but the name is revered wherever racing folk may gather.