The excitement machine that is Formula 1 kicks off its 2018 season this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park Lake. Returning along with the glitz and glamour of the sport is long time visitor and three-time World Champion, Sir Jackie Stewart.
As am ambassador for the event’s title sponsor, Rolex, the sharply-dressed Scot is a regular in the paddock here and genuinely enjoys his annual trip ‘Down Under’.
“It’s probably, for the Formula 1 fraternity, maybe the most loved Grand Prix of the year,” he told MotorsportM8 journalist Elle Haus.
“Melbourne first of all seems to be a city of sport – whether it’s the horse racing, whether it’s the footy or the tennis – so we all love coming here. [The] hotels are good, restaurants are good.
“[As for] the weather… I think you’re approaching Scottish weather from what I hear about this weekend!” he laughed, referring to Saturday’s wet forecast.
The three-time World Champion and former team owner is also full of praise for local hero, Daniel Ricciardo.
“He’s a very likeable young man, very outgoing and good for media. When have you ever not seen him smile?!”
Stewart has seen the rapid evolution of the sport over the last six decades, and 2017 saw one of the biggest changes of all under the new ownership of Liberty Media as the sport’s new commercial rights holder. On the top of their agenda was re-energising the sport to attract new fans, particularly with its big push to move the sport into the digital age.
For a long time fans have felt detached from the drivers and teams, with access only being afforded to media, VIPs and celebrities. Sir Jackie is himself a big fan of the Melbourne Walk, which gives fans the opportunity to meet drivers and teams as they make their way into the Paddock each day.
“Melbourne’s led the world on that, of caring for the spectators more than any other circuit in the world,” he said.
“And of course, the Australian fans are more excited than, well maybe Italy would be a competitor.
“It’s fantastic. It’s a great crowd here.”
One issue, however, that has the fans, and the media, split is the FIA’s introduction of the Halo cockpit protection device for the 2018 season onwards.
While former driver-turned-commentator Martin Brundle has labelled the Halo as “horrible” for fear it over-sanitises the sport, Stewart, who pioneered improved safety in Formula 1 throughout his career and beyond, takes a different view.
“I support it,” he said. “And the reason for that is there’s pure, clean evidence in a number of incidents where unfortunately death has come with a driver in the cockpit being taken.
“Mike Spence, my teammate, had a wheel come back and hit him on the head.
“I went to see him the night after his accident,” Stewart recalled. “He was driving my racing car at the time, testing it. I went to the hospital, there wasn’t a mark on his body and he died that night because the wheel and the tyre hit his head and the shock was above 99 Gs. The brain detaches itself from the skull. And he died.
“John Surtees’ son [Henry] – another car has an accident and a wheel comes back and hits him,” he added, referring to the tragic Formula 2 accident in 2009 at Brands Hatch where the aspiring driver was killed after a flying wheel landed on top of him.
“Ayrton Senna died with a suspension arm coming at him, there wasn’t any other injury, it was the [part] hitting his head.
“So from my point of view, it’s a mountain on a molehill. It doesn’t stop a driver from seeing things and it doesn’t stop a spectator from seeing the driver.
“It’s an exaggeration to say it’s not the same.”
He added, “People don’t like change.
“I just say how much [value] do you put on death and the quality of life? Because it may not kill somebody but it might put them out for the rest of their life with brain damage, so it’s a no-brainer.”
Image via Ignite Image and LAT Images