Four drivers have won both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Formula 1 world title: Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill. With his American teammate Masten Gregory, Jochen Rindt (1942-1970) clinched Ferrari’s ninth and final – to date – victory at Le Mans, after a fabulous, history-making comeback that mirrored his own meteoric rise in the sport.
Jochen Rindt made his first Le Mans appearance in 1964 but his teammate David Piper retired so early that Rindt didn’t even take the wheel of their #58 Ferrari 250 LM. Rindt returned to Le Mans the following year, driving the same car – #21 this time – for NART, the team of three-time Le Mans winner Luigi Chinetti. This time he was teamed with American driver, Masten Gregory.
Early in the race, their 250 LM suffered starter issues then condenser problems and it looked like the pair could give up all hopes of victory. Rindt evidently thought it was a lost cause as he made his way to leave the circuit! Gregory managed to catch up with him just as he was getting into a taxi, and convinced him to return. Rindt accepted, on one condition: they would drive the race flat out.
At 8 p.m., the #21 Ferrari was 18th but by mid-race had fought back to second place, hot on the heels of the #26 250 LM driven by Pierre Dumay and Gustave Gosselin for Ecurie Francorchamps. The game changer came just before 1 p.m. on the Sunday when Gosselin’s right back tyre blew. Rindt and Gregory limped to victory, the car's differential breaking just seconds after the chequered flag!
For Rindt, then aged 23, this was the first prestigious title in a career that was as short as it was flamboyant. He was born in Mainz (Germany) and was brought up by his maternal grandparents after losing his parents, owners of a spice mill, in a bombing in 1943. As a teenager, he took part in a few unofficial races on the roads around Graz, Austria, where he grew up. His racing pals were all from local middle-class families, and probably saw themselves in the roles of James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause. They included a certain Helmut Marko, winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1971 and current head of Red Bull’s driver development programme.
Rindt officially started racing touring cars then switched to single-seaters when, at the age of 21, he received his share of the family inheritance.
In addition to his four 24 Hours of Le Mans appearances (win 1965, DNF in 1964, 66 and 67), he was highly successful in Formula 2, amassing a total 29 victories in six seasons. He contested his first Grand Prix in 1964 and took five podiums between 1966 and 1968. However, his Formula One career only really took off in 1969 when he joined Lotus. He took his first win that year, in the United States.
In 1970, Rindt finally got his hands on a car powerful enough to take him to the title, the Lotus 72. Yet a series of accidents would blight that season. On 19 April, Jacky Ickx narrowly escaped the flames of his Ferrari at the Spanish Grand Prix. On 2 June, Bruce McLaren, winner of the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours, lost his life while testing one of his CanAm prototypes at Goodwood. On 21 June, British driver Piers Courage, one of Rindt’s closest friends, died during the Dutch Grand Prix.
The Austrian survived two major accidents himself, at the Indianopolis 500 in 1967, then the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix. In late 1969, he promised his wife he would retire once he had won the Championship. In summer 1970, he embarked upon a race against the clock, taking four straight F1 wins (Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Germany). His only rival for the world title was Jacky Ickx, who he beat after a fabulous two-way fight on the ultra-fast Hockenheim circuit at the German Grand Prix. Then the Belgian took the win at the Grand Prix in Austria, Rindt’s own stomping ground.
The battle between the two former Le Mans winners came to a tragic end at Monza on 5 September, when Rindt suffered fatal injuries in a crash on the approach to the Parabolica corner during a practice session for the Italian Grand Prix. By then, Rindt had scooped 45 points and Ickx 19, with four races left in the season. Ickx won two of those races (Canada and Mexico), finished fourth in the USA, but didn’t finish in Italy. Hence, after the final round in Mexico, Rindt still had a five-point lead over Ickx, meaning that, for the first time in Formula One history, the world title was awarded posthumously.
In 1965, at the age of 23, Jochen Rindt became the youngest of the four Formula One world champions who had also won at Le Mans. Two years after the Austrian’s death, Graham Hill, 43, claimed the last major victory of his career in La Sarthe. Read his story in the next instalment of this series.
Other stories about Le Mans and Formula One:
24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula 1 (1) - Four World Champions for 10 stories
24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula 1 (2) - Mike Hawthorn, the British trailblazer
24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula 1 (3) - Phil Hill, an American one-two punch
Photo (Copyright - ACO Archives): 1965 winner Jochen Rindt took to the start of his fourth and final 24 Hours of Le Mans, as a works driver for Porsche, at the wheel of this 907 prototype, paired with German driver Gerhard Mitter.