When men were men and race cars looked like cars, men and women were dying on Grand Prix weekends like flies. The early history of Formula One is a horror of burning flesh, and a new one-hour BBC documentary puts the easy nostalgia for the early days in a sad new perspective.
I was born in the midway point of Formula One’s history, between Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s win at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix and Nelson Piquet’s win at the 1980 Dutch Grand Prix. It was the second Grand Prix victory for both Jabouille and Piquet, but while Piquet would go on to win 21 more on his way to three world titles, Jabouille broke both legs six weeks later in Montréal and never finished a Grand Prix again.
Jabouille is one of the lucky ones. His countryman Patrick Depailler died in a Formula One car two months before Jabouille’s career-ending injury, just one of the many victims of Formula One’s first three decades, chronicled in terrifying detail in Grand Prix: The Killer Years, a new documentary broadcast on BBC Four after last Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.
Early Formula One has something of a wicked charm, a never-ending stream of images oozing The Selvedge Yard-levels of cool. It was a time when everyone looked awesome. It was also a time when Jackie Stewart sat down with his wife and ended up needing all his fingers, all his toes, all his wife’s fingers, all his wife’s toes, and still he came 17 digits short to count all the racing friends they’d buried over a few years in the ‘60s: fifty-seven people.
It was Sir Jackie who began the campaign for driver safety, arguing that doing one’s job does not necessarily mean one should have a ridiculous chance of dying at that job.
You knew all this, right? There are Wikipedia lists dedicated to racing drivers killed while racing. There are sub-pages for drivers killed while testing. Killed during practice. Killed for various reasons. Had their throats cut. Burned to death in straw bales. Burned to death in magnesium prototypes. It’s quite a different experience to actually see for an hour a relentless stream of young men dying in race cars, other young men and their wives and children dying on the grandstands, to see Nina Rindt in her living room, orchids on her dining table, Nina Rindt pointing to a shelf occupied by her husband Jochen Rindt’s Formula One world championship trophy, Jochen Rindt who was four weeks in his grave on the day he won the world title at the 1970 United States Grand Prix, killed in a Lotus 72 at Monza.
At times it is almost unbearably sad. It has made me wonder about all the shallow nostalgia for the glory days. How could it ever have been routine that a Formula One season would result in the death of several drivers? Look at the photo we posted yesterday of the 2011 grid! Can you imagine a number of them dead, come November? Was the public’s tolerance for all the carnage a function of World War II still being a living memory for a majority of people, while a European born when I was born has most likely never seen war and sustained, random death in his life? Was it the sparse TV coverage, deaths more abstract and removed when seen in day-old newsprint or heard over the radio? I don’t know. But I’ll never think of all those old races quite the same way again. To see Jim Clark thread his Lotus like liquid aluminum between the trees at Oulton Park (left) and to know that he’d be dead in five years, another Lotus failing him at the Hockenheimring (above). How lovely it would be if we could go to a Grand Prix and see Jim Clark race one of his Lotuses in the show before a race, but we can’t. Because Jim Clark is dead. Like Jochen Rindt is dead. Like Ronnie Peterson is dead. Like Jo Schlesser is dead.
Photo by AP Photo