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Silverstone 1969: The best F1 race of all time?

Jackie Stewart in the cockpit of his Matra MS80 at Silverstone. PA Images via Getty Images

Having been lucky enough, man and boy, to witness more than 600 grands prix, I'm often asked which is my favourite. It's the 1969 British Grand Prix, without question.

There are many candidates, particularly incredibly tense championship finales such as Australia 1994 and Brazil 2008. But, for a classic wheel-to-wheel contest, there's nothing to beat the duel between Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt at Silverstone fifty years ago. It could hardly be otherwise when the lead changed hands countless times during an enthralling battle lasting for more than an hour and a quarter.

Any suggestion that the fight lacked edge because Rindt and Stewart were good friends is instantly made irrelevant by images showing both on the absolute limit through Woodcote, Copse, Becketts and Stowe. This was Silverstone in its original form, F1 cars visibly exercising drift, dip, roll and squat, grooved tyres almost dragged off their rims, as drivers averaged close to 130 mph for the 2.9-mile lap.

Stewart and Rindt may have been mates and Swiss-domiciled neighbours but their bond as racing drivers had more to do with the constant threat accompanying them in the cockpit each and every time. Four of their colleagues had been killed the previous year. In 1970, F1 would lose three more, including Rindt during practice for the Italian Grand Prix. Shocking though the statistics were, they did not diminish the desire to go motor racing at the maximum. This was a not cavalier reaction, but it did stimulate unspoken mutual respect -- as we were about to see on that balmy afternoon in July 1969.

Having won four of the previous five grands prix, Stewart was leading the championship by miles. Rindt, despite having been a pre-season favourite thanks to his move to the reigning champions, had zero points due mainly to reliability problems with the ageing Lotus 49. For one lap, however, the red, white and gold car remained impressively quick in the hands of the extrovert Austrian, as he proved by putting it on pole.

The 0.4s gap (time-keepers' trusty stop watches did not go to hundredths, never mind thousandths of a second) to Stewart was partly accounted for by the Scotsman having heavily shunted his Matra against the sleepers on the outside of Woodcote. As Stewart clipped the apex at more than 160 mph, his front wheel dislodged part of the concrete kerb, ready to puncture the right-rear Dunlop. Having saved Stewart from injury, the aluminium tub was nevertheless beyond immediate repair. The Tyrrell mechanics set about transferring Stewart's pedals and settings to the sister MS80 entered for Jean-Pierre Beltoise, who was obliged to race the spare four-wheel drive MS84.

The Union Flag had barely fallen as Rindt and Stewart tyre-smoked off the line as one and immediately gained half a car length on Denny Hulme's McLaren, starting from the outside of the three-car front row. By the end of the first of 84 laps, the leaders were already three seconds to the good and into a breath-taking race of their own.

The official chart shows that Rindt led laps 1-5, Stewart was in charge until lap 16, Rindt taking over for the next 46. But that merely indicates who was first through Woodcote and does not begin to describe what went on inbetween.

If these cars had door handles, Rindt and Stewart would have been on them. The lap record, broken third time round, was repeatedly pulverised as the leaders cleverly used their respective slipstreams to pass and re-pass, usually on the same lap. By deft flicks of the finger, they would indicate which side to overtake without holding each other up and allowing Hulme and the rest to stay in touch.

On lap 16, they came across Beltoise, struggling with the MS84. Rushing down Hangar Straight, Stewart's leading Matra went one side of the Frenchman, Rindt the other, the Lotus emerging in front. Not long after half distance, they caught a five-car battle for fifth place, the leaders slicing through with no loss of momentum whatsoever.

I sat with my Dad in the Woodcote grandstand, eyes riveted on the bridge straddling the fast straight from Abbey Curve, pulse rising with the very British commentary of Peter Scott-Russell: "Eyes right Woodcote! Daily Express Bridge! Here they come! One hundred and seventy-five miles'n'hour!"

You never knew which car would appear first before sweeping through the long right-hander, Ford-DFV V8s modulating briefly from maximum revs as the cars danced sideways on the barely discernable bump just beyond the apex. This happened every 82 seconds, for lap after lap. It gave new meaning to sitting on the edge of your seat.

An attempt by Rindt to break free extended the lead to three seconds; the most it would be during this relentless dispute. Stewart responded -- as Rindt knew he would -- with another new lap record and eventually closed to within one second.

They had been at it for an hour and 18 minutes when, with 22 laps to go, Rindt dived into the pits. An end plate on the rear wing had been fouling his left-rear Firestone, such was the lurid angle of the Lotus through the predominant right-handers. The offending bodywork was ripped off but the stop took the best part of 30 seconds. Rindt rejoined in second place but the already desperate feeling of anti-climax would be exacerbated when the Lotus 49 refused to pick up the final drops of fuel and Rindt had to make a splash and dash.

Stewart won by a clear lap, a bland statistic that masks a motor race of truly epic proportions.