Interview: Sir Jackie Stewart, racing legend

IT'S A clear November day at Knockhill racing circuit, near Dunfermline. The light from the low winter sun bounces off the track and the air is still and crisp. I'm sitting in the passenger seat of a souped-up Seat Cupra fastening my seatbelt when my driver for the day climbs in next to me and does the same.

"Beautiful day, eh?" says Sir Jackie Stewart, before fastening the Velcro collar of his racing suit, giving his signature tartan bunnet a tweak and revving the engine. The 70-year-old Scottish Formula 1 legend is here to promote the Rally of Scotland, which takes place across the Central Belt from 19-21 November, and today he has agreed to take me for a spin.

There is a reverential hush at Knockhill with the great man present. He certainly has all the superstar accoutrements about him: he arrived in an enormous chauffeur-driven Lexus with numerous staff in tow, including an immaculately turned-out, plummy-voiced personal secretary.

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Sir Jackie is unmistakeable: slight, spritely, with the same chin-length hair he's always sported but now in a rather distinguished shade of silver. The bunnet remains on his head at all times, and he also sports a timepiece that looks like it could sink the Titanic. It's an enormous Rolex, so large it almost looks cumbersome to drive with. He famously has the the left sleeve cuff of his shirts altered so as to show his bling off to best effect (he's an ambassador for the brand) and even in a racing suit the garish watch remains as prominent as ever.

Some of the biggest names in Scottish motorsports are present – including Scottish rally champion David Bogie, who is roaring around off-road in his Mitsubishi Evo IX Group N rally car – but even they seem a little lost for words in the presence of Sir Jackie.

The sporting icon competed in Formula 1 between 1965 and 1973, winning three World Drivers' Championship titles, and notched up an impressive 27 wins in 99 grand prix races, at a time when drivers were dying on the tarmac in their droves because of the scant safety provisions. He lost 57 friends and colleagues to the sport in the late Sixties and early Seventies and was a key figure in implementing today's rigorous safety standards.

He retired at 34 but remains a prominent figure on the scene and is now throwing his substantial influence behind the inaugural RACMSA Rally of Scotland which will be the grand finale of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge season. It starts in the grounds of Scone Palace in Perth and roars to a finish at Stirling Castle.

Today Sir Jackie takes the corners like the old pro that he is and talking me through the subtle nuances of the track. "I still get a thrill out of driving, I still love it, and it's like riding a bike; it stays with you," he tells me as he negotiates the first bend in the 1.3-mile circuit. Before long the needle on the speedometer has soared past the 100mph mark, but while the man at the wheel never takes his eyes off the road, he's also opening up about the effect his dyslexia (which was not diagnosed until he was 42) had on his school days.

"I couldn't recite the alphabet to you, but I can remember every subtle bend, every corner of a track," he says, gesturing at the blurred tarmac ahead. "You know, today I couldn't fill out the form to apply for a driving licence, and yet…" He laughs incredulously as he takes Knockhill's hairpin bend with ease.

Alongside his son Paul, he has campaigned for years to raise awareness of dyslexia and he is promoting dyslexia courses for Scottish prisoners. He is also trying to raise awareness of dyslexia in teacher training colleges in Scotland which, he tells me, is one the projects he is most proud of alongside his achievements in raising safety standards in motorsports.

He is, he tells me, no good with numbers, but there are some statistics that he understands all too plainly. "When I was racing, in a period of five years there was a one out of three chance I would live and a two out of three chance I would die. that was a ridiculous batting average, completely wrong." He is a calm, measured man, but he spits out the word "ridiculous". He lost too many friends to count to the sport he loves, and in many cases witnessed their deaths. He dealt with death almost weekly, but remained committed to the dangerous sport, perhaps because, after spending his childhood being told he was stupid, it was one of the few things he truly excelled in.

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"Sport saved my life," he says plainly. "Without that, I don't know, I could have easily ended up in prison because of the frustration I felt. My self-esteem was battered, I felt stupid. A very high percentage of people in prison cannot read or write, and I know that without sport that could have been me. I would have made a pretty good criminal!"

He laughs. I'm amazed at how open he is while he's speeding round a racing circuit. In his eighth decade he is as charming as ever. It sounds a little twee to say that he still has a twinkle in his eye, but it's true. He seems to still get a real thrill out of driving.

He remains passionate about his sport, instructing me carefully as to how to tackle the twists and curves of the track.

When I ask him a question unrelated to the task in hand, he'll often return to the road, offering me insider tips which, with the ink not yet dry on my driver's licence are, unfortunately a little over my head.

"Gently, gently," he tells me seriously, concentrating hard on the road ahead yet almost languishing in his seat as if he couldn't possibly be more relaxed. "That's the key thing; everything must be smooth and gentle." He wags a finger at me. It's hard to imagine how one can be gentle at 120mph, but if anyone can do it, it's Jackie Stewart.

• The Rally of Scotland will be held in Perth and Kinross and Stirling between 19-21 November. Find more information on the event online at:



Born on 11 June in Milton, West Dunbartonshire and christened John Young Stewart. He attends the primary school of Dumbarton Academy, then moves on to Hartfield secondary school.


Wins a clay pigeon shooting competition and goes on to become a member of the Scottish shooting team. He leaves school and enters his father's business, a Jaguar dealership, as an apprentice.


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Takes up an offer from one of his father's clients to test drive his cars. Scores four wins.


Chalks up 14 wins, one second place, and two thirds at Oulten Park. Impresses Ken Tyrrell, who offers him a place on his Formula 3 racing team.


Moves on to British Racing Motors and Formula 1, winning his first Grand Prix at Monza in Italy. Finishes third in the World Championship in his first season.


Runs off the track at 165mph at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, crashing into a telephone pole and a shed. He escaped serious injury but after witnessing the poor standard of safety and medical care at races at the time, begins to campaign vigorously for improved standards.


Becomes world champion for the first time. Goes on to secure the title again in 1971 and 1973. He was runner-up in 1968 and 1972.


Retires from racing after witnessing the death of his teammate, Franois Cevert. Stewart's 27 wins in 99 starts is not equalled for 20 years. He goes on to take up commentating.


Returns to motor racing with his own tartan-branded Formula One team. His cars came second at Monaco and third at San Marino in the 1998-9 season.


Sells his team to Ford for 100m.