- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Monza. The Italian Grand Prix. It was here a year ago that I clinched the world championship in a race that was a fairy tale from start to finish. Through most of it Jochen Rindt and I controlled the show. A nod here, the point of a finger there; we knew exactly what the other was going to do, and at Monza this is important. At 185 mph you can't afford a misunderstanding.
Jochen got ahead of me on the final lap, but I repassed him. What I hadn't done was consider my Matra teammate, Jean-Pierre Beltoise. He came storming through, passed Jochen and outbraked me going into the last turn. Out of nowhere he came in a blue flash, passing me on the inside, coming in so fast and leaving the braking so late that he forced me to go wide. I could easily have spun. The car was on its tiptoes, just making up its mind, and while I was trying to rein it in he shot onto the final straight with the finish line only 600 yards away. But both Jochen and I outaccelerated him to the finish, and I beat Jochen by a few hundredths of a second. It was perhaps the closest finish in racing history.
It was one of those exquisite moments when you know you are happy, when you have a sense of your own high while actually having it. People were congratulating me, photographers were everywhere—and then I realized the crowd was becoming dangerous. They wanted to get to me. They wanted the laurel wreath and the trophy and they were getting out of control. People were falling and not getting up. I was frightened, truly and deeply, and my wife Helen was almost hysterical.
We were surrounded by police, but they, too, were helpless. All the police could do was get us into an office. That wasn't any good, either. The crowd broke through the door and we fled to the toilet, Helen and I, where we locked ourselves in with the trophy and garland. Helen had calmed down and we were beginning to see the humor of the situation, but we wanted out.
It must have been a quarter of an hour before police reinforcements pushed the crowd back some 30 yards and we were able to get out the rear door.
But that was last year. Now.... it is very difficult for me to relate what happened on Saturday. It means dealing with Jochen's death and what it did to all of us—to Helen, to me, to Jochen's wife Nina. I have tried to piece it together, step by step, but there are unanswered questions, things I don't understand. The medical reports aren't all back yet, and I don't even know if he had to die, not if things at the accident had been properly handled. A lot of people will object to my going into this, I know, but it is something I have to do. Jochen was my best friend. What happened has had a profound effect on me and my feelings for motor racing, perhaps forever.
Saturday we went to the circuit, Helen and I and a few others, and as I was walking from the car to the paddock Jochen drove up in his BMW. He had been staying at the Hotel de la Ville in Monza, and this was the first time I had seen him all weekend.
The crowd was going wild. Several hundred people had somehow got into the paddock, and we couldn't go anywhere without them being on top of us. No sooner did I sign an autograph than somebody else pushed his hand in with a piece of paper. There was going to be no end of it, I saw that. Eventually we had to make a run for the pits.
In practice I just fiddled about and got down to a fairly quick time. Helen was timing, and it was maybe halfway through the session, the mechanics making all sorts of adjustments on the car, and I was standing in the pits when Ken Tyrrell, my racing manager, came over to me. "I think Jochen's had a shunt," he said very quietly. "You'd better ask Gethin."
Peter Gethin was driving a McLaren. He had just come in, still hadn't got out of his cockpit, and I ran over to him. "The car's all over the place," he told me, "but it's on its feet. The cockpit looks pretty right and there's no sign of Jochen." Both of us assumed he had walked away from the accident, but we couldn't be certain. I went up to the control tower—the nerve center of the track, the place where they get all the communications—and found the track manager and asked him what had happened.