Sir Jackie Stewart on racing, friends and family

Sir Jackie Stewart. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Sir Jackie Stewart. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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When Helen whose official title is “diary and travel manager” informs me that unfortunately it won’t be possible for someone to collect me from the station at Wendover in Buckinghamshire I try not to hide my disappointment.

The someone I’d dearly wanted as chauffeur, even for this fairly unremarkable couple of miles, brushing snaggy hedgerows and passing some place called Chequers (wonder who lives there?), was of course Sir Jackie Stewart.

In my taxi I try to impress the driver with the name of the person I’m meeting today, but he doesn’t know the house, has never heard of the three-times world motor racing champion and, once through the big iron gates, manages to get us lost in the grounds. We pass a large bronze sculpture on an immaculate lawn in the shape of a heart or possibly a more intimate part of a woman’s body. We can see a golf course, we can see a Highland coo and her calves (more bronzes) and then we pass the heart/whatever again. But we’re in the right place. Here’s Helen, who re-apologises for the transit issue. Here’s Delilah the maid who ushers me indoors. Here’s the other Helen, Stewart’s wife of 51 years. Here’s Sir Walter Scott, some recognisable art at last. And here’s Sir Jackie who offers me his full name (minus the Sir) when many legends wouldn’t, the hand which has gripped so many wheels and smoothed so many deals, and a pale blue-eyed smile matching his open-necked shirt.

“That’s a Landseer,” he says of the portrait. “Isn’t it fantastic?” Indeed it is. Sir Wattie appears to be reading a first draft to a wee dug which is offering up an expression of rapt devotion. The sculpted dugs below the painting seem related. “No, they were made by Tessa Campbell Fraser who’s Rory Bremner’s wife and they’re of my Norfolk terriers.” Bang on cue, Pimms and Whisky bound into the hall from the study and lead us back there, a royal blue-painted room stuffed with the bawbees of an incredible life: more art, medals, trophies, limited-edition paving-stone books and, just as cherishable in their way, a photographic record spread across all flat surfaces of the 170mph whizzkids, the gorgeous women and the filmy friends from an impossibly glamorous age. While the dogs gnaw at lumps of firewood, Stewart plops his hand-made loafers on a footstool and we talk.

It’s 40 years since the last of his championships. “Of course,” he says, “my mother never knew I was a racing driver.” Mum Jeanie back in Milton, Dunbartonshire didn’t want him to follow his big brother Jimmy into the sport; she was worried sick about the dangers and one driver in the family was quite enough. “Whatever I did in racing I never did, if you understand, because she didn’t bloody well know I’d done it. Oh she was awful contrary and what a very good Scottish word that is.”

Stewart is 74 and looking well on it. A few years ago he had a cancer scare, as did his wife and son Paul. “Thirty-five stitches,” he says, running a finger down the left side of his face. “A melanoma under the cheekbone.” He seems as busy as ever and you can appreciate the need for a diary and travel manager, this Helen working out of a cottage across a courtyard from the house and indeed there seems enough activity here to qualify for hamlet status (Stewartville? At least he doesn’t make everyone wear the zingy tartan). He’s just back from San Francisco, hanging out with Jay Leno, which gets him listing the chat hosts he has known, rounding off with his recently-departed friend Alan Whicker who, though Stewart doesn’t say this, was a practitioner of bygone-age charm just like him. Stewart’s World, in which our man operates as a pan-global corporate ambassador, friends-everywhere enabler and elder statesman of Grands Prix, requires him to fly 350,000 miles a year. Next week he will be in Edinburgh. “I’ve got a meeting with a jeweller,” he says. And maybe a double-murderer as well, of which more later.

Back to his mum and her justifiable fears for the laddie. Tomorrow it’s the Belgian Grand Prix which Stewart won in ’73 but seven years previously Spa-Francorchamps was the scene of his only serious accident. Go on YouTube and you will find footage of his wrecked BRM, bent like a banana, and Graham Hill’s recollection: “Bugger me, it’s Jackie down there!” Stewart laughs. “Aye well, Graham went off in the same river of water that did for me but by that stage there was nothing left for him to hit. There had been an almighty amount of rain and seven of the best drivers in the world had come off on the third corner. I managed to pick a way through this debris but on the Masta Kink – which you’d normally take at 170mph, flicking right-left-right – I aquaplaned and lost contact with Mother Earth.

“I knocked down a woodcutter’s hut, hit a telegraph pole, then a big stone barn, ending up in a ditch. Graham, who was No 1 in my team and could have continued I’m sure, stopped to help. He and Bob Bondurant rescued me. The steering wheel had been forced down below my knees and I was up to my waist in aviation fuel as it was then. They borrowed a spanner from a spectator, would you believe! There were no marshalls or medical people around. Graham removed my thermal underwear because the fuel was burning my skin off. I was put in an ambulance with Helen and Jimmy Clark who’d also come off. But the police escort lost its way and then the ambulance lost the escort. I was told all of this later because I don’t really remember that day. Apart from one thing: when I was laid out on the concrete floor of the hospital there were cigarette butts everywhere.”

After that, things changed. Stewart began campaigning for better safety and never stopped. “I had Spa closed for a while. I was president of the drivers’ association and when improvements weren’t coming we decided we didn’t want to race there.” Safety was paramount of course, but Stewart had some personal regret. “When I won the Belgian in ’73 it was at Zolder. There are a few Grands Prix you need on your cv: Monaco, Nurburgring in Germany and Spa. But I never won at Spa. I dunno: call myself a racing driver…?”

Stewart is sometimes teased about his famous friends and royal connections, not dissimilar to Whicker, but today you wouldn’t describe him as a namedropper. Sometimes he refers to himself in the third person or describes the effect “a Jackie Stewart” can have, or talks in terms of “the Jackie Stewart Factor”, but I don’t read this as boasting. He can be modest, such as when he says: “It’s not that difficult to win one world championship, you know.” Really? “No, it’s about having the best car and the best team. [Manager] Ken Tyrrell wasn’t going to choose a designer that would have caused my wheels to fall off and in Roland Law, Roger Hall and Roy Topp I had engineers who were better at what they did than I was at doing what I did. But, yes, when I got in the car I knew how to stretch the elastic…”

If he’s trying to demystify F1 this won’t work. Stewart may once have rolled around in fag-ends but that ’66 race was to provide white-hot footage for the movie Grand Prix that couldn’t be acted, and film-makers continue to be fascinated by the era. Stewart is excited about the mooted biopic of Francois Cevert, the sport’s first pin-up, and not because he will be portrayed in it. “Francois was very good-looking, a classical pianist, a real, close, perfect friend and of course a terrific driver.” Ewan McGregor had been Stewart’s preference for his role. “We had a long conversation but I couldn’t persuade him. He said he doesn’t want to play living people.”

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, a Roman Polanski documentary focusing on Stewart racing at Monaco was dusted down from 42 years ago with the addition of lost footage. Stewart has to be prompted for his Monaco memories but supplies a goodie. “I won there quite often. The starter, Louis Chiron, was an old boy and it was an effort for him to hold the flag. Other drivers watched his arms but I focused on his legs for when the position of his knees changed. That got me off to a good start.” He enjoyed seeing Weekend of a Champion again. “Roman was a big fan of motor racing and we were good friends. I was in his house – that house – and Sharon Tate was our friend, too,” he says, recalling how Polanski phoned him to say his wife had been murdered by the Manson Gang.

Quite a few people in our story met with terrible ends, Cevert and Clark being among a shockingly high number who died in their racing cars. One night Stewart lay in bed and counted all the friends he’d lost, eventually stopping at 57. “Back then the drivers were much closer than they are now: we flew to races together and holidayed together. The sport’s dangers tightened that bond. And there was so much death around back then that we got used to it, in a way that some might find astonishing.”

Time for a happier memory: it’s of Stewart and Clark at large in swingin’ London. “Jimmy and I shared an apartment in Mayfair, across from Purdey’s the gunsmiths, and because neither of us could cook we ate breakfast out and – after running some errands – dinner out, too. We always endeavoured to go see a film but Jimmy could never decide which one and quite often we’d end up having missed the lot. Jimmy was uncomfortable out of the car. He was introverted…couldn’t make a decision. But behind the wheel, boy, he was just so brilliantly decisive.”

It was Stewart who spotted the whizzo commercial potential of nicking John Lennon’s flatcap. “That wouldn’t have been Jimmy,” his friend laughs. “A herdsman’s bunnet, a blue pullover and happiest in Duns and Chirnside.” But Stewart would have had every excuse to present himself to the world as the introvert given his schooling - “the worst time in my life”. He was considered thick, condemned to woodwork and metalwork “like the other dumbos” – in fact, he was dyslexic. He was taunted by classmates, and teachers, for being unable to read aloud and twice failed “the qualie”. He has never been asked back for prizegiving, which is surprising, and says he wouldn’t go anyway. “But I’m delighted to have made contact again with Joe Milne who came from the Nissen huts between Dumbarton and Alexandria. He was the other dunce in the school’s eyes but he’s done all right, too – head chef at Cardross Golf Club.”

The done-extremely-well Sir Jackie – £42 million, according to the Rich List – is Dyslexia Scotland’s champion and in Edinburgh next week he will be heading to jail. “I visit the prisons a lot. About 70 per cent of the prison population can’t read or write. Some are in prison for violent crime and that can stem from their frustration, feeling of inadequacy and anger at not getting help for their learning difficulties. The first time I visited Saughton I told the guys I couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer even though I did it every day at school from five to 15, a millisecond behind everyone else – couldn’t even recite the alphabet. They asked me when I told my wife. Not until I was 42, I said, because of the shame. That struck a chord. I helped one prisoner get a job and don’t think he’ll mind me mentioning his name – Robert Sansbury – because he’s a new man. We’re looking for a job for another guy right now. He’s 41, been inside every year for 20 in a row, but I firmly believe he’ll come out and never go back. I know a man who’s murdered twice – he’s completely dyslexic. One of the nicest you could meet, fantastic eyes, and I think he could do many good things.”

Amazing tales, but I’ve a train to catch. Stewart picks up a phone and asked for the Range Rover to be got ready. But who’s driving? “I need some sunglasses,” he says, and in my excitement almost offer mine, but he selects a pair from what you might call the sunglasses table. In the grounds, under a rhododendron bush, he points to a bench recently dedicated to Clark. “I’ve decided that all my friends who died should have one.” Next month at Goodwood he will drive Clark’s Lotus to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the latter’s first world title. What speed? “Not up to here,” he says, hand under his neck. What then? “Maybe 150.” Wow. “Ah but those speeds don’t feel like that to racing drivers.”

Stewart turns into the road – Sir Jackie Stewart, actually driving – and takes it slowly. At junctions he asks: “How’s your side?” then waits a few seconds more as if not believing it’s clear. Did he ever think about death when he was racing; does he do so now? “No, never. Some people fear it – Stirling Moss does. But if I was to go tomorrow I don’t think I could complain about having missed much in life.” I don’t think he’s going today – the vehicle is almost ambling now. Can I say I’m a wee bit disappointed and starting to worry about my train?

“My mum never acknowledged my career, you know, but I didn’t get upset. When I retired I came up to the nursing home in Old Kilpatrick to tell her. ‘You’re well out of it, son,’ she said, and we both had a chuckle.” Suddenly we’ve stopped. It’s the station, in bags of time. Stewart didn’t feel the speed, I guess, and neither did his thrilled passenger.