With the new breed of F1 cars hitting the track in Barcelona ahead of the new season we look back today on one of the best drives and wins in the sports history.
The Nurburgring in Germany is widely regarded as being one of the most challenging and frightening circuits that Formula One ever raced on. At 14.1 miles in length, around 160 corners there was a reason it was known as the ‘Green Hell’ by most.
Yet despite this it was a real drivers circuit, one that demanded utmost respect. The consequences were grim to say the least and many found this out first hand. In 1968 it was to host what many see as being one of the greatest Formula One victories ever.
Coming into the weekend for round 8 of that season championship the previous round at Brands Hatch seen a surprise win for Jo Siffert in the rain and the weather had not changed when the teams arrived in the Eifel mountains. It was raining heavy and this made it the fifth race in a row that would be weather affected. Just another element to the challenge the drivers already faced.
In fact conditions were so poor that the organisers had to allow for an extra practice session. Most drivers slid off the track at some point or another during the weekend and come qualifying, which was on race day morning due to the poor weather, it was the Ferrari of Jacky Ickx that was to be on pole by over ten second with a lap of 9.04. Second was the other Ferrari of New Zealander Chris Amon. Jackie Stewart was sixth in his Matra. At the time the pole made Ickx’s the youngest driver to take pole position, a record that would stand for 14 years till Andrea de Cesaris took pole in the US West GP in 1982.
Race day was treacherous yet 200,000 spectators still showed up to see the race, or what little they would see through the rain and fog. This was also around the time the teams were experimenting with aerofoil and some really large rear wings were seen on some cars. One such car that tried this on race day morning was Stewart.
” I practiced the car at long last with an aerofoil fitted (on Sunday Morning), and found it to be slightly better. I cannot really say that it was noticeable while driving, but the times seemed to intimate that there was a slight improvement. But of course at the Nurburgring it is extremely difficult to recognize any small improvement in time. With the aerofoil on, I did record a time of 9 minutes 54.2 seconds which enabled me to get on to the third row of the starting grid.”
Stewart, who had by this point started his safety campaign as noted on in the last article, also commented on just how bad the conditions were at the notorious circuit that day.
“When I did my fastest lap on the race morning, conditions really were very miserable. It was raining heavily, the fog was pretty bad in parts, and even then I don’t believe the flag marshals could see each other.”
“The rivers that were running across the track were the biggest problem for, on account of the trees, one cannot see pools of water as one usually can on most circuits, and all of a sudden one would arrive over the crest of a hill and go into a river that felt several inches deep and was probably 2 or 3 feet wide.”
It is clear that the conditions would have seen the race possibly abandoned today but in the late 60s the race went ahead as normal, albeit 45 minutes later than scheduled. The start seen many cars over heating due to being started up five minutes before flag fall. One to suffer was pole sitter Ickx’s while Stewart managed to get up to third behind Graham Hill and Amon. The spray was so bad that the drivers couldn’t see the brake marker boards at the side of the road. Stewart manged to pass Amon going towards Adenauer. Stewart mentioned that the spray made for one of the most terrifying moments in his racing career.
After this it was down to finding the right moment to pass Hill, who was to go on to become World Champion this year. This he managed coming out the smaller Karussell corner and by the time the cars got back to the start line around 10 minutes later Stewart was already nine seconds clear, the Dunlop tyres on his Matra the best ones to be on. From here on the Scot would increase the lead hand over fist for lap after lap, 34 seconds clear after lap 2. Stewart continued to push on as much as he possibly could while staying on the track and built up a massive lead.
With just three laps to go the heavens opened even more. With Stewart approaching the main Karussell corner he went through a S-bend section and lost control over a large river of water. The car started sliding and the engine stalled. Heading towards a marshal post he was sure that he was going to hit the marshal as well before the car re gained grip at the last moment and he managed to get out of trouble. Second place Hill also lost control in the same place and even had to get out the car to put it back the right way to continue. His lead over third place Rindt was so much that he never lost second place doing so. And the marshal had moved away as well after his near miss with Stewart minutes before.
A few laps later Stewart took the flag and the win, over four minutes ahead of Hill in second. The race lasted 2 hours and 19 minutes and was just 14 laps, the weather and the length of the track showing the demands of the one of a kind track deep in the Eifel mountains. In years to come Stewart himself would call this his greatest ever race win, something that has been tagged to this win by many others for many years.
The Nurburgring continued to host F1 for another few years even through boycott’s in 1970 that forced the track owners to make changes to smooth the track out and add in armco barriers. This lasted till 1976 when Niki Lauda had his fiery crash and Formula One at the ring was no more in the Nordschlife format. For Stewart he would win at the track in 1971 and 73, two of his three championship winning years before retiring from the sport as an active driver at the end of the 1973 season. But his performance in this race would be one of his defining moments in Formula One that many see as one of the best ‘rainmeister’ performances ever.
Picture credits: grandhistory.org