A nostalgic Jackie Stewart tells Mick Walsh what it’s like to be back in his favourite racer, the Matra in which he won his first F1 World Championship 40 years ago.
There can be few sweeter ways of clinching your first World Championship than with an epic win. And the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on 7 September 1969 produced the closest finish in F1 history, with less than half a second covering the four front-runners.
Jackie Stewart had the majority of the clear air for the 68-lap contest in his deft-handling Matra MS80, but on the last lap of this titanic tussle, the Scot, his Matra team-mate Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 49 and Bruce McLaren’s M7A were all in with a shout. The full lap chart was as convoluted as spaghetti, which kept the passionate crowd on its toes straining to hear the excited commentary all around the beautiful Milanese park. Rindt, who’d been told to save his car for a late challenge, made his move on Stewart into Lesmo, the Gold Leaf Team Lotus edging past the Matra under braking, but Stewart regained the lead at Viallone. With everything to play for into the Parabolica, the four DFV-powered machines slipstreamed down the back straight, their ace pilots all plotting for glory. Beltoise tried a demon late-braking manoeuvre down the right that cut off Rindt. Stewart then chopped to the inside and stormed down the finishing straight with a frustrated Rindt in his slipstream and hoping for a final slingshot to the flag. Thanks to the Matra crew’s shrewd tactics it didn’t happen, and the sensational Scot took the chequer and his first World Championship. It would be the Matra-Ford team’s final GP win after a superb season in which Stewart, in dazzling form, gunned the MS80 to five first places.
Flash forward 40 years and that very car – chassis 02, in timewarp condition – awaits the Scottish knight on a blissful autumn morning. A black, chauffeur-driven Lexus hybrid eventually arrives and our immaculate hero steps from the back already dressed in his racing overalls, appropriately sporting Elf and Dunlop patches – two companies key to that winning season. As Stewart surveys his old MS80, the memories of that triumphant day at Monza come flooding back. “During practice I’d discussed with Ken [Tyrrell] the option of a taller gear for the dash to the flag,” recalls Stewart as if the event was last week. “Gearshifts weren’t as seamless as they are today and any change lost you time. Then Beltoise overtook me on the way into the Parabolica, which wasn’t scheduled. I remember thinking, ‘That idiot’, but he was French so it was to be expected. On the run to the flag I was able to hold the gear, which just gave me the edge to win from Jochen. I’d always enjoyed Monza from the first time I went for a shooting championship in the park in ’59. Ferrari was testing and I went on to the top of the pits to watch. Surtees also arrived in his BMW 507 to test his MV Agusta. My first race at Monza was the ’65 Italian GP, which was my first World Championship win, so to secure my first Championship there was very special.”
The high of Monza was never to be repeated for the Anglo-French equipe as luck ran out for the last three GPs. With the Championship in the bag, maybe the incentive had fizzled out, yet it had been a superb season for the unlikely association between the high-tech French aerospace giant and the British privateer operating from a wooden shed in an Oakham timberyard.
It was when journalist Gérard ‘Jabby’ Crombac had introduced Tyrrell to a dynamic French executive named Jean-Luc Lagardère at a 1965 Formula 2 prize-giving that the pieces had fallen into place for the triumphant alliance between Matra, Tyrrell, Cosworth and Stewart. Spurred on by F2 title success with the MS7 in ’67, Matra was receptive to Tyrrell’s F1 ambitions. And, with the promise of DFV engines and star Stewart available after being messed around by Ferrari, Le Sang Bleu was set for a long-awaited rebirth.
After the short-lived MS9 – effectively an MS7 F2 design modified for DFV power – Matra’s chassis man Bernard Boyer designed the MS10 in which Stewart delivered Matra’s first GP victory around a rain-soaked Zandvoort in June 1968. The season seemed jinxed, first thwarted by Stewart’s injured wrist from an F2 crash at Jarama and then a fuel system problem during the Championship decider in Mexico.
“The MS10 was a great car,” says Stewart. “Without the wet conditions at both Zandvoort and the Nürburgring, which put less strain on my wrist, it might have been a different result but those Dunlops were fantastic in the rain. Ken firmly believed in tyre testing. We had a good chance of winning in Mexico, but one of the fuel pumps clogged up and I was out. Jimmy had died in April and I don’t think I was ready to be World Champion, while Graham was a natural and a great talker. For ’69, we were fired up. Ken now knew the Matra team and had a lot of confidence in Jean-Luc. Boyer and his boys were all for a fancy, state-of-the-art design to match Chapman, but Ken insisted that it had to be tough and practical. The MS80 was beautifully built and came to Oakham complete bar the engine. Boyer concentrated on keeping the fuel load around its centre of gravity, which really helped the handling. Other new features were inboard brakes at the rear and outboard spring/dampers at the front to keep them cooler. I didn’t test the car until practice for the South African GP, but Ken decided it wasn’t ready so I drove the old MS10.”
After Stewart’s fraught experiences with the woeful BRM H16, the French single-seaters were a joy: “They were dynamite to drive, particularly the F2 cars. We struggled a little at the beginning of the 1969 season. In Spain the Dunlops weren’t as good as Firestone and Goodyear and we were lucky to win, while at Monaco both Beltoise and I suffered cracked UJs.” But it all came good in front of an expectant French crowd at Clermont-Ferrand, where Stewart and the MS80 were on imperious form. The Scot was never threatened from pole and headed a Matra 1-2 from team-mate Beltoise: “That was a real driver’s track, which had to be driven with prudence. The area was volcanic and if you went off you always got a puncture.” The home victory was a great boost for Matra and sponsor Elf, but Stewart had a big scare in practice for the British Grand Prix two weeks later at Silverstone: “I was following Piers [Courage] through Woodcote when he hit the kerb. A piece of concrete flew up, just missed me but hit my rear tyre. Woodcote was flat-out in those days – about 150mph – and the puncture spun me off at high speed. We took down three rows of catch-fencing before hitting the sleepers. The effect was like throwing a tennis ball into a net, which was good until the car turned over. Then it wrapped the car and you’d be trapped. It was a high-speed accident and unfortunately my father was there to see it.”
Thankfully Stewart was unhurt and jumped straight into Beltoise’s MS80 to post a front-row time alongside Rindt’s 49. The two close friends fought an epic battle until lap 62 of the race when Rindt was forced to pit after a wing end-plate came adrift. Stewart led the German GP at the ’Ring but Ickx’s Brabham BT26, fitted with Goodyear G20 tyres, put up a determined challenge until the Matra’s gear selector started playing up. At Monza a month later Stewart secured his first Championship in spectacular style with his sixth win and the MS80’s fifth.
A back-to-back test was arranged for Stewart to compare the DFV and V12 at Albi at the end of the season: “The Matra engine was so smooth and sounded fantastic, but didn’t have the bite of the Cosworth.” Tyrrell’s plans were decided for him when Matra was forced to drop Ford power after its partner Simca was swallowed up by Chrysler. “Matra wouldn’t back down on its new deal with Chrysler,” says Stewart, “so Ken had no option but to look elsewhere for another chassis. Lotus and Brabham wouldn’t sell us a chassis because they knew Ken would be very competitive, so in the end we went with March, and Robin Herd’s 701. It was a robust, practical design that suited Ken’s philosophy, but after a win in Spain we soon decided there wasn’t much development left in the chassis. Secretly Ken had Derek [Gardner] design a new car, but that’s another story.”
After its amazing ’69 season, Matra didn’t enjoy Grand Prix spoils again until its V12 powered a Ligier to victory in ’77. But by 1971 another blue car was setting the pace as Tyrrell and Stewart again became a dominant force with the 001. That, the Tyrrell 003 and the Matra remain his all-time favourites: “I wanted to buy the MS80. I knew Jean-Luc well so I asked him several times, but he always said that it would stay in the factory collection.” Frustratingly, Stewart wasn’t told when Matra sold off many of its racers in the early ’90s and 02 vanished into a private French collection. This historic machine has been carefully fettled since, but is essentially just as it finished its last race in Mexico.
To mark the 40th anniversary of his first F1 title, Stewart tracked down 02 and proposed the idea of demonstrations at Silverstone and Goodwood. The car had rarely been seen in public, but the owner was happy to co-operate with the three-times World Champion. Stewart also wanted to take it back to Monza, but certain prominent F1 people made that impossible.
So, rather than storming around the super-fast Italian circuit applauded by thousands of tifosi, we set up a private party at the Chobham test track with the Matra owner happily towing 02 over from France. Stewart blasted his old warhorse around for 10 laps, the DFV roaring for the full circuit as the blue wonder scattered fallen leaves as it scythed through shadows and sunlight. When he clambered out, the famous Scot had clearly enjoyed possibly his last reunion drive before the car goes back into hibernation.
So why was it so special? “Like the 003 and 006, it was not challenging to drive. Whether it’s a racer or a road car, you want an invitation not a challenge. The MS80 was so user-friendly and you could run it consistently on the limit without feeling you were on the edge of an accident. If you look at my lap charts in ’69, you’ll see I was regularly running within a 10th of a second for lap after lap. We knew the CSI [the then governing body] was demanding bag-tanks for the next season, but Bernard got the go-ahead from Jean-Luc for a structural triple fuel-tank system. It was purely a one-season car, but so beautifully balanced as a result of the layout. The Hewland ’change, with all those rods and couplings, wasn’t that precise and even today I was having trouble finding first, but the rest was pretty near perfect. The aero was good and under braking it was always very stable. We also had the best racing engine. The 49 was quick – particularly with Jochen driving – and that season the Matra was the only car capable of taking it on. As you’d expect from a firm producing missiles and satellites, the MS80 was also beautifully built. Unlike Chapman’s Lotus designs, there was no compromise on strength for lightness. I’d love to count the number of rivets in each monocoque.”
One of the most intriguing original details is the Dymo tape notes in various languages stuck inside the cockpit: “After Spa in ’66, when I was trapped for 35 mins because they couldn’t get the wheel out, I insisted on instructions for marshals. We also had a spanner fitted with Velcro in case of an accident.” That one detail – more than any trophy or old photograph – underlines the bravery of this Scottish champion. Little wonder he has such affection for this winning Matra, which still has the patched monocoque repaired after his Silverstone practice shunt.
This article was originally published in the January 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see our terms and conditions.