In Conversation with 3-time World Champion, Sir Jackie Stewart

Posted on 15 September, 2020

F1 Experiences recently caught up with 3-time World Champion and living legend Sir Jackie Stewart to talk about the greatest drivers of all time, his efforts to improve safety and the future of Formula 1. “I don’t think the sport has ever been better than it is today, even in such troubled times,” says the 81-year old Scot.

The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length. Sir Jackie Stewart was talking to F1 Experiences’ James O’Brien on Instagram Live. Watch the full 45-minute recording of the Q&A here.

How did you get into motorsport and eventually into Formula 1?

Motorsport came late by today’s standards, because there was no karting or Formula Ford in my day. I was trap shooting for Scotland and Great Britain, and I went all the way around the world doing that. I started repairing cars for a very rich young man whose family trust didn’t let him race but had other drivers race for him. As a reward for being his mechanic, he gave me the chance to drive. Ecurie Ecosse saw me driving, and suddenly I was coming down south. I was recognized by other people and I was picked up by Ken Tyrell for Formula 3. From there, BRM saw me. At most of the race weekends then, Formula 3 was racing at the same circuit each weekend as Formula 1. I’d won the European and UK championships when I was approached at the French Grand Prix in July [1964]. Would I be prepared to drive the following season?

Which driver did you admire as you entered the sport?

Jim Clark is still my second all-time driver behind Fangio. Jimmy was so smooth, so clean. His Lotuses didn’t break down very often because he was so gentle with the car. Many people were killed in Lotuses at the time because if you drove them aggressively, they were a very fragile car. Very fast, terrific grip. Colin Chapman invited me to drive the Lotus before the season began in 1966, because Jim Clark had slipped a disc. I drove the Lotus and the grip was unbelievable. But you had to be gentle with it and Jim Clark was the master of that. Better than anyone else, other than Fangio, in my opinion.

Many would put you up there with the best drivers of all time.

I raced in a different time. The tracks were different, there was no safety. No runoff areas, no deformable structures. The cars were very dangerous if you had an accident. You were sitting on a petrol tank that was molded into the car and around your body. Even by the time I retired, I was only 34 but it had changed. From a 1500cc engine in the sixties to a 3000cc engine in the seventies. The cars were so much faster. The entry to the corners was faster. The accidents were therefore also bigger, and that’s why so many drivers were killed. I was the president of the GPDA [Grand Prix Drivers’ Association] in those later years and was able to try and change the safety of the tracks and also the cars. Some of them were incredibly fragile. It’s always been like that, whether you talk about Nuvolari in the twenties or Fangio and Moss in the fifties. There’s always been one or two outstanding drivers. At the moment, Lewis Hamilton is outstanding.

You became an outspoken advocate for F1 safety after a big crash at Spa in 1966. Which safety improvement were you most proud of helping bring into the sport?

Nürburgring is the greatest racetrack in the world and I won there quite often in Formula 2 and Formula 1. But it was ridiculous. No runoff areas, not enough firefighters or marshals. There would be crashed cars from a previous touring car race parked on the side of the track when the Formula 1 race was on. It was crazy. It was yesteryear not catching up with the today and tomorrow. I’m talking about the owners of racetracks and the organizers. It had to be changed and the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was potent. We got a lot done and it had to be done. I mean, people were being killed all the time. My wife Helen counted 57 people that we knew who had died in accidents. I was very unpopular for a long time. I had death threats after we closed the Nürburgring. We closed Spa as well. I had an accident at Spa and there was nobody to get me out of the car. Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant took me out. There was no first aid, nothing. This is where the change had to happen. Luckily now, people walk away from accidents. If I did anything in my career, that was probably the best thing I did.

Tell us about your relationship like with team owner Ken Tyrell, who led you to Formula 1 championships in 1971 and 1973

Brilliant. I trusted him with my life. I trusted him with my wife! He was a wonderful team owner, the likes of which I’ve never seen before or since. Neubauer was great for Mercedes in the early days and what is happening at Mercedes today is very impressive too. Again though, it was a different world. In my time, we would only take 8 or 9 people to a Grand Prix, including Ken Tyrell and his wife. My wife Helen would do timekeeping and lap charting. Seven mechanics normally to look after two cars. One of my great regrets was that Ken Tyrell was never recognized for the things he did for British motorsport. Same thing with the Cosworth people. World beaters. Our motorsport industry right now in the UK is bigger than aerospace because of the kind of people back then who created the future.

What was your favourite circuit during your career?

The Nürburgring. It was the master of them all. A giant challenge, wet or dry. I won there in the wet one year by more than 4 minutes or something like that. The other great racetrack we no longer race on is Clermont-Ferrand. That was a challenge. The little Nürburgring. Curious topography, up and down all the time. Very fast.

You walked away from F1 at the age of 34 after winning your third championship.

I decided in April that I wanted to retire. I didn’t tell everyone at the time. I’d had the best years of my career as a driver. I was still driving as well as I had ever driven, but I thought it was time to stop. Commercially, I had prepared myself for what would come after. I had long-term contracts with Goodyear, Ford, Elf and Rolex. I’m still with Rolex after 53 years. Moët & Chandon as well. I was the first to spray the champagne in Formula 1. I’m still with them 51 years later. I genuinely thought it would last 5 years and then I would have to look for a job! Remember, I was just a mechanic when I started with no money at all. I was very worried about supporting my family in the longer term. But Formula 1 had started to become commercial during my time and I could see that was my future. I believe you have to under promise and over deliver. If you do that, you’ll never get the sack. I learned a lot from very good people like Walter Hays at Ford Motor Company and a lot of others who allowed me to see a life beyond driving.

You also ran your own Formula 1 team, Stewart Grand Prix, with your son in the late 1990s.

It all started with Paul, who suddenly decided he wanted to be a racing driver. The last thing his Mummy and Daddy wanted! When we did go racing, I said we will have our own team, because we could get the best mechanics. Paul raced in Formula Ford, Formula Vauxhall, Formula 3 and Formula 3000. All the time we were building up from half a dozen people to a hundred people. Getting into F1 it was more like 200-250 people. We had the best mechanics, the best drivers, quite good management! Formula 1 was a huge challenge. The biggest teams at the time were McLaren, Williams and Ferrari. The other teams were always financially on the limit and I never wanted to be in that position. We entered Formula 1 as Stewart Grand Prix with Ford Motor Company, who supplied our engines and paid for the number 1 driver. It worked really well to the point that Ford thought we were getting more out of it than they were and wanted to buy the company. But the Scotsman didn’t want to sell because it was a family business! In the end we did sell, and it was correct. In our first year, we finished second to Michael Schumacher in Monte Carlo. Rubens Barichello drove a great race and finished a genuine second, not through attrition. Paul and I were in tears, and the Serene Highness took us up onto the podium. What a day it was. We also had a pole position and a fastest lap, and we won the European Grand Prix in Germany with Johnny Herbert. Rubens finished third on that day. Another few laps it would have been a 1-2. I have a great picture of us all up on the podium that day. It was a dream come true.

You still attend Formula 1 races as an ambassador for Heineken and Rolex. Who’s your favourite person to talk to in the paddock?

Ricciardo and Vettel, plus the very young drivers. For someone of my age who has been through the whole process, it’s so refreshing to see their enthusiasm and ambition. I take groups around the paddock with headsets and introduce them to as many people as I can. For them, it’s a dream to meet a big name. I have a lovely life, but this year has been an interruption. It’ a terrible virus but Formula 1 is coming through it very well. I take my hat off to Formula 1 for the manner in which they are doing it. The television coverage is sensational. With Formula 1, you still see the best drivers in the world along with the most sophisticated engineering. I don’t think the sport has ever been better than it is today, even in such troubled times.

Tell us more about why you set up the Race Against Dementia charity in 2018 and what your targets are.

My wife Helen was diagnosed with dementia about 6 years ago and it gets worse. Nobody has a cure yet for dementia. Nobody has anything that softens the experience either. Billions have been spent over the past 40 years and still no fix. That’s why I think Formula 1 has a role to play in problem solving. It costs more money to look after a dementia patient than the combined cost of cancer and heart disease. One out of three people born today will have dementia, that’s the projection. There’s no preventative medicine and no corrective medicine. We’ve got to find a cure, and I think the motor racing mindset, and Formula 1 in particular is a good example of how we can help. We need to raise money to find the best young PhDs anywhere in the world. We sign them up for a minimum of five years and you need a lot of money to do that. There’s still a lot less money going to dementia research than goes to cancer. I’m hoping that we can do something in my lifetime. I want to see it.

A budget cap and new technical regulations are coming in 2022. Are you confident about the future of Formula 1? 

Absolutely. The motor car is always going to be there, and people always want to see the highest level of motorsport, and that’s Formula 1. Look at Rolex and Heineken, and the new companies coming into Formula 1. These are global products using a global sport. It’s not like soccer or American football, it’s bigger. Everyone drives a car. I think the long-term success will be there because we have clever people running it and good people involved in it. Whatever the technical regulations change, money is an issue and I think it needs levelling out. There’s no question.

Will Lewis win the championship this year?

That’s a foregone conclusion. Lewis will win it. The combination of Mercedes and Hamilton at the present time is unquestionably the best. The dominance of one driver is somewhat of a problem at the moment, it’s been going on too long. One driver being successful all the time makes it a little boring, so we need to see some change. But there are young drivers coming up and new investment in Formula 1. How Ferrari got themselves in such a situation at the last Grand Prix [Monza] is beyond my comprehension. They probably have even more money invested than Mercedes Benz and yet they haven’t been getting the job done for some time. But they will be back. I see a very healthy future for the sport. Daniel Ricciardo, what a man. He lights up the whole paddock, which I think is wonderful. A lot of the young drivers coming in are also personalities.