• Rewind to ... 1966

Living with death

Martin Williamson August 24, 2010
Jackie Stewart pictured with Graham Hill before the race. Hill pulled the Scot from his petrol-soaked BRM during a treacherous Belgian Grand Prix © Sutton Images
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By the mid 1960s driver safety, something which had been largely brushed aside began to become more of a concern, with a new generation of drivers no longer unquestioningly willing to accept the risks attached to the sport.

The one man who did more than anyone to raise the issue was three-time world champion Jackie Stewart. "Imagine an 11-year window of time when you lose 57 - repeat 57 - friends and colleagues, often watching them die in horrific circumstances doing exactly what you do, weekend after weekend," he wrote in his autobiography Winning Is Not Enough. "I didn't have to imagine. [I] lived through it. To be a racing driver between 1963 and 1973 was to accept the probability of death."

The incident that led to Stewart becoming an active and vociferous campaigner for greater attention to safety came at the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix. The legendary Spa circuit was one of the most treacherous, an eight-and three-quarter mile track through dense pine forests and with vast sections where there were no barriers. The length of the circuit also meant there were long stretches out of sight of marshals and the emergency services. In 1960 two British drivers - Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey - had died with minutes of each other during the race.

The 1966 Belgian Grand Prix started in dry but overcast conditions, but three miles into the first lap a torrential downpour left the track an ice rink and eight cars crashed out within minutes of the rain starting. All but one - Stewart - escaped unharmed or with only superficial injuries.

"We just ran into a wall of water in the way it can rain only in southern Belgium," Stewart told Alan Henry in the Guardian almost three decades later. At 170mph in appalling visibility, his BRM aquaplaned as he approached the right-hand Masta Kink. "First I hit a telegraph pole and then a woodcutter's cottage and I finished up in the outside basement of a farm building. The car ended up shaped like a banana and I was still trapped inside it.

"The fuel tank had totally ruptured inwardly and the monocoque literally filled up with fuel. It was sloshing around in the cockpit. The instrument panel was smashed, ripped off and found 200 metres from the car but the electric fuel pump was still working away. The steering wheel wouldn't come off and I couldn't get out."

Seconds later Stewart's team-mate Graham Hill had slid off at the same spot but with less spectacular results, even though he careered into straw bails backwards at 130mph. As he tried to try to get his car back onto the track - he could have continued but eventually retired as he had lost so much time - he noticed the wreckage of Stewart's car and ran to see what had happened. On discovering the stricken Stewart, Hill quipped he looked "very second hand". He managed to turn off the fuel pump and then and started trying to free him. He was joined soon after by Bob Bondurant who had also spun off and overturned. The pair worked furiously to try to extricate him with fuel still swamping them and the vehicle. One spark and all three men would have been engulfed in a fireball.

It took them 25 minutes to extract Stewart from the wreck, during which time no marshals appeared, but finally with the aid of a toolkit borrowed from a spectator they unscrewed the steering wheel, pulled him clear and carried him to a barn.

Stewart asked Hill to remove his clothing, aware that his fuel-soaked race suit remained a major risk and was also burning his skin. "Then these nuns came in," Stewart said, "and spotting a naked man in the back of a hay truck put my clothes back on. Having found an ambulance, Graham came back in and took my clothes back off again."

Even then Stewart's ordeal was not over. He was carefully loaded into the old ambulance which took him to what passed as a medical centre and left him there on a canvas stretcher. "There were no doctors," he recalled. "I was left on a stretcher, on the floor, surrounded by cigarette ends. It was filthy."

He was eventually loaded into another ambulance which set off for the hospital in Liege with a police escort. However, en route the escort became detached from the ambulance, and the driver then got lost as he did not know the way.

Inside the ambulance were Helen, Stewart's wife, and Clark, his close friend. As Stewart, who had among other injuries a broken ribs and shoulder injuries, lay moaning, Clark snapped: "For goodness sake, Jackie, pull yourself together. Helen is here."

Despite the seriousness of his accident, Stewart was back racing within a month. But his whole attitude to the sport had changed. "After Spa I realised just how dangerous it really was," he said. "Like most drivers, I only thought accidents happened to someone else. Then suddenly the realisation of the danger hit me. It came too close to home. It was then that I decided to do something to try to make the sport safer."

To the dismay of many circuit owners - and amazing as it might seem, the opposition of some other drivers - Stewart started his remorseless campaign to improve safety levels. Gradually features now taken as standard were introduced, such as seatbelts, full-face helmets and fireproof racing suits. In 1969, as head of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, he spearheaded a boycott of Spa which forced long overdue major improvements.

Sadly, it took Stewart's campaigning years to break down barriers during which time the toll continued to rise. Of the 15 who started the 1966 Belgian Grand Prix, five died in accidents in the next five years - Lorenzo Bandini (Monaco 1967), Clark (Hockenheim 1968), Spence (Indianapolis 1968), Jochen Rindt (Monza 1970) and Jo Siffert (Brands Hatch 1971).

"If I have any legacy to leave the sport I hope it will be seen to be in an area of safety," Stewart told the Grand Prix Hall of Fame website, "because when I arrived in Grand Prix racing, so-called precautions and safety measures were diabolical."

Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of James Hunt, Niki Lauda and sideburns, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo