Germany 1968 - Stewarts finest hour? 26 Jul 2006
Crushing win that paved way for safety improvements
The fact that nowadays Formula One drivers can emerge unscathed from enormous accidents, dust themselves down and run back to the pits is testament to the sports commitment to driver safety. But back in 1968 regulations were far less stringent and a very real danger accompanied each drive. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the tortuous Nurburgring circuit, host of that years German Grand Prix. In treacherous conditions and with a wrist in plaster, Scotlands Jackie Stewart took a decisive victory, one which to this day is considered among the finest of his career.
Set in the heart of Germanys Rhine region, the Formula One Nurburgring of over 35 years ago would be virtually unrecognisable to that used today. Back then the Grand Prix still utilized the original Nordschleife layout, measuring an awesome 22.5 km - around 15km longer than todays track - and with an incredible 172 corners for the drivers to remember.
The length of the circuit meant that even on the sunniest of days, track conditions could vary throughout a lap, but in 1968 the weather for the race was to be anything but sunny. The previous four rounds of the season in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain had all been rainy affairs and as the teams headed to Germany, drizzly showers and fog had been forecast for the race.
Rainy practice sessions on Friday and Saturday proved the weathermen right and during the even wetter qualifying period Jacky Ickx took pole position for Ferrari. Ickxs team mate Chris Amon secured second on the grid, whilst third place went to the Brabham of Jochen Rindt. Stewart - at the time driving for French team Matra - was relegated to the third row with the sixth-fastest time.
As the cars lined up for the start of Sundays race the rain continued to fall relentlessly. Graham Hill, who had been fourth on the grid in his Lotus, took an early lead, moving in front of Rindt, Amon and Ickx. However, Stewart managed an even better start and quickly gained the advantage over Hill. By the end of the first lap he had already built up an impressive lead of nine seconds.
Conditions grew worse and, in heavy fog, the rain-soaked track became increasingly treacherous. However, Stewart - using his Matra and his wet Dunlop tyres to the best of their abilities - was able to quickly pull away from the rest of the field and had extended his advantage to over 34 seconds at the end of his second lap.
As Stewarts lead grew, other drivers fell victim to the weather. On lap 9, his Matra team mate, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, had an accident and was forced to retire. Three laps later Amon spun out in his Ferrari whilst running third. Then a few corners on Hill almost lost second place when his Lotus aquaplaned off the track. He was fortunate enough to be able to push the car back on track and restart the race before third-placed Rindt came past, but the incident meant Stewarts advantage was extended still further.
At the end of lap 14 Stewart crossed the finish line after racing for well over two hours. He was a full four minutes ahead of second-placed man Hill - one of the longest margins of victory ever recorded in a Formula One race.
Although he had been a staunch campaigner since his accident during the Belgian Grand Prix in 1966, after this victory Stewarts fight for improved safety measures intensified. In 1968 I won there by over four minutes in thick fog and rain where you could hardly see the road, he recalled. That race should never have been held, and having won it by such a big margin gave me more credibility when I demanded safety improvements.