Great fightbacks: Stewart masters the Nurburgring deluge

| 5 Jan 2016

In time the Scot would win 27 Grands Prix, but to this day he reckons that this – only the fourth of them – remains the pick of the bunch.

The burgeoning safety campaigner, broken right wrist immobile within a laced plastic splint, was unwilling to venture a lap of a Nürburgring cloaked in fog and swamped by rain. He saw no reason to risk either himself or his car with the race mere hours away and expected his team boss to agree. But nice ‘Uncle Ken’ Tyrrell would hear none of it.

Jackie Stewart refers to this period of his career as a ‘rocket ship’: exciting but dangerous and difficult to track. Jim Clark’s fatal accident in April had removed the protective sheen, and Stewart’s accident (also in a Formula 2 car) at Jarama later that same month reaffirmed that ‘it’ could indeed happen to him. 

Stewart waits in the pits before qualifying, with Graham Hill watching on

The death at Indianapolis in May of former BRM teammate Mike Spence was another pause-for-thought in an otherwise frantic existence. Having missed the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix, a still-hampered Stewart returned to the Formula 1 fray at Spa, scene of his Damascene accident in a biblical downpour two years before. He hadn’t won since – nor had Dunlop – and on this occasion his Matra MS10-Ford ran a few gallons short and slipped to fourth on the last lap.

The frustration lasted only another fortnight. Despite missing the (mainly wet) Saturday practice session at Zandvoort so that his swollen arm might recover, Stewart secured an excellent victory in the rain, while at a soaking Rouen the Scot was a lapped third after a stop to fit wets during a race marred by the death of Honda driver Jo Schlesser.

 At Brands Hatch, Firestone scored another victory in the tyre war, when a shattered Stewart had to be lifted from the cockpit after finishing sixth. The extra physical strain placed on his wrist by a dry and bumpy track placed doubt on his participation at the German GP; potential replacement Johnny Servoz-Gavin spent days learning the 14-mile Nürburgring in a Matra 530 sports car, just in case Stewart flew to Germany in Graham Hill’s Piper Aztec on Thursday and, as had become the norm, visited a local doctor to have his plaster cut off, forearm covered in Vaseline and plastic support fitted.

Water sprays up from the rear wheels of Chris Amon’s Ferrari 312

Friday and Saturday were spent mostly sheltering from rain. So bad were conditions that an additional three hours of practice was arranged on Sunday morning. It rained some more. Stewart sees now that Tyrrell’s decision to send him out was entirely correct. The confidence gained by setting that session’s fastest time – by 22 seconds – and committing any extra hazards to his photographic memory put him in a better place mentally.

Meanwhile, his car, minus steering damper – so that Stewart might better judge when the front wheels were on the point of locking – and with the addition of a rear wing that if not as big as some, or as far forward as others, felt good in the conditions. As he handed his Rolex to Tyrrell, a pre-race ritual born of safety but honed by increasing commercial nous, Ken said: “Today, you are certainly underpaid.”

John Surtees was forced to retire from the race after just three laps when his Honda suffered ignition problems

Scheduled for 2pm, the race began 50 minutes late, and only then, it was said, because Cooper’s decision to warm worryingly cold engines triggered a Pavlovian reaction on the dummy grid. Ironically, a further and unnecessary delay on the grid proper caused some to overheat. Stewart, whose morning time put him sixth on the grid, swerved onto the concrete pit apron to skirt the faltering Ferrari of pole-sitter Jacky Ickx and arrived at the first corner behind leader Hill’s Lotus and Ickx’s team-mate, Chris Amon. 

With no high-intensity rear lights to pick out and follow, Stewart consoled himself with the thought that any locking brakes ahead would at least douse the impenetrable spray. Searching, striving for fractional visual clues, he sensed the Ferrari’s tyre tracks arcing wide and, with an undeniable element of hope, dived into second place approaching Adenau Bridge. 

A mechanic steers Stewart's Matra from the paddock to the track

Hill was picked off in similar fashion just before they joined the long, undulating home straight; at its end Stewart was already 10 seconds ahead. He gained a further 24 on the second lap. 

Unwilling to break his rhythm and keen to maximise the advantage provided by his tyres’ extra-wide grooves, he set the fastest lap before almost becoming unstuck – unlike the startled marshal who shimmied both ways before freezing as the wayward Matra skated towards him – on lap 10 (of 14). A chastened Stewart somehow coaxed it back into line.

Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill take to the podium

His winning margin was more than four minutes – but the initial feeling was one of relief rather than elation, especially when it was confirmed that the rest of the field was safe.

Stewart avers today that this was the outstanding performance of his career. He insists, however, that it was a triumph, too, for Ken, his hard-working mechanics and Dunlop. 

In association with Dunlop Tyres, celebrating their spectacular moments of determination, passion and commitment throughout the history of motorsport #greatfightbacks