The skinny on Mr Safety

  • Vinayak Pande, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • |
  • Updated: Oct 23, 2012 02:19 IST

Triple-world champion Jackie Stewart won his first drivers’ title in 1969 driving a Tyrell-run Matra Ford. Getty Images


You would think three Formula 1 drivers' championships in five years and 27 victories would be Jackie Stewart's legacy as far as motorsport is concerned. However, Stewart's impact on F1 goes beyond just numbers.

"When I drove competitively, there was a 2 out of 3 chance of a racing driver dying over a five-year period," Stewart told HT. "I had a bad accident or two (occasions) myself, but, thankfully, I survived my racing career without drawing blood from my body."

A particularly nasty accident in the 1965 Belgian Grand Prix was what finally prompted Stewart to look beyond just the satisfaction of driving and campaign for basic safety requirements such as seatbelts being made mandatory and barriers being put around the perimeter of racetracks. Stewart admits it was just a start but there were people well equipped to carry the work forward. "Professor Sid Watkins, who passed away recently, along with Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley did an exceptional job to make F1 as safe as it is today," said Stewart. "It's come to the point that safety in F1 has been demonstrated to be the best in any sport or business, as it has been 18 years, 5 months and 18 days since a driver lost his life in an F1 car."

During his visit to the Buddh International Circuit for last year's Indian GP, Stewart was happy to see F1's safety drive extend to the sport's new venues. "The track was, of course, extremely well received by the drivers," said Stewart. "But it also had sufficient run-off areas and deformable barriers to absorb the impact of a crash. F1 should be proud of what it has achieved, but it can't afford to get complacent."

It's a far cry from Stewart's racing days that preceded an active involvement by F1's governing body. Drivers were left to fend pretty much for themselves. "I always chose very carefully who I drove for," said Stewart. "A driver doesn't have to take the first offer that comes along, and I made sure I drove for a team with good engineers and mechanics."

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Maintaining standards

There was also a conscious effort to keep driving standards in check. "We disciplined our own drivers," said Stewart. "The Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) was much more active back then and we managed to avoid delinquents. The governing body (FIA) is much stronger now, so it has taken on a lot of the work that the GPDA used to do."

The wildly erratic driving of Romain Grosjean, who was banned for a race this year, and Pastor Maldonado, however, indicates that something else is needed to keep racing drivers in check.

"One of the things missing in F1 and motorsport in general is that we don't have coaches," said Stewart. "You have them in any other sport and, for whatever reason, it has not yet happened on a very wide scale as yet."

Such a system of coaching at the grassroots could have helped out a driver like Narain Karthikeyan, who raced for Stewart's team in the British Formula 3 Championship in 2000.

'Give Narian a good ride'
"He (Narain) was a very fast racer but was still learning a lot and making the odd mistake," said Stewart. "But he's far improved now and because of the uncompetitiveness of the car he is driving now, we're not seeing the very best of Narain."

So, given the dangers involved in racing when he first started, does Stewart look back and wonder 'what was I thinking'? Not so, according to the Scot.

"I loved driving cars and going from being a mechanic to a racing driver was a very big milestone of my life," said Stewart. "I got so much stimulation from driving a racing car right to the very limit, it overrode any other qualms I had."

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