The Champion That Never Saw the Final Flag Fall

Matt HillContributor IIIJanuary 15, 2011

Many unenviable statistics exist in Formula 1. David Kennedy holds the record of the most DNQ's without ever managing to qualifying. Claudio Langes holds the record for the most DNPQ's without qualifying.

There are some tragic statistics exist too with more than a driver per season being killed for the first two decades of the sport as a championship. My focus for this piece is a statistic that, considering the sports well earned reputation for danger is surprising and tragic.

In the whole history of the sport there has only ever been one posthumous world driver's champion. The man was Jochen Rindt and he was the 1970 World Formula One drivers champion. His death prevented him from taking part in the last four races of the thirteen race season.

Yet, he still won the championship by five points.

The way Rindt drove is illustrated by his career statistics. Out of his 60 race starts, he retired 35 times. He was fast but did make mistakes and put a lot of pressure of his machinery. He was always fast and that is a hallmark of a champion.

Before his championship winning season Rindt only had two season of any real note. In 1966 he was a consistent runner securing a couple of podiums but never won. He finished third in the title race in his Cooper and people had taken notice.

In 1969 he earned his first career win for the Lotus team winning at the United States Grand Prix. 1969 was plagued with retirements like many of his other seasons but that first win did seem to give him some extra confidence heading into 1970.

In the other seasons of his career which began in with a single outing in Austria in 1964 nearly all the time his season was destroyed by his consistent failure to make it to the end

The Austrian, Rindt, won five races in 1970 in Holland, Britain, France, Germany and Monaco. Incredibly that was the only points scoring results for Rindt that year. His next best finish was 13th and he retired three times. The truth was as long as Rindt didn't have a problem, he won the race.

The Lotus 72 was a great car and Rindt was in fine form. The domination that Rindt had can only be rivalled by the domination by Schumacher in 2004 or Ascari in 1952. Rindt was in a class of one during 1970.

Heading to Monza in 1970 the drivers championship looked over and the chances of another Rindt victory was high.

Lotus made some adjustments to the car for Monza being the high speed track it was, and to a lesser extent still is. They removed the wings off the car which made Rindt's team mate John Miles unhappy saying it made the unbalanced. But Rindt seemed pleased reporting it gave him more straight line speed.

Rindt adjusted the ratio of his gearbox aswell, giving him a higher straight line speed with the Lotus hitting 205 mph on the straights. In the final practice session Rindt was, unsurprisingly, quick and it looked like Lotus would be on top.

Then on his fifth lap something went wrong. Under braking for the Parabolica, Jochen's car speared off the track and into the wall. This catapulted the Lotus into the gravel trap, spinning like a top in the process.

Sadly, as too often was the case, the barrier wasn't fitted properly and when Rindt hit the wall it went through a joint in the wall with Rindt's car hitting a stanchion.

The Lotus came to a stand still with Rindt not moving. The entire front end of Rindt's car was decimated. Rindt was rushed to hospital but was already dead on arrival. Why had Rindt been killed? Who, if anyone was to blame?

What caused Rindt's car to spear into the wall was quickly discovered with a braking unit on the right front failing. The actual cause of Rindt's death was due to a slit throat. The reason behind this injury was due to Rindt being worried about safety, ironically.

Cars had crashed and caught fire spectacularly and the drivers were killed in the previous few years. Rindt was terrified of this happening to him and in the event of a crash he wanted to get out ASAP. To make the process of getting out the car quicker he removed the crotch straps from his safety belt system.

This was a terrible error. When he crashed at Monza his body slid down the cockpit on impact. The main buckle of the remaining belts slit his throat. If the crotch straps has been present he may well have survived.

But, the impact should never have been as severe as it was. Had he hit the wall and it remained intact he may have been okay. But due to the poor fitting of the wall the part he hit separated slightly and the front of Rindt's car hit a stanchion.

The stanchion had no give in it at all causing the massive damage to the car and the reason why Rindt slid down the cockpit.

Rindt died but as always the show went on. Jacky Ickx couldn't earn enough points in the final races to overhaul Rindt's lead and Rindt became the sports first, and so far only, posthumous champion. Jacky Ickx said later he was happy that he didn't overhaul Rindt because he wouldn't of felt happy about it.

Jackie Stewart later revealed that Rindt was going to retire at the end of the season, if he won the title. Sadly Rindt never had the chance to retire and to spend the time with his wife he so missed when racing.  

Stewart summed up Rindt and Jochen's life in motor racing

"Jochen loved the sport, but he wasn't in love with it".

Jochen Rindt was a champion driver and had he not been killed and had he continued, which is doubtful, he would of gone on to win more titles. He doesn't get recognised as much as he should. He enjoyed the sport and was an excellent sportsmen. 

But, he knew there was, and is, more important things in life than sport.

Jochen Rindt