Autosport 70: The loss of an F1 legend 50 years on – F1

Fifty years ago today, at Monza, Lotus Formula 1 star Jochen Rindt was killed during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. His friend and Autosport Editor of the day, SIMON TAYLOR, wrote this obituary in the 10 September issue of the magazine

The news last Saturday afternoon that Jochen Rindt was dead brought the same feeling of blank disbelief that one felt two and a half years ago, when the tale filtered round the Brands Hatch press box on an April Sunday afternoon that Jim Clark had been killed in a German Formula 2 race.

Rationally one knows that racing drivers, however great, are mortal human beings, and there is always the possibility that someone driving a modern racing car at the enormous speeds of which it is capable may find themselves in a situation in which even their great skill and experience cannot save them from disaster. But when it happens to the greatest, one’s mind shrinks from believing it.

Just as Clark was the fastest at the time of his death, so was Jochen. He hadn’t had as long to prove it as Jimmy had, and perhaps he wasn’t head and shoulders above his fellow drivers to the degree that Clark was. Some will argue that Jacky Ickx or Jackie Stewart or Jack Brabham have gone quicker than Jochen from time to time; others that Jochen’s speed was not complemented by the professional maturity of Stewart – though this year Jochen had proved these latter critics wrong.

But anyone who saw Rindt hurling the old Lotus 49 round Monaco last May in his closing-stages pursuit of Brabham, fairly flinging the car between the walls and kerbs, scratching back inches at a time in the braking area, juddering as far as he dared into the hairpins as he took almost two whole seconds off the existing lap record, will be in no doubt that Rindt was currently the world’s fastest driver.

PLUS: The shock Rindt win that overlooked one of the great F1 game changers

To say that his death leaves an unfillable gap in motor racing is inadequately trite. He still has a 20-point lead in the world championship with three races to go: Stewart or Brabham will have to finish second or higher in all three and win at least one to beat his score. It will rest with the FIA as to whether Jochen, should his score remain unbeaten, can posthumously be champion of the world, but he will certainly have earned the title.

Jochen’s storybook arrival on the international motor racing scene as far as the British spectator is concerned is almost too well known to bear repetition. In 1964, an unknown in this country, he brought his private Brabham F2 to England to do a race at Mallory Park on the Sunday and Crystal Palace on the Monday.

At Mallory he got pole position ahead of Clark, Denny Hulme and co, but missed a gear at the start and had to fight his way through from last to finish third behind Clark and Peter Arundell. Next day at the Palace (below, leading Alan Rees) he beat Graham Hill fair and square to win, and overnight he had become a household name.

Rindt went to Super-speed for an engine, and knew so little about cars in those days that when they asked him if he wanted wet-sump or dry-sump lubrication, he said wet because he didn’t know any better. He had the only wet-sump engine in FJ that year!

Years later Rindt said wryly: “The British newspapers had never heard of me, and next morning one of them said I was a young Australian; they seemed to think all fast racing drivers came from Australia and New Zealand…”

Jochen was born in Mainz of a German father and an Austrian in mother in 1942. In 1943 both his parents were killed in a bombing raid, and Jochen was brought up by his grandparents in the Austrian town of Graz.

He inherited a share in the family spice importing business, although he eventually sold this to concentrate on racing full-time, but later his business acumen was to come out in his promotion and organisation of racing car shows in Austria and elsewhere, and his easy assumption of the popstar celebrity status which he enjoyed not only in his home country. In Austria he had his own television programme, and there is no doubt that from the publicity angle as well he would have made an excellent world champion.

After rallying a Simca as soon as he was old enough to hold a licence, the 20-year-old Jochen started racing in 1962 with an Alfa Romeo Giulietta saloon; the local Alfa dealer said he would look after the car if Jochen did well in his first race, at Aspern. Jochen won, beating all the local heroes in their 3.8 Jaguars, and went on to score a lot of success with the car.

Before the next season began Jochen’s 21st birthday brought him a bit of money, and he bought a second-hand Formula Junior Cooper from fellow Austrian Kurt Bardi-Barry. He went to Super-speed for an engine, and knew so little about cars in those days that when they asked him if he wanted wet-sump or dry-sump lubrication, he said wet because he didn’t know any better. Consequently he had the only wet-sump engine in FJ that year!

His first race with the Cooper was at Vallelunga, and he got pole position, only to be stranded on the line with a jammed starter. His second race, at the Cesenatico round-the-houses circuit, he won. He pressed on to Monaco, where the established F3 circus looked rather askance at this newcomer who turned up in pink trousers towing his racer behind a Jaguar E-type, and wore a bright red shirt while racing.

They thought a bit differently when the old Cooper was fourth in its heat behind three works cars and was lying fifth in the final when the engine broke.

For the non-championship F1 race at Zeltweg an old 1500cc pushrod Ford motor was inveigled into the long-suffering Cooper FJ and Jochen hurled it over the bumpy runways to place sixth among the V8 Climaxes and BRMs until the engine couldn’t stand it any longer.

PLUS: Ranking the 10 best ‘point-less’ F1 races

Bardi-Barry had talked Ford Austria into sponsorship of a Formula 2 Brabham for 1964, but that winter he was killed in a road accident, and so the car was offered to Jochen, although he still had to sell his road car to help pay for the step up into F2. In his first F2 foray, at the Nurburgring, he was fourth behind Clark, Richard Attwood and Mike Spence; then came the famous Mallory/Palace weekend.

At the end of that season he found himself with an offer of a seat in an F1 Cooper, although he had already driven Rob Walker’s Brabham-BRM at Zeltweg a few months earlier. After South Africa he signed a contract with Cooper, after barely three years’ racing and only two serious seasons behind him, a rapid rise indeed.

But thereafter things moved more slowly, in F1 at least: the 1.5-litre Cooper-Climax was not the most competitive of cars. However, he won Le Mans [in 1965, below] with Masten Gregory in Luigi Chinetti’s 250LM Ferrari, and was fourth in the German GP and sixth in the American GP. In F2 he had started a long association with Roy Winkelmann, teaming with Rees in Brabham-SCAs, and he won Reims and was second at Enna.

In 1966, now with three-litre Maserati power in F1, his speed and car control was highly respected, and he did wonders with the Cooper, leading that incredibly wet Belgian GP for many laps despite a 180mph spin, and ending up third in the world championship with seconds at Spa and Watkins Glen, a third at the Nurburgring, and fourths at Reims and Monza.

In F2 the SCA-powered cars were at a disadvantage to the works Brabhams, which had Honda power, but the season ended with a heroic win for Jochen at Brands Hatch when he saw off Brabham after a tremendous battle. He also won the very wet Eifelrennen at the ‘Ring in the Hondas’ absence.

He was still with Cooper in 1967 in F1, but made up for the lack of success in GP racing by completely dominating the new 1600cc F2, scoring nine wins and only being beaten on occasion by Stewart’s Matra and Clark’s Lotus.

There was an inevitable clash of personalities between Jochen and Colin Chapman. However, this was patched up, the 4WD was shelved, and at Watkins Glen Jochen scored his first GP victory

The F2 story was the same in 1968, still with Winkelmann Brabham-FVAs, while in F1 he joined Brabham to drive the new four-cam BT24-Repco. But the reliability of the two-cam Repco machines was gone and, although Jochen never finished lower than third, he only finished twice.

For 1969 he moved to Gold Leaf Team Lotus and, powered by the three-litre Cosworth engine for the first time, he immediately showed form. But it was pace without results: he was on pole position five times and only twice missed a place on the front row, but for various tiresome reasons the Lotus 49s never lasted the distance, and at Barcelona Jochen was lucky to emerge from a horrifying accident with only minor injuries when the rear wing broke at 150mph.

The atmosphere became very strained in Team Lotus and there was an inevitable clash of personalities between Jochen and Colin Chapman. However, this was patched up, the 4WD was shelved, and at Watkins Glen Jochen scored his first GP victory in his fifth year of trying.

This year [1970] things were really going Jochen’s way, even to the extent of his scoring two lucky victories against Brabham at Monaco and Brands Hatch, although of the Monaco race in the old 49 Jochen said that he had never before driven so hard and so well, and he never expected to be able to go quite so hard again. It certainly was the drive of a lifetime.

Between May and August he scored five wins in six GPs, putting himself and Lotus at the top of the championship table, and a win at Monza last Sunday would have put his total out of reach of any other driver.

PLUS: Formula 1’s great Lotus landmarks – Lotus 72

He had continued with F2, in 1969 with Winkelmann running a team of Lotus 59Bs, and this year running Lotus 69s as a private works-blessed project with Bernie Ecclestone. Although his other commitments prevented him from following the F2 calendar as closely as before, when he did appear he usually won, and he was still very much the uncrowned king of the formula.

Apart from a few recent races in Porsche 908s and earlier, some Alfa GTA drives, Jochen did very little racing outside F1 and F2. He went to Indianapolis in 1967 to drive an Eagle, and in practice the throttle jammed fully open at 190mph. Jochen was fond of telling the story in his graphic and excellently idiomatic English: he decided to “lean” the car into the wall to slow it down, knocking off both right-hand wheels, and slowed the car sufficiently to be able to jump from the still moving wreckage and emerge completely unhurt and pretty unflustered.

After his Barcelona accident he became much more safety-conscious. “If only you could be sure,” he said, “that the car would not break or that the tyres would not puncture, then perhaps I wouldn’t worry so much about safety…”

In fact there were two sides to Jochen Rindt. There was the fast, confident, tigering racing driver, the Rindt who sparkled on snow and water skis and was a very colourful member of the international motor racing set. And there was the serious-thinking, shrewd businessman who carefully pondered on his future, taking the dangers of his chosen profession into full account, who smoked between courses at dinner and worried about a nervous stomach complaint.

Rindt was the best F2 driver there has ever been, and currently almost certainly the best F1 driver. His determination and his combination of coolness and tiger came from a burning desire to win, the desire that motivates all the really great racing drivers.

But had he clinched the world championship this year, he would almost certainly have retired. The death of Piers Courage, a particularly close friend, undoubtedly had a bearing on his new approach to the sport, and he wanted to retire while he was on top.

His awareness of the dangers involved certainly didn’t make him any slower. He said: “If a car is going to break, it will break anyway. It’s got very little to do with going quickly or not, so once you’ve made the decision to sit in the car you might as well go quick. I mean, it’s not going to break any earlier or later because you go quick or slow.”

Motor racing has never been the same without Jim Clark. It will never be the same without Jochen Rindt. He was married to Nina Lincoln, daughter of the Finnish racing driver and circuit owner Kurt Lincoln, and they had a two-year-old baby daughter, Natasha Jonin; to them Autosport offers its sincerest condolences.

2020 vision

There was initially some doubt that Rindt would be declared world champion in 1970 even if no other driver surpassed his points tally, but fortunately justice prevailed. When Ickx failed to win the penultimate round at Watkins Glen, Rindt’s 45 points was unbeatable and he became F1’s first – and so far only – posthumous world champion.

Fittingly, the man who won the United States GP at Watkins Glen was Emerson Fittipaldi, who became Lotus team leader and would clinch his first F1 title, in a strange twist of fate at the Italian GP, two years later.

In the years after Rindt’s death, some doubt was cast over whether he would in fact have retired after becoming world champion. As pointed out in David Tremayne’s excellent Jochen Rindt: Uncrowned King of Formula 1, which has just been republished in paperback form, there seems a reasonable chance that he would have continued for at least one more year, given the opportunities that being world champion would have provided.

Either way, Rindt’s status within the sport remains far greater than his record of six wins and 10 poles from 60 F1 world championship starts suggests. His place as one of the sport’s fastest-ever drivers is assured.

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