He had the talent to be Formula One World Champion, but did he lack the ambition? Adam Cooper talks to the quixotic Mister Ickx
Compile a list of ‘Formula One champions who never were’ and it’s sure to be headed by Stirling Moss, with Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve close behind. It’s all too easy to overlook a man whose career was not cut short by an accident, but who never quite managed to fulfil the potential he so clearly possessed.
As last month’s Motor Sport poll showed Jacky lckx is the undisputed king of sportscars. And yet his many achievements in that arena have tended to overshadow the fact that between 1968 and 72 he was also one of the top three or four grand prix drivers. With a little luck, and better reliability, the title might have come his way in any of those seasons.
Just consider the run of 12 grands prix from France in July 1970 to Holland in June 71. Ickx retired from the first two of these, while leading. He then went on to win four times and score 55 points — more than anyone else in the same period. He also took six poles and set six fastest laps. Alas, that sort of strike rate was never compressed into a single season.
“It was not written that way, I believe,” says Ickx. “It’s as simple as that. Sometimes you don’t get what you expect, and sometimes you get what you don’t expect I cannot say that I was weighed down by the dream that other people had for me to become world champion, because I wasn’t dreaming about it myself. Generally speaking, it never bothered me because I was so lucky in Formula Two, long-distance racing, Can-Am and Paris-Dakar. And I think that’s the way people have to see it. I don’t feel frustrated at all.”
Some 25 years after his Fl career fizzled out with Ligier, it’s easy for Ickx to look back through rose-tinted spectacles. But even at the time, his understated, thoughtful approach contrasted with that of some of his rivals. Racing was just one aspect of his busy, compartmentalised life, and while he loved it and excelled at it, he wasn’t driven by a burning desire to be world champion. Indeed, as a youth he had little interest in GP racing. He got into it by chance, as natural ability shone through and one works opportunity led to another, first on two wheels and then on four.
“The drivers were not interested in money, and there were no sponsors,” he recalls. “If you could get a drive and earn a little something, everybody was happy. The mentality was, if you were doing well in one category, there was always someone to offer you a drive in the `next step’. And the next step was something slightly bigger and slightly faster.”
At his first international touring car race, the 19-year-old Ickx attracted the attention of the man who would take him into the big time — not just because of his speed, but also because of his cool reaction after bringing a crippled car back into the pits.
“Ken Tyrrell is the key of everything in my life,” says Ickx. “He first saw me in 1964, driving a Lotus Cortina for Alan Mann in Budapest, and said, ‘I want you to test a single-seater.’ I said, `I’m sorry I can’t, because I have to go into the army.’ I was away for 15 months.
“But when my national service was over Ken came back and said, ‘Let’s have that test.’ I was fast, but I had a hard time staying on the road, and before the season started I had already damaged a few cars. But still he maintained his faith in me. He’s the man who changed my life; without him I think I could have been a gardener.”
Despite the testing mishaps Tyrrell placed Ickx in his Matra F2 team for 1966, alongside Jackie Stewart. He was consigned to a less reliable BRM-engined machine and rarely had a chance to shine. However, Stewart’s Cosworth car was available for him to handle in the F2 class within the German GP at the Nürburgring. He qualified 8sec ahead of his nearest challenger and embarrassed some of the Fl privateers.
Ickx won the inaugural European title for Ken in 1967, but the race that really made his name was his second F2 outing within the German GP: he stunned the Fl circus by setting the third-fastest qualifying lap, behind only Jim Clark and Denny Hulme, although he still had to start behind the main pack on a separate grid. His Fl chance wouldn’t be long in coming: Cooper called him up to replace the injured Pedro Rodriguez at Monza. Running alongside Jochen Rindt, he finished a creditable sixth.
There was by now much interest in Ickx, but Tyrrell wanted him for his planned Fl graduation in 1968. Indeed, as early as July, Ickx turned down an approach from Ferrari. But, following much procrastination, Ken had to tell him that there was no seat after all. Luckily, Ferrari still had a vacancy, and he got a second chance.
“Unfortunately, Ken could not use me,” explains Ickx. “Jackie was there and a French driver — Jean-Pierre Beltoise — had to be part of the team. It was only because Ferrari didn’t settle a deal with Stewart that I was still able to join them. It’s a small world.”
The mercurial Belgian could have won the title in his first full season. He scored a brilliant maiden win in the wet at Rouen — “no sane-thinking man likes racing in the rain!” — but elsewhere something always seemed to go wrong. His year opened with two retirements, and when Ferrari boycotted Monaco, he was still languishing on zero points after three races. When he finally started scoring, it was usually after overcoming hurdles: chronic engine problems at Spa, dry tyres in the Zandvoort rain, a puncture at the ‘Ring, a splash-and-dash at Monza. But despite these woes he left Italy three points behind series leader, Graham Hill, with three races to go. Then, at Canada’s Ste Jovite, a stuck throttle sent him off the road in practice. A newly erected fence kept him out of the trees, but his challenge was over: “A broken leg was a minor accident in Fl at that time!”
Contemporary interviews suggest that Jacky was frustrated with the day-to-day chaos at Maranello, and that he didn’t enjoy a close relationship with Ferrari’s technical chief Mauro Forghieri. He was also in the delicate position of racing for Ferrari and Shell in Fl, and Ford and Gulf in sportscars. Something had to give.
Preferring the latter route, he moved to Gulf-supported Brabham for 1969. It was a good choice. He worked well with Ron Tauranac and mechanic Ron Dennis, and won at the Nürburgring and Mosport — on both occasions after muscling past Stewart, the eventual champion.
“There was still a lot to learn,” says Ickx. “But I was doing better step by step, building up experience. When Jack Brabham was injured I was on my own and everyone concentrated on me, and that was really the takeoff. There is no mystery: if a driver is going to be efficient he has to be surrounded by people who appreciate him, like him and trust him.”
Yet after just one year away he was tempted back to Maranello. Aware that Gianni Agnelli and Fiat were now offering support, and intrigued by the new flat-12, he felt the time was right
“I am one of the very few who returned to Ferrari. I think Enzo liked me very much, and I liked him. He was always very fair to me. I never felt pressed by him, or manipulated. He tried to do the best he could do at the time with his team. Maybe it was not perfect, but it was still a great time.”
The new 312B was quick but fragile. The first seven GPs of 1970 saw him score just one third place, at Spa, and that only after a stop because of a fuel leak. He retired while leading at Clermont-Ferrand and Brands Hatch, before finally winning in Austria. But just as his title challenge was building momentum, points rival Rindt was killed at Monza. Jacky won two of the last three races, but was content to remain runner-up: “It would not have been correct to beat someone who couldn’t defend his chances until the very last race. Jochen really deserved that title — he was the best driver of the year, no doubt”
Both 1971 and ’72 were filled 10 with frustration: Ickx scored just one win in both years; he regularly took pole position — his qualifying record was better than that of eventual 1972 champion Emerson Fittipaldi — only to often hit trouble while leading.
“The time when I was really on top of my game, was really doing well, was fantastically motivated and had a really good car, was the time when I was with Ferrari.”
But things can change quickly in F1, and that motivation first became suspect in 1973, when the new 312B3 was hopeless: “We were completely unsuccessful and the car was a mess. At Silverstone, we were almost last, and that was totally unacceptable. So the team decided to withdraw for a number of races. At the time they had said it was because the drivers were not good…”
Left twiddling his thumbs, Ickx felt he had to prove that Ferrari’s slump wasn’t down to him. He knew that McLaren had a spare M23 and simply asked Teddy Mayer if he could drive it in the German GP. He was 6sec faster than his team-mates in qualifying, although a conservative tyre choice meant the pace-setting Tyrrells left him to third on race day.
“I badly needed to restore my confidence in my abilities, because 19th was not my position on the grid. It was very important for me, and Enzo finally accepted that. I returned with my belief completely restored.”
Jacky rejoined Ferrari for a final outing at Monza, and finished the season with a guest appearance in an Iso Marlboro at Watkins Glen. He thus achieved the unique feat of driving for McLaren, Ferrari and Williams in consecutive races.
In retrospect, Ickx’s Fl career could have taken a different path had he made a better team choice for 1974. What if he had stayed at Ferrari alongside Niki Lauda? Or taken the vacant Tyrrell seat that went instead to Patrick Depailler? Or even urged his personal backer Marlboro to help him into McLaren? Unlike his eventual destination, all three marques would be in contention for the ’74 title until the final round. Instead, he switched over to Lotus.
It seemed a good idea at the time; after all, the team had just won the constructors’ title, and the new Type 76 was on the way. And Ickx started well, scoring a brilliant wet-weather victory with the ancient 72 in the Race of Champions. However, the 76 was a disaster, and the old model was soon back on duty; a heroic Peterson scored three wins, but Jacky never came to terms with the situation. He only twice out-qualified a team-mate he’d outpaced in Ferrari sportscars two years earlier: “Ronnie was the number one driver, and it was a position established by his talent I had to learn the car and so on, and I had a hard time to go as fast as him.”
The situation grew even worse in 1975, when Jacky suffered three brake shaft failures. He left the team mid-season: “I was battling with the 72, and it was falling apart on a number of occasions in private testing. When you don’t trust the car, it’s difficult to take it to the limit.”
A competitive seat for 76 still might have reversed the downward trend. But he opted for the truly awful Hesketh-derived Wolf-Williams, and the spiral continued as he struggled even to qualify. Once again he left in the summer: “That was the last year where I could have had a good car and probably raced as I was used to doing. But as I didn’t manage that, I became weaker and weaker.”
Ickx was at rock bottom as far as F1 was concerned, although he was still more than a match for McLaren star Jochen Mass when they shared Porsche sportscars. Later he returned with Ensign, and there were signs of the old spirit at Zandvoort, where he set third-fastest race lap, and again in wet qualifying at Monza. But then a fiery crash at Watkins Glen ripped open the chassis and almost finished his career: “I was lucky to keep my feet. I suffered five or six fractures in both anldes, a cut heel and burns.” He returned for occasional outings with Ensign in 1977-78, but readily admitted to team boss Mo Nunn that he wasn’t prepared to drive flat-out to earn a midfield grid position.
His Fl career seemed to be over, but an unexpected reprieve came when Depailler was injured in a hang-gliding accident in the middle of 1979. Encouraged by Jean-Pierre Jarier’s career-saving outings with Lotus the previous year, Ickx jumped at the chance to join Ligier.
The timing was wrong. Contesting just five grands prix in the preceding two-and-a-half years was poor preparation for the unforgiving new breed of wing car. Worse still, just as he joined, the team lost its way, and all efforts went into salvaging Jacques Laffite’s fading title hopes. Some in the camp felt that Gitanes had forced Ickx upon them, and he missed the support that he’d always needed. His reputation took a battering every fortnight, and Watkins Glen would prove to be his final grand prix outing, some 13 years after his first.
Ickx was only 34 — younger than Michael Schumacher is now — but apart from Mario Andretti, no-one else who’d raced in grands prix in the 1960s was still competing at the top level. He was not the only veteran to lose the plot in the ground-effect era: Lauda and James Hunt both stopped that season, and Jody Scheckter and Fittipaldi would follow suit a year later.
“I realised that I was not good enough to drive in Fl any more. I had neither the necessary passion nor the necessary motivation,” explains Ickx.”My time with Ligier was a perfect experience — even though it was not good as far as results were concerned. It was perfect because it happened at the right moment: I realised that I was not ‘there’, and instead of trying hard just to be last on the grid in every race and saying that I don’t have the right car, I stopped. I had done my time, so I turned the page.”
There are many ifs in Ickx’s career, many missed opportunities, but he has no time for idle speculation… “Why have regrets? It’s pointless. I raced for so long at a high level, and I’m still here to talk about it. I think about the friends I have lost in that time — some much better than me, without a doubt — who didn’t have that luck. I had a wonderful life, with some dreadful moments, some very good moments. And that’s why the question, ‘How do you feel about not becoming world champion?’ is not a subject I pay attention to.”