Columns - Big Al

Jackie won't worry about no Knighthood


I have always been a little suspicious about the merits of being included in the New Year and Queen's Birthday Honours lists. This is not, you understand, because I feel that anything as insignificant in the overall order of things as spending a lifetime traipsing round the world reporting on motor racing merits a Knighthood - and that consequently I have been left out.

However, I find myself entirely in agreement with respected Daily Mail columnist Ian Wooldridge who today wrote an article headed; "Why has brave Stewart missed out in race for a knighthood?"

The Stewart we're talking about, of course, is Jackie. Woodlridge summed up his disbelief by saying "was it because of premature gossip column speculation that he would get one? Was it due to some malevolent feeling that he is too close to the younger Royals? (Note here: Princess Anne's son Peter Phillips worked for Stewart Grand Prix during the summer of 1999)

"Or was it sheer ignorance of what he has achieved for British industry, let alone his impact on motor racing, both on and off the track?"

To all these theories I would add "or is it because people are simply jealous of what he's achieved?"

Taking a straightforward historical context, it would be a brave man indeed who rated Jackie Stewart the very best driver since the official World Championship began 50 years ago. Yet I would contend that he was certainly the most significant (italics) Formula 1 driver of the past 50 years. Put aside his sheer natural ability behind the wheel, and Stewart is a pivotal character on two crucial counts.

Firstly, he was a tireless campaigner for safety at a time when such a stance was unfashionable, single-handedly manufacturing a bandwagon which others have since climbed aboard and attempted to hijack. Secondly, he was the first superstar millionaire F1 sportsman, laying the foundations for the current era in which the top drivers call the financial shots.

During this 50 year period, F1 racing was transformed from a sport which killed up to half a dozen participants every season to one in which a competitor had to be really unlucky to die in a racing car. Stewart reckoned that, when he raced, the batting average was a three in five chance of dying in a racing car if you survived for more than five years.

More than anybody else, was responsible for the great strides in circuit safety during the mid-1960s, reasoning that he was paid to demonstrate his skill, not to risk his life unreasonably.

This put him on a collision course with the traditionalists who reckoned he was a softy, but the passing of time has shown such people to be eccentrics and Stewart was bang on the nail.

Furthermore, his shrewd awareness that things had to change laid the groundwork for the health of today's Grand Prix business. If drivers were still being killed at the rate they were in the late 1960s, how many major multi-national corporations do you think would wish to become involved as commercial sponsors? Big corporations are very aware of what one might call "the downside risk" of everything they involve themselves with.

Those who are fond of Stewart joke about his close relationship with the Royal Family, but Jackie is big enough not to be unduly worried such things.

Put simply, he has had more important things to worry about over the past year. In a moving interview this week he talked about his anxiety and despair after his elder son Paul was diagnosed with colonic cancer.

"I've seen friends die on the race track," he said thoughtfully, "but I couldn't cope with my son's cancer."

In fact, coping is precisely what he did. Paul is now in remission and looked fighting fit at the recent BRDC general meeting at Silverstone. Forget Knighthoods; Paul's dogged fightback to health was the best New Year present that this overwhelmingly decent man and his wife Helen could have wished for.