For many of us, our achievements come to an end as our life does. Death is the final destination of life and beyond that there is nothing. But in this rarest of circumstances, the greatest achievement of a man’s life came after he was taken from us. This is the story of Formula One’s only posthumous World Champion, 50 years on.
Karl Jochen Rindt, born in Mainz, Germany to an Austrian mother and German father, was a principled rebel both on and off the track and yet utterly fearless behind the wheel of a car. And in 1970, He had his best chance to fulfil a lifelong dream to be champion of the world with the legendary Team Lotus and genius car designer Colin Chapman.
He also ran with the Norfolk-based team in 1969 but was often second fiddle to the great Graham Hill. So, when Hill left at the end of the season to join Rob Walker’s privateer team, Rindt was left as the clear lead driver and with a great chance to have a run at the title.
But just two races in and it looked like it was getting away from him. Back-to-back retirements in the new Lotus 72 in South Africa and Spain forced the team to revert to the Lotus 49 of previous years as they continued to try and fix the issues their new car had suffered and it was at the next race in Monaco, Rindt announced his title intentions.
Starting eighth on the streets of the principality, the Austrian drove what his then race engineer Herbie Blash described as “the race of his life” as he carved his way through the field despite Monaco being notoriously difficult to overtake. He sat in second right behind leader Jack Brabham but it looked like there was no way through, until the very last corner. Brabham braked too late and hit the straw bales, leaving the door open for Rindt to take the win.
Winning in F1 is a long way away from growing up under the care of his grandparents after his mum and dad were killed during a World War 2 bombing raid when he was just one.
It was back to earth with a bump in Belgium as he used the Lotus 49 for the final time where he retired from the race with an engine failure but the good times were just around the corner.
But not before his good friend and fellow racer Piers Courage was killed on lap 23 of the Dutch Grand Prix. Rindt went on too win that race but it was a hollow victory for him having had dinner with the Brit on the eve of the race. The events made Rindt seriously consider his future in racing having been a strong advocate for improved driver safety since his arrival in F1 in 1964 and he would pay the same price later in the year.
But when the F1 circus rolled into France, he was re-invigorated. Taking the win and the championship lead despite being hit it the cheek by a stone in practice, leaving a deep cut. Also suffering a steering failure in practice, Rindt stormed into the garage claiming to kill every single member of the team if he were to survive another crash due to a mechanical problem. It’s a shame he didn’t.
He then took victories in Britain and Germany leaving him with a chance to be crowned world champion on home soil in Austria. But he was forced to retire with car issues, so the championship would have to wait for now.
At this point, Rindt was in scintillating form and it seemed almost certain that he’d be lifting the World Championship sooner or later, that was until F1 arrived in Italy and the high-speed temple of Monza.
He’d survived his fair share of crashes in the past, not only in cars but in skis too as a schoolboy, breaking his leg during a school ski race and yet driving himself home with his leg in plaster, and without a license. In fact, he drove license-less for 18 months but he was finally caught, just one day before he could legally pick it up.
But years later, having raced touring cars and sports car with incidents and success aplenty – including the 1965 Le Mans 24-hour in a North American ran Ferrari 250 LM – here he was, on the brink of eternal glory.
It was practice for the Italian Grand Prix and Lotus opted to run without rear wings in their car to increase the top speed of the car at the straight-heavy circuit and, despite uncertainty from Rindt’s teammate John Miles, it seemed to be keeping them in contention against Ferrari’s far superior flat 12 engine.
These higher speeds meant if things were to go wrong, it would be with big consequences, and so it came to be. Into the famous Parabolica corner, he sped off towards the crash barriers, as he hit the Armco, a joint within the barrier broke and as a result, Rindt’s Lotus hit a stanchion in the barrier with full force.
The hit itself may have been enough to kill Rindt but the Austrian didn’t wear the crotch strap of the five-point harness in case he needed to get out of the car quickly if it were on fire. But this meant that he slid under the harness upon impact and suffered fatal injuries to his neck.
The death overshadowed the remainder of the 1970 season especially as Jacky Ickx couldn’t score enough points to overhaul him in the championship and so his widow Nina was handed the trophy by Jackie Stewart in his honour.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that Rindt is never the first name to come to mind when ‘World Champion’ is mentioned, after all, he never got that picture of him raising the trophy aloft above his head. But 50 years after the events, he is still recognised as one of Formula One’s live wires, a rebel… a history maker.