June 12, 1966: The day security thinking began

(Motorsport-Total.com) – There are cigarette butts all over the floor. The injured racing driver is added. A nun takes care of primary care. And the ambulance gets lost. A fictional scene? No, but the reality at the Belgian Grand Prix 1966 in Spa-Francorchamps! And the moment that triggered a completely new safety thinking for Formula 1 at Jackie Stewart.

Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart in the woods of Spa: 1966 marked a turning point for him

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The later three-time world champion was just at the beginning of his Grand Prix career in 1966 and had just won the season opener in Monte Carlo. But at the second season stop in Spa, pouring rain was his undoing: BRM driver Stewart had a serious accident and learned first-hand how poorly Formula 1 was prepared in the event of an accident.

“If something like this happens to you, you realize that the system is completely wrong.” Stewart says this in an ‘BBC’ interview years later. And he’s lucky that he can do that because his accident with a rollover on June 12, 1966 could easily have cost him his life. Because Formula 1 of the 1960s was dangerous, several racing drivers burned in their cars.

The departure in the pouring rain

Stewart himself fears such a fire accident and spends “a good half hour” in the wreck of his vehicle this Sunday, accompanied by the fear that the leaking gasoline could catch fire and turn the accident site into a blaze of flame.

At the moment Stewart himself is “sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious”, as he describes it later. But he still remembers the course of the accident to this day: aquaplaning had let his car fly off the track. Then everything went very quickly.

“I was thrown back and forth. My vehicle first hit a forest worker’s hut and part of a wall, mowed down a telegraph pole, and then landed in a depression near a farm.”

Nowhere in sight of first aiders

There were no guardrails on the then 14-kilometer version of Spa-Francorchamps, only a narrow asphalt strip in the middle of nature, between meadows and trees and everyday life on otherwise public roads.

Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart

Start in Belgium in 1966: Everything goes smoothly on a dry track …

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As tranquil as the scenery is, the minutes Stewart is trapped in the car are terrible. “It could have started burning at any time,” he says.

His second major concern: primary care, but it is not in sight. No sports attendant, no ambulance, no help. “Fortunately, then came [Stewarts BRM-Teamkollege] Graham Hill over. He could have gone on but decided to help me. “

The colleagues lack the tools

The American Bob Bondurant is also there. But even with combined forces, Hill and Bondurant fail to free Stewart from the cockpit – the steering wheel blocks the injured Formula 1 driver.

Stewart spends another anxious minute in his car: “They had to borrow tools from spectators to be able to remove the steering wheel so that they could get me out of the vehicle.”

The other drivers’ racing cars sweep past the racetrack a few meters away. The Grand Prix continues. But a certain vehicle does not come: an ambulance. “You first had to find someone who could get an ambulance,” explains Stewart.

Stewart is tipping over

Finally, a transport vehicle is ready. But the next unpleasant surprise is waiting for Stewart in the first aid center in Spa: “I was on a cloth stretcher and I was put on the floor, which was full of cigarette ends.” And when Stewart looks up, he sees a nun who was hired as a first aider.

Jackie Stewart with Graham Hill and Dan Gurney

Jackie Stewart before the race with Graham Hill and Dan Gurney (from left)

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In contrast to Niki Lauda, ​​who had an accident on the Nürburgring-Nordschleife ten years later, Stewart does not get the “last oiling”, but shortly afterwards another big shock: the driver loses on the almost 65 kilometers from Spa to the hospital in Liège his ambulance the overview.

A motorcycle police officer first shows the way to the ambulance. “But then he just left us behind. And our driver didn’t know how to get to Liège.”

How Stewart reacts to the accident scene

The odyssey comes to a good end: Stewart comes to the intensive care unit with broken ribs and partially burned-out skin due to leaking fuel. He will be flown to the UK for further treatment.

In retrospect, he can laugh about the “downright parody of mistakes” that occurred on June 12, 1966. “It would be a funny story,” he says, “if it weren’t so serious.”

And Stewart recognizes this seriousness, and he also acts: when he returns to the Formula 1 car at the race after next in Brands Hatch, he straps a wrench on the steering wheel so that it can be easily removed and removed in the event of an accident.

Formula 1 is becoming ever safer

But Stewart doesn’t stop there. On his initiative, the designers installed a switch to switch off the on-board electrical system so that accidents were less likely to ignite.

Stewart is now traveling to the race track with his own doctor, and his BRM team even provides an ambulance. This approach is well received in the paddock and among colleagues: the Formula 1 heroes pay for the medical service on the track from their own pocket.

Jackie Stewart with osteopath and wife Helen

Before the comeback: Stewart is treated, Ms. Helen watches

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And Stewart continues to campaign for better security. “When I started in Formula 1, there were terrible safety precautions,” he says later. He estimates that the chance of a fatal accident in a five-year Grand Prix career was a good 66 percent in the 1960s.

Criticism is not for everyone …

“It was ridiculous,” says Stewart. Not even the pit area was shielded from the racetrack at the time. “And gasoline barrels just stood there, although a car could have crashed at any time.”

The criticism that Stewart expresses after his crash is not always welcome, although the long-term development of Formula 1 Stewart is later correct.

In retrospect, he says: “I would have been a much more popular world champion if I had always said what people wanted to hear. I would have been dead, but certainly more popular.”

Stewart: world champion and lifesaver

Stewart is definitely successful: In 1966, a few weeks after his accident, he almost won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. A technical defect in this classic forced him to retire in the lead eight laps before the end. He ends the Formula 1 season with 14 points in seventh place in the World Championship.

1969, 1971 and 1973 Stewart became Formula 1 world champion. He ended his career early without driving his planned 100th race: his Tyrrell team-mate Francois Cevert crashed in qualifying for the 1973 USA Grand Prix. Stewart, who is already the world champion, immediately resigns. This experience also shapes him.

His commitment to safety is changing Formula 1 forever: Stewart is committed to the mandatory use of seat belts, full-face helmets and the installation of guardrails on race tracks, among other things. So June 12, 1966 still had something good, especially for the racing driver generations after Stewart.

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