You couldn’t fail to notice Jochen Rindt.
Apart from his distinctive looks, unruly hair and cool style of dress, every action image seemed to be an exuberant exhibition of opposite lock. This was in the days before downforce crushed the visual excitement invoked by throttle control working in harmony with an anticipated loss of rear grip.
Power sliding and Rindt were made for each other. It didn’t matter whether it was a cumbersome Cooper-Maserati F1 car or a nimble F2 Brabham. The result was always the same: extrovert skill proving both irresistible and heart-stopping.
The downside, of course, was unspoken concern. Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage had been killed earlier in 1970; the shock of Jim Clark’s loss two years before continued to resonate. If it could happen to Jimmy, then what were the odds against this charismatic Austrian who defied convention with such likable nonchalance?
Yet when the news of Rindt’s fatal accident came through, it was a shock. Somehow, it seemed, Jochen would get away with whatever his outrageous talent had provoked. But this was stark.
Those of us not at Monza and heading out on Saturday night were pulled up short by a ‘Stop Press’ item on the back page of the evening paper. ‘Rindt Dead’ said the heading above a sentence as blunt as it was brief. There was no way of knowing what had happened. The fact that he had died at the wheel of a racing car brought little comfort, even though you seriously believed he had been put on earth to do nothing else.
(It would later transpire that Rindt’s Lotus had turned sharp left under braking for Parabolica during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. The reason why was never made clear; it could have been instability caused by the Lotus 72 running without front and rear wings; it might have been the failure of an inboard brake shaft. Either way, the front of the Lotus had been completely torn off by a support post when the car’s chisel nose slewed under the metal crash barrier. Rindt, who refused to wear crutch straps, submarined in the cockpit and suffered fatal injuries inflicted on his aorta and thorax by the seat harness buckle. His five wins thus far would be enough to ensure Jochen Rindt became F1’s first and only posthumous World Champion.)
On the evening of September 5, however, the factual void was readily filled by warm memories as we struggled to digest the news. Recollections such as having devoured an admiring profile in a leading American monthly not noted for its love of motor racing, least of all Formula One. Above an action (opposite lock of course) image of Rindt, their headline had said: ‘No stripes. No tail. But all Tiger.’
A year later, a cover of Autosport had carried a photo that should have been ruled out because of a lack of pin-sharp focus, but nonetheless warranted inclusion thanks to the unbelievable broadside image of the Cooper-Maserati during the 1967 French Grand Prix on the Le Mans Bugatti circuit. (He did eventually spin — but, hey, this was Jochen.)
This led to recall of the British Grand Prix a couple of weeks later. Rindt’s new Cooper had suffered a misfire during practice. Early on race morning, with a sweater pulled over his overalls, Rindt is happily blasting up and down Silverstone’s Club Straight despite this being the paddock for support race teams preparing for their day.
Then there’s Oulton Park; the Thursday before the 1969 Gold Cup and Lotus turn up unannounced to test. Jochen has been at loggerheads with Colin Chapman over the 4WD Lotus 63 — which Rindt hates mainly because the thing won’t go sideways. To everyone’s surprise, he agreed to race it in this non-championship event.
Chapman takes the rare opportunity to go out on track to watch. You can hear the DFV all the way round a parkland circuit looking glorious on a late August afternoon. Then the revs cut. Abruptly.
As Chapman and Rindt meet again not long after, animated conversation carries along the silent pit lane as the two compare notes on how Jochen had managed to defy the designer’s technical intentions and induce lurid angles — until he spun. Gales of laughter all round.
That’s a more enduring memory than the terrible one sideswiping F1 fans 50 years ago tonight.