Having just watched both the qualifying at Melbourne and highlights of the 1969 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, courtesy of YouTube, I was struck by the enormous gulf between F1 then and now. I was born in 1974 and my earliest memories of motor racing come from the early ’80s, but I’m a huge fan of ’60s and ’70s racing.
The biggest difference, it seems to me, is that the psychological challenge was greater in earlier years than it is now, when climbing into a racing car and going to the limit was extremely perilous. The kind of ‘mind management’ needed to overcome natural fears of death or injury mark out yesterday’s drivers as a breed apart.
I’m always staggered at the reaction to François Cevert’s death in 1973. The accident couldn’t have been more horrific, yet both drivers and team managers seemed able to put it behind them and get on with the job of racing. In Peter Revson’s biography, Peter Manso mentions Revson going to an exhibition of motor sport art which looked out on the spot where Cevert was killed that same day without batting an eyelid. Bernie Ecclestone has recalled mentioning the accident to Carlos Reutemann, and then the two of them moving on to discuss tyre choices for Sunday! Meanwhile Jody Scheckter, who did at least admit that what he saw changed his outlook on motor racing forever, was already in discussion with Ken Tyrrell with regards to joining the team in ’74. The only driver, it seems, who reacted ‘normally’ was James Hunt, who was described as looking pale and visibly shaken, yet remarkably he went on to finish second the next day!
Did it ever strike you that this sport is not only very exciting but also callous and indifferent to the lives of its main protagonists, and did you ever entertain doubts about whether it was all worth it?
No getting away from it, Grand Prix racing has changed out of recognition in the last 40 years, and no change has been more dramatic than that in safety. At Jacky Ickx recently said to me, “Nowadays you can do it, and you’re almost at risk zero – and that’s wonderful…”
It wasn’t like that in his era, though, and to some degree there was a sort of ‘Spitfire pilot’ attitude to the risks involved. During 1971, my first year of working as an F1 journalist, three Grand Prix drivers – Ignazio Giunti, Pedro Rodríguez, Jo Siffert – all lost their lives in racing accidents (although only Siffert was killed in an F1 race). That wasn’t untypical of the time. The year before, Piers Courage, Bruce McLaren and Jochen Rindt had all died. No surprise that Ickx – as you can read in the next issue of the magazine – is so grateful that he is still around.
I think you’re wrong, though, to suggest that the attitude within the sport to these tragedies was callous. Certainly, the death of a driver was more commonplace in those days, and therefore the sport’s participants were more accustomed to dealing with it, but that didn’t mean that the losses were not keenly felt. Of Jimmy Clark’s death, for example, Chris Amon said this: “We all felt we’d lost our leader. If it could happen to Jimmy, what chance did the rest of us have?”
It’s a fact that I have on occasion encountered callousness in motor racing – less than an hour after Gilles Villeneuve’s accident in 1982, another driver asked me, “Who d’you think will get the Ferrari drive?” – but it’s been very much the exception to the rule. The fact is, times were different, death was more prevalent by far – and the belief, I think, was that it had always been part of the sport. Very regrettable, but occasionally inevitable. And bear in mind, too, that this was all long before ‘public grieving’ became so fashionable. Motor racing people may have borne their grievances discreetly, but certainly they felt them.