April 18, 1942 – September 5, 1970
Formula One World Champion 1970
When I was a young person, I would often spend time reading books about auto racing and its rich history. I found the stories of the innovators that worked to make the cars faster to be particularly fascinating. What I really enjoyed, however, were the stories about the drivers.
While other kids were reading comics about Batman or Superman, my superheroes were guys like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Phil Hill and Jackie Stewart.
I was particularity drawn to the story of Jochen Rindt because he was a fantastic tragic character. He worked his whole life with the goal of becoming World Champion, only to perish before he could celebrate this achievement. Combine this with the fact that he openly criticized his car owner over the safety of the cars, and you see how eerily prophetic his words became.
Jochen Rindt’s life began in a similar fashion as to which it ended, under tragic circumstances. Rindt was born in Germany in 1942, as Europe was being torn apart during the height of World War II.
The toddler had not yet taken his first steps when both his parents were killed during bombing raids in Hamburg. His maternal grandfather whisked him away to Austria, where he was raised.
Rindt didn’t want for much financially as a youth. His grandfather had a successful law practice and Rindt had inherited the spice mill that his parents owned. He was a troubled teen that bounced from school to school having been kicked out for various misdoings.
He was fascinated with speed, often challenging his friends to moped races. An interest in auto racing was ignited when he attended the German Grand Prix in 1961.
Rindt’s racing career began in Rally cars, and he soon gravitated towards single-seaters. He became notorious for taking unnecessary risks and was shown the black flag on more than a few occasions for dangerous driving.
When Rindt moved up to Formula Two, the racing world really began to take notice of the young driver. Because Formula One drivers routinely supplemented their income by entering F-2 races during this era, Rindt was able to mix it up with the likes of Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart.
In 1965 Rindt landed a full-time Formula One ride with the Cooper Team. Saddled with an uncompetitive car, and a heavy, bulky Maserati engine, he was not immediately successful in Formula One.
Alongside his Formula One duties, Rindt continued competing in F-2, dominating that series. He amassed an incredible 29 career F-2 wins. Rindt would also occasionally run Sports Car events, winning the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ferrari alongside American driver, Masten Gregory.
Off the track, Rindt truly enjoyed the glamour and celebrity that came along with being a Grand Prix driver. He married Nina Lincoln, a fashion model from Finland, and the two became popular fodder for the tabloid magazines.
Rindt hosted his own television program in Austria, and he assembled the first automotive exhibition show in the nation. The popular auto show became an annual event, and continues to this day as the Essen Motor Show.
Rindt liked to live like there was no tomorrow, having as much fun as he could along the way.
“Maybe I will not live to reach the age of 40.” Rindt said. “But, until that time, I will have experienced more things in life than anybody else.”
Rindt continued with Cooper for two more mediocre seasons before moving to the Brabham Team. Rindt’s 1968 season with Brabham was equally disappointing, but Team Lotus came calling for 1969.
Rindt was initially apprehensive about joining Lotus. Colin Chapman, the Lotus team principal, was changing the face of Formula One with his radical designs that were lighter and faster, but also prone to accidents.
Rindt would be replacing Jim Clark, who died behind the wheel of a Lotus in an F-2 race at Hockenheim. Clark was a close friend of Rindt, and the Austrian driver was deeply affected by Clark’s death.
Rindt leaned on the advice of his good friend and unofficial business manager, Bernie Ecclestone, and signed a contract with Lotus.
“At Lotus,” said Rindt in an often repeated prophetic quote, “I can either be World Champion or die.”
In this era, Formula One cars were beginning to sprout enormous front and rear wings mounted on the suspension components. They increased the downforce, but were notoriously flimsy, particularly those on the Lotus car.
At the Spanish Grand Prix, in his second start for team Lotus, Rindt took the pole position. On Sunday, Rindt and his teammate, Graham Hill, saw the wings collapse under race conditions sending them both into crashes.
Rindt suffered a broken nose and was forced to sit out the following Grand Prix weekend, at Monaco. While the injury wasn’t critical, this solidified Rindt’s lack of confidence in the Lotus cars, and his team owner Colin Chapman.
This set up a very public war of words between driver and team owner that would continue until Rindt’s final Grand Prix.
Rindt’s 1969 season was marked with retirements until late in the season, when he put up three consecutive podium finishes culminating with his first ever Grand Prix victory at Watkins Glen.
Despite the lost trust, Rindt signed for another season with Team Lotus in 1970. Colin Chapman had a radical new design to launch, the Lotus 72. The new car utilized side-mounted radiators allowing a wedge shaped nose that could cut through the air with less drag.
Initially, the new car was total crap and sent back to the drawing board. While the Lotus 49 was pressed back into service, modifications to the 72 were being worked on in earnest back at the race shop in Norfolk.
In the meantime, Rindt gave the aging Lotus 49 chassis its final Grand Prix win on the streets of Monaco. In a horribly unstable car, put together in a Frankenstein-like fashion utilizing components from both the 49 and the 72, Rindt started eighth on the grid. A combination of skilled driving, and timely retirements from his rivals put him into second place late in the race.
Coming up upon the leader in the closing stages, Rindt was able to stalk Jack Brabham and run right on his tail, eventually forcing the three-time Champion into a mistake on the final lap. Rindt cruised on toward his second Grand Pix win.
When the revised Lotus 72-C was finally ready to hit the track, Rindt went on a tear. He won four consecutive Grands Prix and mounted a healthy lead in the Championship. Six long seasons in Formula One had finally led him to where he felt he should be: the man to beat on Sunday.
The aerodynamic developments in Formula One had lead to higher cornering speeds, at the expense of top-line speed on the straights. When the circus arrived at Monza, a circuit known for its long high speed straightaways, the Tyrrell team tried removing the rear wings.
Seeing the increase in speeds, many of the teams, including Lotus, tried the same approach. Rindt’s teammate, John Miles, found the car to be absolutely undriveable without the rear wing. Rindt, a much more astute wheelman, didn’t seem bothered. As a matter of fact, Rindt was pleased that his car was picking up as much as 800 rpm on the long straight.
In order to capitalize on this, the Lotus Team refitted the transmission of Rindt’s machine with higher ratio gears allowing him to run speeds flirting in the neighborhood of 200 mph.
During Saturday practice, Rindt’s car suffered a broken brake shaft at high speed causing his car to jerk violently entering the Parabolica corner. He lost control as the car slammed nose-first into the armco barrier, which came apart upon impact. The car continued to spin in the dirt and ground to a halt as race marshals were quickly on the scene.
Rindt was put into an ambulance and taken to a local hospital, bypassing the mobile hospital on site at the track. Some speculate that Rindt may have been saved had the mobile unit not been bypassed.
Others suggest that Rindt was dead on the scene, and he was taken off of the circuit because, under Italian law, had be been pronounced dead at the race track, it would become a crime scene.
In any event, Rindt never made it to the hospital, being pronounced dead in the ambulance. The official cause of death was severe throat injuries. Rindt refused to use the crotch straps in the five-point seatbelt harness, ostensibly because he feared that he could not exit quickly in the event of a fire.
When the car hit the poorly-installed crash barrier, Rindt slid forward in the car, severing his jugular vein on the center belt clasp.
The car owner looking for an advantage, the driver willing to risk it all, the decision to run without wings, the faulty brake shaft, the poorly installed armco, and the improperly used seatbelt harness: all of these contributing factors led to a perfect storm that struck down a top driver in the prime of his career.
The circumstances surrounding Jochen Rindt’s death have been passionately and bitterly argued for forty-five years, but not one of those arguments will bring him back.
When the 1970 season ended several weeks later, Rindt’s closest rival for the title, Jacky Ickx, was unable to overcome Rindt’s point total. Rindt was crowned World Champion posthumously in a somber occasion that saw his close friend, Jackie Stewart, present the Champion’s trophy to Rindt’s widow, Nina.
Rindt’s death occurred at a time when Grand Prix drivers were being lost at an alarming rate. The speeds and horsepower of the cars had nearly doubled during the preceding decade, but many of the circuits had not been updated since before World War II.
In the wake of Rindt’s tragedy, the drivers really began to push back and make their voices be heard, and be seen as human beings with wives and families, and not disposable commodities.
Led by drivers like Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda, the next decade saw slow, but steady progress towards the goal of increasing safety in Motorsports.