How F1 Legend Jackie Stewart Became a Powerful Racing Safety Advocate
Against fierce opposition, Stewart pushed for seat belts, full-face helmets, emergency personnel, and more.
In 1966, Stewart himself faced death in a crash that left him hanging upside-down in his vehicle at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, fuel dripping down his face; fellow racers Graham Hill and Bob Bondurant pulled him from his car. Stewart began to campaign for safety measures to prevent losing more racers on the circuit, and he took a lot of heat in the industry for pushing for change, but he didn’t (and hasn’t) backed down.
“When I was starting in the Formula One world, the tracks were hideously dangerous,” Stewart told The Drive in a recent interview. “There were no runoff areas, and it was just crazy. Ridiculous things like telegraph poles were up close and personal.”
As cars got faster but the tracks stayed the same, racing became unsustainable for life. Stewart advocated for run-off areas, better barriers, and emergency personnel and vehicles at the track. In the process, he called for and led boycotts of races at Spa and the Nürburgring when officials refused to enact better safety practices.
“It took motorsport a wee while from the end of the war to start racing again,” he says. “At that time, the only circuits that were available were either roads or disused airfields. As it turned out, those were safer racetracks than Spa-Francorchamps or the Nürburgring.”
Even though he dubbed the 154-corner track the “Green Hell,” Stewart says the Nürburgring is the greatest racetrack he’s ever driven. It was incredibly dangerous in the '60s as cars got faster and faster, yet no one was moved to make the changes necessary. Niki Lauda, who set a track record for the Ring in 1975, proposed a boycott of the 1976 German Grand Prix, but most of the other drivers didn’t agree. Lauda paid the price in a fiery crash.
“Niki only survived because other drivers pulled him from a burning car, not the marshals,” Stewart remembers. “It had to change. Today, American football is probably more dangerous than Formula One; the cars are designed to be survival cells.”
Stewart's Impact on Safety
Change sometimes takes more time than it should, and safety measures like seat belts were met with disdain when they were introduced for F1; even Stewart didn’t want them.
“I thought seat belts were unnecessary and uncomfortable, at first,” he says.
He changed his mind soon after racing in Indianapolis in the late 60s and started his campaign to push for mandatory safety belts and full-face helmets. Drivers complained loudly, some because they were afraid to be trapped in a burning car. As we know from opposition to safety measures like motorcycle helmets and seat belts in passenger cars, people also don’t like being told what to do.
The halo, a wishbone-shaped device made of Grade 5 titanium which sits above the driver’s head, was introduced in 2018 to a similar level of resistance. According to FIA, Formula One’s governing body, the halo is “strong enough to support the weight of two African elephants and sturdy enough to deflect a large, full suitcase at a speed of 225kph [140 mph].” It met with significant opposition when it was introduced, and some teams and drivers deemed it unsightly. Many of those same people have changed their minds, too, including drivers Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton.
“I wasn't for the halo some years ago, but I think it's the greatest thing that we brought to Formula 1 and without it I wouldn't be able to speak to you today,” Grosjean said after the crash at Bahrain last year that left him with a number of injuries.
ESPN reported that Hamilton once called the halo device the "worst looking mod in Formula One history.” However, after tangling with Max Verstappen at Monza in September in a scary incident during which one of Verstappen’s tires was prevented from crushing Hamilton’s head by a halo, he also changed his tune.
“Honestly, I feel very, very fortunate today,” Hamilton said. “Thank god for the halo. That ultimately saved me. And saved my neck.”
Safety is under constant scrutiny in racing. It was just 2019 when French driver Anthoine Hubert died on the track at Stewart’s old stomping grounds at Spa-Francorchamps. The following year, Spa announced much-needed updates and safety installations like gravel traps at Eau Rouge-Raidillon, dubbed “Spa’s most dangerous corner.”
Sir Jackie Now
Knighted by the Queen in 2001, Sir Jackie is still charming in his 80s. He speaks with the same affable Scottish-accented lilt you might remember if you watched him commentate races with ABC some years ago. He’s still a fierce advocate for safety and speaks with anyone who will listen about the topic. Stewart is still contracted with Rolex, and he remembers the exact date he signed with the watchmaker to race—April 28, 1968—which was, notably, the same day that Arnold Palmer signed on.
Today, his 53-year relationship with Rolex is only second to his 59-year marriage to his wife Helen, his high school sweetheart. Helen would wield the stopwatch while her husband was on the track until the day he abruptly retired in 1973, which was immediately after the death of teammate and friend François Cevert during practice at Watkins Glen. It would have been his 100th Grand Prix, and he had to walk away.
“I’m lucky to have lived at all; I raced at a time when motorsports were dangerous, and sex was safe,” Stewart says with a wry grin.
While F1 drivers today are still unquestionably participating in a sport that carries some risk, it's safer today because of Jackie Stewart.
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