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Remembering Jochen Rindt, F1's Only Posthumous World Champion

Illustration for article titled Remembering Jochen Rindt, F1s Only Posthumous World Champion
Photo: Ted West/Central Press (Getty Images)

On September 5, 1970, Gold Leaf Team Lotus driver Jochen Rindt crashed in the run up to the Parabolica corner at Monza on his fifth practice lap for the Italian Grand Prix. 74 days later, on November 18, Jackie Stewart handed Rindt’s widow Nina a trophy. Her husband had won the 1970 Formula One World Drivers’ Championship.

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Despite the fact that the 1960s and ‘70s were decades of death in F1, no driver had ever posthumously won the WDC. Despite the death that followed, no one has ever won it since.

His early life was a difficult one. Both of his parents were killed in a bombing raid in Hamburg, and Rindt was sent to live with his grandparents. While the family had wealth, Rindt was a troubled child, more prone to being kicked out of school and taking risks than sitting down studying. He was racing mopeds by the time he saw an F1 car for the first time, immediately infatuated by the speed and the skill of driver Wolfgang von Trips.

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Jochen Rindt was the kind of spectacular driver that his peer Jackie Stewart criticized: if he wasn’t winning, he was crashing in his push for the lead. While he undoubtedly had skill, Rindt struggled to bring a car across the finish line during his first years in F1—sometimes due to faulty technology, sometimes because his eagerness got the better of him. He was aggressive, which didn’t always work out for the best. But when it did, Rindt was one of the most exciting drivers to watch.

Rindt inherited the Lotus seat vacated by Jim Clark’s death in Formula 2 after a disastrous year with Brabham that saw him retire in all but two events. It was with Lotus and team owner Colin Chapman that Rindt began to come into his own—albeit with the two personalities desperately clashing.

Signing onto the team, Rindt said, “At Lotus, I can either be World Champion or die.”

Chapman’s legacy is often one remembered with the kind of fondness we afford to tempermental geniuses, but Rindt wasn’t quite sold. He refused to sign a contract with Lotus until the 1969 season was just days away from beginning.

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And his hesitation seemed to be rewarded almost immediately. At the Spanish Grand Prix, the inaugural event of the ‘69 season, both Rindt and teammate Graham Hill were fitted with some of the first rear wings ever used—absurd looking things that towered several feet above the chassis of the car.

The suspension on those wings broke at high speeds. In Rindt’s case, his car was lifted off the ground, where he crashed into Graham Hill. Both drivers could have been killed, but both walked away with nothing but a broken nose. He was strongly critical of Chapman, stating that the man “should have calculated that the wing would break.”

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He was also highly critical of the team as a whole: “I never had any trust in Lotus,” he said. The partnership was “purely business.”

Despite the struggles of his first season with Lotus, Rindt secured his first Formula One win at Watkins Glen. The only reason he didn’t perform better was because Jackie Stewart was simply untouchable that year.

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That win flipped a switch. 1970 didn’t start off well, with Rindt driving three different cars and securing a win at Monaco. Things changed in Zandvoort. He won a string of four races and amassed a seemingly untouchable championship lead. As Team Lotus set up for the Italian Grand Prix, Rindt went in as a favorite.

Unfortunately, he never started. He crashed just yards away from where his idol, von Trips, had died.

1970 was a difficult year for F1 overall. Bruce McLaren was killed testing a Can-Am car. Rindt’s close friend, Piers Courage, was killed at the Dutch Grand Prix that turned Rindt’s season around. The Austrian driver often said he wouldn’t live to 40, and it seemed that the loss of his peers caused something in him to snap and find the success he hadn’t been able to secure before.

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Whatever the case, Rindt scored 45 championship points in 1970. Jacky Ickx, who looked to be the only driver capable of mounting a challenge, finished the season with a mere 40 points.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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