Sir Jackie Stewart turns 80 on Tuesday and he will celebrate the landmark birthday with a lunch attended by the Queen.
No sportsman before can make that claim. Surely none ever will again.
Stewart’s contacts’ book reads like Burke’s Peerage and there will be no shortage of titled friends in the Louis XIV-style restaurant at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall for the shindig.
But the mechanics who kept him safe during the dangerous racing days that delivered triple world championship titles will be just as cherished guests.
There are, however, many pals who cannot make it. Their faces populate the walls of Stewart’s three-floor apartment between Geneva and Lausanne, where the cream-coloured furnishings are immaculate and the dust is caught before it falls.
Not long after Paul, the butler, has cleared the post-prandial coffee from the terrace with its views of Mont Blanc, Stewart says: ‘I could have been killed. Pretty much none of my friends are alive. Jimmy Clark, Jochen Rindt, Francois Cevert, I was close to all those especially.
‘Mike Spence, Graham Hill in his plane, and much later Jack Brabham, Chris Amon…’ The list goes on, and he momentarily turns his gaze to the mountains.
‘In the 11-year window in which I drove, 57 friends and colleagues died, often in horrific circumstances. If you raced for five years you were more likely to die than to survive. Those are the statistics. It was brutal. I shall not forget the agony of the widows and the fear in the eyes of wives who wondered if it was their turn next.
‘I sometimes feel guilty. Take Mike Spence, my team-mate at BRM (British Racing Motors) the previous year. His right wheel came off during practice at the Indianapolis 500 and hit him on his head. I saw him in hospital. He died and he didn’t have a scratch on his body.
‘It should have been me in that car but I broke my wrist so I couldn’t compete in Indy.’
Spence was one of four established drivers to die in as many months in 1968 — Clark, Ludovico Scarfiotti, who drove in blazer and bow tie, and Frenchman Jo Schlesser being the others. The pain inspired Stewart to pursue his safety campaigning with ever more intensity.
It was while inspecting a track — ‘for God’s sake’ — that Stewart learned that Clark, the double world champion, had died at Hockenheim. He was not prepared to accept the news. He phoned from a little restaurant next to the main road that led to Madrid airport. His wife Helen answered the phone. ‘Hello,’ she said.
I ask him who is the greatest British driver in history. Lewis Hamilton’s expanding c.v. of excellence, including five world titles, stakes his claim. But Stewart says unequivocally: ‘Jim Clark.’
‘Juan Manuel Fangio was the greatest driver of all. Jimmy is next. And then I would say Alain Prost. Ayrton Senna was very fast but Prost barely moved the steering wheel — like Jimmy and me. I learned that from watching Jimmy. With Lewis it is difficult to tell quite how good he is because he is driving such a good car. You would have to see him in a less competitive car. Valtteri Bottas is as quick as Lewis this season. Max Verstappen is the fastest driver at the moment.
‘But I thought Lewis’s win at Monaco in the last race on one set of tyres for virtually the whole race was terrific.’
This year marks the 50th anniversaries of both Stewart’s first British Grand Prix victory and first world championship. The last of his titles came in 1973, secured at Monza. He had intended to retire after his 100th race at Watkins Glen in America two races later.
But in practice his team-mate, family friend and intended successor as Tyrrell’s No 1 driver, Cevert, was killed. ‘Francois,’ says Stewart pointing at the photograph of the Frenchman in the apartment, ‘look, amazing eyes.’
‘Hello, it’s me,’ he said.
‘We didn’t say anything else. There was a long silence. We both knew what it meant. My great friend, my hero, the man we wanted to be godfather to our second son, Mark, was dead. We broke down in tears.’
Stewart and Clark had shared digs in London and the memory of his loss pains Stewart to this day.
The mourning Tyrrell team withdrew from the US Grand Prix. So Stewart did not race that last time. He stopped after 27 wins from 99 races, feted all over the world.
He found Helen sitting on the end of the bed back at the Glen Motor Inn and told her of his intentions to retire, which he had kept secret from her. Looking her straight in the eyes, he said: ‘As of this moment, I am no longer a racing driver.’ ‘Now,’ she replied, through tears, ‘we can grow old together.’
Lady Stewart is 78 and suffering from dementia. She comes down the lift to join us for lunch and offers me a glass of white wine. Some things she remembers well, such as her manners, other facts inevitably less so.
Her illness is the reason she and Sir Jackie, and their Norfolk terriers, Whisky and Pimm’s, are back in Switzerland rather than at their country pile, Clayton House, in Buckinghamshire. A clinic is near at hand here. Lady Stewart can have her hair done just next door. Two nurses are with her round the clock.
Helen was a noted beauty of the Swinging Sixties — regularly pictured in Paris Match — and expertly timed the whole field on a lap chart during his racing days. She is now a grandmother of nine — eight boys and one girl.
Her illness has prompted Sir Jackie into perhaps the last great fight of his life — to find a cure for dementia. ‘The biggest challenge ever,’ he calls it.
‘Race Against Dementia’ is aimed at raising money to train PhD students to the highest standard, using McLaren and Red Bull F1 teams as templates.
He has seen some laboratories and deems them too dirty. He is a perfectionist and apt to pluck a stray thread off the shirt of the person he is talking to.
‘There are some great surgeons in England but the whole medical world, the infrastructure, is not geared to finding cures fast,’ he says.
‘We need progress yesterday, not next week. That is why Formula One is a great model. There is a grand prix every fortnight and so much to do to improve the car’s performance between each race.’
He knows what battling is. Deemed stupid at school because he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia, he has not failed at anything since he missed out on a place at the 1960 Olympics in the shooting team. He won all the national honours, mind.
Attention to detail motivates him. For example, he has been a Rolex ambassador for 51 years and has the left sleeve of his shirts cut a fraction shorter and wider to show the watch to best effect. The watch itself is a link looser than it might be so it falls low on the wrist.
When he ran Stewart Grand Prix in the late Nineties, winning one race from a standing start, the team never had an overdraft, just blue-chip backers such as HSBC.
He sent his drivers on public speaking lessons and turned them out impeccably — suits from Doug Hayward, shirts from Turnbull and Asser, shoes from George Cleverley.
‘I like to do things well,’ he says, proud of his long association with such companies as Ford, Goodyear and Heineken. ‘I like to hang out with the right people. As my father said, ‘If you fly with the crows you are liable to be shot at, if you soar with the eagles you should be safe’.’
He rates the late King Hussein of Jordan the most remarkable man he has met. He learned a lot from him.
The Queen is the most astonishing woman he has known. Princess Grace, he says, ‘made Monaco’. He once drove her to Hotel de Paris, the flashbulbs of the photographers going wild.
Sean Connery is a friend. George Harrison, another pal with ‘one of the best minds I have ever met’, taught his son Paul to play the guitar.
‘I have been very fortunate,’ says Stewart, who was World Sportsman of the Year in 1973 and recently found the trophy to prove it to Debrett’s, who could find no record of his achievement. Muhammad Ali, no less, presented him with the prize.
He was signed up by ABC for their Wide World of Sports telecasts led by Jim McKay and is still well known in the States.
‘If I am standing in a lift I might be recognised but I certainly am when I speak, with my Scottish accent and sounding quite high-pitched.’ The years — and the jostling he endured in aluminium cockpits — have claimed his right hip and left knee, both replaced at the Mayo Clinic in America, and a new right knee is planned.
Over at his Clayton House estate the benches are inscribed with the names of his fallen friends. Their deaths put new joints into proper perspective. Not only is Stewart 80 next week, but he never spilt blood as a racing driver and, more importantly, got out of it before it killed him. Those are distinctions worth celebrating.
Originally published at Daily Mail