In conversation with Formula 1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart | Automotive | Drive
there was a time in Formula One, not so long ago, when fireballs like the one suffered by Romain Grosjean at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix were the norm, not the exception. It was in the ’60s and early’ 70s when drivers risked everything in the name of entertainment and sport. A time that will later be called “the murderous years”.
“In many ways it has been a wonderful time,” said Sir Jackie Stewart, in the comfortable surroundings of the Formula One Paddock Club in front of the Brits. grand prize. The 82-year-old looks dapper. Dressed in his signature Royal Stewart tartan pants, matching flat cap and crisp white shirt, he’s still the icon of the paddock.
“But on the negative side, the death toll was really ridiculous,” Stewart says sincerely. “In 1968, you had a driver killed for four consecutive months on the same day. Jim Clark died on April 7. After that, Mike Spence was killed on May 7, followed by Ludovico Scarfiotti [8 June] and Jo Schlesser [7 July]. It was crazy and a whole different world back then. Over the course of his career, Stewart has witnessed the deaths of more than 50 of his fellow drivers and, by his calculations, a driver who has run for five years had a two-thirds chance of being killed in an accident.
Stewart declined to be a bystander in the deadly debacle. On June 12, 1966, Stewart took the start of the Belgian Grand Prix. Fresh off his victory in the streets of Monaco just 21 days earlier, Stewart hoped to be able to replicate the same success on the 14.1 kilometer circuit that crisscrossed the Belgian countryside. It was not to be. A sudden downpour had left surface water on the track and by the end of the first lap more than half of the peloton had crashed due to the poor conditions. “It was heavy, heavy rain – at the first corner eight cars were off the track. Fortunately, I was not one of them.
The Scott survived the first corners before his luck ran out. He left the track at the infamous Masta Kink, something he would later call “by far the toughest turn in the world”. It was believed to be over 165 mph when he left the track, Stewart’s fragile BRM P261 struck a telegraph pole, then a building before landing upside down in a ditch while racing fuel high-octane rushed into the cockpit, inundating Stewart’s rudimentary racing suit.
“I hit this river of water and I wasn’t fully aware, so I don’t remember the real impact,” he admits. “Even though I don’t remember that exact moment, I know what I did. I got off the road, hit a telegraph pole, walked through a lumberjack’s hut and smashed it to bits – then landed upside down in a ditch. Despite the substantial impact, against all odds, Stewart was relatively unscathed from the initial crash. The most painful moment was yet to come.
“The telegraph pole did most of the damage and ruptured the fuel tank that fell on me, so I was soaked in high octane fuel. Back then, it was real juice – like aviation fuel but with more stuff in it! Fortunately, Stewart wasn’t the only pilot whose luck had turned by this time. Nearby were British runner Graham Hill and American Bob Bondurant, both off the track not far away.
“Bondurant and Hill went into the same river of water, but there was nothing else to touch – I had spilled everything – so they were fine. And when they got to my house, they had to borrow keys from a spectator’s car to get me out and take the wheel off. Today they all stand out, but they did not come back to the time.
Once out of the car, Bondurant and Hill saw the Scotsman, pulling him away from the twisted wreckage of his BRM and into the relative safety of a nearby barn, where they stripped his saturated clothes to relieve the burn from the highly flammable fuel against his skin. “At that time, the fuel itself was burning you. “
By the time Stewart’s teammates fought to free him from the cockpit, 25 minutes had passed. It took an ambulance two hours to get him to a medical center. “When the paramedics arrived they laid me on the floor on a canvas stretcher and I still remember seeing the cigarette butts strewn around me.” Despite arriving at the runway’s rudimentary medical facility, the comedy of errors continued. Another ambulance arrived to take her to a nearby hospital, but got lost along the way, at which point Stewart’s team leader made the executive decision to hire a private jet to transport Stewart to St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Miraculously, the Scotsman emerged from the crash with only a broken shoulder and ribs.
From that point on, Stewart took a stand against appalling safety standards and the lack of medical facilities at racetracks around the world. While his campaign has proven unpopular with many in the paddock, especially sports promoters and circuit owners, some progress has been made.
“The Grosjean accident was a fantastic demonstration of what has happened since my time,” said Stewart. “I was watching the race at home and all I could think of was that he was a dead man and then the next thing you see is the guy coming out of the cockpit and struggling to get over the barrier. Then there’s a marshal helping him, then he got up and walked over to the medical car. And then when he got to the medical center, they knew exactly what to do with him. C ‘was just a wonderful example of how things have gone – in my day he would never have gotten out of the car. ”
Off the track, Stewart’s greatest racing legacy is, without a doubt, the way he led health and safety campaigns that have saved the lives of countless drivers. On the track, the exploits of the man nicknamed the ‘Flying Scot’ are downright astonishing. Stewart managed to win three Formula 1 world championships between 1969 and 1973, with 99 race starts before retiring in 1973, at just 34 years old. In 2020, The Economist ranked him as the fourth best racing driver in history, based on the relativity between the quality of the car and the skills of the driver. Apparently, news of the award had not yet reached Stewart.
“Well, thank you very much,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “They must have had Fangio up there… and maybe Sterling, Schumacher and Senna. But that’s four, so I guess one of them shouldn’t have made the cut! he said with a wry smile. Fangio was indeed classified in first place, ahead of Jim Clark and Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher was fifth, followed by Lewis hamilton in sixth position. Senna was ranked eighth.
Unlike many drivers today, Stewart was not intimidated by other forms of motor racing. “If you were driving Formula 1, you were probably already driving passenger cars, GT cars, Formula 3 cars, Indy cars. You would do all kinds of things! In 1966, less than two weeks before Stewart’s major crash at Spa, the Scotsman flew over the Atlantic for his first shot at the Indianapolis 500 in Indiana. Like Formula 1, the 500 mile race was fraught with pitfalls, and on the first lap 11 of the 33 competitors were taken out of the race in an accident. Stewart dodged the incident to take the lead.
Extending his lead by more than a lap, Stewart looked set for his first Indy victory in his first race. But, with just ten laps to go, the car lost the oil pressure and Stewart was forced to park and return to the pits, handing the victory over to his friend and fellow Formula One driver, Graham Hill. Stewart entered the same race the following year, but was forced to retire due to engine failure.
It’s been 50 years since Stewart’s second Formula 1 title, yet in his personal life the 82-year-old shows no signs of slowing down. After his 59-year-old wife was diagnosed with dementia in 2016, Stewart started her own charity, Race Against Dementia. “His goal is to beat the disease,” he says forcefully. “To create either a preventive medicine, to begin with, then a cure in my lifetime. No one for over 40 years has been able to achieve this, but look what they have done for cancer: there are four cancer doctors for everyone for dementia, which is why we are sponsoring young doctorates. of the whole world.
By working with partners in motorsport, business, technology, the arts and medicine, the association identifies and financially supports the most talented early-career researchers, enabling them to pursue innovative ideas that might not not be funded by more traditional charities.
As we chat today, Stewart’s wife is seated next to him. It’s clear the two are inseparable, just as they were back in the days of Stewart’s races, when Helen stood on the sidelines, timing her laps against the clock. “Helen was always there, supporting me through everything,” says Stewart. “She was sharp as a razor; brilliant with this watch… but today we are faced with a new challenge, the most difficult I have ever had to face.
Obviously, Stewart’s appetite for a fight remains diminished. As with his piloting career, failure is an option he won’t consider.
Read more: Launch of the most exciting supercars in 2021