There are very few sports in which the saying “nice guys don’t win” is more pertinent than Formula One. If a driver doesn’t have the tenacity to take a position, they will struggle to become a champion. Most top drivers have a ruthless streak as proven by Sebastian Vettel in Malaysia, yet one driver stands out as having the pace on-track and the personality and logic off it. Sir Jackie Stewart raced in Formula One for just nine years, but he managed to leave such an impression on the sport that it would never be the same again.
Jackie was born into a racing family, with his father competing on motorbikes during the 1950s. The Stewarts also ran a car dealership, which gave Jackie his first taste of motoring. This appeared to be his distraction, as he struggled greatly at school with what was eventually diagnosed as dyslexia. However, in the ’40s and ’50s, it was simply seen as “being stupid”, meaning that the young Scot left school at sixteen to work in the family business. During his teenage years, Jackie became an accomplished skeet shooter, and he even competed for a place at the 1960 Olympic Games. Soon after missing out on the squad, he was approached by a family friend who had seen his talent with cars, and was duly offered a test in a saloon car. After an impressive tryout, Stewart went on to win many races in the national series over the next three years, but it was all about to become very real, very quickly.
Success with Ecurie Ecosse led to Ken Tyrrell becoming aware of Jackie Stewart. Tyrrell, at the time, was running a Formula Three team, and Bruce McLaren was testing his car at Goodwood. Stewart was invited down for a test, and he bettered McLaren’s time. A highly impressed Ken Tyrrell subsequently offered him a seat for F3 in 1964, which Stewart won with ease, crossing the line first in all but two races. He had been offered a Formula One seat earlier in the season, which was rejected as Stewart preferred to gain experience with Tyrrell. For 1965 though, he did make the step into Formula One with BRM. After winning one heat of a non-championship race in a Lotus, Stewart excelled on his full F1 debut to score a point, and went on to claim his first podium at his second race in Monaco. To cap off a simply incredible debut season, Stewart won in Monza, but it was ultimately Jim Clark’s season, clinching the title at the Nurburgring. Stewart finished third in his debut season, and the tone was set for an incredible career.
The next two years proved more difficult for the Scot. Still driving his trusty BRM, in 1966 Stewart won the opening race of the season, but he only managed to finish another two races. The excellent reliability the BRM had experienced in ’65 dissipated, and this persisted in 1967 as he finished just two out of eleven races (both times on the podium). However, like many racers at the time, he also entered the Indy 500, and very nearly won it on his first attempt. However, a car failure when leading by over a lap late on robbed him of the win, but he was still voted Rookie of the Year (ahead of eventual winner Graham Hill, who was also making his debut).
1968 saw Stewart leave BRM to join French team Matra, and his season started poorly. After failing to finish in South Africa, a wrist injury forced him to miss the next two races (both of which Graham Hill won). However, a titanic effort saw Stewart claim three wins and score in seven of the next eight races to set up a final showdown with Graham Hill in Mexico. His old adversary came through in the end though after a tight battle for the lead, which Stewart was forced to concede due to a misfiring car. Two lights-to-flag victories, leading more laps than any other driver and hitting the front in seven of the twelve races all wasn’t enough for Stewart to win his first title.
It all came together in 1969 though. The Scottish starlet romped home to his first world championship, winning six of the first eight races, and leading in all eleven races across the course of the season. Stewart was the clear champion, scoring the same number of points as second placed Jacky Ickx and third placed Bruce McLaren combined. A devastating crash for Graham Hill at the penultimate round at Watkins Glen did raise a few questions about driver safety though: ‘Mr Monaco’ himself and a two-time world champion was left seriously injured, although he managed to make a comeback in 1970.
Matra turned into Tyrrell for 1970, as Ken and Jackie came together once again with “the best kept secret in Formula One”, and they immediately got to work, finishing P3 at the opening round before winning at the second race in Spain. However, the reliability of the new car saw Stewart retire from eight races, ruining his chances of a second title. The lasting story from 1970 was the death of three drivers: Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage and champion Jochen Rindt. The Austrian driver remains the only posthumous world champion, and it was becoming increasingly clear that driver safety had to be addressed. Stewart had experienced a big crash at Spa in 1966, and since then he had become a great advocate for an improvement in safety standards, and 1970 was when it all came to a head. Three tragic deaths had robbed the sport of a world champion, a young racer, and a Kiwi whose name would remain ingrained in the sport for years to come.
Tyrrell had suffered problems with its first home-built F1 chassis towards the end of 1970, although Stewart did once again lead more laps than anyone else that year. For 1971, the team saw a great upturn in fortunes. Stewart won five of the opening seven races, but he sealed the title despite retiring from the Austrian GP after Jacky Ickx also failed to finish. The season also saw Francois Cevert join the team, and the friendship between Stewart and the Frenchman blossomed. They travelled together, their other halves became great friends, and it was also a successful partnership as Cevert won his first race at Watkins Glen to seal third in the title race. It was undoubtedly Stewart’s season though: six poles, six wins, and 347/671 laps in the lead on his way to a second title.
Stewart led the most laps once again in 1972, but he was forced to settle for second in the championship after an inconsistent year. Tyrrell claimed four wins via the Scot, but three DNFs and missing the Belgian GP meant that Stewart had won just twice by the time Emerson Fittipaldi had become the youngest ever world champion. The two would go toe-to-toe in 1973, with just one point separating the pair after nine rounds. Stewart then pulled away, opening up an eighteen point lead which meant the title was eventually sewn up at Monza, the site of his first win. It meant that Stewart would retire as champion having made the decision to quit earlier in the season.
Watkins Glen hosted the final race of 1973, with memories of the now-retired Graham Hill’s accident still lingering, safety was always a question. This would be Stewart’s 100th and final grand prix, and he was keen to finish with a flourish having won twice before at Watkins Glen. Tragedy soon struck though: Francois Cevert, Stewart’s best friend and teammate, was killed in practice for the race. A distraught Stewart pulled out of the rest of the weekend immediately. Although 1973 had been a landmark year for Stewart, seeing him become the driver with the most race wins in the history of the sport as well as claim a third title, the death of Cevert darkened all skies above him. It was a tragic occurrence, and all of Stewart’s campaigning for driver safety suddenly rang with a chilling tone.
Stewart did not return to competitive racing and instead took up a punditry role for American motorsport coverage (Indy 500 and Formula One). He was a highly likable face in the paddock for interviews, and his sharp mind was rarely beaten. The only driver to challenge his view was Ayrton Senna, in what became one of the most spectacular pieces of interview footage in F1 history.
Having married his childhood sweetheart, Helen, in 1962, the Stewart family was rapidly becoming increasingly motorsport-centric, with Jackie’s son Paul setting up his own racing team. This blossomed into a great father and son partnership when they set up a Formula One team, Stewart Grand Prix. The team spent three years in F1, attaining some great results in 1999. Johnny Herbert claimed the team’s only victory at the European Grand Prix, and strong results from Rubens Barrichello saw Stewart GP finish fourth in the constructors’ championship. At the end of the year, Ford bought out the Stewarts, and subsequently set up Jaguar Racing.
Since then, Jackie has remained a focal figure in the paddock with his tartan cap and simply brilliant mind. At 74, he remains as spritely as ever, attending the British Grand Prix every year. His autobiography, “Winning is Not
Enough”, was released in 2009 and received great reviews, giving an amazing insight into the glamour and tragedy of racing in the 1960s and 1970s.
Monza still has a special place in Stewart’s heart, having won twice there during his career. In 2012, the BBC featured him in a documentary where he helped to coach TV chef James Martin. Despite his last victory in Italy being over forty years ago, Stewart was still able to perfectly pick every downshift heading into the Rettifilo chicane as his championship-winning Tyrrell powered down the main straight.
The debate over who the greatest British F1 driver of all time is will rumble on until a new driver surpasses both Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark. However, there is no denying that both drivers achieved a great amount in a very short space of time. Sebastian Vettel may have surpassed Stewart’s number of wins at the 2013 Bahrain Grand Prix, but even he could not match the Scot’s three titles in 99 races, 27 of which he won. Furthermore, his lasting legacy of improving safety standards foreshadowed the work of Sid Watkins as the drivers finally spoke about the dangers they faced during a race weekend. Besides being a spectacularly quick driver, Jackie Stewart was a revolution, and his presence in the paddock remains one of the most warming in our modern sport.