The United Slates Grand Prix at Watkins Glen offers the largest purse in the world of road racing—$250,500—but last Sunday I wanted to win it for one very special reason beyond the prize money involved. A victory by any driver other than Jacky Ickx of Belgium would mean that my close friend Jochen Rindt, who was killed during practice prior to the Italian Grand Prix early last month, would posthumously win the World Champion Racing Driver title for 1970. This is the premier award in automobile racing, and Jochen fully deserved it by virtue of his five Grand Prix victories this year. By winning at Watkins Glen and then again in the Mexican Grand Prix, Ickx could have surpassed Jochen's total of 45 championship points by a single point. I, for one, would have hated to go to Mexico with that on my mind. Now, no thanks to me, I won't have to.
What happened to me at Watkins Glen is typical of so much in auto racing—excitement, high hopes and then, in a single moment, routine failure. After qualifying second at the Glen behind Ickx and his Ferrari, I felt reasonably optimistic about the job I had to do. Winning was going to be difficult on a course that contains only five or six corners, but the car designed by my team owner and manager, Ken Tyrrell, seemed to have settled into good health. Starter Tex Hopkins, wearing his lilac-colored suit, leaped into the air to do his acrobatic American-style start, and at the end of the first lap I had a lead of two seconds over the field. Ickx, Pedro Rodriguez of Mexico and others were scrapping for second place. Although I eased off a bit, my lead three-quarters of the way through the race was 56 seconds. Suddenly, in my rearview mirrors I noticed a banner of defeat: blue smoke. The oil pressure fell to zero. After coddling the car through five more laps, I dropped out on the 83rd.
Ickx was not much luckier. A broken fuel line delayed him sufficiently so that the best he could do was finish fourth behind the winner, Brazilian rookie Emerson Fittipaldi in a Lotus. To me, the fact that Rindt, though no longer alive, had clinched the title beyond dispute meant that justice had been done. Watkins Glen had been a good race, a safe race, a happy race. Although there were few really demanding corners, the winner had driven expertly.
But in this sport today, one obviously must be an expert, more expert than ever before. And smoother. And smarter. The arms-and-elbows caveman style of handling a car has vanished from racing. Today's cars are thoroughbreds, sensitive, nervous pieces of very precise engineering. These finely tuned machines have pushed the limits of speed dramatically upward, and when raced at these limits they are very difficult for their drivers to control. Road racing has become a sophisticated art in which the driver must work with his car in an extremely close relationship. With the development of wide tires, delicate suspensions, lighter construction and airfoils, the cars present severe handling problems at very high speeds. The razor's edge has become sharper than ever.
Cornering has always been the heart of road racing, and this is more acutely true today than ever before. It is in the corners that the skill of the driver and the quality of his car are under the greatest pressure, that the rewards for success and the penalties for failure are the highest. Conquering corners that must be taken at speeds considered impossible only a few years ago requires natural driving talent, sensitivity, feel and, above all, mental discipline. But to handle a corner properly at the limit is one of the finest of human sensations, one of the ultimate experiences we can have. It brings us right to the edge of life.
Here are the corners I consider the most interesting in racing, the ones that provide the ultimate test for car and driver.
The Spa/Francorchamps track in Belgium's Ardennes Forest is perhaps the most dangerous road circuit in the world. First, it is just an ordinary road used by every manner of truck and automobile, and thus is covered with grime. Second, it contains eight corners that we take in fifth gear at speeds of 165 to 180 mph. One of the toughest is Burneville, a bend to the right located at the end of a long, downhill straight three miles after the start-finish line. As much as any corner in the world, it tests a driver's ability to handle his car sensitively. Caveman tactics just slow up a car and sometimes put it completely out of control. In Burneville you should not brake at all and also should not shave the apex on the right too closely. You are going so fast that you must leave some safety margin to both the left and the right. Another thing that makes a smooth passage through the turn difficult is the bumpy nature of the road. About two-thirds of the way through, you whip past a group of farm buildings and a café, very close on the right, then more farm buildings and a farmyard close to the road at the left. In the farmyard I have often noticed an old farmer leaning on his pitchfork, surrounded by friends and family, old worthies out to see the young rascals having their yearly fling. We are like so many fuel-laden ballistic missiles flying by, but they seem utterly unperturbed. If they had any idea how quickly a car might fly off the road and into the farmyard, they would be gone in a big hurry.
Any waiter who has ever been up on his tiptoes, leaning forward, off-balance and hurtling down a narrow aisle carrying a tray filled with hot coffee has had a rough idea of what it is like to drive a race car through the Masta Kink. This is a quick left and right S bend which you go through at such high speed, and with so little control, that you feel as if you are not much more than a helpless passenger in the car. In a Formula I racer you are doing about 190 going into the Kink, which consists of a left turn around a high earth embankment, then a right turn around a steel safety fence and then out toward a tall red brick farmhouse and lumber yard on the left. To get through this stretch in the fastest possible time you must firmly conquer your instincts to even squeeze gently on the brake pedal. You enter the Kink from the extreme right side of the road and cut across the left-hand corner. This sets the car on a straight line toward the opposite side, where the road bends back to the right. You must take this right-hand corner so fine that your wheels almost brush the Armco barrier there. It is in doing this and then straightening out the car that the final twinge of terror occurs. You are heading straight for the big brick house, and going so fast that you think this time you'll never miss it. But the car suddenly comes around just as it reaches the extreme left edge of the road and the house goes zinging by, I swear, no more than a yard away. You come out of the Masta Kink feeling as if you had climbed Everest.