The unsuccessful attempt to produce a competitive four-wheel drive car for Formula 1 had finally run its course, Lotus reluctantly abandoned the effort and set about designing a car that would return them to the top. That car would be the famous Lotus 72 but after its disappointing debut at Jarama, Rindt was resigned to drive the old Lotus 49C with new front suspension at the next race, Monaco. Rindt had come to Lotus in 1969 and was very much a man in a hurry. He often spoke of making one major attempt at the World Championship before retiring and in his mind this would be the year. He was hesitant about joining Lotus as he felt that their cars were un-safe and after his accident at Jarama the year before, when his rear-wing failed he was even more certain of this being the case but he also knew that when Lotus got it right it could be unstoppable.
Meanwhile Jack Brabham, ironically Rindt’s previous boss was competing in the last season of a storied career that saw him win three World Championships, the last in his own car. He had previously promised his wife, Betty, that 1969 would be his last year but unable to secure the services of a top flight driver and wanting to try his hand in the new monocoque BT33 he decided to drive one more year.
An added incentive was the fact that many in the press were calling for his retirement, which must have caused even this most taciturn Australian’s blood to boil. In response to these calls Brabham was preparing his answer. He well knew of Lotus’ new car but felt that the car would take some time to be sorted out. His main fear was actually Ferrari and that his best chance for a successful year was to collect sufficient points early in the season. This was a Brabham trademark tactic as his cars while tending to be conservative were always well prepared.
The opening race at Kyalami in South Africa resulted in an impressive victory for Brabham. Rindt was involved in an accident with the eventual race winner and his chance of victory was gone before a single lap had been completed. Both Rindt and Brabham failed to finish at the next race in Spain though Brabham was challenging for the lead at the time of his car’s demise. The stage was now set for Monaco.
Brabham, despite having brake problems was able to qualify fourth fastest behind Hulme, Amon and Stewart. Rindt, having a terrible weekend including having to deal with a case of sea-sickness caused by a sleepless night on a yacht in Monaco’s harbor, was on the fourth row. The Austrian feeling that he had no chance in the Lotus 49C told his wife Nina that he would “just drive around”.
The start of the race saw Stewart storm into the lead while Brabham found himself stuck behind Amon’s March. Eventually out-braking Amon he took off in pursuit of Stewart. On lap 6 Stewart’s engine began to misfire and Brabham was able to assume the lead. Brabham would later remark that he would often find himself driving too conservatively when leading a race rather than destroying his opposition. Rindt’s race was going in the opposite direction as he was passed by the Matra of Henri Pescarolo and puttered around in seventh.
Not the place to be for a man wanting to win the World Championship. But other factors were hard at work on this day as the race came to Rindt when Ickx and Beltoise retired in front of him. With Stewart’s engine misfire Rindt was now in 5th behind Brabham, Amon, Hulme and Pescarolo. Like a tiger being awakened from a sound sleep Rindt began to stir. On lap 36 he re-passed Pescarolo and on lap 41, Hulme. Amon’s turn was next but before his turn came he had to retire due to suspension failure. It was now a straight race behind the wily veteran Brabham and the “awakened tiger”. Fifteen seconds still separated them and Brabham felt that he had the race well in hand. Someone forgot to tell this to Rindt as he continued his charge. Throwing the old Lotus around the circuit at Monaco was a sight that still lives in the memory of those lucky thousands who were there and the millions who saw the race on television including those in the United States where the race was shown on the Wide World of Sports.
Urging the Austrian on while sitting on the floor in front of the television watching the greatest finish in “modern” Grand Prix history is not something soon forgotten by this author.
Driving his Lotus on the ragged edge it seemed certain that he must crash. Rindt would later remark that he had never driven a car faster than that day and hoped he would never have to again. Still there seemed no chance for victory but as stated earlier other factors were hard at work. With four laps to go Brabham was still nine seconds in front but on lap 77 he encountered Jo Siffert’s weaving March as he attempted to find the last drops of fuel to make it back to the pits. Five seconds were lost before Brabham was able to make his way past. The gap was now 2.4 seconds and Brabham sensing that things were getting a little dicey increased the gap the next time around by 2 seconds as Rindt loss time in one of his many near-misses with the Armco. Rindt then matched Brabham’s fastest lap of 1m24.4s with his own time of 1m23.3s.
It was now the final lap and at Tabac, Brabham came upon three backmarkers and had to struggle to get pass. Rindt just behind forced his way through and was now just behind the leader but still it seemed impossible that he could get past, another lap maybe but not now. Approaching the Gasworks hairpin Brabham came upon the slow moving de Tamaso of Piers Courage. Left or right – all seemed closed off. Brabham for an instant thought of following the stricken car through and had he done so all might have been different but fearing that Rindt was closer than he actually was decided to pass but by then he had missed his braking point and in an instant he was in the straw bales as Rindt flashed past. Rindt could actually be seen looking across at Brabham and shaking his head in disbelief. The next scene saw the famous cap thrown in the air signifying another win by one of Chapman’s cars.
Brabham’s problems were still not finished. Having stalled his engine a marshal at the scene, caught up in the excitement of the moment, jumped over the barrier and attempted to give the stalled car a push. This would have meant immediate disqualification. Brabham knowing this, was able to fire up the engine and slam it into reverse just as the marshal arrived. The marshal now pushing thin air lost his balance and ended up sprawled over the front of the car! Brabham knew it wouldn’t look quite right to cross the finish line with a flag marshal draped over his car and jammed on the brakes causing the stunned marshal to fall on his rear. Finally the marshal regained his senses and moved out of the way as Brabham inched past and limped home second.
Rindt overcome by his stunning victory climbed the steps to the Royal Box with tears streaming down his face. Trembling, he shook hands with the Royal couple while the British and Austrian anthems were played. Waves of cheers from the delirious fans rolled over him for they had surly seen a miracle.
What would cause a driver without any hope for victory suddenly to awaken and drive with such reckless abandon – certainly it was the stuff of champions.