At the end of lunch in Goodwood House, I felt I should apologise to Luciano Burti, seated on my right, having spent an hour talking to the man on my left. Burti, Jaguar’s test driver, is a personable fellow, and if I ignored him, it was only from a reluctance to miss the chance, after too long, of catching up with Jacky Ickx.
Strange how some people barely change over the years. Ickx is now 55, but looks nothing like it. If there are more lines in the tanned face, he remains recognisably the smiling kid who drove for Ferrari back in 1968.
It was press day for the Festival of Speed, and he’d spent the morning splashing up the hill in a Porsche 956. “You know, I am so stupid! For years Lord March kept asking me to come to Goodwood, and always I was doing something else that weekend. Then, last year I did take part — and now I never want to miss another one!
“There is a magic in this place. I drove in an F2 race at Goodwood in 1966, very early in my career, and now, when I come back, I find the spirit of that time is still here. I watch all the Grands Prix, but I don’t know most of the people involved these days. When I come to Goodwood, it seems I know almost everyone.”
Although a truly great racing driver, Ickx was never World Champion, and I wondered if that bothered him. Not very much, he said. His nearest touch with the title came in 1970, and on that occasion he found himself in the position — surely unique in the annals of F1 — of hoping he wouldn’t win it.
“In the first part of that season the Ferrari 312B — the first car with the flat-12 — was not so reliable, but later on it got much better, and we were able to compete with Rindt and the Lotus 72. By then, though, Jochen had built up a big points lead, and it looked impossible to catch him…”
In qualifying at Monza, however, Rindt was killed, and Ickx found himself the only other driver with the chance to become champion.
“It was a horrible situation. On the one hand, I was a racing driver, and therefore obliged to try and win, for Ferrari if not for myself. If I won the last three races, I would be champion, by one point.
“With Jochen gone, the 312B was now the car to beat. Jackie Stewart was there, of course, with the first Tyrrell, but although the car was quick, it was new, and not so reliable. I won in Canada, but then I got a broken fuel pipe in Watkins Glen, and finished fourth — and, I tell you, I was relieved. I didn’t want to be champion, beating a man who… wasn’t there any more, and now I couldn’t be. I went to the last race, in Mexico, in a good frame of mind. And I won again.”
Ickx’s father, Jacques, was among the most prominent of motoring journalists, and he helped Jacky compose a tribute to the sport’s first, and only, posthumous World Champion.
It ended thus: “Even if one can talk of an untimely death, all I can say is the duration of a man’s life should not be measured in days or hours, but by that which we achieve during the time given to us. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t left his hotel room in the morning well aware that he may not return, but this does not prevent us from achieving complete happiness.
“On the contrary, perhaps it enables us to be all the more so. The knowledge that everything could finish before the end of the day enables us to enjoy the wonders of life, and all that surrounds it, all the more.’
In tone his words are similar to those of Bruce McLaren written a couple of years earlier after the death of Jimmy Clark, and they serve to remind us anew of how perilous an era of motor racing this was.
Jacky stressed the question of his own mortality rarely crossed his mind back then and even then not for very long. “I look back on my career with great pleasure, and I…I am a survivor, what else can I say? Of course I was young in my best years in F1, and you think nothing can happen to you — it will to someone else, maybe, but not you. And, honestly, that was how you had to think: otherwise, you could not have carried on.
“Sometimes, though, I think of those times, and wonder how it was I survived when so many others, more talented than I was, did not.”
There were not, I said, many others more talented than Ickx. “I don’t know. Certainly, there was Jimmy…”
In point of fact, the eras of Clark and Ickx barely overlapped, but Jacky has always remembered an incident at Barcelona in the spring of 1968.
“It was an F2 race. I tried to pass Jimmy at the hairpin on the first lap and hit the back of his car. We were both out immediately, and it was all my fault. He was the best in the world and I was this young guy; he could have been very hard, but he just had a quiet talk to me. He was a gentleman. One week later, he was dead.
“You know,” Ickx murmured, “If you came to my house, you would not know I had been a racing driver. I have all my trophies of course, but none are on display. I have just one framed racing photograph on my wall: that wonderful picture by Jesse Alexander of Jimmy’s face, completely drained, after a race at Spa.”
Then Ickx was 23, and team mate to Chris Amon — a veteran all of 24 — at Ferrari. Everything had happened very quickly. In his teens he had raced trials bikes, but there had never been any thought of being a racing driver. “As a child, I had no interest at all, in spite of my father’s profession. I went with him to Spa, for the GP in ’58 and was so bored I asked to go home!”
After successes on Zundapp bikes, however, the Belgian importer, which also imported BMW cars, gave him a Group 2 700S for the ’63 touring car season. He had never driven a car in his life but learned swiftly, graduating graduated to a Lotus Cortina. In 1964 he drove with Alan Mann’s team in the European Touring Car Championship, and in Budapest caught the eye of one Ken Tyrrell.
Not much could be done in the short term, for Ickx lost 1965 to National Service, but at the end of that year he tested for Tyrrell, and drove for him in F2 for the next two seasons. “Actually, I was offered an F1 drive for ’67, but turned it down: I felt it was too soon.”
A rational young man he was, and also honourable. As Tyrrell’s plans to enter F1 took shape, he asked Ickx to hold off on a decision for ’68. Jacky agreed — and the next day received a firm offer from Ferrari.
“I had to say no, because I’d given my word to Tyrrell, but by October Ken told me he’d signed Stewart, and couldn’t run a second car. Happily for me, Ferrari’s door was still open.”
The V12 was down on power to Cosworth’s DFV, but Ferrari had a fine chassis in 1968, and although Amon was the team’s pacesetter, it was Ickx who scored the only victory, in the torrential rains of Rouen.
“I felt very sorry for Chris. He was a great driver — quicker than me, yet it was me who finally got a win. He must be the unluckiest driver there has ever been in racing; I liked him very much, and he taught me so much about setting a car up.”
A wonderful lunch it was with this man of unusual quality. Here we are, at the end of the column, and all we have done is touch lightly on Ickx and his Ferrari years. The rest of our conversation I will come back to at a later date.
“I don’t think I would have survived too well in the F1 of today,” Jacky smiled as we got up to leave. “I don’t mean in the physical sense, because it’s a lot safer than it was, but… all the PR work, the endless testing, and so on. Between race weekends, you know, I never used to give racing a thought….