The realm of Formula One drips with money, sex and everything jet set. The fittest young drivers in the world defy death inside the most advanced cars ever built, while swarms of models and well-heeled heiresses wait around every chicane to catch the eye. The parties start days before a grand prix and continue well after all the wheels are back in the paddock.
Hollywood made the endless romantic bacchanals of the late James Hunt a matter of pop culture, and those booze and nicotine-fueled hedonistic adventures are credited with holding Hunt’s talent to only one F1 title. Racing fans remember Sir Stirling Moss as the best driver never to win Formula One’s biggest prize largely because he was more interested in women than checkered flags. For such racers, there’s more attractive prizes to win off the track than on it.
It takes a uniquely disciplined man to steer through this heady mix of avarice and lust and remain locked on the ultimate goal of an F1 Championship. Three-time cup holder Sir Jackie Stewart was forced to stay focused at gunpoint. Fortunately, he was always the one holding the gun.
“I was a competitive shooter before I was a racing driver,” Stewart says. “I was winning championships in shooting by the age of 14, so I was under pressure to stay focused throughout my adolescence. Now, if you have a long night out before a race, perhaps you can make a tiny mistake and still work your way back up the pack over the course of a race. But, if you have an unsteady hand shooting, you miss and you lose. So, I had to learn mind management early on and that prevented me from getting carried away in F1.”
He’s holding court in the Paddock Club at Autodromo Nazionale Monza—the site of his first grand prix victory. It’s qualifying day for the Italian Grand Prix. Stewart is surrounded by VIPs and corporate reps sipping complimentary Champagne and trying not to stare at the racing legend while the drivers fight for pole position on a rain-soaked track below.
While he hardly hid in a monastery during the heady racing years of the 1960s, Stewart was always known as the thinking man’s racer. The results speak for themselves: F1 championships in ’69, ’71 and ’73; 27 Formula One wins and 43 top-three finishes over an eight-year career; a second place finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and an 18-year career as a sports commentator for ABC. He’s the only racer to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year.
He credits much of that to knowing when to behave: “There’s the money. There are the most beautiful women in the world. There are countless people who want to host you, do something for you, touch you, ask for your autograph. They all want some piece of you, and that can become very intoxicating and addictive for some drivers. If it does, it can be a powerful distraction.”
“From [Niki] Lauda to me to [Ayrton] Senna, all the top guys were very focused. That’s what kept them on podiums over the drivers who were known for the women and the parties.”
The last survivor from his era of champions, the 78-year-old Stewart sees modern versions of the same temptations surrounding drivers of today, so the same focus is in order. Still, he doesn’t believe more racers these days favor discipline over debauchery largely because they work a much lighter schedule—offering more recovery time and making their lives that much easier.
“Drivers are no longer overworked. Today, they run 20 races over the course of nine months with very little speed testing in between. There were stretches when I ran two or three grand prix races in a weekend or as many as 30 races in 10 days across different classes. I once won four races in a weekend.”
While that schedule kept Stewart on his game, he fears today’s drivers could have too much free time on their hands: “They’re still surrounded by the women and the parties and the demands. If they have a big night, or if all of that time between races offers too many long nights, they can lose the intensity needed to compete. It’s easy enough to be taken in amidst all of the attention.”
Some of a Scotsman’s traditional dourness sneaks out of Stewart’s otherwise amiable tones as he sizes up the attitudes of today’s racers. He doesn’t believe they know how easy they have it with their modern schedule—nor do they celebrate the level of facilities, the technology or the safety they enjoy. He doesn’t blame them for that lack of appreciation, putting it all down to simply not knowing any better.
“This current racing world is the only one they experienced. None of them were born yet when I won my first Grand Prix. They didn’t experience F1 cars without seatbelts. They only hear about 1968 when four racers died in four weeks. They drive on a Nurburgring that’s safer now because we refused to race on it in 1970 because it was suicidal. The stand we took made it possible for Formula One to avoid losing a single driver for 18 years before the deaths of [Roland]) Ratzenberger and Senna in 1994. They experienced none of that.”
With a reduced schedule and improved understanding of peak performance, today’s racers buzz around Stewart on their private jets with teams of nutritionists, chefs and personal trainers to keep them in shape. The Flying Scot relied only on a sensible diet, sampling the party scene without ravaging his liver, plenty of gym time and running. He now wishes he would’ve laid off the jogging.
“I never shed a drop of blood in a race car, but the running did in my knees.”
Stewart earned his aerial-themed nickname not just from his on-track heroics, but due to his insane travel schedule while competing around the world. While racing Formula One and other smaller circuits in 1972, Stewart flew a documented 86 times across the Atlantic between Europe and the U.S., comprising more than 450,000 air miles that year—and all of that was in coach, because Stewart is a proper Scotsman.
“I always flew coach because we Scots are known for being frugal. There’s still no pockets in my tartan trousers. One of the reasons I have money now is because I made a lot of it when I was racing and saved it. That Scottish upbringing also helped to keep me sensible.”
Watching Stewart flit about the pit row interacting with the race crews and drivers, it’s clear he still gets on well with the sports’s modern stars despite the generation gap. When he looks at today’s F1 and compares it to that of the swinging ‘60s and ‘70s that he dominated, the biggest difference he sees isn’t the quality of the drivers, the speed of the cars, the technology or social media’s impact on the sport. It’s F1’s massive television reach that changed the game into the international force it is today.
“When I really look at the guys of today, it’s all the same type of man racing, really. We’re all the same animal inside. Yes, the schedules change. The technology changes. The tracks change. As professional racing drivers, we change with the advancements. We evolve. That’s part of the job of being a driver.
“Television is what’s really changed this sport. When I was racing, there would be scores of journalists around us. Now, it’s all television media putting the sport out there around the clock all around the world.”
Whether his potential challengers were drinking and driving, showing up at the track hungover or chasing a skirt instead of a finish line, Stewart kept his engine and conscience relatively clean. If you ask what really kept him on track beyond his Scottish moors, the schedule and the guns, Stewart will always credit his wife of 55 years. Lady Helen Stewart was Sir Jackie’s childhood sweetheart and accompanied him as a racing team member and time-keeper during his competitive career. She kept statistics during speed tests, time trials and competitive laps.
“Of course, my wife’s presence kept me out of trouble. It was more important to have her around [as] a team member for her support.”
In 2017, Lady Helen is locked in a battle with dementia—a fight that refocused her ever-practical husband for one last race.
“My wife can no longer walk. The parts of her brain that handle those functions no longer enable her to put one foot in front the other. There’s no cure for dementia, and there are no proven preventative treatments. It’s essential because studies show, for the current generation of young people, one in three will suffer from dementia in some way.
“We’re going to do something about that. We’re getting the racing world involved raising money and driving recruiting and research with Race Against Dementia. We’re going to find a treatment and a cure by locating and enabling young researchers—young that it’ll bring new ideas and new tools to the search.”
As Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel zip into their fire suits and settle into their cars along the starting grid, the crowd’s gaze isn’t on those stars of today. They’re focused on Stewart as he walks down the center of the race track in his green checkered trousers and six-paneled driver’s cap, waving to fans of all ages. For Sir Jackie, the last king standing from his era and a champion for his 21st-century causes, the race will always be on.