Jackie Stewart’s list of track records might be impressive and ranks him among many other champions, but the changes he brought about in the way Formula One racing is conducted make him truly unique. His crusade to make the sport safer, more popular and more professional made permanent impacts on the way the sport was conducted. He was also one of the first drivers who exploited the commercial potential of Formula One racing, paving the way for many stars after him.
Born in Dumbartonshire, Scotland, Stewart’s father owned a garage business, and his elder brother Jimmy was the first to try his hand at racing. Though his mother disapproved of racing, fears about Jackie’s future grew as he failed at school and dropped out at the age of 15. It would be revealed much later that the Scot suffered from severe dyslexia, a fact which makes his achievements even more noteworthy. As teenager, Stewart began clay pigeon shooting and was immensely good at it. He later shifted to racing saloons and sports cars, displaying unquestionable talent, so much so that team entrant Ken Tyrrell hired him to content the 1963 British Formula Three series. The race was a huge success for Stewart who won seven races in a row.
In 1965, Stewart joined the BRM Formula One team and stayed on for three season, during which period he won two Grands Prix and soon became a force to reckon with. In 1968, when Ken Tyrrell decided to join Formula One racing, Stewart joined him and together they gave Formula One racing one of the most productive partnerships. They stayed a team for six seasons and Stewart had 27 race wins and three championship titles to his name making him the driver to beat throughout that period, and remained so till the end of 1973, when he retired at the age of 34.
Despite all these achievements, his efforts to make the worlds deadliest sport safer were immensely commendable. His crusade for improved and revised safety measures saved countless lives in a sport where the chances of a driver being killed, who had raced for five years, were two out of three. In the year 1970, the deaths of close friends Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt devastated Stewart, and in 1973, the death of Tyrrell team mate Francois Cevert marked Stewart’s last race. After the death, the team withdrew as a mark of respect, but Stewart’s efforts to improve safety only gained more strength.
In 1966, during the Belgian Grand Prix, Stewart had his own brush with death when his BRM spun into a ditch after a sudden rain shower made the already dangerous Spa circuit slippery. Stewart was trapped inside his car and there was fuel leaking all around him. There were no track marshals on the scene and two drivers who had crashed near him, pulled him out of the wreck. To make matters worse, the decrepit ambulance transporting him to the hospital got lost on the way. Stewart recalls that day, adding “I only had a broken collar bone, but it was simply ridiculous. Here was a sport with serious injury and death so closely associated with it, yet there was no infrastructure to support it, and very few safety measures to prevent it. So, I felt I had to do something”.
He went on to introduce several safety measures such as full face helmets and seat-belts for drivers and even helped organize a Grand Prix medical unit, which began traveling to the races. He further campaigned for greater run-off areas and safety barriers, especially at particularly dangerous corners. His efforts were not just to protect drivers but spectators as well.
Receiving extensive criticism from the media and even some driver, Stewart recalls how talk about him removing the romance out of the sport, the dangerous element had taken away the best part of racing. “They said I had no guts. But not many of these critics had ever crashed at 150 miles an hour. Fortunately I was still achieving a lot of success, winning races in hideously dangerous condition, and that gave me greater influence”, he remembers. His wins were spectacular indeed, including the win at the original Nurburgring in Germany where he won four times. All these facts lent immense credibility to his demands for better safety measures. “But I wouldn’t have done what I did if I had wanted to win a popularity content”, he remarks.
Despite the criticism, Stewart became the media darling and had a huge fan following. His trademark black cap and long hair, added to his charm and he soon became an international celebrity. Hobnobbing with royalty, prominent politicians and movie stars emphasized his glamorous lifestyle.
Stewart’s intelligence was not limited to racing as he was a frequent member of several corporate boardrooms and became a multi millionaire even before he retired from racing. He further starred in numerous TV commercials and advertising campaigns. He also went on numerous worldwide promotional tours and had office in New York, London and Switzerland. Another significant contribution was the introduction of major sponsors, when Formula One gained a global audience.
Stewart’s abilities were limitless as he became an impressive TV commentator and in 1971 he appeared as a co-host for ABC TV’s coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix, where he won. Stewart also started his own Formula One team, Stewart Grand Prix team, which won in 1999, after which he sold it to Ford. Even today Jackie Stewart remains one of the biggest names of Formula One racing and in 2001 he received a knighthood for his many contributions to the sport.