Jackie Stewart’s legacy in motor sport is very much about safety, and there can be no doubt that his efforts on this were of great importance. In his active period he avoided the big disasters himself, but it was nevertheless a near death experience that started his safety quest.
Nine active seasons and three Formula 1-World Championships tell the story loud and clear: Jackie Stewart was much more than a safety prophet. He was actually a very, very good driver. He made his debut in Grand Prix racing for BRM in 1965 and competed until 1973 and in all those years Formula 1 was a tremendously dangerous sport. And he survived.
But if you think that Stewart pussyfooted through the seasons, you would be very wrong: Neither today nor then would that make anyone a champion. Like everyone else Stewart took his car and himself to the limit, and as history shows he was very good at it. However it was in Belgium 1966, quite early in his career, that he had the most serious accident in his careert: After a high speed crash his BRM was stranded upside down in a ditch, Stewart trapped underneath. That was before safety tanks, and it was quite common that the cars caught fire – if that had happened Stewart would surely have died.
The BRM was severely crumpled and the dashboard was later found 200 meters away from the car. No less the fuel pump carried on merrily – not only was he trapped in the wreck but he was also getting soaked in petrol! As this happened on the first lap the car carried a full load of fuel, and the soaking did not stop until another driver came to rescue and shut off the pump – this situation greatly contributed to circuit breakers becoming mandatory. Still it took 25 minutes to get him out.
The cause of the accident was aquaplaning, and Stewart was far from the only driver to be tricked be the classic Spa-weather: The race had started in the dry, but Spa was then nearly fourteen kilometers long, and was notorious for weather vagaries. The water was on the road just before Masta, and Stewart was doing around 270 km/h when traction just disappeared. He later said that he while he was trapped in the wreck he was almost expecting to die.
Four years later the drama on the below photo unfolded, and it shows abundantly clear that Stewart was not thinking safety all the time: Despite the inferno around him he kept a cool head and drove on to victory.
For me the photo is a symbol of all that was fascinating about Grand Prix racing. And yes, it is with intent that I state was. Very soon the 2013 season will open, but I am quite sure that I will not see many races: Several things are missing, I think – not least the broad span in terms of different cars and drivers, quite a lot of aesthetics well. But also something far more indefinable. Something gladiator-like, something larger than life, some tales of huge heroism, some of great beauty.
Personally I rank Jackie Stewart higher as a person than any current driver could aspire to, and I would much rather meet him for a word on Grand Prix racing back then than have a current driver tell about his relationship with his 200 engineers.