Sunday, December 30 2012
August 1970. In the three-week gap between the Austrian and Italian Grands Prix, World Champion-elect Jochen Rindt took part in his final Formula 1 race at Oulton Park.
The Gold Cup was one of a busy calendar of non-championship F1 races, which teams would enter as they pleased, and quite often subject to the money on offer. All of that changed when Bernie Ecclestone began to represent the teams but for now his involvement in the sport was limited to his young Austrian charge, and leading the World Championship made him a big draw.
Rindt was already familiar to the British fans, having burst on the scene six years earlier at Crystal Palace. The performance of this unseeded foreigner against a field that included Graham Hill in the headline Formula 2 race even made newspaper headlines: "Unknown Austrian beats Hill at Crystal Palace". Now however, he was the man to beat and this represented a rare chance to see the driver and his curious wedge-shaped Lotus 72 that would revolutionise F1 design.
Hill would again feature in the field, also driving a 72 that had just been built for the Rob Walker team. Reigning champion Jackie Stewart was also present, and many would be hoping for another chapter in the friendly rivalry that the Scotsman enjoyed with Rindt, one that had already provided memorable battles. John Surtees was another champion in the field, whilst his two-wheeled successor Mike Hailwood was also entered, as was Jackie Oliver. The field consisted of a mixture of F1 and Formula 5000 cars.
Practice took place on the Friday before the race, which turned out to be rather wet. Only Surtees and Oliver were able to set a decent dry time in the two one hour sessions, leaving Rindt down in tenth place, two ahead of Hill. Stewart had qualified fifth in his March but started from the back in the brand new Tyrrell 001, the first car to be built by the Surrey squad.
The Gold Cup race took place over two heats, with the winner decided on aggregate times. Race day was dry and this enabled Rindt to make progress in the 20 lap encounter. Before long he had made it up to third place but there he would stay, his progress affected by a poor choice of top gear ratio and leaking clutch fluid. At the flag he was six seconds shy of Oliver, who completed the distance in similar arrears to the victorious Surtees.
Starting the second part from third place, the Lotus mechanics had made the necessary changes to Rindt's car, and whilst Oliver took the lead, Surtees' second place was under serious threat. It took just three laps to relieve the 1964 World Champion of second and a further two to head the field. Behind him the order of his immediate pursuers had changed but it was Surtees' turn to endure mechanical gremlins and he was unable to unleash his car's full potential. However, a late effort limited the damage and Rindt was just 3.4 seconds short of the overall win.
After passing the finish line the Austrian didn't hang around for the podium, his busy schedule demanding that he travel to his home country to compete in a hill-climb event. In a moment memorable for all those who were present, he parked the Lotus at Old Hall, grabbed his case from a nearby Marshal's post, and jumped straight into his waiting plane.
Just two weeks later, in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix, a crash in practice ended Rindt's life but he would become the sport's first posthumous champion. The 72 went on to win a second title with Emerson Fittipaldi and was finally retired in 1975, whilst Stewart's new Tyrrell powered him to the first of two more championships. Surtees would win the following year's Gold Cup, before Denny Hulme took the final contemporary F1 race at the circuit in 1972. For the lamented Austrian hero, Oulton Park was a fitting end to his love affair with the British fans.
Oulton Park celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2013, with the Gold Cup commemorating this anniversary. To book tickets or for more information, click here.