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Contrasted with the current woes of the real world—the new Arab-Israeli war, the old Watergate maunder-ings—it might have seemed a week of minor tragedy on the Grand Prix circuit. But for John Young Stewart, 34, the finest road racer in the game, it was perhaps the most agonizing week of his life. A month earlier, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Stewart had captured his third world driving championship in five years. During the course of this racing season he had become the most successful Formula I driver ever, with 27 Grand Prix victories to his credit (compared with 25 for his late Scottish countryman, Jim Clark, and 24 for his idol, Argentina's Juan Manuel Fangio). And certainly Stewart had outdone both of them in the main chance of racing: money.
Jackie Stewart is the canniest man ever to don a fireproof balaclava—and certainly the gutsiest ever to con a sponsor. Earning close to $1 million a season in prize money and other emoluments, Stewart seemed to have turned motor racing into some kind of a private treasure trove—and survived to enjoy it. Then why not retire?
That was the first source of his agony last weekend. At Watkins Glen for the 15th running of the U.S. Grand Prix, Stewart played coy with the question. Indeed, even his business agent claimed that the wee Scot was hung on the horns of that old sportsman's dilemma: quit on a peak of success, or press on to try for even greater rewards? The business agent also was well aware that the timing of a retirement statement by a figure so prominent as Stewart could bring in lots of bucks, and perhaps the coyness was merely a question of timing to suck up more cash. "If Jackie were single," said his lovely wife Helen, "there would be no question. He would continue to race. I would like to see him retire, but I cannot press him. No, there is nothing that could fill the role of racing for him if he were to quit."
Stewart himself was brusque on the question. He sidestepped it with every slick word at his command—and they are as many and as evasive as the black grouse of Scotland's moors. But still it all seemed a game.
Then, on qualifying day before the race, Stewart's good friend and teammate, Francois Cevert, was killed in a smashup during practice. Stewart had already lost three close friends to the sport: Clark in 1968, Piers Courage and.Jochen Rindt in 1970. In his poignant account of that last tragic season in his recent book, Faster! A Racer's Diary, Stewart had likened Grand Prix racing to a disease and wondered in painful print if he himself were not a victim. With Cevert's death last Saturday, it seemed to many that Stewart must at last accept the prognosis. He must—finally—retire and let sad enough alone.
It had been the longest Grand Prix season in history—15 races starting last January at the Buenos Aires Autodrome in Argentina—and a fine one for Stewart. Last year's world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil, seemed early on to have it all sewed up for another worthy triumph. Fittipaldi took Argentina and then Brazil—that nation's first F-I championship ever—as if he were a new Simon Bolivar. But then came South Africa, and Stewart's renowned canniness began to assert itself. During practice he crashed into a dirt embankment at high speed—brake failure—but quickly commandeered Cevert's car, the other Tyrrell-Ford. South Africa's own Jody Scheckter dominated the early stages of the race, driving with the special wriggly verve that won him the L&M Championship for Formula 5,000 cars this season in his rookie year (SI, July 16). But under a yellow caution flag, Stewart emerged in the lead and held it. Though Fittipaldi won the next race, in Spain, Stewart came on strong again in Belgium, winning handily, with teammate Cevert a convincing second. At Monaco, the definite class race of the GP circuit, Stewart dominated Fittipaldi from start to finish and cemented his grip on the season. Victories at Zandvoort and The N�rburgring, followed by finishes high in the points both in Austria and Italy, clinched the championship.
Along the way there had been injury and tragedy, not so spectacular as in the grim 1970 season, but tougher in a subtle way. Fittipaldi broke a wheel during practice in Holland and bruised his ankles badly in the ensuing crash. Then during the race itself, young Roger Williamson of Britain piled up his March-Ford on nearly the same sand dune where Courage had burned to death three years earlier. Sloppy rescue work by the Dutch track marshals—some called it cowardice—could have been a factor in Williamson's death by fire.
The British GP at Silverstone marked the first world championship victory for America's Peter Revson who, with a second win in Canada, has emerged as the best U.S. driver on the Formula I circuit since DanGurney. But the race also demonstrated the dangers of Jody Scheckter to those who were unaware of what a hard charger can do. Scheckter had just nipped into fourth place, ducking under Denny Hulme's McLaren on the second lap in the infamous Woodcote Corner, when he flat lost control. Scheckter's car caromed off the pit wall and created a mini-Indy. Nine cars were wiped out in the carnage, but only one driver was injured. It was the first time that a Grand Prix race had to be halted in all the years of the championship.
It was Scheckter who also figured in a brouhaha at Mosport during the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago. There he tangled with Cevert in a shunt that totaled the Frenchman's car. Cevert had moved up to second in point standings behind Stewart at one point in the season, and still stood a good chance of edging Fittipaldi for the runner-up spot this year. Perhaps, as an outgrowth of Mosport, Cevert held a grudge against Scheckter. At any rate, the two men were most dramatically involved in the fatal Saturday afternoon of Watkins Glen.
The accident took place at the top of the Esses, a slippery, sinuous linkage of bends just below an underpass where spectators enter the Glen course. According to eyewitnesses, Cevert came halfway through the Esses in good control. He had just turned his best lap of the practice—quick enough to beat Stewart's record lap of the previous year. It was good enough to place Cevert fourth among the day's qualifiers. Then the car began to fishtail, ticking the outside fence just before the bridge. "It looked like the pendulum of a runaway clock," said one observer. "He couldn't catch it." Cevert's car hit the steel retaining barrier—which is designed to catch a car like a net might catch a falling tightrope walker—but he hit it at about 160 miles an hour. He went right through. The car Hipped sideways and broke apart.