Born on a farm in little-known Kilmany, Fife, no-one could have foreseen the impact that Jim Clark would have on international motor racing. His obvious racing skill had seemed indestructible yet his death in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim, Germany fifty years ago today rocked the sport to its core.
Clark’s reputation has remained intact over the years and associates from Lotus and former racers still recall his natural ability and sportsmanship.
He enjoyed success in the World Driver’s Championship, Indycar racing, the Indianapolis 500, British and European Touring Car Championships, the British and European Formula Two Championships, the Tasman Cup and won races in the Lotus 23B and the highly difficult Lotus 30 sports cars. Even rallying and NASCAR racing were not beyond his reach.
Clark’s achievements were made more impressive by the fact he lacked the backing of his parents, who were unhappy with his choice of career, and would have preferred if their son had chosen the more sedate life as a farmer.
October 5th 1957 was the first time Clark’s tasted victory inside a racing car, winning the Border Motor Racing Club Trophy at Charterhall. The Rest-and-be-Thankful Hillclimb was next, which he took in his own automobile, a Triumph TR-3.
The following year, driving a Jaguar D-Type for the Borders Reivers team, Clark’s talent was beginning to be noticed and, as a result, he was invited to enter races all over England – which he did with varying degrees of success.
The race for the GP de Spa at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium was his first taste of foreign action, in which he came 8th.
Yet, although he now ventured overseas, it was a race closer to home, at Brands Hatch, which helped him onto the path to the very top of the sport. He raced against Lotus founder Colin Chapman with great aplomb, impressing the media and racing officials, and became the name on everyone’s lips.
In 1959, with regular wins and placings behind him, and turning in lap times as good as the Formula One stars of the day, the natural progression to Grand Prix racing was gathering pace.
Reg Parnell, the Aston Martin team boss, agreed that Clark had done enough to merit a contract, yet one major obstacle still stood in Clark’s way; his parents.
Parnell engaged all his persuasive skills and eventually made them come round by stating bluntly that their son – if he had their backing – was good enough to become world champion. They reluctantly gave him their blessing.
Clark’s first GP points came in Belgium with a fifth-place finish, but the shine was taken off by a near-fatal crash in practice for Stirling Moss and the deaths of Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow. The campaign finished with Jack Brabham winning the World Championship, and Jim Clark finishing 8th with eight points.
1961 was a year Clark would rather have forgotten. Not only were results well below the team’s expectations but a shock in Italy followed. Clark collided with Wolfgang von Trips at the Italian Grand Prix, resulting in the death of the German and 14 spectators.
Although the Scotsman felt strongly that it was von Trips’ fault, he decided against accusing the deceased, a decision that, while noble, resulted in a huge amount of recriminations against him by the race organisers.
With this criticism hanging over his head, Clark did what he did best in 1962 – driving a car as fast as possible. It was a breakthrough year for the Scot, with a maiden pole position in Monaco being followed by a maiden win in Belgium. Five more poles and two more wins would come as the Lotus 25 became the car to have on the grid, and Clark’s eventual finishing position of third in the championship placed him among the elite.
The following year, Clark emerged as World Champion. He held pole position seven times and recorded seven wins. After a gearbox failure in Monaco, Clark would go on a run that would see him winning the next four races.
Clark had his chance to clinch the championship in Monza, but in time-honoured Scottish sporting tradition, it did not go smoothly.
An untried engine and gearbox put him at an instant disadvantage.
Although Surtees’ own engine failed on lap 19, leaving Clark with a four-second lead, he had no way to hold on to it. Again he had to slipstream behind both Graham Hill and Dan Gurney to keep up until both rivals dropped out leaving him a clean run to the finishing line – and an unassailable lead in the championship.
A fairly average year in 1964, mainly due to the introduction of the new Lotus 33, was followed with the best season of Clark’s career.
Six consecutive wins in Formula One proved he was a true champion and he walked away with the title, gaining film star status in the process.
He also won the Indy 500 for the first time, effectively leading from start to finish throughout the campaign, becoming the first non-American in a generation to have the honour.
In 1968 Jim Clark (OBE) was killed at Hockenheim in a race he wasn’t even supposed to be in. He left the track at 170mph, somersaulted through the air and collided with a tree on a remote part of the German track.
A mix-up over the confirmation of the drive meant that Clark had to compete in a Formula Two race instead. He was unhappy about it but stood by the commitment. He left the track at 170mph, somersaulted through the air and collided with a tree on a remote part of the German circuit.
The twice Formula One champion, who sustained a broken neck and a fractured skull, was dead before he reached the hospital. The cause of the accident was never determined, although experts have suggested it could have been a fault in the steering mechanism or rear-axle suspension. Although it had been raining prior to the race, this is not thought to have caused Clark’s car to skid.
The 80,000 spectators, who were informed of the accident via loudspeaker some two hours later, were stunned by the news. They spontaneously rose to their feet in silent tribute.
The only witness to the accident was a track marshal who said: “I was horror-struck. Everything happened so fast. The car skidded off to the left and seemed to dive through the fence only 10 yards (9.14m) from me. “It went skidding and somersaulting across the grass and hit a tree with a tremendous thump. The car seemed to be in a thousand pieces.”
Fellow racing driver Graham Hill, who was in the same race, said Jim Clark’s death “leaves a hell of a gap in the racing scene”. He added: “For me as well as for thousands of others, it means the loss of a friend.”
Jackie Stewart, a fellow Scot who was close to Clark, said: “Jimmy’s death is probably the most tragic thing in my experience of motor racing – probably in the history of motor racing.
“Jimmy was not only a famous driver, he was an international personality, loved by all his fiercest rivals.”
Clark was more than just a sporting hero. He had helped to redefine the standards required in order to become a force in motorsport and was a role model, able to inspire those who came after him.
Jim Clark was, undoubtedly, Scotland’s first true racing hero and without his influence, it is unlikely that the likes of Jackie Stewart or David Coulthard would have emerged – that, in itself, is a wonderful legacy.