It’s not every day I receive post from a triple Formula One World Champion, so when I took delivery of an envelope marked with a tartan striped crash helmet, I became a little excited.
The letter was from Sir Jackie Stewart and was in response to a letter I had sent to him a few weeks previously. In the letter I had apologised for not being able to attend a dinner at the Landmark Hotel in London, of which Sir Jackie was the guest of honour. In truth, I couldn’t attend because the tickets were rather expensive.
I also expressed my gratitude towards Sir Jackie; as a fan, I knew a fair bit about the lengths he had gone to whilst competing in Formula One to improve the sport’s level of safety. The catalyst for Jackie’s campaign was partly one of his own accidents and partly the fatal accidents of too many friends and fellow racers; in 1966 at the Belgian Grand Prix, Jackie left the road at the fiercest corner of the track in horrendous rain. His car wiped out a wood cutter’s hut and landed upside-down in a ditch. Slowly soaking in leaked fuel, Jackie was left to rely on fellow driver’s Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant – who had both fallen foul of the conditions – to free Jackie using tools borrowed from a spectator! In the late 1960s’ and into the ’70s it was calculated that a driver had a one-in-three chance of surviving a Formula One career and during that time the sport lost many drivers; one of whom, Jim Clark, was particularly close to Jackie. As a result, Jackie campaigned endlessly to improve safety for drivers, track workers and spectators. I felt that because of his efforts, I could enjoy watching motor sport without the fear that one of my heroes would likely be killed should something go wrong.
His letter of response however, led me to a partial epiphany with regards to Sir Jackie; regardless of his three world titles and 27 Grand Prix victories, irrespective of his place in the record books and exactly because of his efforts to improve safety in Formula One, Sir Jackie Stewart is by far the most important driver of motor sport’s long history.
It would be impossible to talk about safety in motor sport without mentioning Professor Sid Watkins, who sadly passed away towards the end of 2012. Watkins’ efforts to advance safety procedures and technology in F1 were remarkable and part of his legacy is that no driver has died at the wheel of an F1 car since 1994. It was Sir Jackie who started the safety crusade however, and for a driver of Jackie’s era to do so was particularly extraordinary.
Danger – in Jackie’s time of driving – was a part of the sport and part of the appeal to many of Jackie’s peers. For Jackie to speak out against the danger was a bold move; had he wanted to win a popularity contest, it would have done him no favours.
His success on track aided his cause; it gave his voice the volume it needed. Had Sir Jackie been just another peddler, struggling at the rear of the grid, he would have been laughed out of the sport – a champion however, is difficult to ignore.
His persistence in voicing his concerns and suggesting ways to save lives paid off, but as Jackie points out in his letter to me ‘the resistance against change was ridiculous. It wasn’t just the track owners who would of course have to spend money, but also the governing body just refused to move at the time’.
Gladly, times have changed and Sir Jackie’s proposals were put into action. And of course Sid Watkins was appointed Chief Medical Delegate for the FIA by Bernie Ecclestone.
In an age where health and safety runs riot, it’s highly plausible that, if not for the efforts of Sir Jackie Stewart, the rest of the world would have gone the way of Switzerland and banned all forms of motor racing. Sir Jackie agrees; ‘Motor racing will never be completely safe however, if it had been left the way it was, I doubt that it would still be around today’.
It would seem that Sir Jackie’s efforts – aimed at saving lives within motor sport – may well have saved the sport altogether.