Jochen Rindt: Tribute on F1 Driver’s 50th Anniversary

Jochen Rindt smoking before an F1 race.
Rindt making smoking look cool (but don’t smoke, kids).

A tribute to an Austrian F1 ace from the ’60s and ’70s today. The motorsport world looks back and remembers a bygone era and a special talent.

A Brief History of Jochen Rindt

The Spa 1998 race got us into F1. After that, we began reading extensively into the sport’s history. The official championship began in 1950.

Austrian ace Jochen Rindt (1942-1970) caught our attention for a number of reasons.

By all accounts he was blindingly quick, acerbic, unconventionally good looking, and the sport’s only posthumous world champion.

He won the 1970 F1 title, despite his absence from the final four races of the season.

He must have known he was on his way to winning it but, unfortunately, on this day 50 years ago he crashed his Lotus 72 fatally at Monza. The accident is still something of a mystery.

Sir Jackie Stewart recently marked the occasion. He was good friends with the Austrian back in the day. Here he discusses the aftermath of the accident.

Rindt’s life is the epitome of burning the candle at both ends. An orphan, his mother was a successful tennis player and lawyer. She was Austrian, his father German.

However, his parents were killed during an Allied bombing of Hamburg in WWII when he was just over a year old.

As he grew up he became a bit of a maverick and was excluded from various schools in Austria. He said:

"In the end I got thrown out and went to England to learn English. I learned to drive while I was in England, but I was too young to get a licence. When I went back home I broke my leg skiing, but I decided I was more than capable of driving myself—even though I had one leg in plaster. I actually drove without a licence for 18 months and then got caught the day before I was eligible to collect it."

Inheriting his family’s money allowed him to pursue a motorsport career.

In the early 1960s he shot up the lower formulas and was in F2 by April 1964. He blasted to 29 victories and entered F1 briefly for one race that year.

Then in 1965 he was full-time in F1. But drivers back then would still often race in F2 as well, as Rindt did.

He also took part in sports car racing, won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1965, and attempted the Indy 500 in America twice (1967 and 1968). With his sardonic sense of humour, he mocked the dangerous nature of his profession.

"In Indianapolis, I always feel like I am on my way to my own funeral."

In fact, at one Indy 500 he had a big accident. With his car on fire, Rindt realised he had to abandon ship or face another bad collision as the single-seater rolled onward at speed.

So he undid his seat belts and jumped out of the car. Medics eventually arrived on the scene expecting to find him dead, but he was more or less unscathed. They found his pulse rate had barely risen.

In F1, he raced for Cooper and Brabham, but success didn’t arrive until Lotus boss Colin Chapman snapped him up in 1969 alongside the legendary Graham Hill. It was one of the top teams in F1.

However, it wasn’t an outright dream move. The notorious reliability and safety issues for Lotus were already a big talking point in the sport.

Londoner Chapman famously said the ideal F1 car would collapse just as it went over the finish line.

Unfortunately, quite a lot of Lotus cars did so way before even nearing a finish line—Hill had nine crashes due to mechanical issues between 1968 and 1970.

Rindt was well aware of this and again mocked the dangerous nature of his job.

"At Lotus, I can either be world champion or die."

The speed of the car was absolutely on it and he bagged his first podiums, plus a breakthrough win at the USA GP—the penultimate round. But the reliability issues ruined the first half of his season.

Then in 1970 he was unstoppable, claiming five wins in the first eight races. Including at the legendary Monaco circuit (note the lack of safety features).

The title was his for the taking when he headed off to Monza.

And then it was over. 28 years old, an F1 driver, at the peak of his abilities, and one violent, sudden crash at the notorious Parabolica corner and it was gone.

Apparently he was unhappy with the stability of the car all weekend and ordered the rear wing removed from the Lotus 72. This made the car unstable under braking.

There’s footage of his fatal accident, but it doesn’t offer many answers for what happened 50 years ago.

After the crash, Bernie Ecclestone (Rindt’s manager) sprinted from the paddock to the Parabolica. He only saw what was left of the car.

Meanwhile, an ambulance transported Rindt from the circuit, got lost on its way to hospital, and was massively delayed getting the driver any medical assistance.

Unfortunately, such a shambles was commonplace in the sport at the time.

Professor Sid Watkins (1928-2012) documented much of this disorganisation in his insightful work Life at the Limit (1994).

It makes for morbidly fascinating reading and highlights the incredible dangers Rindt and his peers in the ’60s and ’70s faced.

This weekend, F1 is in Monza for the next two Grand Prix. And the sport is paying respect to him, as Rindt is one of the more obscure F1 greats many fans forget.

But there we are—F1’s only posthumous world champion. A charismatic, fast-paced Austrian who lived life to the limit.

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