Our final choice of classic Belgian Grand Prix was a tough one. It was tempting to pick a race from the fifties, one won by Juan Manuel Fangio, but then that would mean not looking back at a Jim Clark victory. Such tough decisions are what dominate our days at Badger.
After some deliberation a Clark win was chosen. Why? Because the legendary Scot won four times at Spa-Francochamps, putting him third (level with Kimi Raikkonen) in the all-time winners list, behind only Senna and Schumacher. With that in mind it seemed only natural that, having looked at races won by the three mentioned above, we should include one of Clark’s triumphs.
Specifically, we’ve picked 1963. It was a race in which Clark opened his account for the season, from where he would go on to win six more grand prix and claim his maiden world championship in dominant fashion.
Having achieved his first Formula One win at Spa the previous season Clark returned to the circuit in June of 1963 with high hopes. His Lotus 25- the car that revolutionised F1 by introducing the fully stressed monocoque- was now the class of the field, and only gearbox problems had robbed him of victory at the previous round in Monaco. As far as the Scot was concerned his championship started here.
But things didn’t started the way he’d planned, with gearbox woes once again blighting his machine. This time they surfaced in qualifying, and resulted in Clark starting down in eighth on the grid. Graham Hill took pole in his BRM, with Dan Gurney (Brabham) and Willy Mairesse (Ferrari) joining him on the three-car front-row.
After a dry quaifying session the weather on raceday was damp, with ominous looking skies promising more rain. Today’s Formula One may be a world away from that of the early sixties, but it’s comforting to know some things- such as the unpredictable Ardennes weather- never change.
With his gearbox sorted Clark no doubt felt capable of making up a few places at the start and eventually fighting for the lead.But even the man himself would have been surprised by what happened.
Back then the start took place at the bottom of the hill approaching Eau Rouge, with the cars lined up in less-than-organised fashion accross the track. From 8th place Clark got a blinding start, moving away so quickly that he had to avoid several of those starting in front of him. He took to the grass, got an armfull of opposite lock, held on and scythed in to Eau Rouge in first place. In just a few hundred metres Clark had made up seven positions.
Poleman Hill managed to keep his composure, despite seeing a Lotus flash by him at the start, and slotted in to second behind Clark. Second place starter Dan Gurney meanwhile was being passed for fun, with Jack Brabham, Willy Mairesse and John Surtees all getting by him. Surtees- a future Spa winner- proved the quickest of this group as the rain intensified, and was able to make third place his own. The leaders, however, were gone.
Clark in particular was leaving the field for dead, with Hill barely able to keep up. Graham’s day would get a whole lot worse at around mid-distance, when the heavens truly opened, leaving the track barely driveable. But it wasn’t the water on the track that ended Hill’s day- his gearbox gave up on lap 17, forcing him to retire from a strong second place.
As the rain continued so did Clark, the Scot undaunted by the terrible conditions. Driving the Lotus 25- one of the finest cars ever to grace a Formula One grid- his task was made a little simpler, but this was by no means easy. Clark was driving out of his skin.
Behind him things were to remain frantic to the end. Surtees had dropped back after pitting to solve fuel injector problems. His day would end on lap 19. This, combined with Hill’s exit, left Dan Gurney second, followed by Ritchie Ginther. But Ritchie had an eager Tony Maggs chashing in his Cooper, and was unable to resist the South African’s pressue, surrendering third. Meanwhile Bruce McLaren was running 4th in his Cooper, having dropped off the pace as the race progressed.
As the laps counted down Clark remained untouchable, lapping drivers for fun- no mean feat on a 14 kilometre circuit! Meanwhile Tony Maggs, pushing too hard in the wet conditions, dropped his car and spun out of the race on lap 27, costing him a podium just 3 laps from home. This put the two American drivers, Gurney and Ginther, second and third respectively. But they had a probelm: Bruce McLaren had stumbled upon some impressive pace.
And he made it count. Over the final two laps he passed both to come home second. Spa was to prove a happy hunting ground for Bruce: he’d already finished second there in 1960 and after repeating that in ’63 and ’64 would also score third place there in ’65. And, in 1968 it would be the scene of his sweetest win, as he scored the first victory for his own McLaren team.
McLaren followed Clark home, the Scot over 4 minutes clear of his nearest rival. He’d lapped the rest of the field, including Gurney and Ginther, who came home third and fourth.
This was the second win at Spa for Jim Clark, and kicked off a dominant run to his first world championship. He would add wins there in 1964 and ’65, and remained the most successful driver in the circuit’s history for a quarter of a century. Today he is still regarded as one of the greatest drivers ever to grace the Spa-Francochamps tarmac, and it was races like this one that cemented his legacy.
Great circuit; great man; great victory.