Sergio Perez’s crash at Monaco reminded us once again that Formula One is a dangerous business, reinforced by memories of Mark Webber’s crash at Valencia last season, Kubica’s at Montreal in 2007 and Felipe Massa at the Hungaroring in 2009. Thankfully none of these incidents were fatal, and this is in large part a result of the changes in safety regulations in Formula One. Mercifully there has not been a death in F1 since 1994, when Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger both died during the race weekend at Imola, but it is important to remember that the improved safety of F1 has come at a price and it is time to recall a driver who achieved the terrible distinction of being Formula One’s first, and hopefully only, posthumous World Champion: Jochen Rindt.
Rindt was born in Germany in 1942, but raised by his grandparents in Austria after being orphaned during the Second World War. It was in Austria that he began his racing career and, despite remaining a German citizen, he raced as an Austrian for the rest of his career.
After a series of successes in F2 he moved to F1 in 1964, but had difficulties finding a drive good enough to allow his skills to shine. Apart from 1966 in the Cooper T81, when he finished third, Rindt didn’t reach the top ten in the Drivers’ Championship until 1969. His record of eighteen retirements in the ’67 and ’68 seasons gives an indication of the technical problems he had to deal with. However in ’69 he switched to driving for Colin Chapman’s Lotus and at last had a car that allowed him to show what he was capable of.
Despite another six retirements that year he still finished fourth in the Championship and took his first Grand Prix win at Watkins Glen, but it was in 1970 that Rindt really found his form. After a disappointing start in South Africa, finishing thirteenth, he went on to win at Monaco, Zandvoort, Clermont-Ferrand, Brands Hatch and Hockenheim, giving him a strong lead in the Championship.
At Monza, concerned that the Ferrari 312B was faster than the Lotus 72C, it was decided to try running the Lotus without wings to reduce the drag, following the lead of Tyrrell and McLaren. Rindt’s team mate John Miles expressed concerns about this, but Rindt was happy with the set up and with the extra speed that the car gained from this.
On the Saturday of the race weekend Rindt ran his car with higher gear ratios to take advantage of the reduced drag, but on the fifth lap of the final practice session he crashed at Parabolica. Denny Hulme, following in his McLaren, reported that “Jochen’s car weaved slightly and then swerved sharp left into the crash barrier.” A joint in the crash barrier came apart and Rindt’s car hit a stanchion head on, destroying the front of the Lotus. Rindt refused to wear crotch straps, as he wanted to be able to get out of the car quickly in the event of a fire, and this meant that he submarined forward, sustaining severe head and neck injuries from his lap belt. He was rushed to hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. A later legal inquiry in the Italian courts found that the cause of the crash was a failure in the right front brakeshaft, but that the cause of his death was the badly installed crash barriers.
With three more races to go that season it was theoretically possible for Jacky Ickx to win the Championship for Ferrari, but at Watkins Glen, in only his fourth F1 start, new Lotus driver Emerson Fittipaldi took the victory, Ickx finished fourth and Jochen Rindt became the World Drivers’ Champion. The trophy was awarded to his widow Nina, to whom, irony would cruelly have it, Jochen had promised that he would retire if he won the Championship that season.
The death of Jochen Rindt was one of the spurs that encouraged Jackie Stewart in his campaign to increase the safety of Formula One and it is partly a result of this that we have not seen a death in F1 for seventeen years. It is a situation that all of us hope will continue.