Jackie Stewart: Why I’m haunted by Formula 1 deaths

The racing legends is proud of his 27 Grands Prix victories — but even prouder of saving countless younger drivers’ lives

Features

28 Nov 2018

It’s 45 years since Sir Jackie Stewart retired, after winning his third world championship, but meeting him in the Rolex Drivers’ Club at Goodwood you can tell he’s still a star. He’s in his racing overalls after driving in an exhibition race and everyone here is trying terribly hard not to stare at him — and failing miserably. You can hardly blame them. For anyone remotely interested in motor racing, he’s a sporting legend, a man who won 27 Grands Prix in a career that spanned just eight years.

His hair is shorter and thinner than it was in his glory days, when Formula 1 was almost a blood sport and its drivers were like gladiators or rock stars. However, his mask-like face is much the same: affable but inscrutable. You can tell he’s a tough negotiator. He speaks softly, with a clipped Scots accent. His eyes are small and shrewd. He turns 80 next year but he still looks toned and trim. He’s only 5ft 4in, but his quiet aura fills the room.

‘I came to Goodwood well before I could ever drive a car,’ he recalls. ‘I was a wee boy — I suppose 11 or 12 years of age.’ He came to watch his big brother, Jimmy, who was an accomplished racing driver long before Jackie ever thought of racing cars for a living. As a wide-eyed kid, he collected the autographs of all the greats who raced here, like Britain’s first world champion, Mike Hawthorn, and Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio, who won the world championship five times — but Jimmy was his greatest inspiration. ‘Goodwood, for me, was just something special then.’

Still a star: Jackie Stewart now ©Rolex/Guillaume Mégevand

 Jackie comes to Goodwood every year as part of his association with Rolex — a company he’s worked closely with for 50 years. He bought his first Rolex after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 in 1966. He never wore it to race in, for safety reasons, but removing it became a ritual. It was always the last thing he took off before he climbed into the cockpit before a race.

Stewart was born in 1939 in Milton, a small village near Dumbarton. He struggled at school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. ‘I can’t read or write to this day,’ he says. ‘You’re frustrated, you’re humiliated by not being able to do what other people did so easily. And in those days it was not recognised by schools or teachers.’ He left school at 15 to work in his dad’s garage.

His first love was clay-pigeon shooting and he was very good at it. He shot for Scotland and Great Britain between the ages of 14 and 23. ‘That’s the only thing that gave me pride and personal achievement, my shooting, and then suddenly motor racing came my way. Motor racing is hugely commercial, whereas the shooting was an amateur sport. Suddenly I was making money.’

His big break came at Goodwood in 1964. He drove down from Scotland to test-drive Cooper’s new Formula 3 car on this famous Sussex circuit, and recorded the fastest time that day. In his first season, he won the British and European Championships, winning 11 out of 12 races. In 1965, he won his first Grand Prix. By 1969, he was world champion. ‘Goodwood, from that point of view, had a giant part to play in my career.’

Most sportsmen carry on too long, and many struggle to fill the void after their glory days are over. Not Jackie. He quit at the top, as world champion. Since then he’s kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road. His wife Helen has been his rock (he married her in 1962, when he was still a mechanic in his dad’s garage). They raised two sons together — Mark, a TV producer, and Paul, a racing driver with whom Jackie founded the Stewart Grand Prix racing team. He’s been actively involved in numerous charities, from dyslexia to dementia, but above all he’s worked tirelessly to improve safety standards in motor racing. ‘Helen and I counted 57 people who died who we’d had in our home, stayed in our home, had dinner with, travelled with, holidayed with… it was hideously dangerous. It had to be changed.’

Countless drivers owe their lives to the precautions he helped to introduce. ‘When I started in Formula 1, there were no seatbelts. I was the first one to wear seatbelts in Formula 1, in 1966, after I’d been to the Indianapolis 500, where it was compulsory.’ The tracks are far safer now, but above all the cars have changed.

‘Now, Formula 1 Grand Prix racing, I think, is safer than any other sport in the world. We saw an accident at the Italian Grand Prix, during practice, where a car rolled over about six times — pieces flying off it, car up in the air. Bang! Back down again. The driver got out and walked away.’

A lot of this was down to his fearless campaigning in his role as president of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. ‘It took some time but it was probably the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ Yet he still felt anxious when his son Paul decided to follow in his footsteps. ‘I didn’t want him to become a racing driver, because in my time all my friends were killed — all of them,’ he says. ‘Fortunately, he never drew blood from his body — neither did I  — but he had the wisdom to know when it was time to stop.’

Is there anything he misses about the old days? ‘The camaraderie between the drivers. My best friends were Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, François Cevert…’ Hill died in a plane crash. The other three all died racing. ‘We holidayed together, we travelled together. That doesn’t happen today. Everybody’s got their own jets or helicopters. The facilities at a racetrack now are so sophisticated that they don’t see each other.’

It wasn’t like that in his day. They all stayed in the same hotels. They all knew each others’ families. It was a lot more intimate, but he’s not nostalgic. ‘It’s a different culture today, but it’s a better culture,’ he says. ‘Death was just around the corner.’

He’s lived a wonderful life, but he’s paid a steep price for his fame and fortune. ‘I don’t know anybody who’s been to more funerals than I have, and seen more pain and suffering from wives and fathers and mothers and children. I just don’t think it’s the thing I’d want to see my son or my daughter doing.’

So was it a price worth paying? Only Jackie can answer that, and he’s far too canny for simplistic explanations. ‘I lived in a time when it was different,’ he says, ‘but that time will never leave my mind.’


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