Jackie Stewart Assumes the Crown--The 1968 German Grand Prix
Somewhere in motor racing's collective consciousness, the Nurburgring will always exist, awaiting some desperate hour: Tazio Nuvalari in his underpowered Alpha Romeo P3, challenging the Nazi might of the powerful Mercedes Benz and Auto Union grand prix cars; Juan Fangio driving frantically to make up lost time in pursuit of Mike Hawthorne and Peter Collins; Stirling Moss gambling everything on a set of rapidly deteriorating tires in his bid to beat Ferrari; and Jackie Stewart blinded by fog and heavy rain, consumed with proving his critics wrong.
The Nurburgring, the original "green hell" Nurburgring, as lengthy and epic as a Wagner opera, was where great racing drivers performed heroic deeds. Such a place does not die.
Jackie Stewart came to West Germany in August 1968, badly in need of a win. The F1 season had not been going well--for him, or the sport. Earlier in the year, on January 1, when Jim Clark won the South African Grand Prix, it looked suspiciously like another "Clark Year." Having concluded the previous season with consecutive wins, and opening the new year with a convincing victory, the Clark/Lotus combination appeared to be on a roll, with three straight Grand Prix victories. Sure enough, Clark continued his winning ways throughout January, February and March, by dominating the Tasman Series Down Under, in New Zealand and Australia. Then, on April 7, it ended tragically. Competing in a meaningless Formula 2 race in Hockenheim, Germany, Clark perished when his Lotus veered suddenly into a stand of trees.
The racing world was stunned. American journalist Jerrold Slonieger, writing in the U.S. Services magazine OVERSEES WEEKLY, summed up the prevailing mood: "None of the facts make sense, least of all the fact that one of the world's most careful drivers, a master at leaving that vital margin, simply crashed." Bruce McLaren writing in AUTOSPORT put it this way: "Jimmy ranked with, perhaps even out-ranked, Nuvolari, Fangio, and Moss, and I think we all felt he was in a way invincible."
For Stewart, Clark's sudden death was particularly painful. The two were fellow Scots who had grown close over the years. Whether at Indy or Monaco, or on the town in London, New York, or Paris, the two were inseparable, "The Terrible Twins" or "The Poison Dwarfs," as they were sometimes called; joking and enjoying life, and often confused with one another, for they shared the same height and build: five-foot eight, with broad shoulders. They even shared the same jaunty walk. Recalled Stewart: "The days afterwards and around the time of the funeral were the saddest in my life. I was more upset by that then I have ever been over anything."
As tragic as Clark's death was, it would be the first of several deaths to shock motor racing that year. One month to the day after Clark's fatal crash, on May 7, tragedy struck again, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Englishman Mike Spence died in practice in a freak accident. On June 7, at the Rossfield Hillclimb in West Germany, Ludovico Scarfiotti, winner of the 1966 Italian Grand Prix, suffered fatal injuries when his Porsche 910 veered abruptly off the road, and catapulted down a tree-covered slope; poor Scarfiotti died in an ambulance en route to the hospital. One month after that, on July 7, at the French Grand Prix, Frenchman Jo Schlesser, died horribly when his Honda F1 skidded off the track, overturned, and burst into flames. Four deaths in four months, each one equally tragic, and overwhelmingly sad. How can one explain it?
Stewart crashed, too, at a Formula 2 race in Madrid, on April 29. Fortunately, he walked away, but not without injury: as his car slammed into a guardrail, his right thumb was caught in the spoke of his steering as it spun violently from impact, cracking a bone in his wrist. Stewart, still mourning the death of Clark, was unable to compete, and missed the next two Grands Prix, at Madrid and Monaco, both won by his friend, and former teammate, Graham Hill.
The second weekend in June, wearing a flexible cast on his right wrist, Stewart returned to competition, at the Belgian Grand Prix. Much had changed in the six weeks Stewart had been out of action. National colors, which had so marked Grand Prix racing since its inception in 1903, were on the way out, and commercialism was on the way in. Team Lotus, once resplendent in British Racing Green, was now painted in the red, white and gold of a Gold Leaf cigarette package. Safety harnesses, which Steward pioneered only the year before, were standard. Stranger still, was the appearance of airfoils-- aerodynamic tabs, fins, and wings--that now sprout from the fuselage of several F1 cars. Only two weeks ago, at Monaco, they first appeared, on the Lotus 49B. As it had with most racing innovations, the idea sprung from Colin Chapman's creative mind, and everyone else had followed. Ferrari had taken Chapman's concept a step farther, in mounting a single wing on struts above the engine, giving these cars a peculiar aerial look. Do airfoils make the slightest difference? Stewart didn't think so, and at Spa qualified second fastest without them. However, having led most of the race, Stewart's F-1 machine inexplicably ran out of gas on the last lap.
After the race, Stewart understandably felt frustrated. His wrist still ached. The bone was healed and the cast was taken off, but the pain was such that he kept his wrist wrapped and protected, and shook hands with his left hand.
Despite the pain, it hadn't prevented him from winning, and that's what frustrated him most. All the ingredients were there: his new machine, the Matra MS10, was quick as the Lotus 49B, and better built; the necessary financing was there; his mechanics were seasoned and first-rate; his team manager, Ken Terrell, was the best in the business; and the Ford Cosworth V-8 that powered his Matra F-1 machine, was everything Stewart had dreamed it would be, with plenty of horsepower, and killer mid-range torque. However, while he had finished every race since his return, he had won only once (the Dutch Grand Prix). The competitor in him wanted to win every race, to dominate the way his friend Jim Clark had--to be the best. And winning was the only thing that would silence his critics.
Stewart's critics were legion: in the press, and in several rival drivers. Unlike his friend Jim Clark, who had chosen his words carefully, Stewart spoke his mind freely. Since his devastating crash at Spa-Francorchamps in 1966--which he was fortunate to have survived--Stewart had been outspoken about driver safety. He publicly demanded changes be made to make circuits safer: to have ditches backfilled, trees removed, and Armco barriers put up. And, as important, to have doctors and a fully-equipped mobile first-aid station and operating theater on site of every race track. Stewart looked to America for safer driving gear: flameproof coveralls, gloves, socks, even underwear, and a strong racing helmet. "We drivers should not have to die," he said. This did not make him popular among the sport's old guard, who responded, "What's the point of racing if there are no risks?"
The fact that Stewart had won only one Grand Prix since his crash at Spa-Francorchamps, in 1966, did not help his cause. There were those, including retired F-1 driver Innes Ireland, who openly declared that Stewart had dropped a notch, that he was not as quick as he had been before his accident.
Another question yet to be answered was, who was to be Clark's heir apparent? There were several promising candidates, including New Zealander Chris Amon, Austrian Jochen Rindt, and the Belgium new-comer Jacky Ickx (pronounced "Eecks).
All of these thoughts lingered in Stewart's mind as he prepared to race on what many considered the most demanding and dangerous circuit in the world, the Nurburgring, where Stewart had never finished higher than fifth. He freely admitted to fearing what he called "the Green Hell." "Whenever I drive there I get back to the pits and take a big, deep breath because, My God! I'm pleased to be home!" He wanted desperately to win there and get his season back on track, but most of all to show everyone that he still had it, and that he, Jackie Stewart, was Clark's true successor.
Conditions did not look promising when Stewart arrived by air in Cologne. As he awaited his luggage, rain began to fall outside, and continued to fall throughout Friday's and Saturday's practice session, accompanied by thick fog that limited visibility to 200 yards.
Friday morning, Stewart drove 15 laps on the short loop, bedding in new tires and brakes. In the afternoon, conditions worsened, and the Scot elected not to go out. Saturday, a wing was mounted above the engine, but Stewart could not detect that it made the slightest difference, however, his lap times improved, so the wing remained. When practice ended and the starting grid was announced, Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, and Jochen Rindt--Stewart's three greatest rivals for Clark's crown--comprised the front row. Fourth fastest, in Row Two was Graham Hill, who led in points for the world championship. Stewart, meanwhile, was sixth fastest, back in Row Three.
On race day, weather conditions worsened. Rain fell hard as ever, and the fog thickened, limiting visibility to 100 yards and, in some portions of the circuits to as little as 25 yards. That morning, Stewart and his wife Helen had breakfast in the restaurant inside the trackside Sporthotel, where they were staying. After that, he returned to his room, looked around as he stepped into his driver overalls, and wondered if he would ever return to his room. It's a feeling he had only at the truly fearsome circuits, such as Spa-Francorchamps, and, here, at the Nurburgring.
With no letup of rain in sight, the choice of tires was not an issue: everyone decided to race with full-wets. As he did before all starts, Stewart kept his emotions in check, his mind empty and cold. Mere moments before the start, he did not welcome small talk. Team manager Ken Terrell made it a habit not to try engaging him in conversation, nor did Stewart's wife, Helen. Meanwhile, the crew warmed up the engine, pushed his car out to the starting grid, and as usual, gave it a last-minute check over. The Scot slipped on his helmet, tugged on his gloves, hesitated a moment, then stepped out into the rain.
This was it. Rain or no rain, it was time to race. Feeling the rain drops begin to soak through his coveralls, Steward eased down into the narrow Matra cockpit. Holding up an umbrella to shield his driver from the rain, Tyrrell leaned in to complete the pre-race ritual, by buckling up his driver's safety harness.
When the signal was given, Stewart fired up the engine, focused on what lay ahead, and awaited the final seconds. At last, the flag dropped, and the cars ahead of him wriggled and stormed away in the wet. Stewart got away fast, passed pole sitter Jacky Ickx, and reached the South Curve ahead of Rindt--and behind Amon and Hill. The line of cars bunched up under braking, tippy-toed around the looping South Curve, and accelerated back behind the pits, kicking up a great rooster-tails of spray. The only driver with a clear view of the road was race-leader, Graham Hill. Behind the Englishman, it's was a case of the blind leading the blind.
"The spray was absolutely unbelievable," Stewart recalled later. "I couldn't see anything at all! I couldn't see my braking distance marks; I couldn't see the car in front of me; it was just a great wall of spray."
Hill led the "the blind" around the North Curve, over a bridge, and into the dense pine forest. Then downhill through the fast Hatzenbach esse curves, the long line of cars behind him ominously slipping and sliding as they went; uphill to Flugplatz (literally "fly place"), becoming airborne over the rise, and on through an open meadow. Fog filled the clearings, enshrouded the treetops, and clung to the hedgerows and stone walls.
Running behind Amon in third place, Stewart waited for the New Zealander to hesitate and lose momentum, thus creating a passing lane. The road, when he could see it, was a dim gray blur. All he could see of Amon's Ferrari was the great swirling clouds of spray it generated, punctuated by bursts of flames, whenever the New Zealander changed gears.
The field streamed downhill to Aremburg, rounded a sharp right-hander, flashed beneath a bridge, and flowed down through yet another series of fast downhill curves, called the Foxhole. "On any other circuit these conditions would be hellish," Stewart says, "but on the Nurburgring you cannot imagine how bad they are. The track is narrow, the undulations so pronounced, the bends so numerous, that you can hardly remember where you are on the circuit, even on a clear day, but in the fog and ceaseless spray you just have no idea at all."
The road flattened and bounded up another hill, with Stewart fighting to control his machine through the slippery Adenauer-Forst esse curve. Thereafter the road leveled off for two more curves--the tight Kallenhard right-hander, and the gentle Metzgesfeld left-hander. Stewart took them both without a lot of fuss. Next was another challenge--the treacherous Adenau Decent. Midway down, braking for the Wehrsifen hairpin, Amon's Ferrari wiggled ominously, and whipped sideways. This was what Stewart had been waiting for. In a heartbeat, he passed the red car.
Clearly, Stewart's Dunlap wets, with their wide center groove and extra-sticky rubber compound, had an advantage over the Firestone wets that Amon and Hill were using. With growing confidence, he closed on Hill's Lotus. "After passing Chris it was a case of finding the right spot on the circuit to overtake Graham," Stewart recalls. "This I clearly wanted to do before the start of the Tiergarten Straight."
Stewart followed the Englishman' spray across the Adenau Bridge and up yet another hill. This uphill section went up a narrow, tree-lined valley, over a series of dips and bumps rendered twice as treacherous in the rain. Through it all, Steward could see the Lotus 49B's high rear wing above the spray, looking like some surfboard riding the crest of a wave.
Around another right-hand hairpin, and the climb steepened, up to a looping, bowl-shaped left-hander, called the Karussell. Stewart followed Hill closely into the bowl and felt his tires thump rhythmically over the cement joints as his coil spring suspension compressed under the mounting load. Holding his engine at mid-throttle, he downshifted directly to second gear and stayed well down into the bowl. Coming out, he opened the throttle fully and felt a moment's weightlessness as the Matra's coil-spring suspension rebounded and thrust his racecar above the road.
Hohe-Ache, with its majestic view of the surrounding valleys, was completely shrouded in fog. Stewart followed Hill up and over the summit and down another section of roller-coaster curves. The hump at Brunnchen Bridge sent both cars soaring. More diabolical twists and turns followed, including the dangerously fast left-hander at Pflanzgarten. "It isn't much farther to the straight", Stewart reminded himself. He must act.
The long left-hander that was the Swallows Tail, began. Near the apex, the road slopped down into yet another banked curve. Stewart used the bank to build momentum. Coming off the curve, he shot past Hill's Lotus to take the lead. A moment later, rolling onto the long Tiergarten Straight, he stood on the throttle, pushing speed to 170 mph. With visibility limited here to less than 50 yards, he got but few glimpses of the road ahead, knowing full well it was far worse for Hill, who must face his spray. In the 1.5-miles that comprised the Tiergarten Straight, Stewart increased his lead to eight full seconds. At the end of lap two, it was 35 seconds. At the end of lap four, his lead over Hill was a minute-plus.
No one would be catching Stewart on this day, at least not under these treacherous conditions.
With three laps to go, rain began falling harder. In some sections, rivers now flowed over the road. All afternoon, Stewart had been on the verge of losing control, and now hit a water flow and lost it completely. "The car immediately started sliding, the engine stalled, and I was hurtling across the road toward a marshal who was standing behind his post completely unprotected. He dived one way; then decided to jump the other way; then suddenly he just froze, and I knew I was going going to hit him. But just then the wheels got a little bit of grip." Shaken, Stewart continued on, at a slower pace, and won by four-minutes over Graham Hill, in second place.
Joy, exhaustion, satisfaction, relief: Stewart felt it all. He'd done it, judged the race perfectly, and prevailed under the worst possible conditions. And as for his rivals for Clark's crown? How did they do? Ickx and Amon, both spun, with Ickx managing to continue and finish in fourth place, while the New Zealander ended up stalled at the side of the road. Jochen Rindt, meanwhile, finished third, and spoke for many, when he said, All I wanted was for the race to end, and to be in one piece."
In case there were any doubters, two weeks later, at the Oulton Park Gold Cup--a non-points F1 race in Northeast England--Stewart won again. In October, at Watkins Glen, in upstate New York, he led the U.S. Grand Prix flag-to-flag, putting himself back in contention to win the World Championship.
Alas, it was not to be. A month later, in Mexico City, he battled Hill for the lead, until lap 38, when his fuel pressure plunged to zero. His engine then commenced to misfiring, and he barely hung on to finish a lap down.
Graham Hill may have won the world championship, but Jim Clark's crown as the undisputed best driver in the world, passed to Jackie Stewart.
The following year, there was no denying Stewart. With Clark-like ease, he won six of 11 Grands Prix to become 1969 world championship. By then, he was "The Mod Scot", decked out in shades and long hair, and seen everywhere, in the company of his beautiful wife Helen. At the same time, he became an articulate spokesman for the sport, his influence so great that Spa-Francorchamps was boycotted for two years, and eventually eliminated from the Grand Prix schedule entirely.
Stewart demanded having the best car, demanded safety above all else, and wouldn't race unless paid handsomely for it. Unlike Moss and Clark before him, he chose not to race every weekend, but to concentrate almost solely on F1. No matter, he was much in demand: Colin Chapman of Lotus wanted him, Enzo Ferrari wanted him; but he efused their offers, and only would race for Ken Terrell, in whom he had complete trust. He would write intelligently about the sport, and describe what was like out there, what it felt like to round a truly dangerous curve, such as Burnenville, in the Belgian Ardennes. He would see more close friends die, win two more world championships, and retire a wealthy and contented man.
"I've had so many happy moments in and around motor racing, but I've had some very sad ones, too. The deaths of Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, and (teammate) Francois Cevert, to name but three. But the intoxications that motor racing provides seems to clear all the dark moments and replace them with blue skies."