On this day in 1970, the leader of the Formula 1 championship, Jochen Rindt, was killed when his car crashed during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
The German-born driver, who represented Austria during his racing career, was well clear of his championship rivals at the time of the tragedy; so far ahead in fact that his points total would not be overhauled, and Rindt became the first – and to this date only – posthumous Formula 1 champion.
Rindt was a fearless competitor and a flamboyant character, who had turned to motor sport after suffering a number of broken bones on the ski slopes. He had moved to Austria to be raised by his grandparents after his own parents had perished during a Second World War bombing raid, and grew up to be a straight-talking young man whose attitude was often perceived as arrogant by those who didn’t know him. His determination to succeed was displayed in a racing style that seemed to result in victory or a crash, but Rindt was only too well aware of the dangers of motor racing, as his hero and one-time mentor Wolfgang von Trips perished in an accident in 1961... ironically also at Monza.
He drove for Lotus alongside Graham Hill during 1969, but Rindt sustained concussion and a broken jaw following a crash during the Spanish Grand Prix. The following year started well for the Austrian, but the deaths of Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage, along with the arrival of a baby daughter (with his wife Nina, a Finnish model who he had married in 1967) had apparently left Rindt pondering end-of-season retirement.
But Jochen Rindt did not live long enough to make that decision, as his car veered off the track at the Parrabolica corner, and collided with barriers, very close to where von Trips had lost his life nine years earlier.
The accident was attributed to “mechanical failure” (officially of the rear suspension), but Rindt was prevented from driving the Lotus 49 model he favoured for the circuit, and moreover the controversial Lotus founder Colin Chapman decided that the car’s wings should be removed to allow for increased straight line speed – yet it was on one of the fastest parts of the circuit that the car inexplicably swerved and crashed.
Rindt was not wearing a crotch strap as part of his seat belts, and having lost control of the car, he slid forward in the cockpit and apparently badly damaged (maybe even severed) a foot; but it was the action of “submarining” that caused the straps of the seat buckle to cut Rindt’s throat and cause the injuries that ended his life.
It was reportedly left to the reigning champion, and Rindt’s close friend Jackie Stewart to break the news to Nina, and the third of the photographs at the top of the page shows Rindt’s widow receiving the Champion Challenge trophy from the Scottish driver; a poignant moment, and forty-four years later a reminder of a career that promised so much, but ended so abruptly in the pursuit of the dream of being the best...
Jochen Rindt 1942-1970