A pioneer for improving the safety conditions in Formula 1, Sir Jackie Stewart is the last surviving World Champion of his era in the sport. His story is a vital one in the lengthy history of Formula 1.
Jackie Stewart was born on the 11th June 1939 in Dunbartonshire in Scotland, where the family had an Austin - and then later Jaguar – dealership. His father had been an amateur motorcycle racer whilst his older brother became a racing driver who competed in the 1953 Silverstone Grand Prix driving for Ecurie Ecosse.
At age twelve, Stewart moved to the Dumbarton Academy, where his then undiagnosed dyslexia led to him experiencing learning difficulties. It would not be until he was forty one that his condition would finally be fully diagnosed. When he was thirteen, Jackie won a clay pigeon shooting competition before becoming a member of the Scottish Shooting team. There, he won the British, Irish, Welsh and Scottish skeet shooting championships as well as the “Coupe de Nations” European Championship twice. He narrowly missed out on a spot at the 1960 British Trap Shooting team for the Summer Olympics.
He left school at sixteen and joined his father’s garage as an apprentice mechanic. One of the customers offered him the chance to test in a number of his cars at Oulton Park and was then given a drive in a Marcos for 1961. He won four races and also got the chance to compete in an Aston Martin DB4GT. In 1962, he test drove a Jaguar E-Type, again at Oulton Park, where he matched lap times set by Roy Salvadori from the previous year. Stewart proceeded to win two races in the E-Type before signing with Ecurie Ecosse and winning for them at Goodwood.
After fourteen wins during 1963 and more success in 1964, Ken Tyrell approached Jackie’s brother asking if Jackie was interested in trying out for the team at Goodwood. Testing the Formula Three T72-BMC that Bruce McLaren had been running, he began to beat the times set by McLaren. Bruce returned to the track to better those times only to be beaten again by Stewart who was then offered a spot on the team.
He made his F3 debut on the 15th March 1964 and won by forty four seconds driving in the wet. Cooper approached him with an offer to drive in F1, but Stewart declined as he wanted to gain more experience first. He moved up to Formula Two and then made his F1 debut in December 1964 at a non-championship event at the Rand Grand Prix driving a Lotus. He qualified on pole then retired in the first heat before returning to win the second heat and claiming the fastest lap in the process.
In 1965, he joined Graham Hill at BRM for his first season in Formula 1, finishing sixth at the opening Grand Prix in South Africa. His first win in F1 came later that year at Monza after a close battle with Hill. Jackie ended his first season in F1 third in the Driver’s standings with three second place finishes and a third.
In early 1966, Stewart beat both Graham Hill and Jim Clark to win the Tasman Series in an unreliable Lotus 39 which featured an old 2.5 litre Climax engine. His second year in F1 was a fruitless one in terms of results but his experiences that year led to a revolution in the sport’s safety.
During the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa that year, Jackie ran off the track whilst driving in heavy rain at 165 mph, crashing into a telephone pole as well as a shed before coming to rest in a farmer’s outbuilding. The steering column of his car pinned his leg and the fuel tanks, having been damaged by the crash, began emptying their contents into the cockpit around him. There weren’t any marshals or track crews nearby to rescue him and there weren’t any proper tools available to do the job either. On top of that, the track didn’t have any medical facilities or even any doctors on standby. When he was extracted from the car, Stewart was laid in the bed of a pickup truck where he waited for an ambulance to arrive. When it did, he was taken to the first aid centre where he was made to wait on a stretcher placed on the floor surrounded by cigarette butts and other rubbish. Eventually, another ambulance arrived and took him to a hospital in Liege. However, the driver got lost and Jackie ultimately ended up being flown back home to the U.K for treatment.
Unsurprisingly, this experience led him to become an outspoken advocate for safety in motor racing. He believed that any driver who’d been racing for more than five years had a two in three chance of being killed in a crash. To him – and soon many others – this was unacceptable. Stewart campaigned with the boss of BRM, Louis Stanley, for improved emergency services and better safety barriers around racetracks. He also hired a private doctor to be at all of his races and taped a spanner to the steering shaft of his BRM in case he ever needed it. Jackie also campaigned for mandatory seat belt usage as well as full face helmets for the drivers. Not satisfied, Jackie pressed track owners to modernise their tracks. This included organizing driver boycotts of races at Spa in 1969, the Nürburgring in 1970 and Zandvoort in 1972 until barriers, run-off areas, fire crews and medical facilities were either introduced or improved or both.
Back on the racing side of things, he was awarded rookie of the year at his first Indy 500 in 1966 after a broken pump eight laps from the end gifted the victory to Graham Hill. Things didn’t improve much in 1967 either as he was only able to achieve a top finish of second place in F1 at Spa where he had to drive one-handed while holding the car in gear with his other hand.
The tide finally turned in 1969 however as Jackie, driving a Matra, dominated against his rivals. He won the race at Montjuic by over two laps, won again by over a minute at Clemont-Ferrand and by more than a lap at Silverstone. He also won at Kyalami, Zandvoort and Monza. This resulted in him winning his first World Championship. On top of that, it wasn’t until Alonso in 2005 that another driver would win the world championship in a car built by a French constructor. Stewart remains the only drivers to the win the drivers’ title by using a car built in France as well as in a car entered by a privateer team.
In 1970, Mantra wanted to use their own V12 engines due to their new association with Chrysler. Ken Tyrell and Jackie Stewart wanted to stay with Cosworth and the conflict resulted in Tyrell deciding to build his own car – the March 701-Cosworth (the chassis came from March engineering). It was soon out developed by the Lotus 72 before the new Tyrell 001-Cosworth was introduced in August. It had potential but ultimately led to Stewart losing out on the title for that year.
1971 was a different story however as Stewart went on to win in Spain, Monaco, France, Britain, Germany and Canada. These victories in the Tyrrell 003-Cosworth enabled him to become World Champion for the second time.
The stress from racing in several categories all year round on top of crossing the Atlantic Ocean one hundred and eighty six times due to media commitments meant that he developed various medical problems. It makes his second world title more impressive when one considers the fact he did it whilst suffering from mononucleosis (ironically a disease caught from kissing silverware.) He also came third in the Can Am series where he was the only driver capable of taking on and beating both McLaren drivers Denny Hulme and Peter Revson, winning at Mont Tremblant and Mid-Ohio.
When Jackie Stewart entered the 1973 season, he had decided that he would retire at the end of the season. In spite of this, he still went on to win in South Africa, Belgium, Monaco, the Netherlands and Austria. His twenty seventh and final F1 victory came at the Nürburgring, where Tyrrell came home with a one-two finish. These outstanding victories secured Stewart his third Drivers’ Title. Then, after the crash that killed his teammate Francois Cevert at Watkins Glen in the U.S during practice, Jackie decided to retire one race earlier than intended. This left his tally of F1 races on ninety nine, with the final race of the season being his hundredth race.
He held the record for most race wins by an F1 driver for fourteen years until Alain Prost beat it. He commentated a lot for various channels during retirement and then went into partnership with his son Paul between 1997 and 1999 as the team principle of the Stewart Grand Prix Formula 1 racing team. This team evolved into Jaguar before being sold and reinventing itself again into the now infamous Red Bull Racing F1 team.
In 1972, he received the OBE for services to Motor Racing and a Knighthood in 2001.
Sir Jackie married his childhood sweetheart, Helen, in 1962. After she was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2016, he set up a charity called “Race Against Dementia” with the belief that the application of F1 technology with it’s out of the box thinking could create solutions for how society copes with dementia.
It is not hard to see why he is one of the greats of the sport. Do you think that F1 would be as safe today - or would have improved safety in the sport back then, if it weren't for Sir Jackie?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.