Nigel Roebuck

Legends: British Grand Prix

Your attitude to the way that qualifying went at this year’s British Grand Prix will have depended very much on your attitude to grand prix racing per se. Were you a recent-comer to the sport, and knew it only as a game of ‘strategy’ (where the result matters, but the race itself can go hang), maybe you weren’t too offended by what you saw. But if your memories went back a little further, to a time when passion in motor racing counted for something, you were appalled.

One-by-one qualifying in Formula One has had its critics since its inception at the beginning of last year, but at least in 2003 the two sessions were 24 hours apart. On Friday the times merely decided the (inverted) running order for Saturday: if you were fastest, in other words, you got to run last in the session that counted, when the track was — in normal circumstances, anyway — at its quickest.

That scenario, universally popular or not, worked tolerably well, but then this year the powers-that-be had the great idea of running both sessions on Saturday, killing any interest in Friday, and creating the possibility of the kind of farce we saw at Silverstone. With rain forecast for the second half of the important session, for once it would be beneficial to get out early in it —which meant being among the slowest in the first session.

Thus it was that sundry illustrious drivers came out, some spinning or running off the road, others not even bothering to pretend, instead cruising the last part of the lap. Folk who had paid dearly to watch this celebration of ‘the pinnacle of the sport’ were rightly disgusted, and some left early — perhaps for ever.

As I watched the world’s greatest drivers trying not to go fast, several thoughts flitted through my mind, among them Peter Ustinov’s sublime Grand Prix of Gibraltar, a similarly satirical look at motor racing, but with the great benefit of making one laugh. Then I remembered Silverstone qualifying sessions past, like the one in which Keke Rosberg’s WilliamsHonda took pole position in 1985.

At the time, the Honda engineers said that their dynos read only up to 1000bhp; that being so, they murmured, it was some time since they had known how much horsepower their turbocharged V6 was giving.

Anyway, there was Keke doing his thing, boost off the clock. On a track still damp in places from a mid-session shower, the Williams screamed round in 1 min 05.591sec, at an average of 160.90mph. Thus Rosberg took the pole, and by seven-tenths of a second, from Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. Not a bad little quintet, that.

Rosberg’s lap was one to make you shiver, but it seemed not to have that effect on Keke, whose hands were quite steady as he lit a post-qualifying cigarette. Through Woodcote, the car had felt a bit twitchy, he said: probably it was simply that the qualifying tyres were giving up. A few minutes later, though, the left rear had deflated completely: Rosberg had set his time with a slow puncture.

That, of course, was on the ‘old’ Silverstone, long before the track was reshaped, but even then there was a chicane — albeit a mighty quick one before Woodcote. Prior to 1975, before the chicane was inserted, Woodcote Corner was as good a place to watch grand prix cars as any on earth. You stood there, and you knew who was good and who was great.

No driver was better through Woodcote, wet or dry, than Jochen Rindt In his time, gratifyingly, they didn’t know a lot about downforce, and slicks were still in the future, let alone such joys as traction control. To pitch a car into Woodcote at the limit was an act of faith — at some point it was going to exceed its limit of adhesion, and that was where the genius came in. Every lap, when Rindt was really on it, you wondered how he was going to sort it all out this time…

Anyone who attended the 1969 British Grand Prix will likely tell you they never saw a greater race. And, as with Rosberg’s unforgettable lap, it came back to me as I watched the aces of today trying to go slowly.

Ultimately, the battle for pole in 1969 was fought between the two best drivers of the time: Rindt in his factory Lotus 49 and Jackie Stewart in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra MS80. JYS was on a roll that summer, and although Jochen often threatened, he came to Silverstone without a point on the board. The Lotus never held together.

At Barcelona, he had looked untouchable, until one of the flimsy rear wing supports buckled, pitching the 49 into the barriers at 150mph. Rindt, who crawled from the inverted wreckage bloodied and concussed, had to miss Monaco, but returned for Zandvoort, where he took pole position and led until a driveshaft broke. At Clermont-Ferrand, he retired, sick and groggy, still not fully over the accident in Spain.

By Silverstone, though, Jochen felt well again. Three months earlier, at the International Trophy, he had driven a fantastic race in the rain, delayed with drowned electrics at first, then scything through the field when the problem disappeared. At the line, he all but caught Jack Brabham, who won.

Now, at the grand prix, Rindt’s good humour evaporated. When he arrived in the paddock there was no sign of the Gold Leaf Team Lotus transporter. We should remember, at this point, that 30 years ago there were no ‘unofficial’ practice sessions. All were timed, and all counted. And at Silverstone the first was on Thursday morning — sans Lotus. Jochen, not surprisingly, was livid.

Still, once in his 49, he used that anger to good effect, pushing Stewart all the way. It may seem rather quaint now, but in those days they used to award 100 bottles of champagne to the pole winner, and in the final two hour qualifying session financial spice was mixed in: £100 for the fastest lap recorded in each half-hour…

It was enough, mark you, to get them going for it. Stewart collected the first couple of pay outs, and was tying to beat Rindt for the third when he clipped the broken inside kerbing at Woodcote, blew the right-rear tyre, and spun hard into the earth bank at the exit of the corner.

In an instant, Jackie was out of the blue Matra: “I knew the car had had it, but I was OK, and uppermost in my mind was that Helen and other members of my family were in the pits, and would have seen the whole thing. I wanted them to know I was fine as soon as possible.”

Bad news for Stewart, but rather more than that for his team-mate, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, who had now to give up his own MS80 and spend the balance of the weekend in the MS84, Matra’s heavy four-wheel-drive car.

Once installed in JPB’s car, Stewart rushed out and got within half a second of his previous best. But it wasn’t enough: by now Rindt had lapped in 1min 20.8sec, which put him on pole.

Jochen was elated, and not merely because he was starting first. Stewart might have taken three of the four ‘bonus’ payments, but the last one went to Rindt. Ah, what a man would do for a hundred quid back in 1969. Come to think of it, there was only a thousand for the race winner.

Denny Hulme’s McLaren joined Rindt and Stewart on the front row, but after Copse he never had a clear view of them again. By the end of the first lap Jochen and Jackie were away on their own, with Denny already more than 3sec adrift.

Behind Hulme there was a fine scrap for fourth, involving the Ferraris of Chris Amon and Pedro Rodriguez, Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, Graham Hill, Jo Siffert and Jacky Ickx. A stellar collection, you could say, but all were incidental to the race: the focus was on Rindt and Stewart, and there was nothing to choose between them. The Lotus was marginally better on top speed, the Matra a shade superior under braking and through the turns. Jochen led for five laps, then Jackie was in front for the next 10.

By lap 16, Rindt was in front once more, Stewart tailing him, and for a long spell they hurtled round, lapping faster than most drivers had qualified. Such as McLaren, Hill and Siffert were lapped before half-distance.

“You might have expected Jochen to be right on the limit, and Jackie to be neat and calm,” McLaren commented, “but when they came past me, it was the other way round.”

After 51 laps Rindt’s lead had been stretched out to 3sec, but thereafter it was pared away; after 61, the Lotus was in Stewart’s sights, and next time around the Matra was in front and by 5sec. A lap later, Jochen screamed into the pits.

Maddeningly, the left-rear wing endplate had worked loose, and through Silverstone’s mainly right-handed turns was chafing the tyre. The Lotus mechanics tore off the end-plate with their bare hands and sent Rindt back out, still second, but now 35sec behind Stewart.

“I think there were something like 30 lead changes between us,” said Jackie, “although they didn’t necessarily register at the start-finish line because they happened out on the circuit. I’ve got a Michael Turner painting of me passing Jochen, and pointing at his rear wing to warn him it was rubbing against the tyre.”

So Rindt was cheated yet again of his first grand prix victory. Most of the spectators had been rooting for him and they cheered as he resumed the charge, but on lap 78, only half a dozen from the flag, he was a minute overdue. Finally he headed into the pitlane again, this time crawling, engine dead. The Lotus, unbelievably, was out of fuel. After a few gallons had gone in, Jochen returned to the race, now fourth, and totally dispirited.

Stewart may not count Silverstone ’69 as his greatest victory, but he remembers it as unquestionably the most enjoyable of his career.

“How many times in your life are you going to have a race like that? There was as good as no difference in ability between Jochen and myself, and the same was true of my Matra and his Lotus. From the start we both went hard at it, and the battle went on and on and on! Off the track, Jochen was probably my closest friend, and on it he was a man I trusted implicitly which is something you need to feel about another driver before you’re absolutely comfortable racing with him. Yes, all told, the ingredients were perfect that day.”

Thirty-five years on, it wasn’t quite like that.