The great festival that is the British Grand Prix at Silverstone is almost upon us, and at Channel 4 we are gearing up for our biggest weekend of the year, with full live coverage of every session and some fascinating behind-the-scenes features to delve even deeper into the sport.
As part of that, I had the privilege of sitting down with Sir Jackie Stewart just a few days ago to talk about one of the most iconic Silverstone F1 races ever seen.
It was held in the summer of ’69, the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin eased Apollo 11 into the orbit of the Moon in preparation for landing the lunar module the following day.
Stewart was on a Lewis Hamilton-style roll of momentum, having won four of the first five races and only failing to win the fifth due to a reliability issue. He was 30 years of age, on the cusp of winning the first of his three world titles, already a superstar and hanging out with the Beatles in his spare time.
He was not without opposition, however. The Austrian driver Jochen Rindt, who drove for Lotus, had beaten Stewart in qualifying in three of the five events, but suffered an injury in a huge accident at the Spanish Grand Prix and was forced to miss Monaco. He was a fiery individual, often clashing with team boss Colin Chapman, but a true racer with a flamboyant yet controlled style.
‘One of the most exciting races I’ve ever seen’
The two rivals ended up on the front row together, with Rindt on pole position after Stewart hit debris in qualifying and crashed out. Having taken over his teammate’s car, he was still in the game and highly motivated to win in front of a British crowd, which included his father and friends who had journeyed from Dunbartonshire.
Everyone was fascinated to see how the race would turn out and watching from the side of the track was Dr Helmut Marko, current boss of the Red Bull driver programme, but back then a competitive F3 racer and a childhood friend of Rindt’s. He found himself gripped by the spectacle that was unfolding before him.
A winner @SilverstoneUK in 1969.— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) July 9, 2019
Passion undimmed 50 years on.
Sir Jackie Stewart talks racing with @benedwardstv. More this weekend
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“It was one of the most exciting races I have ever seen” he said when I sat down with him over a coffee at Paul Ricard. “First of all it was Silverstone, a proper circuit; the final corner, Woodcote, had no chicane [at that time] and it was very fast. Jochen was sideways through there and put a wheel on the grass almost every time.
“The two of them were soon on their own, miles away from everyone else and the lead was changing during each lap. And for me the astonishing thing was that it was such a high-class fight, quite tough and hard, yet on the other hand I knew that Jochen was good friends with Jackie; they were neighbours in Switzerland and I thought ‘Christ they are going at 300kph wheel to wheel and in the evening they have a beer…’ but it shows that you can be competitive and still be friends.”
Duel of Titans
The race turned into a constant slip-streaming battle between Stewart and Rindt, with each of them trying to break the tow, or carve through traffic more effectively. Occasionally a gap of a couple of seconds would open up, only for it to be pinned back to virtually nothing.
And this didn’t just go on for 10 laps or 20 laps: it went on for more than an hour and a quarter. “You know, there was such an atmosphere at this race,” Dr Marko remembers. “The crowd was standing and cheering and you could really feel it. The rest of the field was a minute or more behind.”
Just when it looked like it would become a battle to the chequered flag, a rear wing endplate on Rindt’s car started to work loose and damage a rear tyre. He was forced to make a pit stop and although he refused to give up, ultimately a second stop for a top-up of fuel demoted him to fourth. Stewart took his first British Grand Prix victory having lapped the entire field.
When we spoke, Sir Jackie was eloquent about the race and 50 years on still remembers it as a very special occasion. But you’ll have to tune in to our coverage to hear the full story.
During our interview we sat next to the winner’s trophy, which now has Lewis Hamilton’s name on it – five times. One more victory and Hamilton will move ahead of Jim Clark and Alain Prost as the man with the most wins at a UK F1 race.
I know it’s probably wishful thinking, but just imagine if we had an event like that 1969 encounter this weekend. When I asked Dr Marko which driver on the current grid most compares with Jochen Rindt, he answered without hesitation: “Max.”
Verstappen arrives at Silverstone off the back of a fabulous win in Austria – Jochen Rindt country. Perhaps some of that old magic of ’69 might rub off after all.
The British Grand Prix is LIVE on Channel 4 from the 12th to 14th July.
It all begins with first practice from 9:55am followed by second practice from 1:55pm on Friday. Qualifying begins at 12:55pm on Saturday with the big race live from Silverstone on Sunday from 12:55pm.