INTERVIEW – A motorsport legend, the former Scottish driver continues to follow F1 iduously.
In his office where one of his world champion helmets (1969, 1971, 1973) sits proudly, Sir Jackie Stewart is comfortable as in its seat of the time. Aged 84, the former Scottish driver still follows the Formula 1 as an ambador for the watchmaker Rolex and is pionate about this discipline “more glamorous, more professional and largerthan in his time. Knighted in 2001, the dean of the world champions confided at length to the Figaro as the paddock sets up its single-seaters for the Monza GP.
LE FIGARO. – 58 years ago, you won your first Grand Prix at Monza. What memories do you keep of this great first in Formula 1?
Jackie STEWARD. – I was driving for Matra and it’s an immense memory. The Italians are the most pionate and the best connoisseurs of F1. Monza has played a very important role in my life. Win my first race ahead of the Incredibles tifosi was very special. Of course, an even bigger moment was winning my first world championship at Monza in 1969. I then won my third and last title there in 1973 – 50 years ago this year.
Winning in Formula 1 makes you change dimensions…
Totally. Spectators recognized me and approached me. They were jumping everywhere (laughter). When I last won at Monza, my wife was with me, the fans jumped the barriers and chased us. We took refuge in the toilets and we had to escape through the window (laughter). Pilots are now better protected. Times were different. I have been very lucky.
How was the time different?
There was a real community. Pilots traveled together, vacationed together, and raced together. Today, the pilots are hidden in their motor homes. They hardly ever meet. There is no more camaraderie. I had real friendships with Jim Clark or Graham Hill. We knew each other. I knew their children. I saw Damon Hill when he started walking (laughter). And see him become world champion two decades later… This is the kind of thing that we will never see again. Our wives timed us. My wife Helen followed my tricks and gave me advice. I love Formula 1, but this sport is no longer the same: it is much more glamorous, bigger, more professional.
What is your best memory in F1?
These are my victories in Monaco. Of course winning in my country, at Silverstone, was an incredible emotion. But in Monaco, we switched to the big world. Princess Grace presented you with the trophy. There were the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. Besides, I knew the Beatles well, in particular George Harrison, because he was a great fan of motorsport.
You were one of the pioneers of safety in Formula 1. How do you judge the progress of the sport in this area?
It has nothing to do with what I experienced. Some of my friends have been killed in accidents. We were very exposed. When there was a death, we did not stop the race. When there was fire all over the track, you had to walk through the fire. People were at the edge of the track, unprotected. Even our wives! All that has changed with more safety in the car, but also on the track. Formula 1 has played a part in everyday life through its role in accelerating advancements in the automotive industry with new technologies, increased precision and improved reliability.
Do you still follow the Grand Prix?
Of course. I watch the races and I go there. I am lucky to be the ambador of Rolex (global partner and official watch of Formula 1 and present since the 1930s in motorsport, Ed.) since 1969 and my first world champion title. I got my first watch, a Daytona, after my first pole position. A distributor in Germany promised me that I would get one if I got pole. I held my promise. Him too. Thanks to them, I attend a few GPs per season and I go up the grid to see the new generation.
Most people tell me how great my racing days were. I answer them that they are absolutely right, but it is considerably better today.
Sir Jackie Stewart
What do you think of F1 in 2023?
Formula 1 is in an exceptional position and we are particularly enthusiastic to the highly anticipated Las Vegas Grand Prix. It’s great for the sport and shows appreciation for the growing interest in the United States, which now has three races. Formula 1 has huge television audiences, visiting countries around the world and viewers have live access to the teams’ conversations and the thoughts of the drivers during the race. This generates more emotion and enthusiasm for the sport than ever before.
Would you have liked to be a pilot today?
Of course, sport is still in me. There’s the same excitement of being on amazing tours, visiting wonderful places and meeting amazing people. What has changed in Formula 1 is the professionalism. These days most people tell me how great my racing days were. I answer them that they are absolutely right, but it is considerably better today.
Today, there are computers, piloting aids, statistics… Does this technological direction suit you?
It is not the engineer who presses the accelerator. I think it’s the same thing, but in a different way. There is still so much pion. You always have to be with the best engineers and the best mechanics. There are more staff than before. In my day, there were seven mechanics to take care of two pilots. They are a hundred today. But you know, between yesterday and today, that hasn’t changed: you have to win.
What is your view on the current pilots?
From the age of eight, they go karting, they meet, they get to know each other, but there is not the same camaraderie as in my time. When they arrive in Formula 1, they have practically all the codes of this sport. They have much more reliable cars, so it’s their talent that shines. They are still gentlemen who behave very well on and off the track. And they are lucky to work for very large stables which are perfectly organized. Look at Red Bull: there are thousands of people who are focused on getting two drivers to shine. It’s the same for Ferrari, whose magic is still there, 80 years later.
All tall trees can fall. It all depends on the wind
Sir Jackie Stewart
No one is untouchable. Someone will beat Red Bull and Verstappen at some point. Today they seem untouchable, but everyone is looking to improve. At one point, Fangio was unbeatable, Schumacher, Vettel or Hamilton too. They ended up being beaten. All tall trees can fall. It all depends on the windsmile).
You have a special link with France…
I have worked closely with French brands and colleagues during my career. I won my first world championship with Matra – the first title for a French car – and I had a great friendship with the CEO at the time, Jean-Luc Lagardère. I also raced alongside two French teammates, including François Cevert with whom I was very close (died during trials at Watkins Glen in 1973 precipitating the end of the Scot’s career, editor’s note). And I’ve worked with Elf to promote the next generation of racing drivers through the Volant Elf contest at Castellet.