The Shy Champion
Britain has had some fantastic drivers over the years. Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Damon Hill, and in recent years, Lewis Hamilton. The introduction to Scotland’s unique love affair with motorsport began with a quiet, unassuming young man named Jim Clark. His “innocent talent” and gentlemanly stature was greatly respected and was luring to his fellow peers and fans.
James Clark junior was born into a farming family in Kilmany, Fife, Scotland. As a rural boy, he shared his childhood with four siblings, all sisters. Clark was educated privately in institutions on the peripheral regions of Edinburgh. As with any young man in his adolescence, partaking in sport was, and still is much the norm in school. But road racing never teased his thoughts. Clark excelled in field sports, where he enjoyed the modest pleasures of cricket – a likely reflection of his personality, being a gentlemen’s game. But at the age of 16 James was forced to return home after the sudden deaths of his uncle and grandfather.
At 17, Clark achieved his driving license, and much to the resistance of his family, James went against their wishes and entered his own personal car, a Sunbeam Talbot, into a number of rallies and hill climbs where he perfected his sense of car control and skill. These would be the steppingstones that would lead him to glory. His raw, yet refined natural talent was easily recognised, and through the support of motorsport enthusiast friends, they equipped Clark with sports cars to race in at club events. James reaped the benefits from his natural ability to drive instinctively and without blunder.
In 1958, Clark was given a Lotus Elite to sew his way around the topography of Brands-Hatch, a beautiful undulating circuit in the wooded Kent countryside. He was quick to catch the attention of Colin Chapman, the brain behind Lotus. It was in 1960 that Jim made his debut with the British team, but aside from his skill and contract to drive for Lotus, it was his sheer will to compete that drew him into the sport. He didn’t have ideals to “prove anything to anyone”, but it was his curiosity for driving on that thin line we call the limit, which catapulted him into success. Even he couldn’t explain where his apt speed came from.
During the 60’s, Formula One was plagued with death and danger. The Belgian Grand Prix of Clark’s inaugural year is considered to be one of the worst in the sport’s history. Stirling Moss was involved in an enormous shunt and seriously injured. On race day, Chris Bristow suffered a large accident and was killed. Jim needed to swerve his race car around the mangled body and continued the race with a blood stained Lotus. Just laps later, his friend Alan Stacey was killed after a bird struck him in the face and veered off track for the last time. A year later, Clark was involved in a tragedy that killed Ferrari driver, Wolfgang Von Trips, along with 14 spectators.
The Scotsman was held accountable by many for the deaths. Thwarted by the demise of his fellow compatriots, and his conscience stained with their blood, Clark nearly quit racing entirely. But the precarious world of Formula One was not enough to stop his curiosity and he was persuaded by Colin Chapman to continue his endeavors.
Jim Clark’s style and grace on track was slick and unmatched. Colin Chapman’s innovations helped propel Clark and the Lotus family to winning ways, and succeeded in awarding Clark with his first driver’s title in 1963, and again in 1965. Both in 1962 and 1964 Clark was the champion favorite going into both finale races before retiring from an oil leak on both occasions. He could have won four championships had luck been on his side.
By Clark’s second title, his friendship with designer Colin Chapman became like no other. Jim’s mechanical knowledge somewhat lacking, but his ability to translate his sense of feeling in the car into simple English gave a re-imagined driver-to-mechanic relationship. During his racing career Clark also invested his talents into other spheres of racing. The Flying Scot drove to success in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on three occasions in Lotus and Aston Martin machinery. In 1965, he found glory at the Indianapolis 500 where he led 190 of the 200 laps. He also competed in the Tasman series.
April 17th, 1968 saw a cool, foggy day in Baden-Württemberg, (West Germany of the time) the home of the daunting Hockenheimring. Jim Clark competed in a minor F2 race. In those times it was more than common for drivers to take part in an array of different motoring events. As often as they were to compete in F1, so would they compete in other spectacles of racing.
That weekend, the Hockenheimring experienced a soaked grand prix, and Clark struggled to be competitive. Starting 7th on a wet track, he drove with his usual intuition and immense feeling for the car, but he had already dropped one place. An issue with the car was evident. He continued to race around for a third lap, a fourth lap, and a fifth, but never returned for his sixth. Where had Clark’s Lotus gone? It disappeared off the track like a ghost – swallowed by the thick fog that surrounded the grounds.
Bystanders later concurred that they had seen Jim’s car twitch slightly before being thrown off track by an unexplainable circumstance. Tearing through the sinister wooded land at over 150mph, Clark slammed into those very trees sideways, ripping his aluminium car apart, killing the Scot instantly. Drivers and aircraft investigators conducted thorough investigations for three weeks. With no definite findings, they later agreed that the probable cause for the accident was a deflated rear tyre, and not driver error. None could believe that a driver of his caliber could make a mistake like this. He was seen as virtually errorless.
His death certainly shook the foundations of Formula One. Many believed he was the single greatest driver in history. His great departure instilled fear into all other drivers. Chris Amon, a fellow farmer come racing driver later put it “If it could happen to him, what hope did the rest of us have?” Many felt that a certain warm, curious light of F1 was now extinguished.
Clark never warmed to the limelight of being a successful racing driver. In fact, he was embarrassed by it and rather chose to spend his free time incognito and if possible, he’d return to the simple life that awaited him in Berwickshire. He loved occupying his time on the rolling green hills of cultivated Scottish farmland, where sheep would graze soundly and soft clouds gently kissed the tops of Pines.
Off track, Jimmy was an unassuming, modest gentleman. He consistently bit his nails and was so indecisive that friends of his often paid reference to that even choosing which restaurant to dine at would spiral him into deep, inescapable confusion. Most people who he encountered remember his humble nature, humility and graciousness, Although he never maintained many friends, at least in Formula One, most people who he encountered remember his humble nature, humility and graciousness. His closest relationships were those of fellow countryman and teammate Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill respectively, who were likely his best competitors, but even to them, Clark remained a mysterious and closeted young man.
A statistical look
|Grand Prix Entries||72|
|Grand Prix Wins||25|
|Winning Percentage||34.72 %|
|Pole to win conversions||75.76%|
Posted on December 28, 2014, in Historics and tagged Brands Hatch, Colin Chapman, Dane Hansen, F1, Formula 1, Formula One, Freelance blogger, Freelance Motorsport, Historic F1, Historic Motorsport, Hockenheim, James Clark Junior, Jim Clark, Lotus, Scotland, World Champion. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.