There has been much talk recently about the opening laps of this year’s British Grand Prix. A little while before the start of the race, the heavens opened. By the time of the start, conditions had improved somewhat, with the sun trying to break through, but there was still much standing water. So the decision was taken to start the race under the safety car, something that not only the spectators, but also some of the drivers, did not like. Lewis Hamilton pointed out that starting the race without the safety car would have been tricky, “but that’s what racing’s about”. These men are meant to be the best in the world, and there is a lot of opinion that they should have raced from the start, and adjust their speed accordingly…go too fast, and end up spinning off, drive within the limits of the car in those conditions, and truly show the skill that sometimes gets all too masked in modern technology. The safety car staying out for five laps was, for most, the final straw.
Well, let me take you back to a very different time, “In days of old when knights were bold” …and all that.
The scene is the Nurburgring; not the modern day short version, but the full,14.2 mile circuit in the mountains, “The Green Hell”. The German Grand Prix August 4th 1968. Not only is this wonderful circuit the most challenging and dangerous in the world, but low cloud descended on to the Ardenne mountains. Race day bought thick, dense fog, and driving rain, with visibility no more than 100 yards, less in places. No safety car in those days, of course, and the race went ahead, the 20 car grid setting off as the flag dropped, in a ball of spray. That such an event was being held in such conditions was unbelievable even back then, let alone now! If I hadn’t been a fan already that year, and listened in on the radio reports, I may well have thought the whole tale had been made up! But that day, undoubtedly, a legend was born. Just look at this:
At the end of the first lap, Jackie Stewart led from Graham Hill by 8.5s, after the second lap 34.6s, I have no record of the third lap gap but it must have continued at a similar rate because by the end of the fourth lap the gap was 59.7s, 68.5 after the fifth, and, well by now you get the idea! Hill and Amon were battling for second place, leading the rest of the field who were all in a different race altogether. Amon eventually slid off onto the sodden grass, and, unable to restart, was out of the race. Then Hill spun! The car stalled and was broadside across the road, and Hill quite expected Anon to hit it, not realising that he was out. Graham eventually had to get out and push the car down the hill to restart, jump back in, and continue in second place as the next up, Jochen Rindt, had been too far back to capitalise on the situation.
By the end of the race, Stewart took the chequered flag no less than just over four minutes! Jackie had completely mastered the race. I believe that was the day that he became a true great. You had to be somebody very special to win on this most arduous of circuits, and, in these conditions, bordering on superhuman. That day, anyone who took part in the race all became heroes in my book. As for the winner, a certain JYS, he went on to, in effect, save a great many lives through his resolute and unwavering safety campaign over the years that followed. For that, we should all be grateful.
By Max Scott