1969 United States Grand Prix: The Rise of Rindt
May 2, 2013 by Jeremy McMullen
If there was one racer in the Formula One paddock that drivers and spectators alike believed should have scored his first victory before the start of the 1969 season it would almost unanimously be Jochen Rindt. Fast and flamboyant, the Austrian exhibited car control that enthralled just about everyone it seemed, except perhaps the cars themselves. Constantly undercut by poor reliability, it seemed Rindt was to forever suffer under such an oppressive weight. However, at the 1969 United States Grand Prix Rindt would overcome and the Austrian would rise to the level everyone believed he belonged.
Since his first Formula One start in the Austrian Grand Prix in 1964 for Rob Walker Racing, Rindt had struggled in the World Championship with cars unequal to his outright speed and talent. In spite of an impressive 3rd place in the World Drivers' Championship standings at the end of the 1966 season while driving for Cooper, Rindt would struggle with retirement after retirement and would do no better than 12th in the standings throughout 1965, 1967 and 1968. After one frustrating season with Brabham in which he scored just two finishes out of 12 races, Rindt would be determined to sign with a team that had a winning car.
Rindt's abilities were of no doubt. However, find a ride with a team with a car every bit his equal was not so easy. There were only a handful of truly competitive teams with cars capable of the pace and reliability Rindt needed to become successful. One of those, of course, that did offer the kind of car Jochen wanted would be Team Lotus.
Although Lotus had earned Drivers' and Constructors' Championships in 1963, 1965 and 1968, Rindt wasn't so convinced Lotus would be the right team for him. It was more than obvious the Lotus cars were quick, however, Rindt had become used to wringing the absolute neck of cars to get them to perform. He had suspicions about Colin Chapman's bare-bones approach to race car design. He believed that potentially the cars were achieving their performance at the expense of the safety and strength of the car itself. A seat was open with the team. And, despite his concerns, Rindt could not pass up the opportunity.
Heading into the 1969 season Jochen Rindt would join Graham Hill, Mario Andretti, Richard Attwood and John Miles as drivers for the Golf Leaf Team Lotus. In 1967 Lotus would introduce its strong 49 chassis. The car would show touches of greatness but would suffer from teething issues that first year. One year later however, Graham Hill would take the 49, and follow-on evolutions, to three victories and three other 2nd place results. In the end, Hill would win yet another World Championship title, as would Team Lotus.
In the lead up to the first round of the World Championship for 1969 Lotus would be working on a new car. The team would still rely upon its 49 heavily but the team had been hard at work creating a four-wheel drive chassis known as the 63. Other teams would be chasing after this new idea but the jury would still be out as to whether or not the concept actually made any sizable difference compared to the cost involved in building and maintaining the car. As a result, Team Lotus would head to the first round of the World Championship, the Grand Prix of South Africa with three of its 49Bs for Hill, Rindt and Andretti.
Rindt's first start with the Lotus team in a World Championship race would be a good one with him starting in the middle of the front row having been just two-tenths of a second from pole. Graham Hill and Mario Andretti would start down on the third row of the grid.
The race, however, would not be nearly as strong or positive. Rindt would lose out at the start of the race. Jackie Stewart, Rindt's good friend, would be in the lead while Jack Brabham would be in 2nd place. Rindt would get up as high as 2nd place following Brabham's struggles early on, but that would be the best it would get for Rindt. In fact, Jochen's first race with Lotus would appear no different than when he had been with teams with lesser cars. Fuel pump issues after 44 laps would end the Austrian's day while his good friend Stewart would go on to lead every lap of the race and take a dominant victory of 18 seconds over Rindt's teammate Graham Hill.
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But to suffer as he did early on in 1969 with Lotus certainly seemed out of the ordinary. But then came the British Grand Prix. In that race, Rindt would duel with his Stewart in an epic battle that would last for 77 laps until problems with the Lotus eventually led to Rindt finishing the race in 4th place while Stewart took the victory. It seemed, on that day, the pairing of Rindt and the 49B was gelling together. And it would prove to be a decisive moment in the 1969 season for Rindt.
Things wouldn't appear to change right away following the incredible and memorable battle with Stewart in the British Grand Prix as Rindt would suffer his fifth early retirement of the season in the German Grand Prix. Despite completing the first lap in 3rd place, Rindt would suffer and would slowly lose ground to the others. Slowly he would descend down the leaderboard until he finally retired after 11 laps as a result of ignition problems.
So, it wouldn't look as though things turned around. In fact, it seemed as though Rindt and the Lotus 49B were again going in different directions. But this wouldn't be true. Rindt would start the German Grand Prix from the front row of the grid in 3rd place. What was more, Stewart's Matra-Ford was proving to be the class of the field in spite of the occasional victory from one of the other competitors. Therefore, Team Lotus would be hard at work with its 49B trying to bring it up to the level of the Matra-Ford MS10 and MS80. Therefore, it wasn't as though the 49B was a terrible car. Rindt and the team just needed to find its operating envelope. And the discovery would come over the course of the next three races.
The best result Rindt experienced throughout the 1969 season up until the Italian Grand Prix had been a 4th place finish in the British Grand Prix. However, by the end of the Italian Grand Prix just about everyone would forget about Rindt's earlier problems. It would become clear he and his 49B were just finding their groove.
It would all start in qualifying when Rindt would take the pole with a time of 1:25.48 around the 3.56 mile Autodromo Nazionale Monza. Starting alongside of Rindt on the front row would be McLaren driver Denny Hulme. The best of the other Lotus drivers would be Graham Hill. His best around the circuit would be nearly two seconds slower than Rindt and would lead to Hill starting the 68 lap race all the way down on the fifth row of the grid.
Right from the very beginning of the race Rindt would be in contention for the lead following along, and sometimes leading, Jackie Stewart. Throughout the race the top five would remain incredibly close. Rindt would find himself, more than once, thrown back to 4th or 5th place but he was so fast he could make his way back up to 2nd within a relative short period of time.
The top five would be absolutely destroying the rest of the field heading into the final parts of the race. Heading into the last lap, Piers Courage would be the last car on the lead lap in 5th place and he would be more than 30 seconds behind the foursome of Stewart, Rindt, Beltoise and McLaren. Amongst those top four, less than half a second would be the difference.
Flying through Vialone, where Alberto Ascari had lost his life nearly 15 years earlier, Stewart would be leading the quartet. To defend his position and set up his best chance at victory, Stewart would move over to the left, or outside, of the entry into the Parabolica. This placed Stewart on the racing line but left the inside wide open. Rindt would see this as his opportunity. In the same place he would lose his life one year later, Rindt would dive down underneath Stewart to take the lead away from the Scot. However, Rindt would soon find himself at a disadvantage as he would have to scrub off too much speed in order to hold control through the turn. This would allow Stewart to dive back down underneath him and begin a drag race toward the checkered flag.
Coming out of the Parabolica, Beltoise would actually have the lead momentarily as he managed to go around the outside of everyone through the Parabolica. Having kept his speed up, Beltoise looked to be in the strongest position. Stewart would be already back in front of Rindt, but the Austrian would be smart and would stay in behind for just a little bit to pick up the slipstream. Sitting just behind them all, hoping for the others to touch and do something stupid would be Bruce McLaren.
Heading onto the short straight approaching the finish line, Stewart would retake the lead from Beltoise as Rindt would pull out of the slipstream in an effort to snatch the victory away at the line. The sight would be absolutely incredible.
A matter of a hundred yards away from the line Rindt would be nearly side-by-side with Stewart. It looked as though the finish would be a dead-heat. However, as the cars flashed over the line the nose of Stewart's car would be just ahead of Rindt's. All in all, the top four would finish the race with only .17 seconds between them.
It would be an incredible display from start to finish for Rindt, and it would be the pairing of him and the 49B that would again provide some magic to the '69 season. The Italian Grand Prix had confirmed what people thought was coming following the British Grand Prix. Rindt and the car were coming together and the result was absolutely beautiful.
Following the .08 loss of victory in the Italian Grand Prix, Rindt would take the 49B and would again start from the front row of the grid for the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport. And while the result would not be anywhere near as close as what the result had been at Monza, another podium result offered confidence and proof the combination of Rindt and the 49B was very dangerous to the rest of the field and it seemed just a matter of time before Rindt would score his first World Championship victory.
The only problem Rindt had is that time was running out on the '69 season. Following the Canadian Grand Prix there were just two races left on the calendar. Considering the two remaining on the calendar the United States Grand Prix held at Watkins Glen held the best opportunity for Rindt to score a victory. Prior to the 1969 season, and actually throughout the whole of his Formula One career, Rindt had never finished the Mexican Grand Prix. At Watkins Glen however, Rindt had scored a 6th place finish back in 1965 and then stood on the second step of the podium one year later. These were some good results, but they had been muted by a couple of retirements in 1967 and 1968.
There would be few sights more pretty than the finger lakes region of New York state in early October. Sitting atop the hill overlooking long, deep Seneca Lake, the Watkins Glen International circuit had become the home of Formula One in the United States. Were it not for the fact it measured a little more than mile shorter than the circuit in Monza the average speeds between the two circuits would have been about the same. As it was, average speeds around the 2.29 mile circuit in 1969 would run right around 130 mph and posed a challenge and a danger to all of the drivers. Besides the fast, flowing esses, the Loop at the end of the Wedgewood straight posed a particular danger as would the Fast Straight and Fast Bend that followed. While short and relatively straight-forward, the Watkins Glen circuit was not one to be taken lightly.
Coming into the race at Watkins Glen, Rindt had been on the rise. By the time he and the Lotus team had left Canada, Rindt was in 7th place in the Drivers' Championship standings. Of course he was a long ways behind Stewart's dominant point tally, but it was certainly a sign the Austrian was headed in the right direction.
At the French Grand Prix the Lotus team had brought one of its four-wheel drive Lotus 63s and it would be driven by John Miles. Starting last in the field, Miles' race would be incredibly short dropping out after just 2 laps with fuel pump failure. The performance numbers of the new car were proving to be no better and, in some cases, worse then the older 49B. However, when the teams did arrive in Watkins Glen for the 10th round of the 1969 Formula One World Championship on the 5th of October, Team Lotus would unload two older 49Bs and one of the new 63s. Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt would be behind the wheels of the 49Bs while Mario Andretti would be driving the 63.
Come the conclusion of practice it was clear Rindt was feeling comfortable at the wheel of the 49B. He would feel comfortable pushing the car knowing it would respond and last the whole of the time. This then enabled the truly driving genius of Rindt to become obvious for the whole of the world to observe.
This comfort and partnership would end up being rewarded in qualifying with the fastest lap time of just 1:03.62 at an average speed of nearly 130 mph. Denny Hulme would be right there with Rindt having lost out on the pole by just three-hundredths of a second. Graham Hill would provide Lotus with great hope heading into the race when he captured the 4th spot on the second row of the grid. However, his time would be nearly a half a second slower than Rindt.
Twenty cars would be rolled out to the grid on the short run leading to the Esses. Rindt and the others at the front would be aiming at the priciest purse in all of Formula One, and if that wasn't enough of a reason to be a little hot and on edge the brilliant sunshine and warm weather would help.
As 'Tex' Hopkins did his trademark jumping wave of the American flag to start the race it would be Rindt that would get the best start and would lead the way while Stewart would beat out Hulme for 2nd place. Just like that, the two combatants would be at the front of the field. Almost automatically thoughts ran to a repeat of the British and Italian Grand Prix.
With tens of thousands looking on, Rindt would power his way down the Wedgewood straight toward the Loop with Stewart in tow. Coming around Big Bend and across the line to complete the first lap it would be Rindt in the lead with Stewart right there in 2nd place. Graham Hill would be in 3rd place while Siffert would be in 4th.
Throughout the first 10 laps of the race Stewart would follow along behind Rindt as the pace increased with every single lap. This would be a detriment to Hill who would begin to struggle with the handling of his 49B after just a couple of laps. Piers Courage would be a man on the move in the early going. After starting the race from the 9th position on the grid, Courage would quickly climb up the running order and would be in the 3rd spot by the 6th lap.
Stewart would take over the lead of the race on the 12th lap and would hold onto the position for nearly the next 10 laps. However, he would not be able to shake Rindt, who seemed very comfortable and fast, perhaps even faster than Stewart on this day. The two would continue to circulate with an ever-increasing pace and this would put a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on the rest of the field in an effort to stay in touch.
Courage and Ickx would be in a battle for 3rd place while Rindt would retake the lead and would increase the pace. The result would be detrimental to the rest of the field. Jo Siffert and Mario Andretti would both retire from the race after just 3 laps. Jackie Oliver and Peter Lovely would be out of the race by the 25th lap. Then, on the 35th lap of the race, while Rindt continued to hold onto the lead, one of the biggest twists in the plot would take place as the Cosworth engine in Stewart's Matra would suffer an unusual failure leaving Rindt all alone out front. In all of their previous epic battles it had been Rindt that had either suffer some kind of trouble or that had come up just short. This time it would be Stewart that would be in trouble. All of a sudden, Rindt would be in the driver's seat with a potential victory within his grasp.
However, there would be a long way to go. By the 54th lap the race would be just halfway over. Still, Rindt's 49B would soldier on. And while clearly in the lead of the race, Rindt would do only what he knew how to—go faster. By the 69th lap of the race Rindt would set the fastest lap of the race with a time less than a second off of his pole time. Pushing an average speed greater than 126 mph Rindt continued to apply the pressure when he was clear in control of the race. This would lead to Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Jacky Ickx falling out of the race by the 80th lap of the race leaving just eight cars still in the race out of the 20 that started.
The popular Austrian was putting on a show that the crowd assembled absolutely adored. However, some 19 laps from the finish Rindt's performance would be overshadowed by a scary moment that would leave another crowd favorite facing the possibility of never racing again.
Graham Hill had been struggling with his 49B's handling all day long. Despite being in 3rd place after the first couple of laps of the race, Hill would be in 6th place by the halfway mark and would be barely holding on even then. Still, Hill would remain inside the top ten as a result of the retirements of many other drivers. However, on the 90th lap of the race it would all go terribly wrong.
Heading around on the lap, Hill would be getting tired after nearly two hours of fighting with an ill-handling car. And so, at one moment Hill would lose his concentration and this would lead to the car spinning off the circuit. Hill would climb out of the car in an effort to check the car for any kind of damage. Jumping back in and getting a push-start to get back into the race, Graham would not redo his harnesses. Flashing by the pits he would notify the Lotus crew when he came back around he would need new tires. He wouldn't make it back around.
Upon checking his car after the spin, Hill would notice that his tires were well worn. And with nearly 20 laps still left he felt he would need new tires in order to complete the race. What he didn't know is how badly worn the tires actually were, and, as he powered his way around the circuit for one more lap one of the tires would absolutely deflate at a moments notice and would send Hill in another spin. However, this time the car would dig in and would turn upside down throwing Hill out of the car. By the time the car came to a rest the scene would be an absolute mess. Hurled from the car as a result of not having his harness buckled, Hill would suffer two broken legs and would suffer other complications when he was taken to the hospital.
The fear of Hill's condition would throw a black cloud over what had been a beautiful day for Lotus and Rindt. Still, Rindt could not be touched. He had risen so far that he was certainly in a class unto himself.
Rindt finally had found what he had been looking for. As he rounded Big Bend and was greeted by 'Tex' Hopkins jumping and waving the checkered flag, Rindt finally had found the car capable of taking him to victory. Of the same mind, Rindt would only go faster over the course of the race and the 49B would willing respond giving the Austrian everything it had, and yet, never displaying so much as a hiccup of protest. In the end, the Austrian would show just what he could do in a car that was willing to go with him to the very end. When he crossed the line to take his first victory Rindt would have more than 45 seconds in hand over Piers Courage in 2nd place and John Surtees would complete the podium being more than a lap behind.
It had been an incredible demonstration of Rindt's abilities in the right car. The pace of the race would be such that Jack Brabham would run out of fuel at the end of the race because of the pace of the race having been greater than what the team had expected.
At the wheel of the 49B, Rindt had risen to the top, where many believed he belonged. Rindt's career had turned a corner. Despite his protests and reservations the move to Lotus had proven to be the decision Rindt had gotten right out of his relatively short, but disappointing, career. Rindt wanted a competitive drive. In the 49B, Rindt had found a kindred spirit. Once the two had come to grips with each other the combination would prove incredibly competitive. Ultimately, the 1969 United States Grand Prix would prove to be the rise of Rindt as the champion, not merely the grand prix winner.
Throughout the first four races of Rindt's 1969 season there would appear to be no difference to any other season. It was quickly becoming a question of whether Rindt's style and no-holds-barred approach was more of the problem than unreliability of any car. Those that knew him and his driving style well knew the truth. And that truth was simply he was too fast for the cars he had at his disposal.
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Wikipedia contributors, '1969 United States Grand Prix', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 April 2013, 20:47 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1969_United_States_Grand_Prix&oldid=548206738 accessed 23 April 2013