1968 German Grand Prix – Jackie Stewart’s Greatest Race
By Jackie Stewart
For Grand Prix drivers the German Grand Prix each year is a very special event because the Nurburgring is certainly the most difficult, the most treacherous, and the most demanding of the tracks that the circus travels to each year. Drivers are often asked what is their favorite circuit. In the majority of cases, they say that the Nurburgring is perhaps the most satisfying. This is said, in most cases, while sitting in armchairs in the comfort of their own homes with roaring fires in front of them! But really I don’t believe that too many people would honestly admit that they enjoy driving on the Nurburgring in a Formula 1 car. I know that whenever I drive there I get back to the pits and take a big, deep breath because, My God, I’m pleased to be home! In 1968, that statement was truer than ever as the Nurburgring was engulfed in a miserable fog and a steady drizzle soaked everyone.
I arrived at the Nurburgring late on Thursday afternoon after having flown up from Geneva with Graham Hill in his Piper Aztec, accompanied by Betty Hill, Jo Siffert, and Jo Bonnier. Just as we were unpacking the baggage from the plane the rain started, and from that point on we seldom got away from it. When we arrived at the ‘Ring, which is some 30 km from the airport, I did 3 laps in a Volkswagen, taking my mechanic, Ken Tyrrell, and the Dunlop people around and on these 3 laps the circuit was dry all the way round. This was the only time I was going to see it that way during the entire weekend.
When official practice started on Friday morning I was starting my lightweight Matra o unscrubbed tyres and with new brake pads. The fog was extremely bad, with visibility down to 200 yards, but I did 15 laps of the short loop, bedding the tyres and brakes. By the time I had done this, the fog had got a little worse, and visibility had deteriorated round the back end of the circuit. As there was a practice session later in the afternoon, and another one on Saturday, Ken Tyrrell didn’t think that it was a sensible move to risk the car under such conditions. At this time, certainly, flag marshals couldn’t see each other and really the track was in no condition for racing. However, a few of the boys did go out, and had the advantage of a partly dry circuit although it was still very foggy. During this time Jacky Ickx, Chris Amon, Graham Hill, John Surtees, and Jochen Rindt put in some reasonably quick times that proved to be the fastest of the entire practice period. Vic Elford also put a quick lap in during that session. By the time the afternoon session was due to start, conditions had worsened if anything.
The organizers quite rightly said that conditions were far too bad to allow us out on the circuit so I didn’t get out at all on Friday. This meant that we could only practice on Saturday, but then I did manage to put in a few laps in my car and recorded the fastest time of the day. However, everyone complained that there wasn’t sufficient practice, and the officials decided that an early morning session on race day was a good idea. During this session I practiced the car at long last with an aerofoil fitted, and found it to be slightly better.
I cannot really say that it was noticeable while driving, but the times seemed to intimate that there was a slight improvement. But of course at the Nurburgring it is extremely difficult to recognize any small improvement in time. With the aerofoil on, I did record a time of 9 minutes 54.2 seconds which enabled me to get on to the third row of the starting grid. It is unusual at the Nurburgring to have a 3:2:3 grid; the normal thing there is to have 4:3:4, but in any case I would still have been on the third row of the grid.
When I did my fastest lap on the race morning, conditions really were very miserable. It was raining heavily, the fog was pretty bad in parts, and even then I don’t believe the flag marshals could see each other. The rivers that were running across the track were the biggest problem for, on account of the trees, one cannot see pools of water as one usually can on most circuits, and all of a sudden one would arrive over the crest of a hill and go into a river that felt several inches deep and was probably 2 or 3 feet wide.
The car would immediately aquaplane, and go out of control. On one occasion I was in top gear going along a straight piece of road when this occurred. The car went down the road sideways, flicked, and luckily came back pointing in the right direction. This sort of maneuver really isn’t pleasant, and I came back to the pits to say that I didn’t think that we should practice any more under these conditions, fearing that I might put a foot wrong on the morning of a Grand Prix, which would of course be pretty difficult to rectify.
In fact, during this session, Jackie Oliver had such a moment, and was incredibly lucky to walk away from it because it was on an extremely slippery downhill section, entering a small bridge prior to the Adenauer Forest. Jackie got into some difficulties, knocked two wheels off the Lotus, and the Lotus mechanics performed absolute miracles to have the car roadworthy for the race which was due to start some 2½ hours later.
The Grand Prix itself was started some 45-50 minutes later than scheduled. The engines were started at least 5 minutes before flag-fall, which was a mistake. Jo Siffert’s engine certainly suffered from overheating during this spell, and John Surtees’s motor certainly didn’t improve itself, because John was alongside me on the grid and I could see that it was really boiling over.
I could also see Graham was having trouble with water coming out of his car’s overflow, and my temperature gauge was over 100 degrees Centigrade before we got fully under starter’s orders. When the flag did drop, Jackie Ickx made rather a poor start with too much wheelspin and I drove almost up the pit lane trying to get past him. I managed to do this but, in the process, got two wheels stuck in the gutter which drains the pitlane. It was quite a problem to get the car out of this position, and it felt rather like being stuck in the tram rails, so to speak: I just hoped that they didn’t go to the tram depot!
Somehow, I found myself going into the first corner lying third behind Graham and Chris. The spray was absolutely unbelievable – I couldn’t see anything at all! I couldn’t see my braking distance marks; I couldn’t see the car in front; it was just a great wall of spray. I tried to get out of the spray and go up the inside, and by doing this I managed to see a little more clearly. I hate to think what as going on behind me!
This situation continued for the majority of the lap, but I passed Chris Amon at the point almost where Jackie Oliver had his accident: that is to say, on the hill towards Adenauer. I was happy to do this because until then I cannot remember having been more frightened in a racing car. The spray from Graham and Chris was just absolutely impossible to see through; on any other circuit these conditions are hellish, but on the Nurburgring you just cannot imagine how bad they are. The track is narrow, the undulations so pronounced, the bends so numerous, that you can hardly remember where you are on the circuit even on a clear day, but in fog and ceaseless spray you just have no idea at all.
In addition you are continually worried by the fact that you are aquaplaning and almost always losing control, and you feel sure that the man in front is doing the same thing so that at any moment he is going to appear just in front of you pointing in the wrong direction.
After passing Chris it was then a case of finding the right spot on the circuit to overtake Graham. This I dearly wanted to do before the start of the straight, so I managed to come out of the small Karussel at the end of the swallow-tail corner pretty well and I got an advantage on Graham at this point, over-taking him just entering the last corner before the straight.
This meant that I had the complete home straight to myself without any hindrance from spray. With that alone I pulled out an advantage of over 8 seconds on Graham before reaching the pit. I knew what Graham was going through because at the speed reached on the straight, which was getting on for 170 mph, the spray was staying at road level for a tremendously long time due to the hedges keeping it back and of course with no wind, and the mixture of fog and mist, you can imagine how impossible visibility was from behind.
After this it was only a matter of driving as fast as I possibly could because you simply can see nothing in your mirrors with so much spray around unless the next car is very close behind you. After 2 laps I had an advantage of 34 seconds or so and I managed to build up steadily on this, trying as hard as I could to stay on the road since there were so many times when one was almost sliding off, or hitting some new puddle that wasn’t there on the previous lap.
With only 3 laps to go, it really started to pour down with rain all round the circuit, and the track became really treacherous. At a point about half a mile from the Karussel I entered an ‘S’-bend in third gear and suddenly lost control in a deep river of water which was running across the road. The car immediately started sliding, the engine stalled, and I was hurtling across the road towards a marshal who was standing beside his post completely unprotected. He dived one way; then decided to jump the other way; then suddenly he just froze, and I knew I was going to hit him. But just then the wheels got a little bit of grip and I managed to regain control. Graham, in fact, who was some way behind, arrived at the same corner and spun off, but by this time the marshal had moved his position to somewhere a bit safer!
At last, I took the chequered flag just over 4 minutes ahead of Graham. It was a tremendously satisfying race to win, but I was very pleased to get it over with. I can remember thinking as I went down to the south turn after taking the chequered flag that this was perhaps my greatest ambition as far as winning on any circuit was concerned. The Nurburgring is a track on which I had always wanted to win a Grand Prix because I think it certainly is the greatest challenge to a driver, and I must say winning it in the rain was very satisfying. The car had gone like clockwork throughout and never missed a beat. It was a wonderful compliment to Ken Tyrrell’s mechanics because the standard of workmanship that they had provided throughout the season was really splendid. The only trouble with the car at all during the race, part from when it stalled, was that quite a lot of grit got into the throttle slides, and around half the distance the throttle was sticking open which really wasn’t very convenient.
Even after winning such a race I can honestly say that I never felt that the GP would run the full distance. Each time I got back to the finish line I felt sure that the chequered flag was going to be shown, because really and truly the track was in no condition to be raced on. In fact, I think all the drivers deserve tremendous praise since, throughout the entire race, not one of them went off the track seriously enough to be injured.