Sir Jackie Stewart was about to hit the road for Houston when the plates spinning around the Circuit of the Americas finally fell for Lewis Hamilton, sending him to a third world drivers’ title. Stewart had planned to leave immediately after the race but the moment Hamilton went clear he delayed his departure to ensure he could offer salutations to the only British driver to draw alongside him in the list of all-time greats.
Like all grand prix drivers of the ilk, Stewart carries a vast catalogue of memories and impressions in the life vault. The detail sometimes gets jumbled but not the feeling of what it meant to win a grand prix, a championship. Stewart started only 99 races, winning 27. When Alain Prost eclipsed him to chalk up a fourth world title in Jerez, he made it his business to shake his hand. There is a picture somewhere of the two raising flutes.
The death toll in Stewart’s era meant too many good friends were not around to mark the passing of the baton, when he was running away with it 40-odd years ago, so to salute Hamilton’s feat was significantly more than a photo opportunity. “Lewis was so excited about doing it [a third title]. It was something that was just waiting to happen,” said Stewart.
“When Alain beat my record I remember enjoying a glass of champagne with him. There is no sadness, for goodness sake. I thought it important to shake his hand. When I beat Jim Clark’s record he wasn’t there to shake mine.
“The three World Championships are something I never think about, really,” he added. “Clearly, I know that I have won three but it’s 42 years since I set that [British] record. That didn’t dawn on me until I read it in one of the newspapers beforehand.”
The racing gods clearly deferred to the Stewart family schedule. His son Paul’s 50th birthday celebrations this weekend mean Stewart cannot be at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, where he first raced in 1965, for the return of the Mexico Grand Prix after an absence of 23 years. Its reappearance is the result of a joint geo-political venture between the federal government, Mexico City, and the private sector to cast the country, and its capital, in a beautiful light. For a $360m layout, which includes infrastructure and track improvements as well the hosting fee, Mexico gets to showcase its best side over a five-year period.
Stewart never won in Mexico City. Indeed, his final race there in 1970, which turned out to be the last in the country for 16 years, was scuppered by a collision with a canine intruder. He was fortunate his victim did not walk upright on two legs, given circumstances which allowed 200,000 people to be crammed into a venue without protective fencing.
“People would sit cross-legged right at the edge of the track. And they would not go back. I won my first World Championship in 1969. I could have won it at this circuit in the last race of the 1968 season but retired with a fuel leak. So in 1970 I went back as champion. The people in Mexico were lovely, so friendly, but it was not easy to persuade 200,000 to move back from the track. The race organiser asked me and the local hero, Pedro Rodriguez, to go around the circuit to speak to the crowd. Pedro and I got out of the car, signed a few autographs, talked to them, implored them to move, otherwise we could not race.
“They were so sweet, so nice, so happy to see us that they retreated. Congratulating ourselves, we got back in the car and drove off. As soon as the car was 100 metres up the road they were back on the edge off the circuit, legs crossed. The organisers were adamant the race shouldn’t start but in the end they said they had to because of the threat of the pits being burned down. They thought they might torch the cars, everything.
“So off we went. My race ended when I hit a dog at 160mph. It was a big accident. It was an Alsatian, I think, a big animal. At the speed I was going there was no avoiding it. Bang, wham. By the time I stopped I must have been 200 yards up the road. The car was a write-off. I didn’t look much after the dog. I can’t imagine there would have been much left of it. I hit a hare once at Silverstone on the first lap of the British Grand Prix in 1969. I thought I was going to have a puncture but went on to win the race. There was no chance of that in Mexico.
“In those days there were no fences. The last corner of the track, Peraltada, was slightly banked and quite a quick corner. You had to get that corner right because you were into a long straight and didn’t want to be scrubbing any speed off, not easy with people all over the place. When you look back at some of those races there were just mounds of sand really, nothing else separating us from the spectators.”
Stewart, who is renowned for his long crusade to make the sport safer, added: “It is amazing there were not more incidents but nobody wanted to listen, which was very frustrating for me. This was a period when we were losing drivers all too frequently. The drivers were behind me but they did not want to be stepping out of line, frightened they would lose their drives. We got it done in the end but it was a struggle.”
Stray dogs and haphazard crowd control were not the only dangers in those days. “Everybody told you, ‘Be careful what you eat’. Certainly, don’t drink water unless it’s from a sealed bottle, certainly never eat salads, only cooked food. I promise you, 24 hours before the first practice session I got the Mexican two-step in a big way. I was so weak I could not walk from my bed to the loo. I crawled on all fours. They gave me two injections. The next morning I was driving a Formula One car. I don’t think I want to know what they gave me. I think hygiene is not the same issue today.”
It was not all bad. Mexico left its own imprint on the Swinging Sixties. “Bear in mind when we were going down there, and when I say we I mean me, Jimmy [Clark], Graham [Hill] and the bunch, we all went to Acapulco. The first year I went there I was with Graham. We went to a little hotel, Las Brisas. Not so little actually. It was the first hotel I had ever been where every room had its own pool. I say room, they were little villas on the side of the hill. That was big time in those days. Every time we went back, we stayed with two particular friends who had beautiful homes down there. The race had a glamour, a colour and an excitement about it that might not be obvious when the focus is just on Mexico City.
“This was the period of the jet-setters, and Acapulco was one of the playgrounds of the world. It was incredibly exotic, and the grand prix was a huge event. Graham was my team-mate then and a great character, Jochen Rindt was a cool cat, Chris Amon was almost a playboy among the group.”
Today when Hamilton skips across the Atlantic to have his hair dyed blond, paddock eyes roll. Not Sir Jackie’s. “Lewis would have fitted in very well in our day. Of course he would, he’s a racer.”
Business mode Hamilton still in mood for points
Lewis Hamilton has admitted that his third World Championship success hasn’t yet fully sunk in.
“The last few days have been relaxed, but I was conscious of the need not to do too much damage partying. For me it’s always maximum attack and there are three races still to go, so I’ve still got business to do.
“But the great thing is that I don’t now feel that I’m being compared to everyone else. I’m free to follow my own path.”
Nico Rosberg still hopes to have talks with Mercedes to clear the air after Hamilton’s move on him in the first corner in Austin forced him wide.
Rosberg described the move as “extremely aggressive”, while Hamilton dismissed it as part of racing, pointing out that Rosberg survived to retake the lead before losing it with an unforced error.
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