Automotive

The Chequered Year Turns F1’s 1970 Tragedy Into An Exceptional Motorsport Narrative


Chris Amon, March driver and one of the protagonists of The Chequered Year

Chris Amon, March driver and one of the protagonists of The Chequered Year
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

When Ted Simon sat down to write The Chequered Year, it looked like the biggest story of the season would be the introduction of March, a brand-new team that endeavored to field as many cars as possible by selling chassis to teams in need. Instead, it was a season that saw the deaths of Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, and Jochen Rindt — the latter of whom became the sport’s only posthumous World Champion. And Simon describes it all in spectacular fashion.

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(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at The Chequered Year by Ted Simon, an account of the 1970 Formula One season.)

The Chequered Year starts off at the end of 1969 to describe the rapid appearance and development of the March team, which was something massively unusual at the time. Instead of this team growing organically out of racing or the automotive industry, March’s goal was to provide capable chassis for racing cars to consumers who wanted to compete in F1, F2, F3, or Can-Am — something that was practically unheard of at the time. It was one of the first fascinating signs of F1 becoming less of an enthusiast-driven sport and more of a money-driven one, with the made-for-purchase March chassis taking up a similar mantle as the allowance of sponsorships a few years earlier.

I get the sense that this was the storyline Simon was most keen on following, and for good reason. Many of the first chapters almost exclusively follow the March team and the customers who bought its chassis, while brief notes from the competition filter in. It’s only until about midway through the season — and midway through the book — that the Championship starts shaping up, which helps Simon transition from a Chris Amon-focused lens to one that considers Jochen Rindt and Lotus, Jacky Ickx and Ferrari, and Jackie Stewart with his new Tyrell.

But I actually really like that flow of focus, where it would normally bother me. It’s not until about halfway through the book that Simon gives any indication that he’s writing this in retrospect; his previous descriptions of the championship battle feel fresh and a little disconnected as he tries to chase what will be the biggest story of the year. Where he initially may have thought it to be March — and the chassis-maker did hit the F1 circuit with stunning confidence and six cars — it later became clear that the team’s first year wasn’t going to be the predicted smash hit.

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Instead, we’d be talking about Jochen Rindt, the Lotus 72, and F1’s first posthumous World Champion.

As the book progresses, Simon gets closer to the drivers competing for the title (though Ickx, and all of Ferrari with the exception of Mauro Forghieri, is notably absent), so we start to hear candid chats between Simon and Stewart about the mortality of the racing driver, or between Simon and Rindt about Rindt’s future goals.

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Simon does an exceptional job reporting on Rindt’s death ahead of the Italian Grand Prix. He paints a picture of the scene from the pits — the sudden buzz of silence that follows a crash, the drivers and team owners gleaning and sharing tidbits of information, the total lack of reporting at the circuit. Then we see Jackie Stewart pull into the pits and find his wife Helen, who he instructs to take care of Rindt’s wife Nina. A body is loaded onto an ambulance. Rindt is dead. And then the drivers get back out onto the track, trying to set faster and faster laps.

It was a fascinating look into the mindset of that era in a year where icons like Rindt, Bruce McLaren, and Piers Courage were all killed behind the wheel of a race car. Simon lets the drivers philosophize, with Rindt waxing poetic about the dangers of a sport he loved and Stewart balancing his passion for racing with his safety advocacy.

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Simon briefly wonders at the point of the whole thing, why we prize these men who throw themselves around in circles faster than any other, why we value such a seemingly inane skill. He rationalizes that viewers enjoy the closeness to death, the teasing of mortality. He argues that the average viewer isn’t educated enough to understand the complexities of F1, which means many of the fans attend races to see crashes. And in that era, it’s easy to see that he may have had a point.

But I think the most poignant part was the ending. The book follows each F1 race through the year, including some non-Championship events, and the final chapter sees drivers and teams returning home. Many have resigned their dead friends to a place of memory, which Simon describes as being more like the way one remembers a childhood friend who moved away long ago than like the way you’d mourn a dead companion. Everyone gets ready to tackle the Grand Prix circuit again the following year.

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Simon’s storytelling was so compelling that I found it hard to believe it was his first published book, that the rest of his life was dictated not by writing but by riding his motorcycle around the world. Apparently, though, that’s exactly what this author did.

I was almost sad to learn it, because I’d have loved a similar style book for each season Simon followed — to hear how Tyrell’s new team was viewed in its first races, to see how March would fare with a pared-back outfit. That first-person, immediate perspective is so fascinating. You can hear Jackie Stewart talk about those days in retrospect, after they’ve had time to contextualize certain events in the long run, but Simon brought to life just what the drivers were feeling and thinking at the time those events were happening. That’s unique in an era where post-race press conferences, heavy reporting about F1, and nuanced discussions about each minor event on social media just wasn’t a thing. It’s the closest you’ll get to reliving that era.

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To put it quite simply, The Chequered Year was a fantastic book, the kind of by-the-minute, shifting storytelling that accurately reflects the variability of a Championship in the early 1970s, where some new cars weren’t introduced until halfway through the season and where unreliability was the name of the game. I wish we had more books like this one.

And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on January 3, 2022. We’re going to be reading Hemi Under Glass: Bob Riggle and His Wheel-Standing Mopars by Rich Truesdall And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com!

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