When the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo walk through the Formula One paddock in Austria this weekend, chances are they’ll pass a small memorial statue.
It’s hardly imposing, somewhere between two and three metres in height. But the man it honours holds a unique place in the history of the sport – the only driver to win the world championship posthumously.
Jochen Rindt was just 28 years old when he was killed at the Italian Grand Prix in 1970, one of the many drivers who fell victim to the appalling safety standards of that era.
“I flippantly say that in that era motor racing was dangerous but the sex was safe,” triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart told Wide World of Sports.
“Now the whole world’s changed around. Jochen was very much part of that, obviously he was a first-class racing driver, and also a really good friend.”
When you want to discuss the issue of safety in Formula One in the early days, the only man worth talking to is Stewart. World champion in 1969, 1971 and 1973, he survived his own brush with death following a huge crash in Belgium in 1966, and once worked out that in an 11-year period he lost 57 friends and colleagues to motor racing accidents.
That’s an average of one death every 10 weeks, and all doing exactly what he was doing, strapping themselves into a flimsy car and going as fast as they could.
“It was a terrible period,” Stewart said.
“Funnily enough, it didn’t appear to be an issue initially. I started Formula One in 1965, and for whatever reason there wasn’t a fatality that year.
“But in 1966 the rules changed, and suddenly the speeds were higher.
“With an engine twice the size, it was turning out twice the horsepower.
“The entry speed to corners was so much faster, and yet the racetracks hadn’t changed. And in those days there were no runoff areas, no deformable structures or barriers. There were trees, telegraph poles, god knows what.
“It was pathetic.”
Stewart said the low point came in 1968, when the great Jim Clark was killed in Germany. Regarded as one of the best of all time, Clark died when his Lotus hit a tree after apparently suffering a tyre failure.
Clark’s death in April was followed by fatal accidents for Mike Spence in May, Ludovico Scarfiotti in June, and Jo Schlesser in July.
“Four of them, back-to-back,” Stewart said with a sigh.
“And then the next month we had to go to the Nurburgring, in the fog and rain, we should never have raced, and yet nobody died.”
Stewart won that race by four minutes, a performance generally acknowledged as one of the finest drives ever seen in the sport.
But his first question after the race highlighted the ridiculous situation the drivers found themselves in.
“Straight away I asked (team boss) Ken Tyrrell: ‘Is everyone OK?’ At the Nurburgring you would never know, you go off the road and there was a big drop or you’d be in the trees,” Stewart added.
But despite the horrific death toll, still nothing was done, until the drivers finally took a stand in June 1970. That was another black month for the sport, with Bruce McLaren killed while testing a CanAm car, followed by the death of Piers Courage at the Dutch Grand Prix.
“Jochen won that race, and I was second,” Stewart said.
“And Jochen and Piers were the best of friends.
“Jochen and I knew it was Piers, because we saw his helmet had come off in the accident.
“We had to drive through the flames. It was ridiculous. In those days the races were never stopped.
“(Stewart’s wife) Helen had to look after Piers Courage’s wife.
“When Jochen and I were on the podium, the only thing we could do was drop our heads and not spray the champagne.”
Three days later the drivers were in London, attending a memorial service for McLaren at St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Dorchester Hotel was the venue for a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, of which Stewart was President. The drivers voted to send Rindt, who spoke German, to the Nurburgring to tell the owners the drivers would refuse to race there unless safety was brought up to scratch.
“Can you imagine stopping the Nurburgring?” Stewart said.
“There’s 375,000 people there every year. The Eifel region is all tourism, and that’s the biggest magnet, and we closed it.
“I was the world champion at the time so I got all the stick. I got death threats.”
The Nurburgring of that era bears no resemblance to the sterile grand prix track in use today. Nicknamed ‘The Green Hell’ by Stewart, the circuit was more than 22 kilometres long, with nearly 200 corners.
“Just ridiculous,” Stewart said.
“They wouldn’t do anything. Not one thing.”
The race was hurriedly rescheduled for Hockeheim, where Rindt took his fifth victory of the season, and the sixth of his career.
It was to be the final time he stood on an F1 podium.
During practice for the Italian Grand Prix, Rindt’s Lotus was braking for the Parabolica turn at the end of the lap, when the car speared into the guardrail on the left side of the track when a brake shaft failed.
Rindt didn’t like wearing the full five-point safety harness, preferring to race without the crotch strap. That caused him to slide down in his seat in the accident, with the belts causing fatal throat injuries.
As a boy, Rindt’s hero had been the German driver Count Wolfgang von Tripps. In a tragic twist, von Tripps had died at exactly the same corner nine years earlier while fighting for the world championship.
“I was in the pitlane, it was Denny Hulme and Peter Gethin who stopped their cars along the pitlane to tell me that Jochen had had an accident, because obviously there was no television,” Stewart said.
“I ran off to see (Rindt’s wife) Nina to tell her, I then went to race control and asked them if he was OK.
“They were very shy about speaking to me, and wouldn’t give me an answer. I told them they had to tell me, so I could go and see Nina.
“They told me they thought he was OK, which is what I told Nina.”
But Stewart was to learn the horrible truth shortly after.
“I then ran to the medical centre, by which time Jochen had been brought there. They weren’t letting people in, but because it was me they let me in,” Stewart revealed.
“And I went straight to Jochen, and nobody was with him.
“In Italy, you’re not allowed to have anybody die on the circuit. If anyone dies on the circuit in Italy, then the event is terminated for the weekend.
“Nobody is ever pronounced dead at an Italian racetrack, they always die on arrival at the hospital, so they wouldn’t admit that Jochen had died.
“Helen went with Nina to the hospital, but I knew Jochen had passed away.”
Rindt’s domination of that season, where he won five of the 13 races, was enough to make him world champion. That became official a month after his death, when his nearest challenger, Jacky Ickx, could only finish fourth at the United States Grand Prix.
“After Jochen became the world champion, the only posthumous champion, Helen and I took Nina to Paris to receive the trophy, to make her feel more comfortable,” Stewart said.
“Nina is probably Helen’s best friend, she was having dinner with us just the other night actually.”
In a sad postscript, Stewart confirmed that Rindt would likely have quit the sport at the end of 1970, having been crowned world champion.
“We talked about it, I think he would have retired,” Stewart said.
“He didn’t like the Lotus, he thought it was too fragile. (Lotus boss) Colin Chapman, he really fell out with him. The Lotus was the fastest car, it was the best for speed, but not for strength or reliability.
“Jochen was a very fast racing driver, but the car wasn’t as good as the driver.”
Stewart’s own career was cut short by yet another fatality. Having already made the decision to retire ahead of what would have been his 100th race, he pulled out the day before when his teammate Francois Cevert was killed in a crash during qualifying before the last race of the 1973 season.
The third man, after Juan Manuel Fangio and Jack Brabham, to win three world titles, Stewart also retired with a then-record 27 race wins.
Now 81, Stewart is the only surviving world champion from the 1960s. He’s watched as safety in the sport has changed radically over the years.
“The medical facilities today are outstanding,” he said.
“When Mika Hakkinen had a big crash in Australia (in 1995) he died twice in the car, and was resuscitated by Professor Sid Watkins, who attended all the races for many years.
“By that time we had medical facilities that could deal with things like that. And Hakkinen is alive today because of that.”
Despite the huge advances that have been made in terms of safety, Stewart still feels there’s room for improvement, although this time it’s not the circuits or cars that are at fault.
“You can never say it’s too safe, but the liberties that are taken now, the incidents at the first corner of any Grand Prix are ridiculous,” he said.
“These drivers don’t realise, because there’s nobody getting killed or seriously injured.
“Sadly it will probably take a fatality to change that.”
Maybe it won’t take a death for the current drivers to fully understand the risks involved.
Perhaps they’ll simply walk to the end of the paddock this weekend, stand alongside Jochen Rindt’s memorial, and reflect on that terrible time 50 years ago when drivers routinely paid the ultimate price.