Sir Jackie Stewart is a man who does nothing by halves. It has been 37 years since his retirement from Formula One and still his passion for the sport and his enthusiasm for life remains infectious.
With three F1 World Championships and 27 race wins to his name, you could easily have forgiven Stewart if he had spent the last four decades lying in peaceful solitude on a tropical beach. Instead, he continues to promote the sport he loves and to offer his well-respected opinions not passively, or out of obligation, but with a tireless energy and an agility of mind that could easily embarrass some of his twenty-something counterparts today. Stewart’s appearance at the Oxford Union last week provided the audience not only with a precious and unforgettable insight into the mind of a genuine sporting legend, but with advice for the future that may prove invaluable.
Despite the countless anecdotes Stewart, 71, no doubt has to tell, he was keen to focus not on his own life and success, instead offering golden nuggets of the sort of wisdom that only a man of his stature can give. Being aware of his academic surroundings did not at all unsettle Stewart, and why should it, for he was keen to emphasise above all else that success does not come solely from education. ‘I’m here and I never went to university. I left school at the age of 15 because I was dyslexic,’ Stewart said, ‘Today I cannot write or read correctly…I’m good at my signature, but I’ve had a lot of practice at that… You might, just might, learn more from participating in sport than you will from a scholar.’ Dyslexia defined Stewart’s childhood, although he did not know it at the time, being diagnosed with the learning difficulties only at the age of 41. During his school years Stewart was told that he was stupid, but knowing now that this wasn’t the case, he is keen to ensure that others do not suffer in a similar manner, and he emphasises the positive above the negative. ‘Dyslexics are quite often very creative…you think out of the box. A lot of sports people are dyslexic,’ he explains, ‘Because I’m dyslexic, I’m very big at attention to detail. It’s the only good thing I have…I can’t do the other things. If you gave me £100million right now I could not recite the alphabet. I don’t know the words to the national anthem…I’ve stood beside the Queen, and I hummed.’ Stewart quickly charmed the intimate audience with his humour, but did not abandon the serious point he wanted to make: ‘Winston Churchill was dyslexic and one of the greatest orators there’s ever been…when he coined the phrase “the iron curtain has fallen on Europe,” anybody who visualised that would have known exactly what he meant….if there are dyslexics around you, be nice to them because you might be working with them one day; they’re very entrepreneurial.’
Sport was Stewart’s opportunity for success, and he did not waste a bit of it. His experiences, though, were not always positive, and he wanted the audience to learn from his mistakes as well as he had: ‘Don’t get intoxicated by a wee bit of success… If you get carried away with it the chances are you’ll drop the ball and you’ll get overconfident. In sport, it happens every time. I could not win the Championship every year and neither could my team, because you get intoxicated and crowded by hundreds of thousands of people and you think “my God, isn’t this wonderful”, and you take an extra piece of cake and you put on an extra kilo.’ A flash of a smile crossed Sir Jackie’s face as he added, ‘Somebody told me the other day Kimi Raikkonen has put on eight kilos of weight…he couldn’t have done that as a Grand Prix driver.’
Looking to the present day and into the future, Stewart offered his thoughts on the likelihood of Sebastian Vettel doing what he never did: winning back-to-back championships. ‘For Red Bull this winter it is very important for them not to lose focus, he said, ‘I’ve got Christian Horner coming for dinner tomorrow night and I’m going to ask him how many failures he’s going to have this year before he gets a win, because the chances are that’s what will happen…the slight edge goes off because…it’s not easy to keep winning on that basis.’ More ominous for F1 fans were Stewart’s remarks on driver safety. He has been a major force behind improvements to motorsport safety since 1966, and his opinions on the subject are amongst the most well-respected in the world, so his comment that F1 can still kill brings a harsh reality upon those of us who are unfamiliar with the tragedies of the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Now, we will have an accident…somebody will die, just as buses crash, trains crash and airplanes come down…the law of averages is we will have an accident, and that’s not something we’re looking forward to. The current Grand Prix driver will not be able to handle it.’ It is largely thanks to Stewart, though, that it has been almost 17 years since a life has been lost in an F1 car. Sir Jackie has not only won three championships but he has saved countless lives, because, for him, there is far more to life than the obvious successes: ‘Winning is easy, everybody wins something… winning is not enough.’