Jochen Rindt: The F1 champion crowned beyond the grave

By Ben WyattBBC Sport
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Jochen Rindt at the Grand Prix of France, July 1970
Rindt, pictured earlier in the 1970 season - he was 28 when he died in a crash at Monza

Bernie Ecclestone has seen many things in his long and controversial life.

Born 90 years ago in the tiny Suffolk village of St Peter South Elmham (population 40), the love of engines and motor racing would see the fisherman's son rise to dine with royals and presidents alike.

Not only did he help turn the sport of Formula 1 into the global phenomenon it is today, he transformed himself into a multi-billionaire in the process.

However, for all the notoriety to come - the court cases, the Machiavellian manoeuvrings - at the age of 40 Ecclestone believed he had had as much as he could stomach of motor racing.

In the autumn of 1970, F1 had taken yet another of his friends and this time it was too much to bear.

"[When] I saw he had died in the hospital… I decided to pack up working in Formula 1 there and then," Ecclestone tells BBC Sport from his home in Switzerland.

The man who Ecclestone saw succumb to his injuries that September day was his closest friend: Jochen Rindt.

Jochen Rindt, Colin Chapman, Grand Prix of Italy, Monza, 06 September 1970. Jochen Rindt and Lotus designer and owner Colin Chapman on that fateful day when he lost his life.
Rindt, pictured at Monza the day before his death, with Lotus owner Colin Chapman

Rindt was just 28 and on the verge of his first F1 world title when he died. Ecclestone was one of the first on the scene of the crash in Monza practice that took Rindt's life.

"I was in the pits and Jochen didn't come back around [so] I went running all the way down to the corner and found that they'd already taken him out of the car and away. They had his helmet, which they gave to me."

With the Austrian's bloodied equipment in his hands, Ecclestone ran back to the pit lane to try to find out where his friend had been taken.

"I found him in what they said was an ambulance but was more like a pick-up truck, basically. They told me the hospital he was going to [so] I went there, but although he'd gone before me I got there first. They'd taken him to the wrong hospital."

Eventually, Rindt's broken body was brought to the intended ward where Ecclestone was still waiting, but by then it was too late.

He became one of 20 Formula 1 drivers who lost their lives in the deadly decades of the 1960s and 70s.

Rindt, pictured at the 1970 Monza Grand Prix
Rindt, pictured at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix at Monza

He was leading the drivers' championship by 20 points going into that race weekend and with nine points for a win and only four races left, a victory would have almost guaranteed him the world title.

Despite misgivings about the setup of his car - the wings used for downforce when cornering had been removed to deliver greater straight-line speed - Rindt, as always, was focused on exploring its limits.

As he approached Monza's infamous Parabolica curve at around 150 miles per hour, his Lotus suffered a catastrophic brake failure and his car flew from the track.

For Ecclestone, it wasn't the first time he had lost a driver under his management. The previous occasion had prompted a decade-long withdrawal from the sport.

Back in 1958, as a 27-year-old, Ecclestone had seen his friend and client Stuart Lewis-Evans die in the flames of his wrecked Vanwall at the Moroccan Grand Prix.

He turned his back on the sport then to focus on his car dealership business, only to return to manage Rindt in 1969.

Rindt's death felt like a loss too far.

For Ecclestone it wasn't just the loss of a precocious talent and the end of a business partnership, but of a unique brotherly bond forged since their first meeting at the South African Grand Prix five years earlier.

Jacky Ickx, Jochen Rindt, Ferrari 312B, Grand Prix of Spain, Circuito del Jarama, 19 April 1970. Jochen Rindt goes by the burning Ferrari of Jacky Ickx following the first lap accident. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)
In this shot from the Spanish Grand Prix of April 1970, Rindt is pictured on track, driving past the flaming Ferrari of Jacky Ickx, who suffered severe burns

Rindt self-funded his move into elite motor racing in 1964, when he moved to England from Austria to buy a Formula 2 Brabham.

In only his second race, at Crystal Palace, he beat the legendary Graham Hill, sliding his car around corners in a style that astonished many sport writers of the time.

The following year he joined the American driver Masten Gregory to win the Le Mans 24 Hours race in a Ferrari, while continuing to build his reputation in F2, and progressing to F1 with Cooper and then Brabham.

Neither of the cars were particularly competitive, but Rindt seemed to wrestle speed from them that others could not.

"[After the races he'd] come back to where I was living in England, he had a key to the house, and he'd come in and knock on the bedroom door. We'd go into the kitchen and he'd give me my share of the money and we'd play gin rummy over the winnings. That's the business we had," Ecclestone says.

The stellar performances soon brought him to the attention of other F1 team bosses, including Colin Chapman, the ultra-competitive, and some might say cavalier, head of Lotus.

Jochen Rindt, Lotus-Ford 72C, Grand Prix of France, Circuit de Charade, Clermont-Ferrand, 05 July 1970
Rindt, pictured in his Lotus-Ford 72C at the French Grand Prix, July 1970

Chapman was looking to replace Jim Clark, the Scottish double world champion who had died at the wheel of a Formula 2 Lotus in the spring of 1968.

Ecclestone remembers Rindt's ambition proved decisive.

Despite the added danger that driving a Chapman-made car posed, where reducing weight for extra speed was prioritised, there was only one vehicle that interested Rindt - the one with the greatest chance of winning.

"We had an offer to be at Brabham, and we could have got 5% more [in wages] from Brabham than Lotus, but I said to Jochen if you want to win the World Championship, forget the finances.

"[I told him]: 'You've got a good chance of Lotus winning the championship but Colin does take things a little bit scary and to the limit, you've got more chance of getting hurt in that car than in the Brabham.' But he wanted to win the championship. I said: 'Well, there's no discussion then, it's got to be Lotus.' So we signed a contract with Colin."

It was the start of a tempestuous relationship with the legendary English team owner.

Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Lotus-Ford 49B, Grand Prix of Spain, Montjuic, 04 May 1969. Jochen Rindt after his accident caused by a rear wing failure
Rindt was hurt in a crash at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix, driving a Lotus-Ford 49B, in an accident caused by a rear wing failure. Graham Hill - his team-mate that year - is on the left.

Now partnered with Graham Hill, Rindt soon outpaced his veteran stablemate and delivered his first victory at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1969.

But the car was unreliable and had a habit of failing at high speeds. Rindt did not hold back with his criticism of Lotus to the press, much to the ire of Chapman. Not that it affected his performances.

"I [remember] sitting with Jochen in the pits playing gin rummy during the one-hour qualifying. Colin came along and started saying: 'What the hell are you doing? We've only got minutes left!' And Jochen would say to him: 'Well, it's not worth bothering, the car's rubbish anyway.'

"I'd say: 'You can't say that to Mr Chapman, stop messing around and let's go.' So, he got in the car with about five minutes to go and before the end he was in pole position. When he had to get the job done, he'd get it done."

Rindt's direct and confident attitude, swashbuckling racing style and marriage to the Finnish fashion model Nina Lincoln, with whom he had a daughter, had made him a poster boy of the sport.

He was close friends with rivals Jackie Stewart, Piers Courage and Bruce McLaren. Courage and McLaren died within 19 days of each other in the summer of 1970 - just a few months before Rindt's fatal accident at Monza.

The death of his colleagues affected Rindt greatly, but according to Ecclestone, it fostered a culture of psychological compartmentalisation in the paddock rather than an open processing of the trauma and grief.

"All of them knew [the dangers]," he says. "Don't forget we used to lose a couple of drivers a year, so they all knew there could be problems. When somebody got killed in a race or a practice or something, they would just continue. Nobody would think about talking about it or saying anything. They wouldn't dream: 'It could be me next.'

"It's like today with this bloody disease that's floating around. Everyone thinks: 'Well it's gonna happen to him but it won't happen to me.' And it's funny how you can shield yourself mentally away from these things, blank out that part from your mind."

Rindt, pictured in 1970 with Team Lotus boss Chapman and team-mate John Miles
Rindt, pictured in 1970 with Team Lotus boss Chapman (left) and team-mate John Miles (right)

Accidents rarely stopped races in this era, with drivers often speeding through the flames in which rivals might be dying. Rindt continued to rack up the points.

After a famous win in Monaco, where he overtook leader Jack Brabham on the last corner of the last lap, Rindt notched up successive victories at the Dutch GP (where Courage died), and French, British and German GPs.

As he began at Monza, he sat top of the drivers' standings with 45 points and his closest rival 20 points behind.

With Rindt's death still fresh in the collective memory, the F1 circus rolled on to the final three races of the calendar in North America.

In a way, the sport's disregard for tragedy was part of its grim fascination for fans, concedes Ecclestone.

"It's like the guy walking the tightrope 20 metres above the ground if you like - you watch it because he could fall. You hope he doesn't, but if he does, you want to be there.

"Nobody wants to be the guy who says because of this regulation someone got killed, but accidents happen, accidents happen on the road. I think [fans] felt more involved than today."

In Canada, Ferrari's Jacky Ickx took the win. It meant the Belgian could surmount Rindt's tally if he won the remaining two GPs.

Ickx would win the last race in Mexico. But in the penultimate Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in the US, he could only manage fourth as Emerson Fittipaldi took his first chequered flag in the Lotus seat left vacant by Rindt's death.

It meant Rindt was crowned champion posthumously on 18 November 1970, with an emotional Jackie Stewart presenting the trophy to Rindt's wife Nina. It had been the Scotsman who broke the news of her husband's crash to her in the pit lane at Monza.

Scottish racing driver Jackie Stewart pictured with Nina Rindt, widow of Austrian racing driver Jochen Rindt, in London on 18th November 1970
On 18 November 1970, Jackie Stewart presented Rindt's widow Nina with the drivers' championship trophy

The travelling circus of F1 was a tight-knit group in those days, fewer than 70 people in total according to Ecclestone, with the same mechanics attending races and working in the factory.

Teams would lend each other parts and tools on race day, drivers and their wives travelling together with team personnel.

For Ecclestone it meant a brotherly bond with Rindt over their shared loved of adrenaline and gambling.

"Jochen was a great skier and he tried to get me more involved," Ecclestone recounts.

"I wanted to slide down the snow smoothly, but he thought I should be doing something a bit a better. So we got in a helicopter, and the helicopter went to the top of the mountain more or less… and he said OK, they opened the door, they threw me out the helicopter with the skis. I was standing on the top of this mountain all alone not knowing where I was and he disappeared in the helicopter!

"I sunk about a metre in the snow! He obviously came back for me but that's the sort of relationship that we had, you know. Fun."

Ecclestone eventually found the pull of F1 too strong to deny, despite its heavy emotional toll.

He made good on plans to run a team he'd hatched with Rindt by returning to buy Brabham in 1971, where he stayed on as principal for the next 18 years. Over the full course of his life in F1, he would revolutionise the sport.

He still keeps in touch with Rindt's family, sharing dinner with Nina to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her husband's death back in September. They last spoke on the phone a few weeks ago.

Yet despite all this, he did not attend Rindt's funeral.

"I never go to funerals, I don't want anything to do with that sort of thing, people dying or whatever," Ecclestone says.

"It's always very funny with these things. I was also very, very close to Niki Lauda and we lost him recently. But I wouldn't be surprised if they walked into the room.

"Like Jochen, he could arrive any minute you know? If he came walking into the room I'd say to him, where the hell have you been?"

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