Jochen Rindt: careful what you wish for

Published: 14 September 2020

► Definitive biography of F1’s only posthumous world champ
► Republished to mark 50 years since his death
►  Got the F1 title he craved, but paid the ultimate price

In a book full of uncomfortable moments there’s a particularly troubling quote from Bernie Ecclestone. Before he took over the whole of F1, Bernie’s interests included managing Rindt, who spent the latter half of the 1960s transitioning from a very good F2 driver to being a challenger for the F1 title, hampered by never seeming to be in the right car at the right time.

‘At the end of ’68 we had the choice for Jochen of the Goodyear deal with Brabham, or the Firestone deal with Lotus,’ Ecclestone told David Tremayne. ‘I said to him, “If you want to win the World Championship, you’ve got more chance with Lotus than with Brabham. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got more chance with Brabham than with Lotus.”’

One of the many troubling things about this statement is that it turned out to be spot-on. Rindt won the 1970 title, driving a Lotus. But he was dead before the end of the season – making him F1’s only posthumous champion.

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He was only 28 when he died, but he’d packed a lot in. His parents were killed by the RAF bombing of Hamburg, and he was raised by grandparents in Austria. He didn’t seem to have a grudge against Britain, spending a while in Sussex as an exchange student, and later returning here to find some worthwhile F2 competitors. No family, no entourage – just him and his schoolboy English, trying to make his mark. Which happened early, on a weekend in 1964 when he did very well at Mallory Park on the Saturday and incredibly well at Crystal Palace on the Sunday. He also caused a sensation at Le Mans in 1965, sharing a dodgy Ferrari with the larger-than-life Masten Gregory and driving it in the ‘win or bust’ style that would serve him well for the rest of his career.

A lot of his friends, admirers and associates were British: Frank Williams declared himself to be Rindt’s first fan, and Rindt soon became mates with his on-track rivals Jackie Stewart (quoted extensively in this book) and Piers Courage (who was to die less than three months before Rindt). He was a semi-generation behind Graham Hill, John Surtees and Jim Clark, but competing against them regularly honed his skills.

He drove in F2, endurance and F1 simultaneously for much of his career, but his focus was very much on F1. A highly competitive bloke – not just when racing cars, but also skiing, rallying, riding dirt bikes, even playing cards – he was frustrated by unreliable cars and teams that sometimes seemed to favour his team-mate of the moment. 

At Brabham he was in danger of becoming a ‘nearly’ man. He was wondering about retiring, and focusing instead on the motor show that carried his name. But then at the end of the ’60s and into 1970 it all started to come together: some well-sorted cars from Colin Chapman and a strong, consistent streak of form. But this was also a time of many, many driver fatalities – with a frequency that’s hard to comprehend now: Bruce McLaren and Courage died within days of each other, but the show rolled on.

And then Rindt himself died, the result of a crash in practice at Monza in 1970. It would turn out that his points total was enough to make him champion.

Despite never taking Austrian citizenship, he was – and remains – a big deal there. Around 30,000 people turned up for his funeral. But don’t hold your breath for a Rush-style Hollywood treatment of his life. He rubbed a few too many people up the wrong way for no good reason. He didn’t have James Hunt’s rock-star looks (although he could pass as a member of Shed Seven or Ocean Colour Scene). And it’s hard to spin the ending as happy. 

The fickle public may not care too much about Jochen Rindt. But the racers get it; Stewart describes Rindt’s ‘impeccable manners’ on the race track, if not always off it, combined with great skill and determination. Like his spiritual heirs, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna, he just wouldn’t give up.

Jochen Rindt

Uncrowned King of Formula 1

By David Tremayne

Published by Evro Publishing


By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions