Looking back on Jochen Rindt

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Few drivers of the post-War Grand Prix era have prompted such debate over their talents as Karl Jochen Rindt, the arrogant, self-confident Austrian who claimed the sad distinction of becoming the sport’s first, and so far only, posthumous World Champion. It is 14 years ago this coming September since the 28-year-old Rindt crashed fatally under braking at Parabolica during final practice for the 1970 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, ending a spectacular, varied and inconsistent career which had started less than a decade before. This was the driver whose promise seemed somehow so certain never to be realised that MOTOR SPORT’s D.S. J. was prompted into betting his beard against Rindt ever winning a Grand Prix: when the Austrian’s Lotus 49 came home triumphant in the 1969 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, our hirsute colleague willingly shaved himself. On a more personal note, Jochen Rindt was one of racing’s personalities who helped form the writer’s early impressions of the sport. It took a lot of cajoling for my father to be persuaded to drive himself and a friend, a few weeks prior to my long-awaited 17th birthday, to Crystal Palace for the Formula 2 London Trophy meeting at Whitsun, 1964. This was the event at which the little-known Austrian driver took his black Brabham-Cosworth SCA to a splendid victory over a host of established rivals including Jim Clark and Graham Hill. From that moment onwards, Rindt’s future seemed secure — certainly in my youthful eyes, at least!

Jochen Rindt was born in Mainz, Germany, on April 18, 1942 and after both his parents were killed in an Allied bombing raid when he was only 15 months old, he went to live with his maternal grandparents in the quiet Austrian city of Graz. From an early age the young Rindt was something of a rebel and it quickly became clear that he wasn’t going to take much interest in the family spice importing business, the Mainz-based firm of Klein and Rindt. He learnt to drive, below the legal age limit, at the wheel of an elderly Volkswagen and caused so much disruption at his local school that he was packed off to England as a teenager to learn English in Chichester. Although Goodwood was uncomfortably close at hand, Jochen didn’t show much interest in motorised sports and it was only on his return to Austria that he really began to become interested in cars: his antics on the local roads round Graz in company with his friends (who included Helmut Marko, later to become a Ferrari sports car and BRM Grand Prix driver) were quite hair-raising and have been splendidly chronicled by his long time friend Heinz Pruller in his splendid book, Jochen Rindt — The Story of a World Champion (William Kimber, 1970).

Rindt first came to prominence in 1963 when he decided to take the plunge into the cut and thrust of Formula Junior, acquiring an old Cooper and teaming up with fellow Austrian coming man Kurt Bardi-Barry. From the outset of his single-seater career Rindt was to demonstrate a distinctive brand of unrestrained, extrovert enthusiasm behind the wheel. He was obviously tremendously quick, and although he seemed to be in control, he was incredibly wild. He won his second-ever Formula Junior race with the Cooper, at Cesenatico in Italy, and later fitted a push-rod 1,500 cc Ford engine into the car in order to take part in the first Austrian Fl Grand Prix, a non-title event held on the old Zeltweg airfield circuit. For the 1964 season he graduated into Formula 2, buying a brand new Brabham-Cosworth SCA with some support from Ford Austria. It was with this machine that Rindt really made his name over the Whitsun weekend in the two well-publicised British Formula 2 races. He qualified on pole position at Mallory Park, finishing third in the race behind the works Lotuses of Jim Clark and Peter Arundell, but at Crystal Palace he astounded everybody by winning in brilliant style. One of the national daily papers reported him as being an Australian, presumably on the assumption that only the British Commonwealth could produce drivers of such apparently instant brilliance!

This success put Rindt firmly in the mainstream of international motor racing attention and it’s fair to say from this point onwards he never looked back. His first ride in a pukka Grand Prix car came in the ’64 Austrian Grand Prix where he handled Rob Walker’s Brabham-BRM V8. He failed to finish, but was clearly not daunted by racing’s senior category. For 1965 he was signed up to partner Bruce McLaren in the works Cooper team, but by this time the 1 1/2-litre machines from this marque were totally uncompetitive and Jochen salvaged only a fourth place at Nurburgring and a sixth at Watkins Glen for his efforts. There was success in other categories, however, most notably at Le Mans where he and Masten Gregory drove an obsolete NART Ferrari 250LM to a memorable victory. And, of course, he kept his hand in amongst his Formula 2 rivals, which at that time included most of the contemporary Grand Prix stars. Right up until the end of 1968 Rindt was to drive for the famous Winkelmann Racing F2 equipe, managed by his friend, the taciturn Alan Rees who is now a director of the Arrows Grand Prix team. The pint-sized Rees also drove with Rindt, frequently matching the Austrian in terms of speed, and occasionally beating him. When his Formula 1 fortunes were down, which was often, Rindt managed to keep his reputation alive by what amounted to near-total domination of Formula 2 for the best part of four seasons.

At the start of the three-litre Formula 1 in 1966 Rindt found himself armed with the ungainly looking Cooper-Maserati V12, a machine which generally performed rather better than its appearance might suggest. It was at the wheel of this device that Rindt began to lay the foundations of his briefly successful Grand Prix career, his most notable achievement probably being his Performance in the rain-soaked Belgian Grand Prix at Spa where he led John Surtees’ winning Ferrari 312 for many laps, eventually finishing second. Rindt’s “nerves of steel” were also emphasised when he spun wildly on the Masta straight in the height of the rain storm without so much as batting an eye-lid. Miraculously the Cooper didn’t hit a thing and Jochen simply continued at unabated speed! Throughout 1966 and ’67 Rindt never quite managed to grasp a Grand Prix victory, despite the fact that team-mates John Surtees and Pedro Rodriguez both made it to the winner’s circle. By the end of the ’67 programme Rindt was clearly looking for something more competitive with which finally to break out of this disappointing rut and, on the basis of its Championship-winning performances in the first two seasons of the new three-litre formula, there seemed few more promising berths than a place in the Brabham team. Thus Rindt signed to drive alongside “Black Jack” for the 1968 season, the two men quickly forging a warm and easy-going partnership based on mutual respect. Rindt was clever enough to appreciate Brabham’s shrewd ability when it came to organising the team while the Australian obviously rated Jochen’s talent behind the wheel. It should have been a successful combination. Unfortunately, the whole year turned out to be an unmitigated disaster largely thanks to the unreliability of the newly developed four-cam Repco V8 with which the Brabham team hoped to match the sensational Cosworth DFV. Rindt used a ’67-specification twin-cam Repco V8 to finish third in the opening race at Kyalami behind the Lotus 49s of Jim Clark and Graham Hill, but from that point onwards there was little to alleviate the all pervading gloom. There were brief flickers of Rindt’s tremendous talent: pole position by a huge margin at Rouen and third place at the rain-soaked Nurburgring, but otherwise the season was terrible. For 1969, despite offers from Brabham who was now determined to obtain Cosworth power for his cars, Jochen Rindt took the decision to sign for Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus.

The combination of the hard-bitten Rindt and mercurial Lotus boss Cohn Chapman amounted to the proverbial irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Chapman’s career in Formula I had gone hand-in-hand with the great Jim Clark’s rise to stardom: the two men had enjoyed a precious, closely sympathetic relationship and Clark had been dead for less than a year when the English team boss turned to Rindt. In Chapman’s mind, Jochen was quite simply the fastest man left in the business, but he was poles apart from Clark in terms of personality. Whereas Clark had been content simply to drive, Chapman suddenly found his new driver offering unwanted technical comments and criticisms. What’s more, Rindt being Rindt, these remarks were not wrapped up in any tactful dressing: the Austrian was blunt to the point of being downright offensive and it’s clear that Chapman, briefly, found himself virtually at war with his new recruit. The 1969 season was stormy and turbulent for the Lotus team, a succession of mechanical failures seemingly destined permanently to deprive Rindt from “breaking his duck” and winning that first, elusive Grand Prix triumph. Rindt should have won the 1969 British Grand Prix at Silverstone quite easily, all things being equal. His pole position Lotus 49B more than had the legs of Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell Matra and the two cars quickly became embroiled in a frantic scrap for the lead. Rindt was clearly asserting himself when a rear aerofoil side plate worked loose and began dangling precariously close to one of the Lotus’s rear tyres. He made a quick stop for the offending side plate to be ripped away, but by the time he was back in the race Stewart was long gone: Rindt eventually finished fourth after another pit stop to top up with fuel. It was the lowest point of his relationship with Chapman who by that stage was so committed to the Lotus 63 4WD project that he’d actually sold the works 49Bs. Rindt demanded that he be given one of the old cars for Silverstone, so Chapman had to borrow one back from Jo Bonnier. “It’s like Barnum and Bailey’s circus in four separate rings!” remarked Jochen rather acidly to a colleage amidst Lotus’s British Grand Prix chaos. Later he warmed slightly to the Lotus 63 and agreed to drive it in the non-Championship Oulton Park race later in the season. He finished second to Jacky Ickx’s Brabham.

At the end of the season, at long last, Jochen Rindt won his first Grand Prix.

What’s more, in those days before Formula 1 prize funds were standardised, Rindt scooped the biggest prize in the business for his triumph in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. At last some of the dreadul luck that had run against him for so many seasons had turned in his favour. D.S.J. took out his rarely-used razor …

Notwithstanding Rindt’s success in that race, his personal relationship with Chapman was still pretty tempestuous and he seriously examined the possibility of returning to the more placid surroundings of the Brabham team for 1970. Black Jack made it quite public that he would consider retiring if Jochen returned to the fold, but at the end of the day there was no way in which Chapman was going to lose the quickest man in the business. The two individuals patched up their differences and did another deal for 1970, a deal helpfully massaged by Jochen’s astute friend and business manager Bernie Ecclestone, at that time on the fringes of motor racing once more after a decade away from the sport building up his other considerable business interests. For 1970, Colin Chapman had a demon new weapon up his sleeve, the superb torsion-bar sprung Lotus 72 which was destined to re-write the parameters of contemporary Grand Prix car performance in a manner so typical of the Lotus marque. Typically, Rindt was suspicious of its rather “fragile” appearance and told Chapman, initially at least, that he’d prefer to stick with the latest 49 development. Jochen started the European season with an archetypal Rindt race: mooning round for the first half of the Monaco Grand Prix in the middle of the field, the Austrian suddenly scented a chance of victory. From that moment onwards he went like the wind, shattering the lap record on his final tour and flustering dear old Jack Brabham into a last corner slide into the straw bales. It was an epic performance, by any standards.

Eventually, Rindt and Chapman began to work together profitably on the Lotus 72 and the victories began to tumble into their lap. Zandvoort, Clermont-Ferrand, Brands Hatch and, lastly, Hockenheim. Battling all the way with Jacky Ickx’s new flat-12 Ferrari 312B, Rindt never had any doubt that his Lotus was sufficiently superior to pass the Belgian any time he wanted to. And so it proved — Rindt breezed by on the last lap and, in a rare tribute to Chapman, remarked “a monkey could have won with this car today, it’s that good!”

Engine failure claimed Rindt’s Lotus 72 in his “adopted home” Grand Prix at the Osterreichring and then, suddenly, came the tragedy at Monza. During final practice Jochen’s car crashed heavily under braking for Parabolica, almost certainly not through the fault of the driver. Terribly injured, the man who had the 1970 World Championship in his pocket, died on his way to hospital in the ambulance.

It is a matter of some personal regret that I never met Jochen Rindt, being only a junior reporter on our weekly newspaper Motoring News at the time of his death, so my impressions of the man have been shaped by some not altogether impartial judgements — as well as some overtly biased in his favour. Obviously he was a wild one: his relationship with his lovely wife Nina, daughter of wealthy Finnish amateur racing driver Curt Lincoln, was no less stormy than his professional partnership with Colin Chapman. He was arrogant, supremely confident, yet very warm and loyal towards his close circle of friends: in that respect. I detect some firm similarities with his successor Niki Lauda, although their backgrounds are distinctively different.

Dismayed by the deaths of his close friends Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage, Rindt had virtually decided to retire from motor racing at the end of 1970 and concentrate on his many business interests. If he’d survived, he would now he a tousle-haired 42-year old, probably still ribbing his contemporary and Swiss-based neighbour Jackie Stewart in the same manner as he did when they were racing together in the sixties. “You know, Jochen may have had the outward appearance of a rough diamond, but beneath it all he was a very warm-hearted sort of guy,” explained Heinz Pruller to the writer at the recent Brazilian Grand Prix meeting. I’m sure, like me, there are a lot of readers who identify with Jochen Rindt in a strange, distant way; who admire the Austrian driver who only latterly achieved the hard results to back up the exciting, dramatic driving style which endeared him to the paying spectators way back at Crystal Palace, on Whit Monday, twenty years ago exactly. — A.H.

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