Do they make ’em like they used to? I was mulling this question while putting the finishing touches to a special issue of Motor Sport, which goes on sale later this summer and celebrates the life of Sir Jackie Stewart, who turns 83 on June 11.
It takes us through a remarkable career from that famous Goodwood F3 test in March 1964 to his three world titles, embracing wonderful tales from his days in F2, Can-Am and the Tasman Series. We finish his competitive career with a look at Stewart Grand Prix, not perhaps his most illustrious period but it did give me an opportunity to relive our columnist Johnny Herbert’s day of days at the European Grand Prix of 1999, when he scored an unlikely victory for the team. The entity that was Stewart GP exists today as the Red Bull F1 team, meaning that Jackie is a permanent part of the history of that supremely successful operation.
As I went through each period of his career what stood out was the way that he spoke his mind and attempted to effect change – in ways that did not always endear him to everyone. Even today his campaigning spirit lives on through his charity Race Against Dementia.
As readers will know, the campaign was launched after Jackie’s wife Helen was diagnosed with the disease in 2014. The charity works to raise money to fund breakthroughs in dementia research by applying the principles and expertise that have spurred incredible innovation in the fast-paced world of Formula 1 and other high-tech environments.
“People used to say, if you want to know where Jackie lives, follow the Armco”
The fact he has spent recent years campaigning on this issue is not surprising. Stewart’s influence on the modern motor sport mentality is hard to overstate. In an age of halos and HANS, run-off areas and survival cells, it is easy to forget just how prescient his safety campaigning was from the late 1960s. And it is easy to forget how frequently carnage visited many a race track.
It wasn’t just Formula 1, either. Thinking about October 1964, when he was racing a Ferrari 250 LM at Montlhéry on a day during which two drivers and three marshals were killed, Jackie recalled: “As I drove out of the pits, I happened to look to my left and see two dead bodies, shattered beyond recognition, lying just a few metres away from me, [a sight] more suited to a medieval battlefield [than a sporting venue].”
Three years later at Monaco, he stood in the pits having retired, staring at the black plume of smoke rising from the inferno that claimed Lorenzo Bandini – and between times he’d had a close call of his own, when fellow drivers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant rescued him from his wrecked BRM at Spa.
Stewart’s campaigning came in the face of indifference, and sometimes hostility – including from DSJ in Motor Sport. “People used to say that if anyone wanted to know where Jackie Stewart lived, they only had to follow the Armco,” Jackie once said. “At one stage in the pitlane, I looked up to see Innes Ireland flapping his elbows and making chicken noises at me.”
Stewart’s courage and willingness to speak out, in spite of those who would rather he didn’t, is mirrored by our current generation of drivers. I have written before about how Lewis Hamilton, who has used his profile to speak out on issues of race, diversity in F1 and social justice, could be seen as this generation’s Jackie. But Lewis is not alone. Sebastian Vettel recently appeared on the BBC’s flagship political programme Question Time, where he was grilled by the audience and fellow panellists. He used the platform to talk about his environmental agenda and suggested that climate change could lead him to quit F1 completely.
The four-times world champion has spoken on the issue before: “It is a topic we cannot ignore – there is no alternative,” he said last year. “It’s not that we can say, ‘We’ll take care of something else first.’ The sooner we seriously take care of it, including doing it, the better our future will be.”
After the 2021 British Grand Prix he made a play of picking up litter from the grandstands. More recently he wore a T-shirt at the Miami GP to highlight the threat of rising sea levels. Cynics might – and do – scoff at both Vettel and Hamilton; and they may also argue that comparisons between these issues and track safety are invidious.
But while Hamilton and Vettel have both attracted critics for daring to speak their minds, it is by pushing on regardless that they most closely resemble Stewart. Just like him, they should be applauded for using their profile to engage an audience on important issues and raise awareness even if, like Jackie, it invites ridicule from some quarters.
It is sobering to think that with the death of Tony Brooks last month, Stewart is now the oldest living grand prix winner. But to answer the question I began with: yes, they do make ’em like they used to. Drivers and world champions with character and conviction, unafraid to push against the status quo. I just hope that Hamilton and Vettel have the same energy as Stewart when they are 83.
Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90