Stewart vs Jenkinson: safety in motor sport


Safety? It’s an old argument.

Delving through back issues of Motor Sport is always a dangerous business. Even if you know exactly what you’re looking for, time can fly by, and before you know it a whole afternoon has gone. Those old magazines just seem to suck you in.

I’d taken the plunge this month, vowing only to spend 20 minutes as I searched for some suitable words from Denis Jenkinson on Emerson Fittipaldi to run alongside Rob Widdows’ excellent cover story interview in the September issue. A bit of Jenks always adds weight and perspective to an article, and I thought I’d scroll through 1972, the young Brazilian’s first championship year.

For no real reason, I started at the end of the year and worked my way back, scanning through the pages of the computer archive disc (it saves the well-thumbed bound volumes from further wear and tear), trying not to stop and browse when I spotted something interesting or odd – or both. That would be every page, then.

I clicked into the July issue and began to read the Belgian GP report, smiling to myself at DSJ’s derision of the modern Nivelles ‘autodrome’ that had replaced the grand old Spa-Franchorchamps road circuit as the Formula 1 venue for this year. Ah, here was a nice bit where Jenks drew comparison between the young Emmo and the still much-missed Jimmy Clark. Yes, that would work well for the magazine.

But curses, I was ensnared. DSJ’s lack of enthusiasm for Nivelles made me think. Of course. This was the year when the spat between Jenks and Jackie Stewart spilled over juicily into the pages of Motor Sport, wasn’t it? I couldn’t resist, and flicked through to the letters pages. In the August issue, there it was: ‘STEWART ANSWERS HIS CRITICS’.

“Sir, I feel compelled to write in response to Jenkinson’s outburst in attacking me personally in your June issue,” the letter began. No endearing, familiar use of ‘DSJ’ or ‘Jenks’ here. Jackie was clearly wound up.

He was answering our Continental Correspondent’s stinging criticism of his role in convincing sports car drivers not to race in the 1000Kms at Spa, the track that had lost its GP to Nivelles because it was now considered too dangerous for F1. How ironic then, that Stewart had missed Belgian GP on the characterless new circuit because of the ulcer that had ruined his troubled season.

“I try terribly hard devoting considerable time and effort to make motor racing as a whole for as many people as possible – officials, spectators, drivers and even journalists – safer than it has been in the past,” writes Jackie.

“…It is very easy to sit on the fence and criticise – notoriously easy,” he goes on. “You can always find faults in what the other people are doing, but at least they are doing something. All Mr Jenkinson seems to do is lament the past and the drivers who have served their time in it. Few of them, however, are alive to read his writings.”

The letter, inevitably, continues. Jackie repeats his “fence-sitter” accusation to our man, having claimed unconvincingly that he didn’t care what Jenks thought or said about him.

“There is nothing more tragically sad than mourning a man who has died under circumstances which could have been avoided had someone done something beforehand,” he writes. “It therefore always angers me to hear people who oppose an effort to make our sport safer… Such men to me are hypocrites, the only consolation being that in years to come they will probably be looked back on as cranks.

“Whatever Mr Jenkinson thinks, I am a racing driver who loves his sport. The sadness that I have seen and experienced, which could have been avoided, only makes it more detestable to me that your magazine is prepared to project within its pages the sort of thinking that is negative to efforts of others to make motor racing claim fewer lives.”

Crikey. Remember that ulcer, Jackie…

So what had Jenks written to provoke such ire? As the afternoon slipped further away, I turned to Continental Notes in the June issue.

“John Young Stewart – World Champion”, reads the headline in bold type. In the first line Jenks describes his subject as “a certain beady-eyed little Scot” – and the rant begins.

“…his pious whinings have brain-washed and undermined the natural instincts of some young and inexperienced newcomers to Grand Prix racing and removed the Belgian Grand Prix from Spa-Francorchamps,” writes Jenks about half way through. He ends with this: “Can you really ask me in all honesty to admire, or even tolerate, our current reigning World Champion Driver?”

No wonder JYS felt a little aggrieved. Can you imagine such correspondence between a journalist and a driver today, in print for all to see? No, me neither.

In following years, a mutual respect and admiration grew between Jackie and Jenks. But their trenchant disagreements 40 years ago stand as the prime example of changing attitudes in motor racing, spearheaded by Mr Stewart and parried by Mr Jenkinson.

Now, 40 years later, it’s easy to judge. Jackie was, of course, right. But we have to remember the context of the times. Life was as valued as it is today, but the acceptance that death was a price racing drivers should almost expect to pay was a deep-rooted attitude that divided a tough sporting world. To some extent, it always will.

The argument came back to me as I re-read Fittipaldi’s words to Rob on our latest pages. Emerson tells us he almost quit three times in the early 1970s because of the danger and death that surrounded him. He loved motor racing, but it scared him, just as it did his friends and rivals.

Except he didn’t know it then, because to admit it would have risked ridicule. In some ways, that made men like Jackie Stewart the bravest of the lot.

There’s more food for thought in the September issue provided by Pat Symonds, the latest racing figure to enjoy lunch with Simon Taylor. As you read Pat’s story, you might ask yourself how we should judge a man found guilty of cheating. The stark account of his “serious error of judgement in the heat of competition” at the Singapore GP of 2008 makes for a riveting read. This likeable and very brilliant man knows he made a terrible mistake and has paid a heavy price. Now he is preparing to return to the sport he loves.

You’ll also find details in the September issue of our poll results from last month. We asked you to vote for your favourite British World Champion – and this was another lights to flag (or to be truly accurate, flag to flag) victory for the fastest sheep farmer we’ve ever seen: Jimmy Clark. The adulation for him clearly remains undimmed.

We’re running a another poll this month: who do you think will win the 2012 F1 World Championship? Get involved, cast your vote and we’ll let you know the results next time. Until then, enjoy the issue.

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