Jackie Stewart interview: My brother the hero

CAN A CHAP approaching three score years and ten still have va-va-voom? Well, here comes Sir Jackie Stewart OBE, motoring into the room at speed and apologising for being late – something to do with confusion over two car parks.

Not that he was in the driving seat. He has a chauffeur to do that sort of thing – he hasn't been behind the wheel of one of his limousines for decades. Nevertheless, the Dumbarton-born triple Formula One world champion, who last stood on top of the winners' podium in 1973 – the year he retired – is clearly still a driven man in every sense.

He'll be 70 on 11 June and he shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, he plans to mark his "big birthday" by climbing Ben Lomond with his sons, Paul and Mark. "I can't believe I haven't got around to it before," he says. "Not enough time, I guess," he adds, shooting an immaculate cuff and revealing a Big Ben of a gold Rolex on his wrist. (He has his left-hand shirt cuffs made slightly larger so that the watch can get the exposure it deserves, since he has "a commercial relationship" with the brand.)

He likes to get on with things, does the multi-millionaire businessman and sporting icon. A self-confessed obsessive and a lifelong competitor, he's committed to "values of excellence" that he never ceases to espouse or to expect in others.

He pats the sofa and instructs: "Sit on my right – I'm giving you my good ear; I reserve the other one for my wife."

However, it's fully ten minutes before we talk, because first of all he has to meet and greet old friends in the boardroom at his publisher's offices in London's Euston Road and, since it's yet another momentous day in the headline-grabbing world of Formula One, he also has to interrupt our interview to do another one with Five Live, offering thoughtful soundbites on championship leader Jenson Button's Brawn team winning their appeal to the FIA, the sport's governing body, over the controversial diffusers – an aerodynamic device at the back of his car.

Meanwhile, there's the "Liargate" affair, in which erstwhile golden boy Lewis Hamilton claims he was instructed by the McLaren team manager to lie to race stewards after the Australian Grand Prix. McLaren don't have their sorrows to seek as it's the eve of the predicted departure of the head of their Formula One team, Ron Dennis.

Disaster after disaster is being heaped daily on the sport that Stewart loves. "All this drama and nonsense," he sighs, adding that it seems to have less and less to do with the actual racing. We talk later about the sport's current white-knuckle ride, but first we discuss the new edition of Stewart's enjoyable autobiography, Winning is Not Enough, already a bestseller in hardback, but now updated to take in events in his life since its 2007 publication.

The saddest and most personal of these was the death of his older brother, Jim, who died aged 77 on 3 January last year, in Glasgow.

It was Jim's brilliant career in motor racing that ignited the flame of the young Jackie's burning passion for the sport. As Jimmy Stewart, he was "one of the best and smoothest sports car drivers in the world during the 1950s," his brother points out.

Eight years older than Jackie, Jim was "the clever one".

"He was my hero, my older brother who blazed a trail that I was so proud to follow. He was everything I ever wanted to be," says Stewart. However, Stewart is most proud of his brother for defeating the alcoholism that blighted his existence for so long. Life after motor racing – Jim retired when he was 24-years-old – was not always such an easy ride. Jim Stewart worked in motor vehicle sales in Scotland, England and America, married and had two children, Jane and Iain, but then separated from his wife Elizabeth as his life spiralled downwards.

"When I think about Jim, in a way, I feel more of a loss for the broken years because in those years he must have been distressed beyond my comprehension. Yet, we were so close. We grew up in a wee bungalow in Milton with a mum and a dad who were very, very good to us both. Jim and I even shared the same bedroom until I was 23 years of age."

Stewart pauses, then says quietly: "That window of time when he took to alcohol took everything from his life. His friends, his wife, his children, his job, his money, his family – and that went on and on for an intolerably long time, maybe 40 years. There were times when he would not accept that he had a drink problem. I can't tell you how much I tried to help him. Nothing worked."

At one point, Jim had sunk so low that he was living up a close in the east end of Dumbarton in appalling conditions. "It broke my heart, to see my brother in that state, knowing that once he'd had all that style and class, all that talent. He'd travelled the world driving racing cars. He'd met glamorous people, people who had a great quality of life. Then for him to sink to that level where he was living in squalor almost, well ..." His voice trails off.

Jim's situation deteriorated to such an extent that Stewart bought him a flat. "It was a great apartment, looking out over the River Leven. He tried to keep it right, but he'd get so far under the influence that he was robbed from time to time."

His brother's valuable racing memorabilia went missing – his crash helmet, even his briefcase.

"He lost bits of his life that were never to be seen again. I've never mentioned this before, but he actually sold things. My mum and dad knew the artist George Houston well. He'd given each of them a painting when they married. I've still got the one they gave to me. Jim sold his, I think. So, yes, it was a terrible time."

Stewart does not live in Scotland – he and his wife Helen have homes in the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire, and beside Lake Geneva, where they moved in 1968 – so he often didn't see his brother at his worst.

Did he ever lose patience with Jim?

"No. I never stopped loving him," he says firmly. "I had nothing but sadness and sympathy for him. His life was full of disappointments. My life was everything his wasn't. I had everything that he'd dreamt of having."

Eventually, Jim settled in the village of Rhu, on the banks of the Clyde, where Stewart bought him a house.

In 1999, "when many would have slipped away," Jim squared up to his problem, pulled back from the brink and did not touch another drop until his death. Stewart persuaded him to have treatment at the Priory in London.

"As a result of his determination he got his life back. I hope and believe that those nine years of sobriety were a period of peace and contentment for him, rekindling his friendships, playing golf, driving his own car again, travelling and living in comfort."

Jim died from complications following heart surgery. "He passed quietly away and Helen and I and his children were with him right to the end," says Stewart. "In a way, I think my brother had made his mind up to move on. He was content his time had come. My brother had tackled life, and had conquered his demons. He'd won his greatest battle over alcoholism, and he'd been reunited with a quality of life and everything he could have wanted."

IN MATTERS of life and death, Jackie Stewart is remarkably philosophical, as only a man who saw 57 of his fellow racing drivers perish in crashes in 11 years can be. In those days, the odds on a driver who raced for five years surviving were just one in three. The ghosts of all those friends, such as legendary Scot Jim Clark, are still with him and most days he sees them, having what he calls "visitations".

"They're all still around," he smiles. "All of them. The older you get the more you understand what loss is. You know, I've had so much exposure to death I don't fear it."

The best parts of his book are the thrilling chapters of what it is like to be the fastest man in the world. "The adrenaline!" he exclaims, launching into a vivid description of the heightening of the senses when he was driving in a grand prix.

As for his beloved Formula One, it's a much safer sport nowadays, thanks in part to his campaign to reduce the carnage on the track. "It was hideously dangerous when I raced," he says. "I know some people think the danger has been taken away too much, but I don't believe that."

He freely admits he didn't write his autobiography in longhand.

"I dictated it," says Stewart, who will soon become a grandfather for the ninth time when his son Mark's wife, Anne, gives birth to their fifth child. Profoundly dyslexic, Stewart was finally diagnosed when he was 41 years old, after it emerged that his son Mark was also dyslexic and that his elder son, Paul, has also suffered from a mild form of the learning disability. Both boys have successful careers. Paul was a grand prix driver and with his father established Paul Stewart Racing, which they sold to Ford in 1999 for an estimated 100m.

Like his mother, Helen, and his father, Paul has battled cancer in recent years. Helen had breast cancer and Stewart had a melanoma cut out of his left cheek. But Paul's cancer, discovered when he was 34, was rare – non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"After Paul was diagnosed with cancer of the colon, I knew what fear was. As a racing driver I looked at death in a totally different way to other people. But it's a different form of shock when you confront the possibility of death as a parent. I have never before been so affected by fear."

Nonetheless, he adds, with a happy smile, Paul has made a full recovery and has never felt better.

Meanwhile, Mark is a successful film and television producer who worked on the recent BBC4 film, about Jim Clark, the Borders farmer turned world champion racing driver, who remains in Stewart's view, the greatest driver he ever raced against.

"A racing driver is only as good as his last win," he says, adding that the Lewis Hamilton affair sums up the sport. "It's peaks and valleys. Sometimes you find yourself in a cold, dark, wet cave. Lewis is in there now. He had such a rapid rise; he was very privileged to go into the best team at 19, but he doesn't have the knowledge of, say, Jenson Button, who can give such dignified performances. He's 29, Lewis is six years younger.

"As for Lewis being dragged into this fib-telling, I don't know the whole story so I can't comment because I wasn't there. I've never talked to Lewis about it. All I know is that it's happened and it has severely damaged both McLaren and Lewis. Lewis will come out of it, potentially. Yes, he's young but he has hunger – he wants to deliver and I like the boy very much. I know that feeling of wanting to deliver."

In his autobiography, Stewart writes at length about not only delivering as a sportsman but as a businessman, discussing his role as an ambassador for the Royal Bank of Scotland, for whom he's working this year for nothing, and his friendship with the beleaguered former CEO Sir Fred Goodwin. So what does he feel about the RBS's parlous state now and the tough times his friend has faced?

"Well, it wasn't one man and one bank that brought down the world," he sighs. "I'd still do anything for Fred Goodwin. He's been a good friend to me, still is. Although I'm totally sympathetic with people who have lost investments and their jobs. There's no doubt mistakes were made."

When Jackie Stewart was at Dumbarton Academy, he recalls feeling "stupid, dumb, thick. My schooling was a total disaster. The torment, the humiliation, the frustration ... So when I found out I was dyslexic, it was like someone had saved me from drowning."

He's certainly compensated for his difficulties with reading and writing. Spend a couple of hours in his articulate company and you find that he has a mind like a filing cabinet and a photographic memory.

"Because of my dyslexia, I've always had to think more carefully," he admits.

Which begs the question why Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, has ridiculed the profoundly dyslexic Scot as a "certified half-wit" who dresses like a "music-hall artist" – for which he has never apologised.

"Well, that's the measure of the man," Stewart responds, "I don't find it difficult to say I'm sorry. I'm not a serial apologiser, but I find that if you put your hands up and apologise it saves an awful lot of time." Then he glances at his Rolex, realises he should have been somewhere else ten minutes ago and zooms off.

• Winning is Not Enough: The Autobiography, by Jackie Stewart, published by Headline, priced 7.99.