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Rindt Serves Notice--1969 U.S. Grand Prix

"If Jochen Rindt ever wins a Grand Prix, I will shave off my beard."

This was the word of no less an authority than Denis Jenkinson, the gnomish, cantankerous, highly-opinionated, legendary dean of British motorsports journalists. Bespectacled and bearded, Jenkinson had been reporting on motor racing since the early 1940s, and knew what it took to be a champion. He had witnessed first-hand the discipline and determination and luck that it took to win. He'd been there, seated beside the legendary Stirling Moss, on his epic race down the spine of Italy--from Brescia in the north, down to Rome in the south, and back again--to win the grueling 1955 Mille Miglia, over roads not fit for an ox cart, at speeds sometimes exceeding 170 mph. Yes, he'd been there, and wrote about what it was like.

Denis Jenkinson had seen enough of Rindt's type: wildly spectacular, tail-out F-1 drivers, whom the crowds adored, but who were utterly luckless. Their daring, ragged ways took your breath away. They drove for the best teams. They led races, sometimes by large margins, but seldom finished. When they did finish, it was usually in second or third place. Frenchman Jean Behra was the type, as was Italian Luigi Musso. Rindt was another.


Jochen Rindt was born on April 18,1942, in Mainz, Germany, to an Austrian mother and a German father. Rindt's parents owned a spice mill in Mainz, which he would later inherit. During the second World War, when Jochen (pronounced "Yoe-hen") was 15-months old, his parents were killed in a bombing raid in Hamburg. He was raised by his grandparents in Graz, Austria. Although his grandfather chose to retain Rindt's German citizenship, for his entire racing career Rindt drove under an Austrian racing license.

As a youth, Rindt was something of ne'er do well, often arrested, and thrown out of several public schools for bad behavior. Out of desperation, his grandparents sent him to a private school in England, where he learned to speak English and adopted a number of British mannerisms, which would serve him well later, in befriending Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart.

At sixteen, Rindt's grandparents bought him a moped, and right away Rindt exhibited a love of speed, by racing his friends on motocross tracks. His chances of obtaining a driver's license, however, were put on hold because he had collected eight driving misdemeanors from the local police.

In 1961, Rindt entered his first motor race, at Flugplatzrennen (an airfield circuit in Zeltweg, Austria ), driving his grandmother's Simca. During the race, he was black-flagged for his "dangerous driving style." Unfazed, he entered the Simca in several rallies, but with mixed results. It was only when he was provided with a fully race-prepped Alfa Romeo GT 1300 (thanks to the generosity of a local Alfa Romeo dealer) that his racing talent emerged, when he won eight races.

Again, thanks to the generosity of another wealthy patron (sportsman Kurt Bardi-Barry), Rindt advanced to Formula Junior, driving a year-old Cooper T67, winning his second time out. In 1964, while still in partnership with Barry, Rindt moved up to Formula Two, where, driving a new Brabham BT2, he won several more races, including an impressive victory over 1962 world champion Graham Hill at Crystal Palace, England, which caught everyone's attention.


By now, pundits were referring to Rindt as "The Uncrowned Champion of Formult Two." Indeed, Rindt was the talk of the European motor racing world. It seemed only a matter time when he would be offered a full-time F-1 ride. The first team to step forward was Cooper Cars, that offered Rindt a car for the 1965 Grand Prix season. It was the very break Rindt had been waiting for, and eagerly signed a three-year contract

However, the famed Cooper Formula One team had fallen on hard times in recent years, and was no longer the front runner it once had been. Only the year before team owner John Cooper had fired former world champion Phil Hill, for lack of performance (through no fault of Phil's, as the 1964 Cooper F-1 was uncompetitive, dangerously fragile, and woefully unreliable). Unfortunately for Rindt, he was in for much of the same. There were, however, two bright spots. One was an unexpected fourth-place finish in the 1965 German Grand Prix. The second was winning the 1965 Le Mans 24-Hour, in a Ferrari 250LM (with American Masten Gregory, as co-driver).

Meanwhile, at Cooper Cars, owner John Cooper had run out of money and options, and was at a loss as how to proceed under the rules changes that would go into effect the following year. Late in 1965, John Cooper decided it was time to get out, and put his small racing firm on the auction block. The buyer was the Chipstead Motor Group, which had adequate funding, and for an engine, access to the three-liter Maserati V-12. For a chassis, Chipstead hired design engineer Derrick White, to design a state-of-the-art monocoque chassis. Designated the Cooper T81, the Anglo-Italian machine looked impressive on paper, but without the services of the departed test-driver/team leader, Bruce McLaren, 1966 promised to be little better than the previous season.

For Rindt, the highlight of the 1966 F-1 season was his epic drive in the rain-swept Belgian Grand Prix, a race he appeared to have won--until the rain stopped. The balance of the season was bitterly disappointing for a driver who had expected to win as frequently as he had in Formula Two.

As bad as 1966 was for Rindt, 1967 was worse, in which he failed to finish all but two races. On the brighter side, he continued to win consistently in Formula Two (nine impressive wins in 1967). The only driver to rival Rindt in Formula Two, was Belgian Jacky Ickx (pronounced eecks). Much was expected of Rindt and Ickx, who were often hailed as future F-1 champions.


Having fulfilled his three-year contract with Cooper, Rindt signed with the Brabam-Repco F-1 team for 1968. It looked like a smart move: over the previous two seasons, Brabham-Repco had won eight races, and two world championships (one for team owner Jack Babham, and one for his talented teammate, Denis Hulme).

However promising 1968 appeared to be, Brabham-Repco had gambled on development of a new Repco V8 that, alas, failed to live up to expectations. As a result the year turned out to be yet another disappointment for Rindt. It came as no surprise when Rindt departed at season's end. And who should replace him at Brabham? His Formula Two rival, Jacky Ickx. Ironically, after Rindt left, Brabham severed ties with its engine supplier, Repco, and switched to the redoubtable Cosworth V-8, which returned Team Brabham to the forefront of F-1.


Knowing well of Lotus' reputation for building fast but dangerously fragile F-1 cars, but wanting only to win, Rindt signed a three-year contract to drive for Team Lotus. The cars were indeed fast, but in only his second race (the Spanish Grand Prix) Rindt crashed as the result of a broken wing mount. Badly hurt, Rindt missed the next two races.

When he returned, the Austrian was as fast as ever, and commenced with a season-long duel with his friend and competitor, Jackie Stewart. While Rindt was generally faster, it was the canny Scot, with more faith in the better-engineered Matra MS80, who prevailed. Indeed, Stewart won six of eleven races, and was crowned 1969 world champion. As a bit of more irony, late in the season, Rindt's erstwhile F2 competitor, Jacky Ickx, became the first of the two, to win in Formula One--not once, but twice, with impressive victories in the German Grand Prix, and in the Canadian Grand Prix. For Rindt, it appeared to be another lost season, driving a machine he didn't trust, while helping to develop the new, revolutionary Lotus 72, which, while promising, was scary-fragile, and hardly inspired Rindt's confidence in his future with Lotus.


Gloom clouded Rindt's mind as the F-1 teams gathered at Watkins Glen, in upstate New York, for the 1969 U.S. Grand Prix.

As with most European F-1 circuits, Watkins Glen had begun as a true road course, comprised of public roads. Unlike Europe, driver's deaths did not sit well with the American public, forcing the promoters to build a new artificial circuit on a plateau outside of town. The new, medium-fast 2.1-mile circuit was relatively straightforward, comprised of two long straights, and, at the beginning of the lap, a tricky combination of three turns. These were Turn One and The Esses, To lap quickly, Turn One and the Esses demanded absolute precision and smoothness.

As he had all season, Rindt looked impressively smooth and impressively fast in practice. On Saturday he set lap records, while qualifying for the pole position. Stewart, meanwhile, struggled with a myriad of nagging problems, for all of Friday's practice session, and most of Saturday's. With the mechanical problems resolved at last, late Saturday afternoon, Stewart put on a show of speed, and qualified third fastest. Meanwhile, Ickx could do no better than seventh fastest.

On race day, Stewart surprised no one by challenging Rindt for the lead, and might have won yet again, had not his oil pressure gone away. Prior to that, Stewart and Rindt put on a show, drawing away from the pack in impressive fashion. At one point, the pair led the race by nearly one full minute--over the Brabham-Fords of Piers Courage, Jack Brabham, and Jacky Ickx

As the saying goes, to finish first, you must first finish. Those who expected Rindt to suffer yet another heartbreaking breakdown, would be sorely disappointed, including Denis Jenkinson. On this day, Rindt's Lotus-Cosworth performed flawlessly, and the Austrian drove on to win his first Grand Prix.

With that, as promised, Denis Jenkinson would shave off his famous beard.

As it turned out, the U.S. Grand Prix would be the first of many wins to follow in the next year, beginning with Rindt's surprise victory in the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix. After that Rindt would win F1 races with the consistency of his friend, the great Jim Clark. Driving the revolutionary and well-sorted Lotus 72, Rindt would easily win five more grands prix.

Tragically, the Austrian would perish in the Italian Grand Prix, due to a failure in the Lotus 72's fragile front braking system. Rindt's points lead at that point, was so great that no one could eclipse him for the championship, although Jacky Ickx had tried. Jochen Rindt would become the first ever posthumous drivers' world champion.

It's a bitter, tragic ending to what had promised to be a brilliant Formula One career. Clearly, Jochen Rindt had the desire and the ability to be one of the all-time greats.

- END -

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