When a German orphan arrived in Austria to live under the care of his grandparents, few could have predicted the accolades that would follow him to his grave – a world championship, six wins and a unique racing legacy.
Even when condensing the story of Jochen Rindt into less than fifty words, his rise to the top is clear but the 1970 drivers’ world champion was a whole lot more extraordinary than that.
Although not nationalised as an Austrian citizen, he spent his career racing under their red and white flag. This year, Austria made its return to Formula 1 but thanks to Rindt and his compatriot Niki Lauda, the 1970s was a time of great strength for a country housing just 8 million people.
On paper, Rindt’s career might not look the most impressive. After all, he was hardly the type to care for his tyres or restrict running for the sake of his fuel gauge, he was instead an ‘all or nothing’ racer. This led to 35 retirements from just 60 races. In short, it was a hazardous but enthralling time for Formula 1.
By 1968 the world championship dream was not looking likely – his third place in the drivers’ standings for Cooper was an anomaly amongst a sea of retirements. Three years outside the top ten does not an accurate reflection of Rindt’s talent and promise. “Could an orphaned boy, plagued by the aftermath of the Second World War, really become the best in the world?” was the question as the era of Clark, Brabham and Hill came to an end.
Drivers should be judged by their actions at this stage; those who come back fighting should be remembered. For this reason, we should today think of Jochen Rindt the racer, the champion, the man who proved his critics wrong during a time of great career uncertainty.
Allow me to set the scene. It is 1970 and Rindt’s run in the midfield had come to a swift end thanks to his relationship with Lotus’ Colin Chapman, a visionary of his time. Their pairing was not perfect and the two disagreed on the general direction the car should take but one thing was clear, the Lotus 72C was his chance to claim glory.
A win in Monaco was followed by a string of further successes; five wins that season in total. Even a race retirement at his home Grand Prix still allowed for a twenty-point lead over his nearest rival Brabham, a gap equivalent to more than two wins at the time.
The drivers arrived in at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza with a deficit to reduce and a point to prove. The forgotten driver of the 1960s was close to pulling off the seemingly impossible as the Italian fans, known affectionately as the Tifolsi, prepared to welcome back their beloved sport.
What the Tifolsi and race organisers could not predict, were the events of that day. Much had been said about the lack of safety measures, indeed Jackie Stewart was vocal at an incredibly dangerous and fatal time for Formula 1. Racing was not just about winning; the first aim was to survive.
His weekend and career were both cut tragically short as free practice came to an abrupt end. Rindt’s car spun into oblivion, the gasps audible and the crowd’s eyes fixated on the tumbling Lotus. The crash barriers had let him down.
The lethal side to F1 had struck again, taking yet another man long before his prime. Jacky Ickx was still in contention for the title but it became clear that Rindt was the peoples’ champion. The season continued without its fallen racer but his name was remembered and the Austrian flag flown in his honour.
I cannot even begin to fathom what winning a Formula One World Championship must feel like. We see the emotions but can we really relate? It is an exclusive club and rightly so. Tragically, we will never hear Rindt’s celebrations, witness hugs with his family or see him stand tall as the champion he was. The little boy so deeply affected by the war had done it but he would never live to see the day. It is the record no driver wanted and no driver deserved.
His death was one of many during those tragic years and was a small piece in the safety improvement puzzle. Every death has been a learning curve and Rindt’s was no exception. I hope that today, forty-four years after his death, we remember the man behind the helmet and that little orphaned boy who made history in 1970.
“Nobody knows how long we will live. Because of this fact you have to do as much as you can as fast as you can.”
Karl Jochen Rindt – 1942-1970