The Big Interview: Jackie Stewart talks to Alan Henry

Things Alan learned when he sat down with Sir Jackie at the Australian GP: that Cevert would have won the '74 title; that Button is the new Amon; and a masterclass in racing psychology

It’s now 33 years since Jackie Stewart embarked on his final season as a Formula One driver. As he sped to his third World Championship crown he was nurturing the secret, shared only with team chief Ken Tyrrell and Ford public affairs supremos, that he would be quitting the cockpit at the end of the year at the age of just 34. At the time I was a wet-behind-the-ears F1 journo with Motoring News and was lucky enough to cover from the press box the last six races of Jackie’s career. Yet my most compelling memory of JYS stems from race morning prior to the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the day after his Tyrrell team-mate, François Cevert, had been killed in a violent accident while battling for pole position. Jackie and his wife Helen strolled casually up the starting grid. We didn’t know it then, but he’d run his last race. The official retirement announcement wouldn’t be made for another few weeks. Yet when the message came I immediately flashed back to that moment at the Glen when I saw the pair of them on the startline. It seemed so obvious in retrospect — the relaxed look on their faces had almost revealed their personal secret. For Jackie it was over; the rest of his life was beckoning. He’d survived the battle.

Let’s go back to your accident in the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, when you suffered the most serious injuries of your career after your BRM spun off the rain-drenched circuit on the opening lap. It’s a matter of historical record that this crash largely defined your attitude towards improvements in motor racing safety, but did it mark a change in the way you actually drove?

No. I can’t recall any difference at all to my attitude concerning my driving, pushing to the limit or any element of my approach towards racing. The question of taking a much more measured, controlled if you like, approach to my driving came much later in my career. I think that was part of the maturing process, transferring that experience to practical knowledge at the wheel of a racing car. So the more experienced I became, the more I could apply the speed and the inner knowledge that you really didn’t have to drive that hard to exert a performance edge.

When did that realisation that you didn’t actually have to drive so hard finally overtake you?

When I was leading the 1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra-Ford MS10. I suddenly discovered that if I went faster the whole field went faster. If I went slower, they went slower. There came a point when my opposition became submissive to the speed that was required.

Do you think that to some extent you were controlling the pace of that race in the same way as Jim Clark controlled the pace of the 1965 Belgian Grand Prix, when you were running second behind his Lotus in the BRM?

I think so, probably. Yet to some extent I think it was probably too early even in his career for him to have developed that quality. But at the same time I know he was thinking about me because he subsequently talked to me about it. He said he was worried that I might be overdoing things in the rain, but from my viewpoint I didn’t think I was. I just realised that I wasn’t getting any closer to him, but I think I realised he’d done the job and what I was doing was running to the limit of mine and my car’s ability, what the cars and the conditions could take.

Since Jimmy died at Hockenheim in 1968 you’ve reflected a lot on his qualities. Is there any additional perspective you feel you can add about his life and times?

I think I’ve more or less said everything I’ve thought about him, but I think a lot about him. Hardly a week passes that I’m not aware of some presence in my life, and Jimmy is part of that, as are a lot of others. But I’ve got no new conclusion, if you like, which might help me say, ‘That’s why he was capable of doing X, Y or Z.’ At the start of my F1 career we were sharing an apartment together in London, of course, so we were obviously spending a lot of time together. But he was quite a secretive guy, very cautious about saying things to people, and it took a long time to get his trust. Even when we got to the point that he trusted people to the extent that they wouldn’t let him down, he still wasn’t the kind who really opened out to people a lot. We shared a lot of deep conversations, of course we did, but somehow with Jimmy you felt that they weren’t really things he needed to do.

A lot of great drivers have come and gone, of course, since Jimmy’s day. Have any of the subsequent contenders affected in any way your assessment of his status or driving talent?

No, not at all. He was certainly the finest racing driver I ever competed against. I believe he also stands out as the person who was able to use the car he was driving to the maximum of its potential and ability without going over the top. You could never say that, for example, about Ayrton Senna. You might say it about [Alain] Prost, and Niki [Lauda] was pretty good at doing that too. But there have been very few who overdrove and were still good, really good.

Do you regard your drive through the field to finish fourth in the 1973 Italian GP at Monza as the best race of your career?

Because Monza was a relatively easy track in those days compared with some of the others on which we raced, it was always more difficult to exert a performance edge over your rivals. Therefore to have climbed back to fourth after suffering that early delay to change a punctured tyre was obviously more than satisfying for me. Not only did it deliver my third World Championship, but I was extremely satisfied with the speed and consistency I managed to achieve while at the same time never really abusing the car in any way. I also had space to do it because of the long gaps between passing manoeuvres. But I was still driving within my own self-imposed limits which I developed during my career, absolutely. So to sum up, technically I think my drive at Monza was probably the best in my career, but I’d have to say my proudest win was with the Matra in the rain at the 1968 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. The saddest race and probably the most awful I drove in was the same year’s French GP at Rouen, where the visibility was so bad that I was reduced to following the wheel tracks of other cars until I nearly hit an ambulance sent out to tend to Jo Schlesser’s fatal accident. I finished third, but the Dunlops which would later serve me so well at the Nürburgring didn’t work so well that day.

Who did you feel among your contemporaries showed a lot of promise but never quite made it?

Chris Amon was the most obvious one. I mean, he made it in the sense that he got up to F1 and was always well respected, but he never achieved anything like he would have been capable of achieving. In the same way, amongst the current crop I think Jenson Button is similar to Chris, because I’ve seen the skill he has but it hasn’t yet manifested itself in terms of hard results. And at the end of the day the only thing that matters is what you’ve won, whether grands prix or World Championships.

Which was the best car you ever drove in F1?

I think I’d have to say the Matra MS80 in 1969. It had a very nice front-to-rear balance. Whether that was to do with its weight distribution or its wheelbase I’m not sure, but it certainly felt generally well tied together. It needed to be, of course, to deal with Jochen Rindt and the Lotus 49 and, to be honest, if Jochen hadn’t still been a tad overdriving at that stage I think it might have been difficult for me to win the World Championship. The short-wheelbase Tyrrell 006 in 1973 was quick, but it was a challenge to be quick in it and a big job keeping ahead of the Lotus 72s. The 1.5-litre BRMs were nice and driveable but they never had the grip. Keep in mind that I had the privilege of driving Jimmy’s Lotus 33 at Kyalami at the end of 1964. Its grip level seemed to be about 12 inches below the surface of the track and by comparison the BRM seemed as though it was on marbles. Really, the difference between the two cars was as dramatic as that.

A lot of our younger readers probably don’t know a great deal about your Tyrrell team-mate, François Cevert. When you look down the pit lane at today’s generation of F1 drivers, which one is most like François?

I really think he was very, very good. I think he would probably have won the 1974 World Championship driving for Tyrrell. In 1973 he was pacing himself against me, but without that constraint after I’d retired I think he would probably have taken his driving to an even higher level. It was easy for him to ask [me] and I told him everything. There were no secrets between us. From April to October ’73 I knew I wasn’t going to be participating again the following year so there was no point in keeping anything from François, not that I did anyway. He was clearly going to be a major player in the future. Compared with today? Well, he wasn’t Räikkonen, because he was no Ice Man. He wasn’t Montoya, because he didn’t have a Latin temperament and he was learning to drive a bit like Prost and like me, if you like. So, kind of Michael Schumacher, I suppose. Really, I had the highest respect for him.

How did you get involved in the Lola Can-Am deal in 1971?

Simply because Carl Haas, the US Lola importer, asked me whether I would. I’d already had some Can-Am outings driving a Lola T70 for John Mecom, who I’d also driven for in the 1966 Indianapolis 500 — I competed at Riverside, Laguna Seca and Las Vegas at a time when Jimmy was driving the Lotus 30. So my appetite was whetted and there was quite a lot of money involved. In those days, of course, we were earning more off-track than we were on-track in F1 terms. Bruce McLaren set the tone for Can-Am so it seemed a good idea. I also briefly drove the Chaparral in 1970, then the Lola in ’71 and finally I signed to drive Can-Am for McLaren in 1972 because, quite frankly, the Lola was no match for the McLaren at all. But then I had a problem with a duodenal >ulcer haemorrhaging so I wasn’t able to race it. The Lola was another short-wheelbase car which was pretty twitchy. It also went through a programme of modifications bigger than on any car I ever drove. But it was exciting, relaxed racing.

You were always very well paid. Were you taken aback by the criticism you received on this score when you were racing?

Well, Jenks and Innes Ireland thought it was scandalous! In the USA people would admire you for having the skills which would enable you to be a high earner. But in Britain it was always a case of ‘what a scandal, he won’t do anything unless he’s paid for it.’ Sad, I suppose, but that’s the way it was.

Who impresses you most among the current crop of Fl stars?

Well, taking Fernando Alonso first, the maturity that he displays at such a young age — and how he’s gone about his business containing his excitement and effervescence — is very impressive. The other one I’m amazed about is Nico Rosberg, that at 20 years of age this boy is thinking so clearly. He’s a very sharp observer, hungry to learn and that’s refreshing. I think Kimi Räikkonen is very similar. He doesn’t overdrive it in the way Juan Pablo [Montoya] does. Some of that difference is emotion, of course, and some of it is mind management. Michael Schumacher has a very clear picture of what he is doing, but I was always a little disappointed that for a long time there was hardly a weekend when he didn’t go off the road in one form or another. He seldom went off the road when it mattered, but when you push too hard there’s always a downside risk. Then there’s Jenson Button, of course, who has an immense amount of talent. He drives beautifully in a cool and calculated manner, and in some ways I’m amazed that he hasn’t won a race yet.

This year you finished a long stint as President of the BRDC. Can you tell us something about the controversies?

It’s facing the sort of dilemma which, in a sense, seems to be connected with the way society lives today. Whether it’s riots in the streets of Paris through probably not fully understanding the laws relating to under 26s, or the same dilemma in Australia where new laws offer a little bit more responsibility to employers, in the same way the BRDC problems have in my view been misrepresented by a group of people led by quite a militant group of members. The Board of the BRDC has been composed of honest-to-God straightforward people none of whom would do anything against the club. None of them are doing it for their own benefit and they give immense amounts of time for little or nothing in return. And they have been criticised and abused to the point where it has been suggested that they should be asked to leave within 10 months of being democratically elected. And they have not done one thing wrong, not one thing.