Sir Jackie Stewart at 80 11 | 06 | 2019

    FIFTY-SEVEN OF HIS fellow drivers were killed when he was racing. That single, stark and brutal fact is worth taking a few minutes to consider today as Sir Jackie Stewart, three-time Formula 1 World Champion and winner of a then-record 27 grands prix, celebrates his 80th birthday. And it was seeing his friends die young that inspired the legendary Scot to work tirelessly to improve safety in motorsport. (Related: Sir Jackie — F1 safety is crucial)

    Stewart dominated an era which was branded F1’s ‘killer years’. Death stalked every driver whenever they were on track. His closest friend, a man who he shared a flat with, fellow Scot and double F1 world champ Jim Clark, was killed in an F2 race at Hockenheim in 1968. Clark was just 32.

    Death stalked racing in Stewart’s day and that the sport is relatively safe now owes a huge debt to the Scot. His role in pressing for change is well known, but perhaps less so is the huge emotional toll the deaths inflicted and just how difficult it had been trying to force through better safety standards for drivers. (Related: Sir Jackie "close to crime")

    He is regarded as one of the very best drivers of all-time; an era when death lurked around every corner. I have been fortunate to spend time over the years with Stewart. Always a welcoming smile, and a meticulous, but demanding man who never forgets a face, Stewart is the last of his generation.


    And this year not only marks his 80th birthday, but also marks the 50th since he won his first world title in 1969, four years after his F1 career began in 1965. Two seasons after being crowned world champion with Matra, he won the F1 world championship again in 1971 and 1973 for Tyrrell. (Related: Jim Clark 50th BTCC celebration)

    He retired at the end of that last championship season, choosing not to compete in the final race at Watkins Glen after his friend and teammate François Cevert was killed in practice. Stewart had already decided to retire at that point, but Cevert’s death was enough to prompt Stewart to walk away from what would have been his 100th grand prix. To this day, he knows it was the right decision.

    When he left the circuit, he told his wife, Helen, who attended every race meeting with him: “I’m no longer a racing driver.”


    In conversation with Stewart, many years after the death of Cevert, who the Scot saw as his prodigy and the driver to take on his mantle, he reflected: “So many people were killed during that period. Jochen Rindt, Jim Clark, Piers Courage, and of course François. In those days they never stopped the race. You kept racing.”

    That, of course, was the norm. It’s what the sport did. It’s what you as a racing driver did. No one questioned it. Rindt died in qualifying for the 1970 Italian Grand Prix. Stewart, as did the rest of the grid, carried on.

    “When I went into the car, I was crying because I was with him when he died,” Stewart explained, his eyes moistening even many years after the race. “My team boss Ken Tyrrell told me, ‘Listen, you’ve got to go out’. I burst into tears in the car.”


    Stewart fired-up the car, closed his race tartan-bedecked helmet and went out to do the quickest lap he’d ever done at Monza at that time. When he returned to the pits, he burst into tears again.

    The Scot’s campaign to improve safety was triggered following a crash at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966. The incident left him trapped upside down in his car, soaked in fuel for 25 minutes. He vowed then that safety had to be improved. (Related: Stewart tips hamilton to win six F1 world titles)

    But his work, and approach — he led boycotts of races at Spa and the Nürburgring — was not welcomed. There were many who, at that time, saw his efforts as being contra to the gladiatorial, fearless image of the Formula 1 racer of that era. Undaunted, Stewart campaigned for proper marshalling, better barriers, run-off areas and advanced medical facilities. All standard now at any race meeting, even at club level.


    The results of Stewart’s pioneering work has been priceless. Since 1994, F1 has had just one race-related driver fatality since Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were killed on that fatal weekend at Imola.

    Modern-day racing drivers owe Stewart a huge debt of gratitude. And there will be those who, in basic terms, owe him their lives simply because of the safety measures which he fought hard to have implemented and introduced at circuits across the world. But Stewart knew his battle wasn’t welcomed by track owners, race organisers and even the sport’s governing body.

    “I was the most unpopular racing driver in the world for many years,” Stewart smiled. “My stance on safety wasn’t well received in a number of quarters. The fact that I was a world champion who was saying we were not going to race at the Nürburgring or Spa didn’t go down well with officials and track owners.”


    Today, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, Stewart is leading another battle. This time his fight is the Race Against Dementia, the charity founded by the three-time world champ to fight the disease that has afflicted his wife Helen (pictured above).

    “Our new charity, Race Against Dementia, will help to accelerate the pace of dementia research,” Stewart said. “We will identify the best research talent in the world to work with the leading Formula 1 teams for a period of time, to learn from their performance-driven culture, and to adopt their sense of urgency.

    “This is the greatest challenge I have ever faced. Let’s beat dementia together.”


    Related: Niki Lauda — 1949-2019

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    Jim McGill


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