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The Lost Champion: Jochen Rindt

September 12, 2010

When Karl Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 72 ploughed head-on into the guardrail at Monza’s fast, sweeping Parabolica on September 5th, 1970, motor racing was robbed of one of its most outstanding talents.

At 28, the exuberant Austrian was to become Formula 1’s first – and thankfully only – posthumous world Champion.

Youthful Hedonism
Born in the city of Mainz in Germany in April 1942, both of Rindt’s parents were killed in an allied bombing raid at the tail end of the following year and the young boy was eventually raised by his grandparents in Graz, southern-Austria.

While young, he was hedonistic and passionate; abrasive and defiant. With vast amounts of determination, the youthful Rindt threw himself into what would be known today as ‘extreme sports’ and did so with a vigour rarely matched by his peers.
Imbued with a love for speed and danger, The thrill-seeker initially started out a skier, but to moped racing and later motocross when he twice broke limbs in skiing accidents. In competition, the teenager often won – or crashed trying to do so.

His grandparents would eventually send the Austrian teenager to England to pick up both the language and modicum of disciple, yet while Rindt picked up the language with some ease, discipline was somewhat harder to come by. Time at school was often broken up with several suspensions and expulsions.
Rindt was abrupt and (often) unkempt and while these may have not gone down well in his days in private schooling, to generation of motorsport fans, he would become something of a rock star.

In these early years, Rindt found a friend in future Formula 1 driver and Red Bull man Helmut Marko and together the pair would venture into the world of fast cars.
Like many racing drivers, both Rindt and Marko would at times find himself in trouble with the police as they drove like men possessed in the midst of regular road goers, many of whom had something of a slightly higher sense of self preservation.
That Rindt found himself based rather close to Goodwood racing circuit, was enough to ignite the passion for motor racing.

Outings Amongst the Wreckage
With his hero, Wolfgang von Trips leading the charge at Ferrari during the 1961 World Championship, Rindt made his initial steps into four-wheel motorsports – first in touring cars, and later in single seaters.
Just like his time in motocross, the determined Austrian was fast; winning occasionally, crashing a lot, many times waking to find himself in hospital. When von Trips was killed at a tragic accident at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, Rindt’s resolve was only strengthened. Having finally received his inheritance at the age of 18, he splashed out on a Simca Montlhéry and began racing his new toy in various events.
Soon, he moved over to Giuliette TI and began to dominate hill climbing events. Determined to move into the world of single-seaters, he picked up an old Cooper T59 machine and quickly secured pole positions and race wins in the Italian Formula Junior Championship against more established drivers.

Heavily motivated to press on, Rindt bought a Formula 2 Brabham machine for £4,000, where the then unknown-Austrian beat Graham Hill, Denis Hulme and Jim Clark at London’s Crystal Palace in only his second outing. If victory against the stars of Formula 1 wasn’t enough to garner plaudits, the oft manic, sideways style of driving certainly earned him many fans.
This would be enough to earn Rindt the support of Ford Austria through the 1964 Formula 2 season, during which he also made a one-off entry in that year’s Austrian Grand Prix at Zeltweg Airfield, racing Rob Walker’s privately entered Brabham – he ran near the rear of the field and would retire with steering issues on the 58th lap.

Rindt signed to Cooper at the start of 1965 for three seasons, securing third place in the championship in 1966 behind the dominant Jack Brabham and series runner-up John Surtees. Yet Rindt was not happy with just Formula 1 opportunities; he was to run the 1964 Le Mans 24 Hours in a NART / Ferrari effort, but sadly the car broke early due to a burst oil pipe with David Piper at the wheel.
The Austrian triumphed a year later at the marquee event alongside the American Masten Gregory in another Ferrari 250LM entry – it was to be Ferrari’s last success at Le Mans. Although Rindt had yet to claim a Grand Prix, the Austrian had laid down his marker.

Success and Failures
In fact, the mid-1960’s was a very busy time for Rindt – on occasion, he would also compete in sportscar endurance races taking a podium at the Nurburgring 1,000 km race with Jo Bonnier, while also taking part at the 1,000 km event at Monza with Gerhard Mitter.
Aligned with his improving Formula 1 driving, Rindt was proving to be a handful in Formula 2 as well as he took win after win and eventually took the British Formula 2 title by a huge margin in 1967.

The year would also see him make his début at the Indianapolis 500 in one of Dan Gurney’s Eagle machines; however he retired with a broken valve at just over half distance. He returned to the race a year later with Brabham, but this time only lasted for five laps until a piston failure sidelined his entry.
Indianapolis was not the only venue where Rindt suffered reliability issues – in fact he left Cooper at the end of the 1967 season after it proved to be quite a disappointment; his Maserati-powered machine retired in 8 out of 10 races, although the Austrian secured two fourth place finishes (Belgium and Italy) when the car did actually finish.
It was during his last year at Cooper that Rindt finally found a touch of stability in his life when he married glamourous Finnish model, Nina Lincoln. That stability would not last in his driving career though, as he signed for Brabham for 1968.
Things improved mildly as Rindt scored 3rd position twice; however these were his only results he retired on ten different occasions in the twelve race season. The Austrian would only stay with Brabham for a single season and in 1969, Rindt was to partner Graham Hill at Team Lotus.

1969 was a key season for Colin Chapman’s team. Although Hill had taken his second title with the squad the previous year, there was still some fragility following the death of Jim Clark at Germany’s Hockenheimring early in the year.
Rindt was fully aware of the speed and competitiveness of the Chapman / Maurice Philippe Lotus 49; however concerns over the safety features of the car, made the Austrian unsure as to whether he wanted to make the jump. Eventually Rindt put his pen to paper when convinced by close friend Bernie Ecclestone that it was the car he needed to take the title.

Taking the ‘Glen
Although Jackie Stewart secured his first Championship with his Tyrrell-Matra, Rindt finally won his first Grand Prix at the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen – a race that was marred by accident to Graham Hill that left the famous Briton severely injured. Until that point, Rindt had showed that he was quicker than his double-World Champion team mate and this showed itself with some stellar, including two further podiums at Monza and Canada’s Mosport Park.

The initial year with Lotus had not been without controversy – while leading the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic Park, the high rear wing collapsed pitching him into the wrecked Lotus of his already retired team mate. Hill’s Lotus had actually retired for the same reason, but unlike Rindt, Hill emerged with only a few scrapes – the Austrian, however, broke his jaw and suffered a concussion in the accident, leading him to be publicly critical of Chapman’s designs.
Due to these injuries, Rindt was forced to miss the next race at Monaco. It was because of these (and other) accidents, that the heightened wings would soon be banned from the sport.

Over the course of the year, Rindt had done enough to assume fourth in the standings, but not without much frustration – the fragility of the Lotus machine reared its head on a regular basis and it was not be until the British Grand Prix in mid-July, that Rindt finally saw the chequered flag. Throughout the year, the Austrian had taken five pole positions – it was clear the speed was there, but the results were not following through.
With Lotus, he had even made the journey Indianapolis for his third attempt at the great 500-mile race, but was withdrawn the team suffered a continuous steering problem. Out of team with Rindt, Graham Hill and Mario Andretti, only Andretti made the start (in the team’s back-up HAWK chassis) and the Italian-American went on to take his only Indy 500 win.
Wherever he went, unreliability seemed to follow.

Lost Friends
As the seventies dawned, it appeared as if Rindt was looking at a repeat of 1969. The season opened in South Africa’s Kyalami circuit at the beginning of March, but after qualifying a promising 4th in the now-ageing Lotus 49, the promising 27-year-old retired with a blown engine.
Chapman – aware that the bar had been risen – initially drew up the woeful Lotus 66 (so poor in fact, it was never used), before launching the Lotus 72. It did not have the most successful of beginnings – it’s début at Jarama for the Spanish Grand Prix saw it only lasting nine laps, before the ignition gave up.

The car had problems that needed to be looked at, but while this was being done, Rindt took back the 49 and promptly drove it a sensational victory at Monaco. The Austrian spent much of the race in 5th spot, before claiming 2nd through retirements and then busied himself reeling in Brabham – following a incredible charge, the Austrian was on the tail of the wily Brabham, who spun at the final corner while under pressure from the Lotus driver.
So fast was Rindt around the track, he managed to beat his qualifying time by over one-second in the race. An emotional Rindt had claimed a fantastic victory in the Principality and it is one that he is remembered for most.

Sadly for the Austrian, he would be emotional for very different reasons in the weeks that followed, when good friends Bruce McLaren and Pierce Courage were killed in accidents. While McLaren died in testing a CANAM car in the days leading up to the Belgian Grand Prix, Courage was killed during the Dutch Grand Prix itself – a race that Rindt would go on to claim in dominant fashion.
These deaths along with the very recent birth of his daughter Natasha had convinced the Austrian to give up motor racing at the end of the season.

Although the Lotus retired with another engine problem at Spa-Francorchamps, the Grand Prix at Zandvoort started a roll of success that would give Rindt the title. Lotus had showed up with a revised 72 in Belgium and in the four races after Spa-Francorchamps, the Austrian sailed to victory. At the end of the German Grand Prix, Rindt beat Jacky Ickx by only three-tenths of-a-second, but would later declare the 72 to be so good, that a monkey could win driving the car.
Fittingly, Rindt’s last race was in Austria, where his run of success came to an end with another blown engine. By now, he was 20 points clear of Brabham in the title hunt – only a miracle would take it away from him.

Tragedy at Monza
In the end, Rindt was not denied by a miracle, but by the Monza guardrail. During qualifying with the Ferrari’s up to 10 mph faster in the straights, he ran wingless in an attempt to garner as much speed as possible, leaving the Lotus prone to problems of instability.
As he approached the long final corner at the Italian circuit, Rindt dabbed on the brakes, only for the car to swerve violently in the opposite direction and speed toward the barriers. He was never fond of the clutch straps that came with the machinery of the day and often refused to wear them – the lack of protection he afforded himself would be his undoing.

The car hit the guardrail hard, with the Lotus digging beneath the Armco and Rindt slammed forward within the car as the front end crumpled into a horrific mess. After the car became entangled in the barrier, it was thrown back toward the circuit where it finally came to a rest. In the cockpit, the motionless Rindt had sliced his throat on his seat buckles – he would later be declared dead at a Milanese hospital.
First on the scene was Ecclestone, who would leave the scene clutching his good friend’s battered helmet and a torn shoe that was thrown from the wreckage. It would be declared that the accident was caused by a right front brakeshaft failure and the death caused by poorly installed barriers.

Come the end of the 1970 season, Rindt still led the standings by five points from the Ferrari of Ickx; despite a great end of year run, Ickx was denied by a poor start to the season, while Jack Brabham faded badly as the year wore on.
When Lotus protégé Emerson Fittipaldi won at Watkins Glen, the title was sealed for Rindt. Something that has added to Rindt’s ghostly image is the fact that he suffered his fatal accident at virtually the same spot as his hero Wolfgang von Trips nine years previously.

An edited version of this was first published last week on Grand Prix View and can be found here.

From → Driver Profiles

7 Comments
  1. This is such an enjoyable read and a fascinating insight of what the drivers went through to achieve their goals. Somehow in comparison it seems todays drivers have it easy. I don’t know where you find the time to do all the extensive research you do for these historical pieces but I for one am so glad that you do.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Cheers Jackie,
      There’s lots of late nights and ferocious digging, I assure you.
      😉

  2. Great article and great insight on one of the best drivers of that generation. Very in-depth which I love.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      No problem Kimster – it’s always a joy to go through these historical pieces.
      This sport has had numerous great characters of the years and may continue to have some in the future (should the PR people allow it).

  3. Great to read the extended mix.

    I was reading the other night that there was actually quite some debate in the aftermath of his death as to whether to award the Championship to Rindt if he still held a points advantage at the end of the season or to whoever was second (and alive). Seems a strange argument in hindsight considering that there has never been a necessity to compete in every race.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Yes, there was, but I believe it was actually Ickx who was one of the drivers that argued to keep Rindt’s tally – very different times I suppose

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