After the traumatic 1968 season, when no less than four Formula One drivers died in different forms of racing, there was a considerable switch around of drivers. Lotus retained world champion Graham Hill, but dropped Jackie Oliver and poached Jochen Rindt from Brabham in his place. Brabham, therefore, hired Ferrari's rising star Jacky Ickx to replace Rindt. Jackie Stewart was joined at Matra by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and Oliver found a drive at BRM.
The season-opener was a continuation of where 1968 had left off, with Jackie Stewart in Tyrrell's Matra-Cosworth turning the tables on Hill to win the South African Grand Prix. Denny Hulme, third the previous year, completed the here-we-go-again feeling by finishing third once again.
Jack Brabham had rolled back the clock to take pole, but in the race itself he fell back through the field until being forced out with suspension problems. Stewart shot away from the second row to take an early lead which was never seriously threatened.
Jochen Rindt took over second place when Brabham was forced to pit on lap seven, but he was soon overtaken by Hill, and eventually retired because of fuel-pump issues.
The top five positions of Stewart, Hill, Denny Hulme, Jo Siffert and Bruce McLaren stayed the same from lap 31 to the end, with Stewart winning by 18 seconds from Hill.