Talk of glitz and glamour in F1 is usually focused on Monaco, but the Belgian Grand Prix of 1966 had a touch of Hollywood about it, with the race weekend used to film scenes from the classic movie Grand Prix. The haunting scenes where Jean-Pierre Sarti (played by Yves Montand) crashes and kills two young boys was shot at this race weekend. A grim scene, but sadly not one confined to the world of fiction during this era of motorsport.
Fortunately nothing quite so horrific happened at the real Belgian race of 1966, though there was a terrifying incident for Jackie Stewart that would change the course of the Scot’s F1 career, and leave a lasting legacy on F1.
The race was held on June 12th, and was the second round of the 1966 championship. Only 15 drivers took the start that day, with Bruce McLaren, Peter Arundell and Vic Wilson all sitting the race out with various problems. Qualifying had seen John Surtees (Ferrari) take pole from Jochen Rindt (Cooper) and Stewart (BRM).
The race began under a heavy rainstorm, making a first lap crash almost inevitable. But what transpired was a minor disaster: half the field was eliminated by the time the cars began lap two, with Stewart and Jo Bonnier in particular meeting terrifying conclusions to their races.
Bonnier crashed his Anglo-Suisse Racing Cooper-Maserati and ended up being pitched through the window of a farmhouse. Amazingly the Swede suffered no serious injuries.
Meanwhile Stewart, Graham Hill (BRM) and Bob Bondurant (in a privately run BRM) all went off in tandem. Whilst Hill escaped unharmed and Bondurant suffered only a few cuts and bruises Stewart was left in a far more perilous situatuation.
He was trapped in his car, which had come to a rest upside down, with a broken shoulder and cracked ribs. And, to make matters far worse, petrol was pouring on to him from the fuel tank. You can only begin to imagine the terror Jackie would have felt.
There were no track workers to help the Scot from his car, and no medical crew on site. It was left to fellow racers Hill and Bondurant to free him- using a spectator’s toolkit- and it was close to half an hour before he was removed from his stricken racer. Whilst undoubtedly heroic Hill and Bondurant’s actions were far from unusual- it often fell to a driver’s rivals to come to his aide if he suffered a nasty accident.
When freed from the car Stewart was placed in the back of a pickup truck, where he waited until an ambulance arrived. From there he was taken to the circuit first aid centre, before another ambulance arrived to transfer him to the local hospital. But this somehow got lost along the way, and Jackie was finally flown by private jet to the UK for medical treatment. He was naturally quite shaken.
The incident prompted Stewart to become an outspoken- and often unpopular- campaigner for greater safety at race circuits around the world. “I would have been a much more popular World Champion if I had always said what people wanted to hear. I might have been dead, but definitely more popular,” Jackie would later say, only half jokingly.
This was the key event of the ’66 race, because Stewart’s work, in conjunction with several other safety campaigners, did much to improve the primitive tracks F1 visited in those days. Many more lives would be lost before F1 reached anything near an acceptable level of safety, but Stewart and his supporters were vital to setting the ball in motion. His crash at Spa was an important catalyst.
The race? Oh yes, the race! We’ll get back to that now.
The first lap carnage had left a paltry seven cars running by lap two, with John Surtees leading from teammate Lorenzo Bandini, and the Coopers of Richie Ginther and Jochen Rindt. Of the four it was the latter, wet weather genius Ridnt, who had the most impressive pace. The Austrian set out on a mission to claim the lead.
It only took him a few laps to carve past Ginther, Bandini and Surtees and grab first place, and Jochen may well have been dreaming of his first F1 victory that day.
But as the track began to dry the race came back towards the Ferraris, and Rindt’s pace faded. On lap 24 (of 28- remember, this was on the old 14 mile Spa circuit) Surtees retook the lead, and was able to stretch that to over 40 seconds over the closing laps and win comforably. Rindt managed to hold on to second- his best result in F1 to that point- with Bandini third, a full lap down. With Surtees fastest lap of the race having been a 4m17.7 you can appreciate that this was a fair distance.
This was to prove to be Surtees final race for Ferrari- he quit the team following a bust up at Le Mans, and found himself driving a Cooper by the next race in France. As sign-offs from the Scuderia go it wasn’t a bad one.
But the race was really a side issue in 1966. The weekend had begun with the cast and crew of a Hollywood film descending on the paddock, and been punctuated by Stewart’s accident. From rubbing shoulders with stars of the big screen one day Jackie found himself lying battered on the back of a dirty pickup truck the next, pondering how close he had come to losing his life. A strange and worrying contrast, and fortunately one that Stewart’s work helped to make something of the past.
Thanks to Badger’s Riccardo Monza for additional research on Spa 1966.