Sunday, 23 September 2012

Looking back: Jochen Rindt's greatest day

There are lots of reasons to dislike the Monaco Grand Prix. The wealth on show is ostentatious. The poseur occupants of the yachts in the harbour in all probability have little interest in the sport in the rest of the year. And for large part of the race's history the contemporary F1 car had long since outgrown the circuit. Nelson Piquet once likened driving there to trying to ride a motor cycle in your front room.

But even with all this, for many F1 fans there's nothing quite like the Monaco Grand Prix. Monaco has an intangible quality, what you would call 'magic'. Just watching racing cars around Monaco is an enchanting experience. The backdrop is one of the very most iconic of any sporting event, let alone in motorsport. Wherever you turn in Monaco when the racing is on you invariably see something eye-catching. And when you've got Monaco you've got F1.

The Monaco Grand Prix has a long history.
This is Station Hairpin in 1932.
Its magic is also no doubt related to its heritage. The first Grand Prix around the principality was held in 1929, and the layout of streets that cars race around today isn't much different. All of the sport's greats have graced the place.

But in my view one of the most endearing aspects of the Monaco Grand Prix is that in terms of driving challenge and the ability of an individual driver to make a difference over and above their car, Monaco is probably unparallelled among F1 races, and has been that way for many a year. Almost all of F1's greatest drivers can point to an occasion around the principality streets in which they transcended their machinery, in which all watching on could hardly comprehend what they had witnessed.

Additionally, while we may instinctively associate races here with a scarcity of overtaking, things happen at Monaco, the Grand Prix there somehow attracts drama and incident. Throughout history many such examples can be cited, such as Stirling Moss in the outdated Lotus 18 holding off the more powerful Ferraris for the entire distance in 1961, the extraordinary late laps in 1982 where a succession of leading cars faltered and the likely winner changed continuously like the display of a fruit machine, Ayrton Senna's celebrated 'star is born' drive in the rains in the Toleman in 1984 (cut short by a red flag, just as he was posed to take the lead), and Nigel Mansell's desperate but ultimately futile attempts to usurp Senna in 1992. And there are a multitude more that could be mentioned.

My personal favourite Monaco Grand Prix was that in 1970, however. This is for a number of reasons, all of which are linked to the things that I believe lend the magic to a Monaco Grand Prix. Partly it is because much of Monaco's heritage was on show: it was on a Monaco layout still in its original configuration, virtually identical to that used all the way back in 1929 (the 1973 race witnessed the first significant divergence from it with the introduction of the 'swimming pool section', fatuously to allow more grandstands but ensuring Monaco races from then on were usually a case of follow-my-leader). Also the architectural backdrop was still classic and elegant, Monaco not quite yet all the way to becoming the tightly packed cluster of high rises that it was to become.

But there are two overriding reasons why it is my favourite. One is that it was certainly one of those Monaco Grands Prix in which things happened and which went into memory: indeed it has to be among the most exciting finishes of any Grand Prix at Monaco, or of any Grand Prix, and it could well be Monaco's very best. It was a furious and frenzied climax which came almost from nowhere, wherein the old experienced hand, not known for succumbing to pressure, led but was chased down by the young charger at a scarcely plausible rate. And, perhaps unusually, it was the young charger who forced the error at the very last and thus prevailed.

Jochen Rindt
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
And the other main reason is that it is was one of those Monaco races wherein the driver definitely made the difference. It is the performance most commonly associated with he 'young charger' in question, Jochen Rindt, one of the fastest and most spectacular racers the sport has ever known. And it was a day on which even his own supreme skills seemed to be transcended, where he entered the sort of trance-like consciousness in the late laps of the sort that Senna was to so eloquently talk of years later, wherein Rindt routinely lapped under his qualifying time, often by several seconds, in hunting the leader. And the Monaco triumph was to be the masterpiece of his tragically cut-short career. It was perhaps a quintessential case of the driver, over and above the merits of their car, making the difference at Monaco.

Going into the weekend of the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix all of this seemed rather a long way away though, for several reasons. Rindt's F1 career had been one of frustration for the most part up until that point. While he had finished third in the drivers' championship as early as the 1966 season there were no wins that year and this remained the case for some years following on as Rindt struggled with recalcitrant and unreliable Coopers and Brabhams. It was also the case that he didn't always do his towering talent justice, for example in the 1967 year wherein he appeared to have little desire to extract much from the season other than to serve out the final year of his Cooper contract. Rindt was also one who divided opinion among observers; Jack Brabham who observed Rindt at close quarters as his team mate in 1968 reckoned he possibly was the best ever. But others, such as legendary F1 scribe Denis Jenkinson, were less enthusiastic and Jenks considered Rindt's tail-happy style rather agricultural. What many viewed as Rindt's arrogant and aloof personality, never one to underestimate his own talent, also turned a few off (though many close to Rindt reported that, contrary to this view, he was actually gentle and funny, as well as having a surprising vulnerability about him).

Rindt in the 1969 German Grand Prix in the Lotus 49
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
After enduring these years of nonfulfillment Rindt finally parked his personal reservations about Colin Chapman's flimsy and potentially lethal Lotus machines to join the champion constructors for 1969. His desire for the world championship overtook all else. But that year the frustration continued for him: even though he quickly established himself as the team's pace-setter he struggled to see eye-to-eye with Chapman and lacked confidence in his quick but unpredictable machinery. This came to a head at the Spanish round at Montjuic, where his delicate high rear wing collapsed at speed and thus sent Rindt into a high speed crash in which he was very fortunate to escape with relatively light injuries. Indeed, in round after round that year Rindt would disappear into the distance at the front only for his car to let him down. He didn't score at all until the sixth of the 11 races, the British Grand Prix, and even there he missed out on a win as various problems in the late laps dropped him to fourth place by the end. Things did get better though, both in terms of his results and co-existence with Chapman, and not before time he took his very first Grand Prix win at Watkins Glen late in the season.

The radical Lotus 72 was on tap for the 1970 season. It was a set of wheels which went into F1 folklore eventually, but at the point of the Monaco race that year it was still undergoing a difficult birth. The car was tucked away having its suspension re-designed so to eliminate anti-squat and anti-dive (one 72 was brought to Monaco but Rindt's team mate John Miles wasn't impressed with it). As a consequence, Rindt would have to make do with the old 49 this time. There didn't seem much hope for success with it, and Rindt for the most part drove like someone who'd decided as much in advance. He qualified only eighth out of sixteen starters, close to two seconds slower than pole man Jackie Stewart's best, who'd dominated practice in his Ken Tyrrell-entered March.

And things continued much in the same vein when the race got underway. Stewart eased into a clear lead and Rindt circulated in mid-pack, not showing much sign of being a contender and only gaining places through attrition of those ahead. This eventually included Stewart whose March began to misfire and he pitted on lap 27 to have it investigated and for his spark box to be changed. He later resumed, but way out of contention. This left Rindt in fifth place, which become fourth as he moved past Henri Pescarolo's Matra on lap 36. Then Rindt's pace started to pick up and he began to lap under his best qualifying time, though it was only enough for him to keep pace overall with the new leader Jack Brabham, driving a car bearing his own name, rather than catch him. The gap hovered around the 15 second mark, even after Rindt moved past Denny Hulme's McLaren after 40 laps to take third. The race then endured something of an impasse for several laps, with Brabham keeping Chris Amon's second placed March at just far enough reach from him, with Rindt still around 15 seconds shy of the lead.

After 60 laps, with 20 to go, a rear bolt parted company from Amon's March's rear suspension, meaning the pits was as far as he was to go. Now Rindt was second, and with a clear run at Brabham and a stronger scent of victory dug a little deeper and found even more pace. He circulated in the order of 1-1.5 seconds under his own qualifying best, but while he chiseled away at Brabham's lead the consensus was that Brabham had everything in hand and was merely pacing himself to win at the lowest possible speed. After all, 'Black Jack' had done that sort of thing plenty of times before. Just in case though, Chapman in the pit area urged Rindt to press on as hard as possible.

There was however, to use the modern parlance, a game changer on lap 77 with just three to go. Jo Siffert had been cruising around the track with a misfire, around 30 seconds a lap off the pace, and he unintentionally but disastrously balked Brabham going through Casino Square, and in that lap Brabham's lead over Rindt shrunk from a comfortable nine seconds to a vulnerable 4.4.

Now all bets were off, especially as Rindt, with an even stronger scent of a possible win filling his nostrils, from his already rapid pace used this as a cue to dig further and find even more speed, slashing a further second or more per lap off the times he'd been doing previously. The next time around, Brabham still rattled apparently by the Siffert balk, Rindt took another two seconds out of his lead. Brabham then gathered himself and set his fastest lap of the race next time around on the penultimate lap, and yet Rindt took another second out of his lead meaning the gap was a scant 1.3 seconds with one lap left! Monaco by this stage was bedlam.

Around the final tour Rindt was gaining, gaining, gaining; dragging the Lotus 49 almost ahead of itself, visibly on the very boundaries of adhesion. And yet it looked briefly like it would be a fuss over nothing, as coming to the last corner, the Rascasse hairpin and the circuit's best overtaking opportunity, Brabham still had a few car lengths in hand over his pursuer. But, astonishingly, under pressure Black Jack cracked. He chose to take the inside line while braking for Rascasse, presumably as insurance against any desperate dives down the inside by Rindt, as well as with a couple of nearby backmarkers in mind. But on the dusty inside line Brabham braked, locked his wheels and simply slid straight, burying his nose in the straw bales on the outside. Rindt took the line as he liked and with it the lead and won, leading only 400 yards of a two hour race, but they were the yards that mattered.

And at this mighty crescendo Monaco exploded with joy and disbelief. Nigel Roebuck in attendance noted: 'The aftermath of that race was extraordinary. I had my tape recroder running, and even now the animated buzz of the crowd brings back the day'.

Indeed, the finish was so exiting that the man with the chequered flag, expecting the two leaders to pass him in tight formation, was sufficiently flummoxed by Rindt coming through alone to neglect to wave the flag! An embarrassed Brabham did manage to extract himself from the scenery, with the help of a marshal, and with his nose askew gingerly tooled in to claim second place.

And it was only later, upon viewing the lap charts, that the enormity of Rindt's effort was fully brought into focus. On the final lap he'd clocked a scarcely believable 1m 23.2 second time, close to three seconds under his best from qualifying. And the lap before had only been a tenth of a second shy of that. It beggared belief; such things, especially in that apparently outdated Lotus 49, should not have been possible.

It all underlined the outer extent of Rindt's abilities, that if the mood took him it seemed almost nothing was beyond him in a racing car. But I doubt that even he understood how he'd done what he did in those late laps at Monaco; as mentioned he gave the impression of spending the final few laps in some kind of altered state, controlling the car on some kind of supreme subconscious level. And it indeed appeared outwardly that Rindt, as tears rolled down his cheeks as he was greeted as winner in the Royal Box, could barely comprehend what he had just done. It was also a genuine outpouring of emotion, far removed from his cold, aloof image.

And there was more of the same later, sometime in the small wee hours Rindt and his wife Nina, now laughing and carefree, emerged from the Gala Ball at the Hotel de Paris, crossed Casino Square and made their way down to the famous Tip-Top bar where many were still gathered, carrying and swinging the winner's trophy between them like they would a small child. As the attendant Roebuck said: 'There was simple joy in his face, and he wanted everyone to share the moment with him'.

It all summed up the magic of Monaco, partly the unique, but electric, atmosphere but also a race wherein the finest driving artists of the age have a platform, perhaps unparallelled elsewhere, to demonstrate their art. And it was here in 1970 that a man who could do things with a racing car that almost no one else in history could produced his finest canvas.

This post was written as an entry to a competition set up by MoneySupermarket.com and their partners at: http://www.worldchoicesport.co.uk/ for a blogger to win two tickets to the 2013 Monaco Grand Prix, as well as flights, breakfast, dinner, drinks etc. Wish me luck! It is a competition in which a blogger is asked to write a blog post about their favourite Monaco Grand Prix, outlining their reasons for selecting it, as well as reviewing the race. More details about the competition can be found here. If you are interested in submitting an entry of your own you have until Wednesday 26 September.

3 comments:

  1. Ah yes, although I think the 1976 running was the best because I was there. I wrote the organizers from the state and requested a high seat, preferably a tabac. I got top row at Tabac which meant I could turn around and watch the start/finish straight. Had a group of Italians in front of me who feed me food, wine and even Marlboros when I ran out. Nothing can beat the experience of Monaco. The second best event I attended was 2008 Goodwood Festival of speed. Go to Goodwood if you get the chance, it's magic .

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  2. Great article and good that we remember Jochen. I recall that race very well, probably almost as well as Jack Brabham probably does but for different reasons! Jochen's speed, car control and bravery was fantastic. Thanks for the write up!

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  3. Wow. Great article about a great race and a great man. I have been to Monaco a couple of times. There is nothing else like it. It's like being part of a fairy tail for 3 days. Good luck for the competition.

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