When Jack Met Sir Jackie
JACK ANDERSON had the opportunity to catch up with Sir Jackie Stewart ahead of his appearance at the Union last night.
Upon entering the Union’s Mountbatten room I was immediately struck by Sir Jackie Stewart’s large and genial personality. The small and wiry physique of a champion racing driver contrasted sharply with his abundant charisma.
Sir Jackie welcomed me with a wry smile: “You’re a law student? I’m not sure if I want to talk to a lawyer.” After making me promise not to bill him for anything, he invited me to sit opposite him; as comfortable as he would be in his own home.
As a true veteran of motorsport, Sir Jackie obviously accomplished the remarkable in Formula One: ninety-nine race starts, twenty-seven wins and three World Championship titles. This was all during a time when simply surviving a race was deemed a success.
Sir Jackie reflected on his first win fondly: “It was the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1965. I had finished second to Jim Clark three times that year. It was great to have two Scotsmen on the podium. At that time we were sharing an apartment in London together.
“When you’re nearly winning you wonder if you’re ever going to win, so when I won it was like the door had been broken down. I now had the keys and the confidence to do it again.”
Sir Jackie had an exceptional debut in motorsport, taking a twenty-five second lead just two laps in to his first Formula Three race, and eventually winning by a record margin.
He was soon fielding Formula One race contracts, but turned them all down to finish his season in the lower leagues of racing to gain experience:
“Most people seem to get a little turned on by a drive in a Formula One car, but that’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”
When asked if he thought that young drivers sometimes rushed into Formula One, Sir Jackie responded candidly: “Yes, they can do. I think you have to know your own limitations, if you go in too early and don’t do well, then you’re then judged on your performance, no matter what the excuse might be. You made the choice.”
Stewart reflected on his racing career with obvious pride. Winning three World Championships during a period when drivers only had a one third chance of surviving five years in the sport is an exceptional achievement.
He remembers his final season most fondly. “I suppose my last title was the most special. I knew I was never going to do it [race] again. I was totally convinced that I was never going to do it again. I think that you must avoid coming back, because once you’ve made that decision, if it’s the right decision, then its good for the rest of your life.
“In my case it was the right decision.”
For many years, Sir Jackie has been a keen advocate of driver safety in motorsport, and he is responsible for many of the necessary changes which have been introduced to Formula One over the years.
When asked if he feels that Formula One has progressed far enough, he took a glance at the date dial on his Rolex before responding: “Well, it has been 19 years and ten days since we lost the life of a Formula One racing driver [Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in May 1994].
“Which is a remarkable statistic when you think that we are doing over 300km per hour, millimetres apart, human error, mechanical failure and still these huge accidents are allowing people to survive.
“The sport has moved on. Technology has been partially responsible for that; but it is the movement of people’s opinion that is mainly responsible, because at first they were simply blind to the necessity.
“Common sense was needed. It took a long time as there was a huge amount of resistance within the sport.”
The conversation turns to race equipment; Pirelli, tire suppliers to Formula One, has come into a great deal of criticism In recent days due to inconsistent tire performance in Barcelona on Sunday.
“Fernando Alonso, right now, probably has the best tool kit mentally. Sebastian [Vettel] is similar, while Kimi Raikkonen knows how to do it and his car is suitable for it. Its clear that the Mercedes is not capable of doing it.
They can do one fast lap in qualifying, two cars on the front row, pretty impressive. But [Lewis] Hamilton finishes 12th? That says a lot.”
Staying with Mercedes, and Lewis Hamilton in particular, Sir Jackie stands by his criticism of the Englishman’s move to the Silver Arrows.
“I said at the time that he should have stayed at McLaren. The devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t.
“As it has turned out, the car [McLaren] is not competitive this year, and therefore you could turn round and say of course he did the right thing. And he may well have done the right thing.”
Another crucial issue in Formula One in recent months has been the re-emergence of team orders. There was controversy at the Malaysian Grand Prix when Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel ignored his team’s order for him cruise home in second place when his team mate, Mark Webber, was leading the race, and instead overtook the Australian to claim the race win himself.
Sir Jackie believes that team orders belong in Formula One, and that Vettel should have been punished more severely by Red Bull. “When you have a budget of a 150-200 million a year, and you have a car in first and second position you can’t jeopardise that. If these two cars had raced and collided then that would have been a huge financial penalty to the team and the owners.
“If you’re told to stay where you are, that’s your boss. If you want to go against the boss’s wishes in any other job then you’d be sacked.
“I think he should have been punished more severely.”
Finally, who does Sir Jackie fancy for the title this year?
“Alonso has the best chance. I think Red Bull for constructers, or Lotus could do it. It’s a big ask, but it is not impossible for them this season.”