Sir Jackie Stewart on life, love and losing friends: ‘In those days we drove through the fire’

Sam Cooper
Sir Jackie Stewart. Charade, France. July 1972

Sir Jackie Stewart. Charade, France. July 1972

In the 1979 book The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe describes the men who would go on to form NASA’s fledgling space endeavours in the early 1960s. The men were almost all test pilots and the book has been hailed as the truest reflection of what life for them was like.

There was a camaraderie between each of them. They went on holiday together, their wives and children spent time together and they lived a few houses away from each other on the same street in suburban America.

But still, as Wolfe describes, every man knew there was a ticking clock hanging over them. Life would one day decide their number was up in this perplexing career of human test dummies that they had chosen for themselves.

Formula 1 drivers in the 1960s and ‘70s were cut from the same cloth. spoke to three-time World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart ahead of the release of his eponymous documentary on December 30…

“In those days, we never even stopped the race,” Sir Jackie Stewart tells “We drove through the fire.”

If it was not enough of a miracle that a boy from the small Scottish town of Milton would one day be a three-time F1 World Champion, it is an even bigger miracle that he is still alive to tell the tale.

Sir Jackie Stewart turned 83 in June. In May, he became the oldest living Formula 1 winner and in 2017, he became the last surviving World Champion from the 1960s. His career ended 50 years ago but even after all the attacks on your memory that age throws at you, it is clear he can still see the faces of his friends and rivals as if it were yesterday.

“Everybody was friends, that was the great thing in that day. We all went on holiday together. Jochen [Rindt] and Piers Courage, Jimmy Clark and Graham [Hill]. Then Bruce McLaren of course as well.

“We spent a lot of time together and really we had a great group of people and sadly of course so many died.”

Stewart is not wrong in his assessment. Rindt died at 28, Courage the same age. Clark and McLaren at 32 and Hill at 46. It was not illness or war that took their lives, it was racing. Of the five names Stewart listed as his close friends, only Hill did not die at a race track.

It does beg the question, then, of why do it? Why climb into metal death boxes knowing full well you may never step out of it? Stewart admits every time he travelled for a race at Spa or the Nürburgring, he wrestled with the fact he may never come home again.

But speaking to the three-time World Champion, who has been looking back at his career ahead of the release of his new movie Stewart, it was not only a love of racing that kept him going but a fear of what little would be left behind when he was gone.

“We didn’t know any better,” Stewart says with a smile as he answers what it was like to race in the 1960s and ‘70s era of Formula 1.

“We raced. There were no run-off areas, there were no deformable structures. In the cockpits of the car, we were sitting on fuel tanks all the time, literally completely under your legs.

Jackie Stewart celebrates. Zandvoort, Netherlands. June 1969
Jackie Stewart celebrates with his wife Helen. Zandvoort, Netherlands. June 1969

“But we didn’t know any better and of course, we drove other cars…we drove sports cars, GT cars, Can-Am cars, Indy cars, touring cars…because the money was relatively small.

“The first time I made a million pounds was in 1971 (the year of his second World Championship).

“A million pounds today seems like nothing to the current grand prix drivers. Look what Lewis [Hamilton] gets paid or what [Max] Verstappen gets paid.

“We had to get decent money for our family because if anything happened to us, there was no infrastructure to support a family. We had to do a whole lot of races. One year I did nine trips across the Atlantic.”

Stewart had a personal point to prove as well. He was born with dyslexia but not diagnosed until he was 41. In the movie, he reveals he was called “dumb and stupid” by his teachers, fearing having to read aloud far more than he ever feared a race track and left school at the age of 15 to work in his family’s factory.

There one of the family’s well-off customers, Barry Filer, asked the young Stewart if wanted to test a number of his cars at Oulton Park in Cheshire, England. The teenager did and three years later, he was racing in F3.

In 1965 he moved up to F1 and in 1969 he won the World Championship at Monza.

“Spectators of course were just as amorous as they are today,” Stewart recalls. “More than that. There’s great shots in the film, of [wife] Helen and I being absolutely overtaken by a crowd.

“When I look at it today, I can’t believe that was allowed to happen! We were fighting to get back.

“We escaped into the office of the guy that looked after the track at Monza and they broke into his room. So we went into the loo to get away from them and they started to break down the loo! So we went through a window.

“They then got into a Tyrrell transporter, which they then pushed up and it fell onto a Dunlop trailer. It just doesn’t happen nowadays.”

When people think of a typical Formula 1 driver, it is Stewart’s era that they think of. The glitz and the glamour. The scantily-dressed women and the cigar-smoking drivers. The marina of Monaco and the madness of Monza.

But, a recurring theme throughout the movie is the dark undercurrent that flows through the sport. The spectators have come for a show but the drivers know that in the quest to achieve it, today could be the day their name is plucked out of the hat.

“You never thought about it,” Stewart says when asked if previous crashes ever affected his driving. “You were immune in some form.

“Whether it was Piers Courage or Jo Schlesser. We kept going, we would drive through the flames. Nobody stopped a race, you’re only told that at the end of the race that someone has died.

“With Piers, I knew because his helmet had come off. The whole thing was on fire but the helmet wasn’t.’

As the death toll kept rising – 14 Fprmula 1 drivers died in the 1960s, 12 in the 1970s – little was done to make the sport safer. Drivers continued to race in cars with minimal protection around circuits with no barriers, no run-off areas and with few safety marshals.

Through a modern lens, it seems absurd that driver’s safety was placed at the bottom of the list of concerns but that was not how Stewart felt. He was one of few who spoke out and although he was labelled a coward as a result, he ranks closing the Nürburgring as one of his finest achievements.

In the ‘60s, 17 people died competing at the circuit and 14 lost their lives in the following decade. To date, 69 competitors have been killed at the track Stewart labelled “the Green Hell”. Only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has taken the lives of more F1 drivers.

The original layout of the Nordschleife section of the Nürburgring was 14 miles long, almost three times longer than the next longest circuit, Interlagos. Due to its size, the organisers were not willing and unable to provide up to four times the usual amount of marshals, medical services and firefighters needed to keep a circuit safe.

In 1976, there were huge concerns about the safety of the track but drivers continued to race. Two laps into the grand prix, Niki Lauda lost control and crashed into the barriers. He bounced back on the track before his car burst into flames and was then hit by two other drivers.

Lauda was rushed to hospital, left fighting for his life and with scars that would remain with him. The race restarted shortly after Lauda was taken away.

“The thing I think I am most proud of was closing the Nürburgring because in my day it was absolutely ridiculous,” Stewart said. “But even later on, it was ridiculous. It shouldn’t have happened.

“I started a campaign to stop the Nürburgring and Spa. I got death threats, I got people coming into my house and shouting and bawling and throwing stones to try and get through the windows.

“But both racetracks should never have been allowed to be raced on. There were telegraph poles and cattle and god knows how many of those things but that was the time.

“I was president of the GPDA [Grand Prix Drivers’ Association] for many years and I didn’t win any popularity because of the campaign.”

After seeing his friends die all around him, Stewart kept on racing until 1973 when the death of his team-mate François Cevert in practice for the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, proved one too many. The three-time World Champion retired one race earlier than intended and missed what would have been his 100th grand prix.

“I didn’t want to do the race because I didn’t think it was right, I respected François. Helen went back to the hotel and I went by later and told Helen that I was no longer a racing driver.”

He hung up his racing boots with the record for most wins by a Formula 1 driver which he held for 14 years until Alain Prost won the 1987 Portuguese Grand Prix. He is one of only 10 drivers to have won three or more World Championships and Lewis Hamilton is the only British driver to have won more than Stewart.

Even after he retired, he has remained a consistent presence in Formula 1, arriving at circuits in his famous green tartan trousers and flat cap. Stewart’s life is remarkable not only in the quality of it but also the quantity of it. It is here, with vivid imagery and interviews from the Scotsman that the movie excels.

A man born with dyslexia who left school at the age 15 and never truly learnt how to read or write yet he achieved something few others have in an era that few others walked away from.

But perhaps one of the most remarkable things is he did it all with his childhood sweetheart Helen McGregor by his side. The two would marry in 1962, three years before Stewart’s Formula 1 debut and are still together after 60 years.

Jackie Stewart with his wife Helen.
Jackie Stewart with his wife Helen.

“She’s had an enormous effect on my life,” Stewart said. “60 years of marriage. She was fantastic. She was a very good team-mate. She did all our charts in the time keeping and was very good at it.

“We’ve had a fantastic marriage with two boys and eight grandchildren.

“She has dementia now, which is a terrible illness, so I’m busy trying to do the same for that as I did in motor racing, if you like to think of it in terms like that.

“She looked after our children, bringing the boys up wonderfully well and it’s just unusual to be as long married as that in the world that we lived in, in the swinging 60s, so that was wonderful.”

Stewart can be seen on Sky documentaries and streaming service NOW on December 30th.