The Triumph and Tragedy of F1 Racing

This weekend the new 2022 Grand Prix season kicks off in Bahrain. I’ve been reading all about the testing sessions in the various F1 blogs I follow as well as catching up with some of the testing action on YouTube. Will Hamilton and Verstappen commence battle again? Will Ferrari be contenders for the win? How will George Russell get on at Mercedes? All these questions will soon be answered. Having got myself fully into Formula One mode it was time to take a look back at some bygone racing to get myself fully hyped up and ready for Sunday’s Grand Prix

A few years ago I wrote a post about the Weekend of a Champion. It was an old VHS video I had unearthed about the F1 weekend of racing driver Jackie Stewart at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1971. After watching the video I went onto the internet to do a little research and found that director Roman Polanski had recently remastered the film onto DVD. I went to my other old internet friend, eBay, and quickly got myself a cheap second-hand copy.

I put that DVD onto my shelf and pretty much forgot about it until the other day. I had been doing some work, writing and editing, and it was time to settle down and relax with some TV. As usual, there was nothing much on terrestrial TV to catch my eye so it seemed to me to be a good time to slap in that unwatched DVD and give it a go.

I do love watching old F1 films and documentaries. In the 1970’s I knew every driver and every car. Back in those days drivers chose a distinctive design for their helmets and stuck to it. Today in F1, drivers have a new helmet design and a new helmet for almost every race so fans can buy, if they so wish, a replica of their hero’s British Grand Prix helmet 2021, or Italian Grand Prix helmet 2020. More memorabilia for us fans and more income for the modern driver of course.

Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart

The Weekend of a Champion is a documentary that focuses closely on Jackie; we don’t see the work the mechanics have to do or the decisions made by the team manager but we do see Jackie setting up his car and deliberating about gear ratios and tyres and so on. A nice moment for him must have been strolling down into the circuit and having all the fans call ‘Jackie’ as he walked down towards his pit. Afterwards Jackie walked round to the first corner and watching the F3 cars, pointed out to Roman who was taking the corner properly and who wasn’t.

One particular scene stood out for me. Shot in Jackie’s hotel room, he is on the balcony talking to his wife Helen and director Polanksi. As they chat, the camera comes back into the room and reveals Nina Rindt, the widow of the 1970 world champion Jochen Rindt, killed at Monza in practice for the Italian Grand Prix. She looks sad and ill at ease and later Helen explains that in the past she and Nina, Jackie and Jochen spent time together travelling the world as they competed in motor races. She had come to Monaco at Helen’s invitation, to spend time together and perhaps remember the happy times of the past. The Formula One of the 1970’s was no less glamorous than that of today, although perhaps tinged with a sadness for the many who lost their lives back then.

Later Jackie is seen engaging in some 70’s style PR with fans who have won a competition to attend the event, then in the evening he and Helen are at a gala dinner evening.

Jackie drove for the Tyrell Team owned and managed by the affable Ken Tyrell. Ken worked with the French car company Matra and they produced a car for Ken in 1969 which, coupled with the Ford DFV engine, won the world championship for Jackie that year. For the 1970 season Matra wanted to run the car with their own engine so Ken and Jackie, fully committed to the Ford engine, parted company with the French car manufacturer. In 1970 they used a car produced by the then new March team but after disappointing results, Ken decided to build his own car for Jackie and mid-season the Tyrell 001 made its appearance.

Matra had always asked Ken to run a French driver in the second car and perhaps because of the sponsorship of French oil company Elf, they continued to do so. Johnny Servoz-Gavin was Jackie’s French team mate but when he retired from racing after an eye injury Ken recruited François Cevert.

Francois Cevert

Cevert was a good looking Frenchman who was eager to learn from his senior team mate Jackie Stewart. The film shows the two working closely together talking about the lines that they use around particular corners with Jackie advising François which gears to use around the Monaco street circuit.

Seen fleetingly in the film are the other star drivers from 1971, drivers who were once familiar figures to 1970’s race fans like me: Graham Hill, Ronnie Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. Siffert and Rodriguez were both killed in racing accidents. Graham Hill later started his own racing team and retired from driving but was killed in a light aircraft crash when returning home from abroad. Fittipaldi went on to win two world championships, retire then make a comeback in the USA racing Indycars.

Ronnie Peterson was a driver who I always thought would become one of the F1 greats. He won 10 Grands Prix in his career and was the world championship runner up twice. He was known as the Superswede. After some bad career choices he returned to the Lotus team partnering Mario Andretti. In the 1978 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Ronnie was involved in a first lap crash in which he was trapped in his car when it caught fire. Other drivers involved in the incident helped pull Ronnie from his burning car and his only injuries seemed to be just broken and fractured legs.

Graham Hill

Graham Hill

There was no regular TV coverage in the UK at the time and I used to tape record a radio broadcast about the race. I was shocked to hear about Ronnie but at least I went to bed that night knowing that he was ok. However, Ronnie’s broken bones produced a fat embolism and during the night his condition worsened. He died the next morning. His wife Barbro, never got over his death and she took her own life some years later.

Jackie Stewart won the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix and the World Championship that year but decided to retire at the end of 1973. He had a wife and family so I suppose his personal safety must have been high on his list of priorities. Jackie even had his personal doctor present at all his races, as immediate medical care in the aftermath of a crash was a big issue back then. He was close to François Cevert and glad that he would take his place as Ken’s lead driver. The US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen would have been Stewart’s 100th race. He must have been feeling confident. He had already tied up the ’73 world championship, he had a great car and was ready to retire. In the practice session Cevert had a bad crash. By all accounts he hit a kerb on the left side of the track which caused him to swerve over to the right where he bounced off the barrier and back into the barrier on the other side. Photographs show the car upside down on the barrier and poor François was killed instantly. The Tyrell team withdrew from the event and Jackie never raced again.

Towards the end of the DVD Jackie and Roman Polanski are filmed together for a present-day epilogue. They talk about the events of the 1971 race and it is clear that the death of Cevert still weighs heavily on the former champion’s shoulders.

Once, a few years ago, Liz and I were holidaying in the Loire and as usual were rummaging about at a vide grenier, a French car boot sale. I don’t usually look at the book stalls there as my French reading is even worse than my French speaking but I spotted a book with a familiar face on the cover. Liz asked who it was and I replied that it was François Cevert. Straight away the book stall owner mentioned that Cevert was a local man and was still popular in the region. Others heard us talking and they too came forward with their Cevert stories. After his death in the USA his body was returned to France and he was laid to rest in the village of Vaudelnay, Maine-et-Loire.

The 1970’s was a sad time for motorsport but today’s hi-tech F1 is a much safer environment despite being infinitely faster. Hopefully Lewis Hamilton and his fellow drivers will never have to deal with the death of a racing colleague unlike their counterparts in the 1970’s.


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