Jochen Rindt won the Formula 1 World Championship aged 28 (which back in 1970, was still young in Grand Prix terms) but never knew it. That sums up Rindt’s all too brief time on earth: a German by birth but an Austrian by passport who stood for speed with a capital S. That raw speed was his truly defining characteristic, yet he’ll always be known as Formula 1’s only posthumous world champion.
Jochen Rindt at Hockenheim in 1970 - Image credit Montrespubliques.
He's also famous for being an ambassador for watches in the racing world, as one of the first drivers to put Heuer on the map, thanks to his friendship with Jack Heuer and Jo Siffert: Heuer’s original brand ambassador (they were briefly teammates in 1964). And undoubtedly the most famous watch that Rindt wore was his black Autavia, known as the ‘Jochen Rindt’, complete with a beads of rice bracelet.
Specifically, that’s the reference 2446 with the venerable Valjoux 72 movement, featuring three subdials and an outer rotating 60-minute bezel. It’s now hugely popular with a commensurate price tag. But in 2017, you could buy a reissue Autavia for somewhat less money, complete with authentic period markings that feature only ‘Heuer’ branding.
And that’s exactly what I did, loving the classical looks and the association with some of the biggest heroes in motorsport. I’d always been fascinated by the stories around Jochen Rindt – a true rock star of his era – so to wear his watch was an obvious ambition that I saved hard for. When I had to go to Austria and Germany on Formula 1 business recently, the Autavia was the natural companion, especially as I was driving there.
Because there’s a strong connection between Rindt and both countries. The young Jochen, born in Mainz, Germany, in 1942 lost his parents in an allied bombing and was brought up by his paternal grandparents in Austria. Right from the beginning, cars and races were his overriding passion. He wasn't even 20 years old when he sold the small company he had inherited from his father and bought a rally car.
Jochen then quickly switched to touring car racing, driving an Alfa Romeo, which mapped out his destiny on the world’s racing circuits. In 1963 he made his Formula Junior debut, and then the following year he made the step up to Formula 2: where he would collect pole positions and victories right up to his untimely death (at a time when even the top drivers regularly raced in Formula 2 as well as Formula 1).
At the Crystal Palace circuit close to London, Rindt beat Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark. This opened up the doors to Formula 1 – but he also won the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours with a privateer Ferrari.
Nobody knows for sure, but it was at around that time when he first started wearing Heuer watches, introduced to the brand by Siffert (who was on the Heuer payroll, earning 25,000 CHF a year – a small fortune back then – as the company’s brand ambassador). Given how many drivers Siffert got wearing Heuer watches, it was money well spent.
Rindt’s early years were prone to mistakes. Denis Jenkinson, the renowned British journalist wagered: ‘when Rindt wins a Grand Prix, I’ll cut off my beard.’ This was quite some statement, as the diminutive Jenkinson was renowned for the length of his luxuriant beard. But Jenkinson’s facial hair was soon in jeopardy, as by October 1969 Rindt had won the United States Grand Prix, igniting what would go on to become a stellar career at the top of the sport.
In 1970, the Lotus 72 – designed by the genius that was Colin Chapman – was practically made to measure for Rindt. The results came instantly: five pole positions and five Grand Prix wins at the start of the season. Rindt – by then, an established Heuer man in his own right – was on top of the world, having become the most famous man to wear an Autavia (a lot of people have forgotten that there was a ‘Siffert’ Autavia too, with just two subdials – but these are generally less valuable).
The Austrian came to Monza in Italy, at the start of September, in a clear lead in the championship. But a sickening accident in practice, caused by a mechanical failure, fired his Lotus into the outside of the famous Parabolica bend, where it snapped in two after impacting the barriers. The consequences were terrible: Rindt was extracted in critical condition but then died in the ambulance. It's hard to tell precisely from the photographs of that fateful day, but he appears to have been wearing his Autavia.
That was how Karl Jochen Rindt lived and died: with fierce loyalty and an other-worldly turn of speed that took him to places on the track that no other drivers dared to go; finding grip that seemingly didn't exist.
It wasn’t just this though that made people like me want to be like him. It was the effortless charisma that Rindt exuded, as a true trendsetter. When it was cold, he often wore a full-length fur coat in the pit lane, paired with aviator sunglasses.
On anyone else, it would have seemed ridiculous. But as his famous compatriot Niki Lauda remembered: “On him, it just looked magnificent.”
Rindt’s watch was an essential part of that look. Driving down through the lush green landscapes of Austria – which really do look like something straight out of The Sound of Music – I was thinking a lot about Lauda, but especially Rindt, whenever I looked at my Autavia. It’s only a small country, but perhaps because of that, it’s produced a lot of heroes.
The Autavia too has reached iconic status: the original ‘Rindt’ examples from the 1960s now sell for anything up to £15,000 – not too far off the value of Siffert’s original Heuer retainer.
I’m more than happy with my 2017 example though. It’s perhaps the most satisfying watch that I own, dripping with heritage, but also perfect for contemporary road trips. In terms of clarity and quality – now equipped with TAG Heuer’s own in-house movement – it’s hard to think of any other driving chronograph that beats it.
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