There are many ways of insulting people, says former championship race car driver Jackie Stewart, and one of the surest is to tell them they are bad drivers.
"They won't believe you," he said. "It's tough for people to admit they don't do it right."Stewart had plenty of driving advice for a group of automotive journalists who gathered early one recent morning at Ford Motor Co.'s test track for a critique from the diminutive Scotsman of their automotive technique.
One might expect that Stewart, as the winner of 27 World Championship Grand Prix victories, would be giving instruction in how to take curves at 120 mph and the best way to pass a competitor on an asphalt course. While he guided and, in some cases, coaxed drivers around Ford's track at high speed, his instruction surprisingly emphasized smoothness before speed.
"Good driving for me is smooth driving," said Stewart, who is a consultant to Ford. "If I abuse my car, mechanically, the chances are I simply will not get reliability."
Stewart's driving record may be the best example of him practicing what he preaches. Except for a broken wrist suffered during practice in 1968, he did not see a major injury in his 12-year racing career.
The best drivers in the world, he said, have never appeared to be driving dramatically. But the smooth, unflashy style of drivers such as legendary champion Stirling Moss and current Formula One racers Nelson Piquet and Alain Proust has won them race after race, said Stewart.
"It would be ideal if I would be the best chauffeur in the world," he said.
Think of an important passenger, short-sighted with his newspaper close to his face, Stewart tells pupils. At no time should the movement of the car knock the passenger off the seat or even cause the newspaper to touch his nose.
Developing smoothness, for Stewart, depends first of all on the correct driving technique. His method includes things as simple as keeping hands in the traditional "ten and two" position on the steering wheel, which Stewart said offers the driver balance and control.
He also teaches that it is important that a driver be properly and comfortably seated, with arms slightly bent but with enough tension on the wheel to keep charge of the car. Race car drivers, contrary to popular opinion, do not drive lying virtually on their backs, nor do they keep a loose hand barely touching the bottom of the steering wheel, as do many American drivers.
Stewart also is a firm advocate of wearing safety belts.
Foot placement is also important for Stewart, who tells drivers to plant their feet in an automobile as if they are standing on the deck of a yacht in rough weather. He does not believe that drivers of automatic-transmission autos should use the left foot for braking, but instead must keep that foot fixed for leverage.
In the proper position, said Stewart, "It doesn't matter if you're a big fellow or a man of average height like me. You can still control the car."
Driving with Stewart, far from being a frightening trip with smoking tires, is a learning experience whether he or his pupil is at the wheel. Writers who rode with Stewart around the Ford track received a non-stop commentary in his familiar, high-pitched tones on the proper way to read a curve, the way to make the most of a straight-away strip of road, and how to be cured of the tendency to "overdrive" a car.
Stewart, an advocate of new anti-lock braking systems for production automobiles, is severely critical of motorists who screech to a stop from a high rate of speed. "Let the brakes up so that the car rolls to a stop," he said to the writers.
Instead of waiting until the last possible second before shifting to a higher gear, which can jolt the car, shift early and accelerate from there, he advised the group.
By the end of the instruction, Stewart had the reporter handling the myriad of test track curves at double the speed and immeasurably smoother than on the first revolution.
Stewart, whose instruction is available to a wide audience through a videotape and book, proved to be a teacher whose lessons stayed with his students. Writers comparing notes a few days after the class found that when they got into their own cars, they often heard Stewart's voice giving them commands and reminding them not to fall into a particular bad habit.
"That must be a nightmare," laughed Stewart when told of the audio apparition.