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Jochen Rindt: Champion from beyond the grave

By Tom McGowan, CNN
  • Jochen Rindt won the Formula One World Championship in 1970
  • Rindt became the first driver to win the title posthumously
  • An exhibition at the Westlicht Gallery commemorated the 40th anniversary of his death
  • Jackie Stewart: "Jochen was one of the top two or three drivers in the world"

(CNN) -- In September 1970, a 28-year-old Jochen Rindt led the Formula One World Championship heading into the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

A crash during the final practice session ahead of the race took the life of the man in pole position for the title, whilst at the same time providing him with a unique position in sporting history.

Rindt's supremacy in the drivers' championship was such that, despite his death, none of his fellow racers could overhaul his lead in the standings, making Jochen the only posthumous world champion in Formula One.

In a strange twist of fate, the Austrian lost his life in almost the same place on the Monza track as his childhood icon, German driver Wolfgang von Trips -- after a brake failure on his Lotus saw him crash into the famous Parabolica curve at nearly 150 mph.

Author of "Jochen Rindt: Der erste Popstar der Formel 1," Herbert Völker recalls a man who, prior to his fatal crash, boosted the profile of the entire sport.

"Motorsport, at least in Europe, stayed in a quiet corner," Völker told CNN. "It took a new type of personality to give it broader attendance. There were only two guys who fit that picture; the Scotsman Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt."

Völker believes Jochen -- who was orphaned as an infant when his parents were killed in a bombing raid -- had a star quality that transcended the sport.

"He did have a very special face that you wouldn't forget easily," he said. "He married a beautiful girl from Finland and he was outspoken in a way that had nothing to do with the identical phrases of sports champions.

Jochen was one of the top two or three drivers in the world ... who was also my close friend
--Jackie Stewart

"And of course he was a spectacular driver. He had a sense for car control that allowed him to master situations that had rarely been seen before, not to mention afterwards."

Fittingly, Völker believes Rindt's finest victory was his last, the first F1 grand prix to be held at Hockenheim in 1970.

The track had taken the life of the legendary Scottish racer Jim Clark two years previously, and the German Grand Prix was only switched to the new venue on the insistence of the drivers, who believed it was a safer alternative to the Nurburgring.

Heading into the race, Rindt lead Australian Jack Brabham by 11 points in the drivers' championship, but both were behind Ferrari's Jacky Ickx on the grid, with the Belgian driver starting in pole position.

"[Rindt] in the Lotus, and Jacky Ickx were close," recalls Völker. "In their top speed and everything. They overtook each other 30 or 40 times, and in such a fair manner that they used their fingers to show which the side the other one could overtake safely.

"To point out which side was safer was a fine, fine way of racing. It was perfect for the spectators and they loved it. In the end Jochen won by tenths of a second and it was just fantastic."

Such acts of sportsmanship were typical of a golden generation of drivers such as Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Stewart, Ickx and Rindt according to Volker.

And between Rindt and Stewart's there was friendship to accompany the rivalry: "He was a great friend and he had a great sense of humor," Stewart told CNN.

"We traveled together a lot, to and from races because we were both living in Switzerland from 1968. We were living 300 meters apart [on Lake Geneva], so Jochen was a close friend, and Nina (Jochen's wife) still is."

Despite the highly competitive arena in which they dueled, Stewart believes the dangers in F1 during that time contributed to respect between drivers.

"Motor racing in those days was very dangerous," he said. "During my period, if you raced in Formula One for five years there was only a one in three chance you were going to live.

"The respect you had for other drivers was absolutely paramount, and that relationship extended from our friendship to our respect of each other on the track.

"I cannot think of one occasion when Jochen and I were racing hard together and conducted ourselves in anything other than the correct and appropriate fashion."

One of those occasions was the British Grand Prix in 1969, where Jochen was on pole, with his close friend right behind him. "We had 30 lead changes between him and I, in one race. That's not even heard of today.

"It was slipstreaming, it was passing. We used it intelligently; we were using the track correctly and behaving correctly. That doesn't mean we were old fashioned at all, it means we were intelligent and respectful."

At the end of race, Stewart beat off the challenge from Rindt who eventually settled for fourth place.

"One of my great memories is being able to race as close as we did that day with someone who was also my close friend. That's a lasting memory for me."

It was Stewart who lost his title to Rindt in 1970, a for the Scot there was no more deserving opponent.

"The combination of Jochen Rindt and the Lotus in 1970 was, in my opinion unbeatable. In his time, Jochen was one of the top two or three drivers in the world," he said.

Lotus -- who are sponsored by CNN -- re-entered Formula One at the start of the 2010 season, following a 16-year break from the sport. Team principal Tony Fernandes said his team owe a debt to Rindt's talent.

"Jochen Rindt holds a very special place in the hearts of all Formula One and Lotus fans," said Fernandes. "He showed his God-given skills in F1, winning and doing so with style.

"At Lotus Racing we know we are standing on the shoulders of giants when racing with the Lotus name. We are all very proud to play our part in helping keep his memory alive."