This is a story from some of the most dangerous years of Formula One, and one so unlikely that one almost expects it to have been made up for a movie. But it isn’t.
Let’s start with the picture below: It’s the Lotus 49 of Jochen Rindt. Or was. As can be seen, it was an accident and a serious one to boot. The picture is from the Spanish Grand Prix of Montjuïc in 1969, and the accident was quite fierce. Absolutely miraculously Rindt not only survived, but walked away with only light injuries.
This was during the infant years of aerodynamics within Formula One, and Lotus had been among the first teams to use the characteristic high-mounted rear wings. During this season’s second race at Montjuïc, several teams ran these type of wings. Lotus’ version was even adjustable and attached to the rear suspension. While that fact alone must have made the car’s behavior more unpredictable than a simpler fixed wing, it was nothing compared to the effect of the wing breaking away completely. And break it did on Rindt’s car.
To make matters even worse, Rindt’s teammate Graham Hill also broke his wing in the very same race. On any track this would of course present a huge problem – in fact, it would be outrageously dangerous. But on the circuit of Montjuïc it was even more so, as the runoff areas were very restrictive. But Graham Hill also survived. The high wings didn’t, as they were banned after this race.
After hospital treatments and upon arriving in Geneva on 9 May 1969, Rindt wrote a letter to Colin Chapman – this is reproduced below. It gives a very strong insight into how this top level of motorsport was in the old days. And not least how some of the main players were.
Rindt had arrived at Lotus in 1969, and while he had already shown his talent in the previous seasons, it was only at Lotus he coupled that with really competitive equipment. The Lotus 49 was by then three seasons old, but still had the speed to assert itself. In the Monaco Grand Prix of 1970 it gave Rindt his first victory and he cried for joy on the podium.
Just weeks later he cried for entirely different reasons: 1970 had a terribly poor survival statistic for racing drivers, and both Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage died shortly after Monaco, which affected Rindt to a degree that had really made him decide to stop his F1 career. Furthermore, his wife Nina had also given birth to their first child, so there were really enough reasons on the table.
But in the backdrop awaited the revolutionary Lotus 72, which was destined to became one the most successful Formula One cars in history. When Rindt was sat in the 72 later in the season, he promptly took four wins in a row and was all of a sudden well on his way to the world championship title. By this point it is said that he had made his decision, that IF he won the title he would take one season more.
Before the season’s fourth-last race at Monza, he led by 20 points.
At that time there were no chicanes at Monza, which obviously made the circuit ultra-fast and favoured cars with lots of engine power. As the Lotus used Ford’s standard off-the-shelf Cosworth DFV-engine, they could not match the Ferrari’s V12 – the most powerful engines in the field. Lotus therefore chose to run entirely without wings. Rindt’s teammate John Miles was not thrilled with the car’s resultant twitchiness and lack of stability, but Rindt felt nothing and was thoroughly pleased with the extra 800 revolutions gained on the straight – which equated to well over 300 kilometers per hour.
One could suspect this leading to a terrible accident related to all sorts of aerodynamic instability. But it doesn’t. However, this being Lotus and Chapman at his best AND worst, it was merely another failure which met Rindt’s prophecy from the previous season regarding the many technical defects: The Lotus 72 had internal brakes in front (one can see the shaft from the hub on the above picture to the right), and one such shaft broke during braking and sent Rindt hard into the barrier. He was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
Lotus pulled out of the race and also sat over the next race, while Ickx, Stewart and Brabham all were trying to catch Rindt’s lead in points. None of them succeeded and Jochen Rindt became Formula 1’s first and only posthumous world champion. The trophy was presented to the widow Nina Rindt by Jackie Stewart.
Presumably Colin Chapman must have had mixed feelings about this trophy, but he was not much of a compromising person: Almost ten years later and he still hadn’t learnt much on the issue of safety. Lotus driver Mario Andretti actually uttered the same points face to face with Chapman as Rindt had done in his letter. Andretti even won the title for Lotus too. His win was established at Monza in 1978, but Andretti was not crowned there: In the same race teammate Ronnie Peterson was killed in a huge pile-up during the start of the race.
Rindt was eerily right: Lotus were fast – but fragile.