“I was fortunate to race in my era”

Jackie Stewart interview part 1Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Sir Jackie Stewart’s racing career is the subject of a new book, “Collage”, which brings together newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs and all kinds of other documents from his life.

The three-times world champion talked to F1 Fanatic about winning the 1968 German Grand Prix in foul conditions at the Nurburgring, racing in multiple disciplines while competing in Formula 1, and more.

F1 Fanatic: There’s an eye-catching anecdote in the book about Ken Tyrrell telling you to go out and drive around the Nurburgring in the rain and fog in practice before the race in 1968.

Obviously that put me in mind of the race we just had this weekend. What was it like to drive in those conditions?

Jackie Stewart: I won a lot of races in the rain, but that doesn’t mean to say I liked it! I perhaps was more competitive in the rain, sometimes, but it wasn’t an enjoyable experience.

The reason I was so against it – and it’s very seldom that I Ken and I had major disagreements, and this was one of them – was I didn’t want to risk the car. And I don’t mean having a big accident, I mean just me damaging the car spinning off on a river of water.

The rain was so torrential that all the drains were getting blocked. At the Nurburgring there were just grass banks and mud would wash down and close apertures that would normally be there.

He, of course, was correct. Because as it turned out on that one lap I did I was able to bank where the major rivers of water were that were to play havoc with everybody.

Because it’s not just a question of flying off the road, it’s what happens when you hit a river of water. You’ve got to lift off immediately, you’ve got to try to collect the car, and in some cases it takes maybe 200 yards to get the car back under control.

F1F: Today, a race wouldn’t be started those conditions.

JS: Oh no, the race would never have been started.

F1F: After Korea some people have said the sport has become too risk-averse. Do you agree?

JS: Well, I don’t go along with that. But having said that, the design of a race track – and this is not being critical of a brand new race track, though I suppose I am being – ideally should be that no standing water would ever be there, because you would use the cambers in such a way that the water would always flow to a properly-designed drainage system.

Can you imagine the Nurburgring having that in 1968? Not possible. So it was part and parcel or driving at the ‘ring. As because the race was started for the entire period the rain was so severe that it was almost a new experience every lap.

I was lucky that, even though I am dyslexic, the one thing God gave me for whatever peculiar reason was a privilege in that I can remember every corner, every gearshift, every braking distance at the Nurburgring, 187 kilometres later and all these years later, too. During that race that intimacy with the track was what allowed me to win it by over four minutes.

And winning it by over four minutes was with me backing off. You’re only getting information twice a lap. Once as you past the pits, going from left to right, and once behind the pits, and again from left to right behind the pit wall. There was two sides to the pits at the Nurburgring, so you were on the south turn and you got more information.

But I couldn’t get much of that information because the lead was so big that by the time I had got round the south turn nobody had appeared behind me. So I knew once that I was more than 30 seconds in the lead on the first lap, and more than a minute in the lead on the second lap. So when you get up to two or three minutes in the lead you’re obviously not driving at ten tenths.

The argument about me going out in practice, to give a long answer to your question, was that Ken was right, and I was wrong. But I didn’t much like the idea because I was frightened I would do damage to the car when we might have had a good race out of it. If I had crashed in the morning you didn’t get the car back, usually, for at least an hour.

Collage - Jackie Stewart's new book
Collage - Jackie Stewart's new book

F1F: What did you make of Lewis Hamilton agitating for the race to be started in Korea?

JS: I think one of the good things about the drivers is that they’ve now got the GPDA [Grand Prix Drivers’ Association] back to being meaningful amongst themselves. Because it was kind of pooh-poohed by some people for a while – not just the drivers, but even the governing body.

When it comes to a decision of that nature you cannot go on one driver’s opinion in any case. I wasn’t there, so I can’t make a really good judgement on that.

But I think that’s a good element of the GPDA – being able to have some authority. Because no matter how knowledgeable [race director] Charlie Whiting may be he certainly doesn’t have anything close to the same knowledge as a Grand Prix driver. And it should be a Grand Prix driver of experience that makes these decisions.

F1F: How valuable were the races you did outside of Grand Prix racing – things like the Indianapolis 500 and the sports car races – to you during your career?

JS: They were terrific. They allowed the driver to be considerably more versatile. Because one day you’re driving a high-powered, 750hp Can-Am car, the next day you might be driving a Ford Escort.

You might be driving an Indianapolis car and then driving, as I was, a two-litre Formula 1 engine at Monaco in 1966. I came back from Indy, it was the three-litre Formula 1 but ours wasn’t ready so I drove a two-litre, an underpowered car by comparison.

All these cars had different characteristics, whether they were Can-Am cars, touring cars, sports cars or Formula 1 cars. You were also working with a variety of cultures, with different mechanics, team owners and so on.

And other levels of drivers, too. For example, if you went to a Can-Am race some of the Can-Am drivers were not so experienced. You go to a Formula 1 race and they really are experienced.

F1F: It seems there was a lot of rivalry too – in the book there’s an article where AJ Foyt is having a go at some of the Grand Prix drivers.

JS: Absolutely. But they were top line racing drivers – AJ was one of them, and Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, any of them.

The Formula 1 brigade might say ‘well, all they’re doing is turning left’, but these guys were highly skilled at what they did. I was very fortunate in that my career allowed me so experience so many different types of cars. Driving Richard Petty’s NASCAR car was an experience on its own and that’s not even mentioned in the book!

But you do things like that because you’re a top Formula 1 driver so you get opportunities to do things that other drivers might never get.

F1F: But today’s F1 drivers don’t seem to. Has the sport become too F1-centric?

JS: I think it has become too narrow. But I think that could change because there’s no testing now. And the drivers are free to do many more things that they would have done in past Formula 1 years.

But, then again, some of them might not want to do it because they’re so well-paid in Formula 1 that their contracts might restrict them if they twisted an ankle or slipped on a banana.

I think it would cause a huge crowd increase to a World Touring Car Championship race or the German Touring Car Championship if suddenly one of the top racing drivers from Formula 1 were to drive in it. Or a sports car event, even Le Mans if it didn’t clash with a Formula 1 race, because we all did that.

I drove the TT, for goodness sake, in an Escort with Chris Craft in 1970 when I was reigning world champion. We did all sorts of things then that don’t happen today and I think it would invigorate the sport enormously.

But then someone at McLaren or Ferrari or Red Bull or Renault or any of the top teams would turn around and say “look, we’re paying this guy an awful lot of money, what if something happens to him in one of these races? We can’t afford that to happen to him.”

F1F: It seems almost ironic that reasoning is used now when drivers are at far less risk of injury than they were in your time.

JS: Exactly. But times have changed and attitudes have altered. The money’s got bigger, the investments have got larger. So you’ve got to see the other person’s point of view.

When I look back I think I was very fortunate living in an era when we did so many different things and got the opportunities far and beyond what the other drivers get. That versatility made you, I think, a more complete driver. The different types of car – not just the power but the weight, the handling, everything.

We used to compete regularly against each other in Formula Two, for example. I didn’t do very well in 1967 because the BRM H16 wasn’t a great success but I won about four major Formula Two races where I was racing against Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, Graham Hill, Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx… I mean, it was like a Formula 1 grid whether it was Pau or Albi or Rouen or Reims or Goodwood.

F1F: You seen a lot of change during and since your time in the sport and the man responsible for much of that change, Bernie Ecclestone, is 80 today. Is there a message you’d like to give him?

JS: Well I wish him a happy birthday! I think Bernie’s the perfect example of why nobody should retire. It keeps your mind alert, it keeps your body better, he eats well, he doesn’t drink, he’s a very dedicated man to what he does, with a huge amount of energy. And that energy has not diminished in any way over those years.

Many times we have disagreed on things and I have been quite vocal on that, but never against the fact that he has accomplished so much in the sport. It wouldn’t be what it is today had Bernie Ecclestone not been here. So I take my hat off to how he has created Formula 1 to be the global entity that it is today.

I don’t think anybody else could have done it. Eighty years of age and still hitting on all cylinders is quite an achievement.

Part two of this interview will be published tomorrow. In it, Stewart talks about the work to improve safety in Formula 1, how the drivers got the Nurburgring taken off the calendar in 1970 and his thoughts on the race for the 2010 world championship.

“Collage: Jackie Stewart’s Grand Prix Album” the signed, leather-bound limited edition book of 1,500 copies worldwide is available from Genesis Publications. Price ??295.

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