As a young racing driver he saw friends and colleagues killed in horrific accidents – and, after retiring earlier than planned thanks to the death of a team-mate, he set about ensuring it happened as rarely as possible in future.
As a result Sir Jackie Stewart, who turned 70 today, became one of the most respected figures in motor racing for his tenacious work on improving driver and racing safety.
He has reached his eighth decade despite the fact that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was active in the sport, the chances of a driver who raced for five years being killed were two in three.
He told Scotland’s The Herald newspaper in an interview to mark the occasion: “It is lucky but I can’t think of very much that I would want to change in my life.
“The most obvious would be to have removed that period of my life when we lost so many dear motor racing friends. If I could only rub out the tyre marks in the road, that would be the biggest change.
“But in many ways, what I did for safety in motor sport is my greatest achievement.”
He has a schedule that would exhaust many younger people, with diverse interests that cover business, racing and politics – and has recently been campaigning for support for young people with dyslexia. The condition defined his early years, and also affected his son Mark, and he now represents those experiencing it as president of Dyslexia Scotland.
There have been recent troubles caused by his work for recently-bailed out bank RBS, who he represented as a global brand ambassador, leading him to offer to work for free during 2010 in a bid to ease its financial woes. But he has bounced back and has no intention of slowing up, saying he intends to keep working as hard as ever.
He said: “To be honest, 70 isn’t a big deal. I have no intention of retiring. I’ve noticed what happens to a lot of other people when they do that the light goes out of their life and they suddenly feel old.”
A life behind the wheel
The young Jackie started out in the family’s Jaguar business where he worked as an apprentice mechanic, with a father who had raced motorbikes and a racing driver brother. After an accident at Le Mans, he was encouraged to turn his attention to other sports and gained a proficiency in shooting of close to Olympic standard.
But the siren call of racing was too strong and he started to compete in association with his brother’s old team Ecurie Ecosse before getting a try-out with Tyrell. He took it, putting down better times than Bruce McLaren, and his future was assured.
In 1964 he drove in Formula Three for Tyrrell and he was astonishingly quick and confident from the outset, taking a title in his first year of competition.
He moved to the Lotus Formula Two team and his his first race in an F1 car was for Lotus, as stand-in for an injured Jim Clark, when he won the second heat. By the end of 1965 he had won his first World Championsip race driving for BRM alongside Graham Hill. He finished the season third in the drivers’ championship.
The next year he came close to winning the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt. But 1966 saw one of the crashes that disfigured racing of that period, when he ran off at Spa and was trapped in his car, covered in leaked petrol and with marshals standing by with no means of helping him. He was freed by team-mate Hill and fellow racer Bob Bondurant.
In 1968 he switched to Tyrell and narrowly lost the championship to Hill. He stayed with the team in the following years, narrowly missing out on a Le Mans drive with film star Steve McQueen in 1971 to provide footage for the eponymous race movie after McQueen’s insurers vetoed the project.
That year he won the Formula One World Championship with Tyrrell and came second to Emerson Fittipaldi the year after. He was awarded the OBE in 1972.
But the toll of fatal crashes and horrific injuries was becoming too much. He had made up his mind to retire after the 1973 season, but preserved his winning form, securing his 27th victory at the Nurburgring that year.
After the fatal crash of teammate FranÃ§ois Cevert in practice for the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Stewart retired one race earlier than intended and missed what would have been his 100th GP.
After his 1966 crash at Spa, Stewart became a powerful safety advocate, arguing for decent trackside medical facilities, properly-equipped marshals and facilities to help drivers escape cars such as removable steering wheels.
He also drew attention to the necessity for fire-fighting crews, improved pitlane safety including the safe storage of fuel, proper trackside barriers and cars with safety cells. Without his work the fatality record would be many, many times worse than it currently is.
As things stand, major crashes experienced by young drivers like Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Romain Grosjean nearly always leave their participants able to walk away and even compete in the next race.
This is Stewart’s doing.
In the face of vested interests, anger and ridicule from some quarters, he campaigned for compulsory seatbelts and full-face helmets, organising driver boycotts to help get the point across. But, coming from a World Champion, such points were impossible to ignore and massive progress was made.
His Wikipedia entry says: “Today, Stewart’s legacy as a safety advocate in auto racing is as great as his legacy as a race winner.”
Following his racing career and his safety activism, Stewart became a consultant for the Ford Motor Company and a television commentator covering NASCAR in the US.
In 1997 he returned to Formula One, founding Stewart Grand Prix with his son Paul, and operating it as the works Ford team.
Stewart’s first race was the 1997 Australian Grand Prix but the team was plagued by reliability troubles and the early years of its racing career were subdued.
But a new Cosworth engine design for the 1999 season saw the car launched into competitiveness, winning the European Grand Prix with Johnny Herbert and a string of podiums for co-driver Rubens Barrichello.
The team was bought by Ford and became Jaguar Racing in 2000 – with a striking symmetry, given that his father had once run a Jaguar dealership. The team survives into modern times as Red Bull Racing and Sir Jackie has gone on to work as a consultant for Williams, as well as being a vice-president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club. He was knighted in 2001.