Jackie Stewart

“Drivers of today are best since my day”

Jackie Stewart interview part 2Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

In the second part of F1 Fanatic’s interview with Sir Jackie Stewart he told us why he’s backing Mark Webber to win the world championship and whether Felipe Massa can bounce back from his difficult season.

The three-times world champion also talked about how he and his fellow drivers got the Nurburgring removed from the calendar 40 years ago on safety grounds – and why today’s drivers are the best since his day.

F1 Fanatic: In your new book “Collage” there are letters from people vehemently criticising your campaign to improve safety in the 1970s. Why did they object so strongly to it at a time when so many drivers were being killed?

Jackie Stewart: It was just part of the cultural change. When I was doing it I was totally against the establishment.

I was part of a new generation at that time. I had long hair, it was the swinging sixties and seventies, a different era. They had a different attitude towards safety which was something simply that had never been aired by a driver – never mind a top driver or one that was world champion.

So it was a cultural change. I have absolutely no regrets having done it. At the time it was certainly unpopular in many areas.

The more vocal ones were the ones who were objecting to the movement. And I was the perfect target for them because – as you will read in the book – they would say “why doesn’t he take all his money and go back to Switzerland”, you know, “get out of the kitchen if it’s too hot”. That sort of defeatist attitude, from my point of view.

Some of these people are still alive. But they have no conception or idea how it was for us seeing people die. In 1968 we had four consecutive months where someone died, in the same weekend of each month. Jim Clark in April, Mike Spence in May, Ludovico Scarfiotti in June and Jo Schlesser in July.

The Nurburgring race that year was on the same weekend in August. And the first question I asked Ken [Tyrrell] when I got out of the car was “Is everybody alright?”

But those people who were making all those criticisms weren’t at the funerals or the memorial services. I don’t think any sport in history has ever had that kind of mortality rate on a regular basis among such a close selection of people.

It was a very small group – sometimes there was only as many as 16 Formula 1 drivers on a grid and it was one of us each time, whether it was Piers [Courage] or Bruce [McLaren] or Jochen [Rindt] who all died in 1970. Does anybody understand what the grief was for the wives, the children, the sister, the brothers, the girlfriends and the parents going to these memorial services and funerals?

They just don’t understand it. They would not know what to do today if that were to happen again and I pray to God it never does. But for people to objecting to trying to correct that…

The race tracks themselves were desperately dangerous. Even Michael Schumacher today goes off the track almost every weekend. Small errors of judgement. Because there’s run-off areas, there’s gravel traps and deformable structures, the cars survive them.

In those days you couldn’t have those privileges of trying a little too hard when you know you might go off the road. You couldn’t do that.

And there was no medical facilities like there are today. There was no equipment to get people out of cars like there is today. And I just happened to be the person who was willing to talk about it and willing, if you like, to be unpopular.

But I just thought it was a major oversight that was categorically not being fixed.

I mean, we closed the Nurburgring in 1970. The decision was taken after th e memorial service for Bruce McLaren in St. Paul’s Cathedral. We sat in Louis Stanley’s suite at the Dorchester hotel and I thought I was going to lose the vote, until Jack Brabham stood up and said “We’ve got to go with Jackie, he’s right.”

We had sent Jochen Rindt to the Nurburgring because he spoke German. And they wouldn’t do [any] one of the things that he asked to be changed. Because it was sacrilege – ‘the Nurburgring is what it is, take it or leave it’.

And we said “leave it’. Nobody thought we would have the balls to do it.

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

F1F: So you went to Hockenheim instead.

JS: We went to Hockenheim, but we didn’t choose Hockenheim. They had to choose Hockenheim. We didn’t want to take away the German Grand Prix, we had to take away the Nurburgring.

It was ludicrous. There has been no circuit in the world – whether it’s racing or the public paying to go around it – which has taken the lives of so many people. There was no barriers. There’s a fantastic picture of me in the air – I think it’s from 1969 in the Matra – and on the side of the road a crashed touring car that hadn’t been removed from the previous support race.

Can you see that happened today? What’s so illogical about wanting that to be changed?

F1F: Turning to this year’s championship, we’ve got five drivers still able to win with two races to go. How do you see it turning out?

JS: It’s fantastic. Never since the mid-to-late sixties has there been such a group of racing drivers capable of winning the championship, who would all be good world champions.

If you think of Mark Webber and Vettel, you think of Alonso and Massa, you think of Hamilton and Button, you think of Kubica, and you think of Schumacher and Rosberg and a few more in there.

It’s the best line-up of drivers since Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Jacky Ickx, Francois Cevert, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson. This is fantastic.

And there’s going to be a great crescendo, almost certainly coming down to Abu Dhabi.

F1F: Have you got a tip for champion?

JS: I don’t know, it’s too early to say. I would like Mark Webber to win it because I think he would be a good world champion. He’s Australian, he’s never won it before, he presents himself well, he speaks well, he will be a very good ambassador.

I think Vettel is going to win the world championship in the future but I think he’s a tiny bit young for it at 23, to carry it in the best way on a global basis.

Because if you are Red Bull or a Ferrari guy, with Shell and Santander for example, you’re going to be taken around the world to represent the sport. And if you’re a McLaren driver with Vodafone and with Mobil 1 and so forth you’re going to do the same. And I know that Jenson [Button] would be able to do that well and I’m sure he would do it better this year than he would have last year, because he’s got more experience of doing it.

I lost the world championship in 1968 at Mexico at the last round with a fuel pump failure while I was in the lead.

But, you know what, Graham Hill was a better world champion that year than I could have been. Because I understudied Graham that year as world champion and when I became world champion in 1969 I was more capable of representing the sport more profoundly than I would have been a year before. So that’s why I’d like Webber to win it.

And Alonso could, of course, win it, because he’s done it twice before and he could carry it. But I think, actually, Webber would bring more attention to the sport than Alonso – because he’s never won it, and he’s Australian, and there’s hasn’t been an Australian [champion] since Alan Jones and Jack Brabham.

He’s 34 years of age, and I know what I was like when I was 23 and when I was 34. I was a more complete man at 34 and I think that’s one of the things the sport needs projecting: it needs the goodwill, it needs the ambassadorial role, it needs all of those things to represent it in the most positive fashion.

Not just for one team’s sponsors, I mean for the whole sport. Because it is a global sport unlike domestic American sports like Indycar and NASCAR. Formula 1 is global so I hope that whoever wins the world championship will be shipped around the world to get people’s attention for the sport and for all of the people who are investing in the sport. The world champion, in my opinion, should carry that responsibility and Mark Webber could do it better than anybody else.

That’s only my personal view. I think Vettel would be a very world champion, so would Alonso, so would Lewis as well as Mark Webber.

F1F: I’d like to ask you about Felipe Massa. He’s had a difficult season coming back from injury which is also something you had to do in your career. But it’s not gone so well.

JS: He’s got a huge amount of natural talent. But two years ago he was – and I said it – he was too ‘peak-and-valley’. One year ago, before the accident in Hungary, that ‘peak-and-valley’ has disappeared. But it has come back.

Now I think if he got rid of it, he’s as good a racing driver as we have – I certainly would have put him into that group I put him in earlier. His drive at the Brazilian Grand Prix two years ago was a masterful exhibition of driving. So we know he can do it but it doesn’t always happen.

F1F: How does he come back from being so badly beaten this year, to the point that he’s even had to give up a race win?

JS: I think that was a big hit for him psychologically. You could see that on the podium, you could see it in his body language and his words.

He’s very diplomatic: the manner in which he dealt with losing the world championship to Lewis was magnificent. I thought how he behaved that day was an example to any sportsman. To do it in such a dignified and stylish fashion, I really took my hat off to him.

I’ve thought he was really nice person since he was at Sauber – I did a thing with him on the stage at Indianapolis for the Grand Prix with him, and I thought at that time here’s a really nice young man.

That cast is set now. I’m sure Alonso went there with a number one status. I’m not against that, by the way – team orders have been going on since the twenties and thirties and they still have a place.

If you had invested three, four or five hundred million dollars in a team and you thought one driver was capable of winning it more than another driver then I think you’re allowed that prerogative.

F1F: Would you say there’s a feeling that while Button and Hamilton have been battling each other all year, and Vettel and Webber have been battling each other all year, if Alonso were to take the title by the few extra points he won in Germany he would be a diminished world champion?

JS: I think ever so slightly. But I think Lewis still has the upper hand at the McLaren team because of the time he’s been there.

But McLaren also are a team that know Button is capable – and when Jenson drives well, there’s hardly anybody that can beat Jenson.

F1F: Presumably they are now going to throw everything behind Lewis?

JS: I expect so. I wasn’t in Korea so I haven’t spoken to anyone but I will be in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Thanks to Jackie Stewart for taking the time to talk to us and his office for arranging the interview.

“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.

Read more: Jackie Stewart interview: ??I was fortunate to race in my era?? (Part 1)