Jacky Ickx: ‘winning Bathurst for me was important’

Jacky Ickx is one of the all time great racing drivers with 25 podium finishes in F1, six wins at Le Mans, a win in the Dakar Rally in 1983 and, unforgettably, winner in 1977 of Bathurst with Allan Moffat.  Paul Murrell caught up with him on his flying visit to Australia for the launch of the new VW Golf GTI.

Jacques Bernard (“Jacky”) Ickx stands behind the podium in Launceston and calmly gazes across a room full of motoring journalists. It is typical of the man’s modesty that he feels it necessary to introduce himself and outline some of his achievements.

“It is probably almost 30 years since I have been to Australia,” he says “but I have always wanted to visit Tasmania. I have a lot of feeling for Australia and racing in Australia because in my life I have been in touch with a number of Australian drivers. You are one of those lucky nations who in the field of sport, and especially motor racing, have produced a lot of champions.”

Jacky should know. In his long and varied racing career (he retired from professional circuit racing at the end of the 1985 season) he raced with Cooper, Ferrari, Brabham, McLaren, Porsche, Williams, Lotus, Wolf, Ensign and Ligier. When he started out in F1, Denny Hulme and Jim Clark were still racing. At his first Grand Prix at Nürburgring, he qualified in a faster time than either of them, despite racing an F2 car against their F1 cars. In 1968, driving a Ferrari at his home circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, he started from the front row and finished third. His first win came at the rain-soaked French Grand Prix in Rouen.

“Some of the great champions have disappeared already, some are still around,” he recalls. “I am sure some of you will remember Paul Hawkins, for example. I raced a (Ford) GT40 with him. And I guess you will remember Frank Gardner, and I co-drove with Jack Brabham in Formula One in 1969.” He adds, modestly, “We had a few wins.” In 1970, he had a serious crash at the Spanish Grand Prix and was hospitalised with severe burns after it took him 20 seconds to escape the burning car. Seventeen days later, he was back racing at Monaco. With four races left in the season, Jacky was the only driver who could take the championship from Jochen Rindt when he was tragically killed in practice in the 10th round at Monza. Despite winning the final race in Mexico, Jacky fell just short of securing sufficient points to win the championship. He later stated he was glad not to win against a man who couldn’t defend his chance of being world champion.

Jacky also recalls the great partnership between Brabham and Ron Tauranac. “The two were very closely associated and the success of the Brabham racing team is due to the teamwork of these two persons. I was also a team mate in the Can Am series with Alan Jones, the F1 world champion. And I have raced with or against Vern Schuppan and Tim Schenken.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Jacky has no official role with F1 racing today, but he stays closely in touch. “Mark Webber has represented Australia so well in Formula One,” he comments. “He is now moving to the Porsche project for Le Mans and I’m sure he will do well. And now you have the incredible luck to have Daniel Ricciardo to take the place of Mark in Formula One, so there’s huge continuity.” Cheekily, Jacky also observes another advantage for Mark Webber when he moves from the Infiniti-sponsored Red Bull team to Porsche “he will get a better road car!”

It was Jacky Ickx who objected to the traditional Le Mans start (where drivers line up on one side of the track, run across to their cars and then race away). In 1969, Jacky was driving the Ford GT40, already made obsolete by the new Porsche 917, the Porsche 908 and a new generation of 3-litre prototypes from Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo. At the start, as the other drivers sprinted across the track, Jacky slowly walked to his car and carefully fitted his seat belts. Naturally, he was the last to start the race. His caution was justified when a crash on the first lap claimed the life of Porsche 917 driver John Woolfe.

I asked Jacky if he had heard of the Targa Tasmania and he enthusiastically answered that he knew it well. “I’ve heard about it many, many, many times and I’ll tell you why. There is one guy at Porsche, Klaus Bischof (director of the Porsche Rolling Museum). He was my first mechanic in long distance (events) when I was at Porsche. He loves coming here and each time he goes back (to Germany) he promotes Tasmania and the Targa. Every time I meet him, he says ‘Jacky, you have to come – it’s fantastic, unique – please come!’”

I remind Jacky of his experience winning Australia’s greatest race, Bathurst, in 1977 with Allan Moffatt. He remembers it well, although he explains that driving a Falcon coupe was a very different experience than he was used to. He gestures with hands and arms, illustrating the soft and imprecise handling of the big Ford. “At the time, these Falcons were a difficult car to drive. I’d always been used to driving cars that were very precise, very stable. The Falcon at the time was really quite an exercise. Of course,” he adds “Allan was incredibly fast, faster than me without a doubt.” He doesn’t mention that Moffatt had driven Bathurst for many years, and was far better acquainted with the vagaries of the Falcon’s brakes and handling. He is also too modest to mention that within days of practice in the XC Falcon, he was posting lap times as fast or faster than drivers who were familiar with their cars and the track, or that he achieved the feat of winning Bathurst at his first attempt. “I was happy to bring the car in at the final because winning Bathurst for me was important, but for Allan it was very important. It’s the goal, and what amazes me is that it still is today. It is, I think, the number one race meeting in Australia. Even with Formula One in Melbourne, Bathurst remains the Le Mans of Australia.”

Would he come back to Bathurst? “Oh yes,” he enthuses “but only as a spectator. I missed the 50th year. It would be very nice because what I loved the first time was the atmosphere of Bathurst, it’s very special. The people are really passionate for motor racing. The success of the meeting is created by the public and the spectators and that was what was so nice about Bathurst – I don’t know if it is like that today, but there was a real communion and common passion shared with the drivers and the teams. Really, it’s something special. No other circuit compares with Bathurst because basically it’s on a hill – you have to climb the mountain on one side, go around and go down the other side. It’s very special.”

Russell Manning of RACQ asks a final question that many of us have speculated upon. “I have to ask you,” he says, hesitantly. “The film “Rendezvous” was reputed to be a Ferrari driven at high speed through the streets of Paris at dawn…”

Jacky’s face splits into a wide smile. “It’s not me!” he says, laughing infectiously.

“Do you know who it was?” asks Russell, trying to solve a mystery known only to the people involved.

But Jacky is giving nothing away. “No idea,” he replies. “Nobody knows who it was. I know people think I was one of the possibilities and it would be easy to say it was me…”

There’s a twinkle in his eye. “But it wasn’t.”

I try to read his body language, but he’s been asked this question before and is giving nothing away. I’ll have to take him at his word.

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Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober